Foucault-Habermas, Was Anything Really Said?

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By John Strain

The Process of Critique

How we ought to critique is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. Rather, to think in a deep or even cursory way about critique we should ask the question of why we ought to critique at all. The answer to that question is painfully varied, and in this sense needs to be accounted for historically. We ought to realize that no work of art, politics, literature, architecture, in short, any cultural artifact, has a true meaning. By this one must understand, ironically enough, what I mean.

When one claims that no work that can be criticized has a true meaning, then we must understand that there is nothing like the platonic forum of that idea. There is no one grand meaning that enough discourse will uncover. Even the artist’s intent is lost as their work enters the public sphere, whether it’s publicly pronounced or not. Rather, then, there are just historical conventions, biases, and so on being projected onto cultural artifacts. This leaves a question to be asked: how can a work be understood in any sort of worthwhile fashion? Can it be understood at all, or at least in the way it was intended?

The process of history constantly becoming limits the ability for temporal beings (that’s you and me folks) to comprehend the ideas of the past, as those in the past comprehended them. So when one is to critique one really must be aware of historical convention, which in turn needs to be understood historically.

Foucault and Habermas

This is all very confusing and in order to continue some people should be introduced. First, Michel Foucault, French sociologist and all the rage in the academic community these days, and second, Jürgen Habermas, stuffy, old school critical theorist. For the sake of time I’m going to skip the long winded set up and just say these two had beef. What did they have beef about? They had beef about understanding historical objects and events – Foucault took a hard anti-rationalist stance and Habermas said probably not.

Okay, so, what does anti-rationalist mean? Broadly, it is a rejection of the modern age and of Enlightenment practices, mainly the use of this purported inherent human reason for which Foucault was thoroughly convinced led to the sorry, depressed consumer state of mankind. Whether or not we can trust mankind’s rationality as a guiding factor is what Foucault and Habermas disagree on. Foucault thinks the Enlightenment project will only lead us down a less (or maybe all too human) human path. Habermas, on the other hand, thinks that we can use rationality in conjunction with his Theory of Communicative Action and live in a peaceful and democratic society. He mapped out a whole schema to prove it.

In short, Foucault thinks the world is a mess of power relations and these relations are meant to disenfranchise the majority. Habermas, indeed, agrees with Foucault on this point, but thinks that if we could set the proper systems in place, which we as a society need to do, for it will not come from above but only from rational debate. The two points we need to think about are, then, does human rationality work? And does critique, or interpretation of a work, materialize in any useful way?

Power and Genealogies

From here on out we will think about this debate from the point of view of the versus a. What I mean by this is that Foucault was never intending to settle the debate and only wanted to introduce a way to look at society and how power functions within it. That’s why his game is genealogies and further why Habermas criticizes him for them. Habermas, however, wanted to find the way to critique power and society, a goal he is still chasing.

When Foucault did a genealogy, as he had done in first Madness and Civilization (1964), most famously in Discipline and Punish (1975), and through several other topics before his death in 1984, he is building a history. Connecting dots between emerging events and random occurrences that show one possible way to understand the state of the person as it stands today. Foucault is trying to show power relations and how they have functioned and shifted throughout history, and most importantly, how they are something like reality. If one can understand power relations, then one can understand something like the fabric of a society. Foucault does this, of course, by interpreting cultural artifacts. The problem is that no matter how carefully and objectively he dissects cultural artifacts, he still falls into a hermeneutical understanding and reinterpretation of what was the case. In short, building histories will always be guesswork in a tweed jacket.

Where Foucault succeeds is that he does, in fact, recognize this problem with his work and the work of the historical, ethical, philosophical, humanist community as a whole. This is to say as soon as one attempts to interpret they (the knowing interpreter) are already removed from what is, or rather was the case. The historical eye cannot fully comprehend what the present situation is; it can only interpret that past and will do so only using the understanding and human reason that its current time/space allows. This is why Foucault rejects the Enlightenment project for what has been decided by the West as human reason. He claims, contrary to modernity itself, that human reason is just a cultural artifact in and of itself.

Habermas disagrees. Instead, he says, we can understand the historical situation through consensus. If we spend the time discussing the artifacts and reconciling the different opinions in the public sphere, then we will be able to agree upon the proper history. Both understand that capital T “true” history is gone as soon as the moment passes.

The Second Amendment of 4016

 To make this clearer, an example is in order. Let’s take the Second Amendment; that is always a fun thing to interpret.

Let’s say that we are two thousand years removed from the penning of the Second Amendment of the United State Constitution. Let’s also say that we are still people, with generally the same capacities, and further, let’s say the United States is to us what the Roman Empire was to the United States. Lastly, English has evolved in the preceding two millennia, rendering much of the original document unreadable by modern standards.

So, we are looking back at a political (and cultural) artifact, The United States Constitution, from a time in history known as the founding of the United States of America. How are we, in 4016, to understand that document? Can we understand it the way those who were there understood it, or does our modern gaze trap us? To add another layer, once we craft a narrative with these questions in mind, how are we to understand that narrative, i.e. how are we to critique it? For example, are there other possible interpretations possible than the one offered by the top ancient American studies professor, and if so can they be valid and how valid?

The problems of understanding immediately seem overwhelming. The intellectual divide between relativism and collective agreement appears, then as now, in its classic either/or form that pragmatists like William James rejected at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But this is the fundamental of the Foucault, Habermas debate. Foucault wants to craft an interpretation of cultural artifacts and indeed generate an understanding of that past. Yet it will just be that, as Foucault admits, an interpretation. Habermas wants more consensus.

Searching for History

We don’t live genealogically. There is no way for us to hold onto how meaning and truth mattered for more then a generation or so, if at all. So for someone, regardless of how erudite they may consider themselves, to claim a real meaning and a real understanding from a time period not their own only means they have fallen into the trap of egotism. For while they may have proximity, there can always be new and valid interpretations, new cultural artifacts, new motivations for interpretation and so on.

This doesn’t mean we cannot understand history. It means, on the contrary, that we need to study history closer and construct more exacting and inclusive historical narratives. Furthermore, we need to debate and critique these narratives and this needs to be done in the public sphere. All people are entitled to their history, and history should be the study of past people qua modern peoples, not only great figures of years, decades, or centuries past, but workers and slaves, and disenfranchised people.

We have already seen this movement taking hold with books like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The decentralization of the historical narrative into histories causes specialization, but it will also give voice to those history which has been forgotten and misinterpreted.

Here we can close on returning to the question of critique. If we reject essentialist and reductionist interpretations of cultural artifacts, that history can in short have a true meaning, then how do we proceed? Following Habermas we trust the path to consensus – and all the irrationality that follows toward truth. Ask Foucault, and we not only avoid consensus but reject the entire foundation of human rationality. For after all, what is human rationality but another cultural artifact and genealogy waiting to be written?

Where we fall in these two camps has enormous implications for how we understand history, narrative, and knowledge. Habermas falls far closer to an understanding akin to the scientific method while Foucault embraces a Nietzschean construction of truth. The question of looking for consensus or radically breaking with the past – revolution – looms underneath every intellectual exploration.

John Strain is a humble barista trying to make his way through the universe. He graduated with a BA in philosophy from Temple University in the fall of 2014.


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