Freedom and Foucault: The Post-postmodern Enlightenment


from: “Huministic Attitudes: The Pursuit of Democracy in Literature and Education”

–by John D. Rall 2004


Anti-humanism, as a philosophy, contends with the concept of agency in many different ways, but the Foucaultean power/knowledge ethic is a particularly popular ethic that has gained power in academia and which many contemporary literary critics have heralded.   M. H. Abrams echoes Michel Foucault’s concept of human agency when he says: “…the human individual does not exert power but is ‘an effect of power’ who is ‘constituted’ by power and ‘at the same time its vehicle’” (20).  If we apply this to literature, we come to the following conclusions: (1) The author is not an agent (writer) writing, but rather is an effect of power and thus does not write nor convey meaning by choice, (2) the author and his works are merely sites of constituting discourses, (3) the reader is not an agent reading, but is constituted by power, (4) the reader does not conceive meaning but receives meaning, and (5) meaning is received only to the extent that the reader has been conditioned by power/knowledge to receive it.  In other words, a text is not produced by an individual for an individual.  On the contrary, a text and all the people involved with it are products of discourse and are determined or constituted by discourse.  Thus, there is no freedom or agency and we are merely agentless sites.  Furthermore, the extent of our determination appears to be absolute.  However, Foucault’s philosophy, it seems, is not so absolute.  His thesis of power still contains a space for freedom, a space where the agent has liberties.  As we proceed, it will become evident that Foucault conceives of this space as the “voluntary choice made by certain people” to take up an attitude, a philosophical ethos, or a freedom.  We can reconcile these apparently contradictory readings of Foucault by understanding Foucault’s conception of “attitudes.”  It is with this concept that we see freedom as a space for agency.

A number of commentators on Foucault’s life and works have remarked that in his later years Foucault shifted his philosophical focus.  For instance, while assessing Foucault’s late lectures concerning the concept of “danger” in regards to “parrhesia” or “truth-speaking,” Paul Rabinow observes a shift in Foucault’s focus on power.  Rabinow remarks that, “Foucault presented a view of power and freedom as coextensive.  Power relations depend on freedom of action,” and he quotes Foucault’s assertion that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only in so far as they are free” (206).  Here, in opposition to Abram’s anti-humanist concept of agency, Foucault pays more attention to the idea of freedom.  Foucault asserts a freedom that is necessary for power to be exercised.  This shift occurring in Foucault’s work does not dismiss his traditional analysis of power per se, but rather he brings forth in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” a proposal for a historical, methodological, and philosophical ethic or attitude, an  “ethos” that will investigate freedom and be a practice of freedom.  The shift, which has been characterized as a shift toward ethics, transforms the traditional view of ethics (the study of ethical standards), into a view of ethics as “attitudes” or perspectives through which we relate to reality.

In Foucault’s text, he refers to Kant’s essay on enlightenment “Was ist Auflkärung?” to find some kind of reconciliation, an ethics or an ethos, which characterizes an ethical-political critique of the present.  Though Foucault returns to Kant and the question of agency in his own essay on enlightenment, at times he responds with the staple Foucaultean defiance by shifting Enlightenment into a historical context.  In a historical context, enlightenment becomes “The Enlightenment,” a specific event, a specific occurrence that has consequences: “What then is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today” (32).  Although the thesis of Power, which Foucault investigates in the genealogies of Power, requires him to repeat the mantra of determination, the words “at least in part” reveal a subtle but definite space for indeterminacy or freedom.  While we may read Foucault’s “at least in part” as a space meant for other discourses to fill (in determining the subject), perhaps it represents a hesitation on Foucault’s part to carry out his thesis of power all the way.  In “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault characterizes Kant’s enlightenment as a “way out” and his own methodological proposal articulates the same possibility of an “exit.”  Yet Foucault is also attempting to find where his own philosophy rests in relation to a specific question, a question he attributes to Kant and which he sees confronting nearly all philosophers since Kant’s time: “From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly”(Foucault 32).  Although the title of both essays is the same question, it is not the real question, according to Foucault.  The question Foucault attempts to come to terms with is: What is “the relation linking will, authority, and the use of reason” which emerges with Kant? (Foucault 32).

We might get a better understanding of Foucault’s concern with this relationally linked triad of “will,” “authority,” and “the use of reason,” if we examine a little closer Kant’s text “Was ist Aufklärung?”.  According to Kant, the motto of enlightenment is “Sapere aude!  ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’” (Kant 85)  This motto, addressed to the Will (agency) is a humanistic attitude aimed at the goal of prevailing.  It comes in the form of a dare.  The courage to know must arise from within the individual, a willing self that thinks on its own.  For Kant the Will exists only in “Sapere aude!”  So long as the Will does not answer to this dare or challenge, humans will remain in a state of tutelage and “Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another” (Kant 85).   The courage that the Will must have is courage to become independent, courage to escape Authority (power).  Now the relationship between Will and Authority becomes apparent when we see enlightenment as Kant defines it, as a “release from his self-incurred tutelage” (Kant 85).  It is self-incurred in the sense that an agent is not acting but obeying—that is, the individual willingly abides by expected standards without questioning why.

From a Foucaultean ethic of power, we can argue that Will and Authority are opposed to one another, each either gaining or ceding power.  Generally, the former dominates and the latter is oppressed, and at times so oppressed that the Will cannot actually exist.  The Will, as distinctly opposite Authority, is in a constant power struggle, so long as the Will meets the dare.  If the Will does not attempt to be self-sufficient, to meet the dare, it is not struggling for power and therefore cannot be free.  We can now see why Foucault asserts that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free,” for in order for power to be exercised it must have an opponent to exercise itself against, a resistance coming from free individuals who meet the challenge of “Sapere aude!”

Although Will and Authority are key concepts in understanding Kant’s enlightenment, what is more important to Foucault is Kant’s rendition of the phrase “use of reason,” the third element in the relationally linked triad.  In Kant’s proposal of “public” and “private use of reason” he argues that “the public use of reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men” (Kant 87).   Now this freedom is premised on the idea that public reason embodies the form of scholarship.  Scholarly (public) use of reason is synonymous with criticism and as such, it is a public duty to express freely criticisms of public concern.  Furthermore, the public use of reason, Kant argues, is a “duty as a citizen, when as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even injustices” in the public/political world (Kant 87).  Using the scholar as a representative of this type of freedom or “use of reason,” forces us to distinguish a scholar from a non-scholar and by extension freedom from non-freedom.  The scholar-citizen engages in criticism, an art of thinking for oneself, which is Kant’s explication of the process and goal of enlightenment.  Furthermore, in the context of Critique of Pure Reason, we can see that Kant’s conception of reason is specific in relation to the scholar; it is a methodological reason with traditional logical/rhetorical roots, a weighing of possibilities that distinguishes a scholar from a non-scholar, the enlightened from the unenlightened, and the free from the determined.  This presents us with a scholar who is reasonably knowledgeable in regards to freedom or the use of reason, for the scholar is an agent that is already in the process of becoming independent from authority and thus has come to see a “way out,” a possible escape (freedom) from authority.

In contrast to the public use of reason, Kant also presents us with the “private use of reason.”  This form of the use of reason is limited, but not without freedom.  Kant describes the private use of reason as “…that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him” (86).  The private use of reason as a freedom is different from the public scholarly freedom, but by the very use of the phrase “use of reason,” we can see that Kant suggests that a freedom does exist within occupational fields.  However, Foucault remarks that in regards to the private use of reason: “…there cannot be, here, any free use of reason” (36).  This means that the scholar cannot practice a critique in the private sphere or there is no room for scholarly critiques because the occupational setting does not foster scholarly criticism.

Independence, freedom, or scholarly use of reason appear to be impossible in the strict realm of occupational work, for each individual is a member of a group of laborers who are contracted to carry out the wishes of the authority, their bosses.  The employee obeys and carries out the wishes of the authority that are the requirements of his or her post.  Thus, we might agree with Foucault’s statement, if we agree that there is no freedom in the workplace, that employees have neither agency nor an ability to use their reason in a scholarly manner.  However, if we recall Foucault’s statement that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only so far as they are free,” it seems as though Foucault contradicts himself (Rabinow 206).  According to this statement, the agent must freely choose to obey an authority in the occupational setting if the authority is to have power over the employee.  In other words, if the agent is not free as an employee then there cannot be a power oppressing the employee into servitude.  However, Foucault’s denial of freedom in the occupational realm is a result of his lack of interest in the private use of reason, for Foucault restricts his concern of the phrase “use of reason” to the public scholarly use, which is an ethic, an attitude, and a pursuit of freedom.  But let us examine the real difference between Kant and Foucault by looking closely at the private use of reason.

It is evident that a civic or occupational job narrowly defines one’s use of reason independent of authority.  A job does not necessarily challenge the mind to be free, for the employee is not usually a scholar critiquing the “inappropriateness or injustices” of the job publicly before his employers and fellow employees.  Also, the occupational setting does not teach or foster independence.  On the contrary, occupational settings function most efficiently when the employees do not think for themselves.  It is not the employee’s obligation, duty, or expectation to be a scholar in his or her occupational role.  However, Kant suggests that the use of reason (freedom) might be used in the private sphere.  While an occupation does require limitations, it does not follow that an employee cannot politicize the environment (through unions etc…), nor will the employee be absolutely determined in his private use of reason.  The employee may resist the authority of the employers and think independently while carrying out an obeisance.

There are a number of critics of Foucault and anti-humanism, who argue that agency (freedom) abides in all realms of life.  Let us connect Michel de Certeau’s “Tactics of Consumption” with Kant’s private use of reason.  These tactics are, “…the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lending a political dimension to everyday practices” (XVII).   De Certeau’s tactics illustrate the subtle ways that agents refuse to be entirely determined by power.  For example, even in occupational fields, the agent finds a way to subvert power by doing personal non-job related activities while on the clock.  However, the political dimension that de Certeau observes is different from the political dimension Kant and Foucault define. For de Certeau, subtle tactics that alter the political dimension are such things as using scissors to open a file cabinet or using a shoe to pound a nail.  Simply by using a product in a manner not meant by the authority (in these examples, the manufacturer) one subtly uses one’s freedom, redefining the political power structure.  For Kant and Foucault, however, this is not public political freedom.  Though these tactics seem to be a freedom within the limits (private use of reason), they lack political intention and do not effect purposeful change.  Therefore, the scholarly use of reason is very different from the private use, in that one is based in the traditional Kantian conception of “reason,” while the other is unscholarly and ill-formulated.  A more precise difference can be seen in Foucault’s observation that Kant uses the German word “räsonieren” to describe the public use of reason: “…räsonieren is to reason for reasoning’s sake” (Foucault 36).  Reason for reason’s sake then can be seen as the particular agenda of freedom (freedom for freedom’s sake), an attitude whereby freedom is practiced.

The political dimension of public scholarly critique is at the center of Foucault’s historical agenda as an attitude akin to Kant’s attitude of enlightenment.  Foucault presents the freedom of enlightenment as an attitude which practices libratory reasoning.  Furthermore, Foucault’s concern with the use of reason centers on the public use.  Thus, his failure to recognize the private freedom comes from his reluctance to focus on private freedom.  His reluctance is not an oversight; Foucault’s agenda is concerned with reasoned liberation and not tactics of resistance—that is, Foucault is concerned with liberating the self from authority once and for all.  By examining the public use of reason, Foucault is looking for a new method of investigating history that will foster freedom, be an exercise or practice of freedom, and function as a tool for reasoning possible escapes from authority.  The new analysis he develops implies agency and self-fashioning action “…toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects” (43).  It is evident that Foucault’s subtle shift from “what has determined us” to “what do we need and what do we not need to determine us,” signifies a shift toward the will and a conception of freedom, use of reason, and an attitude of escape.  Using this methodology, Foucault would have us willfully discard the dispensable authorities by means of a historical analysis premised on practical rationality.  Thus, Foucault pragmatically approaches power through agency by examining where the spaces for possible escapes from authority exist.


Abrams, M. H. “What is a Humanistic Criticism?” The Emperor Redressed. Ed. Dwight Eddins. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995. 13-44

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow Pantheon: New York, 1984. 32-50.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?.” Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Lewis White Beck. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959. 85-92.

Norris, Chris. “’What is Enlightenment?’: Kant According to Foucault.” The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 159-97.

Rabinow, Paul. “Modern and Countermodern: Ethos and Epoch in Heidegger and Foucault.” Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 194-214.


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