Foucault on “Horkheimer” and “Aufklärung” (Marginal Notes on the Foucault/Habermas Debate)
A Blazon and a Fetish: Foucault, Habermas and the Debate that Never Was (Conclusion)
Foucault and Habermas on Kant, Modernity, and Enlightenment
(The Debate that Never Was, Part IV)
Posted on August 14, 2013 by James Schmidt
The aim of my series of posts on the so-called “Foucault/Habermas Debate” has been to move the focus away from the discussion of the differences in their general approaches and return it to the more modest concerns that lay at its origin: the idea of a meeting between Foucault, Habermas, and a few others to discuss Immanuel Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” on the bicentennial of its publication. What interests me is just what it was that Foucault and Habermas found interesting in Kant’s little essay and what this might tell us about their relationship to that thing that we have come to designate as “the Enlightenment” — a term whose various implications have, and will remain, the main concern of this blog. So, having spent previous posts probing the various ambiguities associated with “The Debate that Never Was,” I want to focus this discussion on how Habermas and Foucault approached the Enlightenment at different points in their career. This sketch will, inevitably, be tentative, questionable, and in need to further refinement, but I hope it helps us to see how they understood the significance of Kant’s essay.
Habermas’ Enlightenments: From One Kant to Another
Habermas’ stance towards Kant’s essay is deceptively simple. We’re accustomed to seeing him as the great modern champion of the Enlightenment (it may suffice to note that the two volumes of his 1992 Festschrift carried the titles Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment and Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment). And Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” has come to serve — as Dan Edelstein nicely put it — “as a one-stop shop for defining the Enlightenment.”1 It would seem to follow that Habermas’ role in The Debate that Never Was would have been to defend Kant’s concept of enlightenment from Foucault’s critique. But it has long been apparent that this way of thinking about the positions that Foucault and Habermas were staking out is deeply misguided: Foucault’s discussions of Kant’s essays make it clear that he was not going to play the role of Kant’s enemy.
What has received considerably less attention is the extent to which Habermas himself had moved away from the account of enlightenment offered in Kant’s essay. His understanding of the intentions that animated the Enlightenment was closest to what seems to have been Kant’s own account in the book that has come to be known in the English-speaking world as The Structural Transformation of Publicity (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit). His stance toward the essay underwent a subtle shift as he proceeded to develop the account of “cognitive interests” that was sketched in the book we Anglophones know as Knowledge and Human Interests (Erkenntnis und Interesse) and underwent a significant shift with the development of his theory of communicative action. Let me explain how I understand the differences.
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