Comparing the Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault

By Frank Wang
2014, Vol. 6 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

Habermas’ recognition that that modern society cannot be thought of in isolation from power and money is also evident in his concept of system. Contrasting lifeworld, which is the everyday world that citizens share that is informal, providing the context for communicative action for it serves as the backdrop for consensus-building and shared reasons, system refers to formal, established patterns of instrumental action, which can be boiled down to money and power. The systems of money and power are conducive of oppressing citizens to instrumental behaviours without their recognition. Its function is the material reproduction of society and it coordinates actions to integrate people to itself.25 Thus, Habermas recognizes Foucault’s analysis that power can impose constraints on one’s ability to genuinely make valid claims, thereby making communicative action difficult to realize.

Even as Habermas recognizes the reality of systems, there are still limits to his theory. The essence of communicative rationality is that the force of the more rational argument will prevail, but in a nontrivial situation where there are no clear criteria for determining the better argument, it is difficult to know what argument is more rational and it is difficult to evaluate one against another. To use the closeness of an argument to validity claim as criteria further complicates the picture, for that makes Habermas the determinant authority on what is to be considered a more rational argument. Furthermore, communication cannot be the solution for every obstacle a society has to confront. In fact, it is possible for an extensively long communication between interlocutors to paralyze an institution as they search for consensus.

What is also problematic with Habermas’ view is that he presents a normative ideal assuming the following elements: One, society must guarantee freedom of speech for it is fundamental to un-coerced communication and subsequently mutual recognition. Two, society must guarantee freedom of association for it is fundamental to nurturing associations in which lifeworld can develop. Three, interlocutors are not to be exclusive to specific groups of people, but open to all such that citizens can engage as equals. Four, interlocutors must be transparent and free from desires of strategic manipulation. Indeed, it becomes obvious that Habermas considers a liberal democracy as a fundamental backdrop for the realization of communicative action and to the completion of modernity.

His view is thus limiting, because he derives his normative foundation from ideals already implicit in a liberal democracy. Habermas seeks to produce ideals implicit in a liberal democracy as a set of standard. That way, the normative foundation is not subjected to Platonic dispositions, since the success of liberal democracy as a modern system of social order has within it implicit values that are already accepted by its citizens as a whole. He does not have to impose a Good himself, but simply has to offer an argument to show how society has failed to live up to that implicit standard. But this prevents him from examining alternative regimes in which communicative rationale might also be possible. In other words, in the process of showing how a liberal democracy has lost the deliberate component of a direct democracy due to influences of powerful systems, he suggests that it is only within a liberal democracy that the deliberative component, and more significantly modernity in its ideal can be realized. Thus, Habermas leaves himself exposed to the attack of neglecting to explore alternative regime types that can is conducive to communicative rationality, and implying that the modern regime of governance is a liberal democracy.

Also implicit in Habermas’ theory is the capacity for the individual to be rational and to adhere to the expectation that he be communicative. However, should a rational individual refuse to communicate with its full rational capacities, or no consensus is achievable at all because the individuals talk pass each other, then his theory would break down. Whereas the social contract theorists can argue that those who do not participate or agree in deliberations can still be represented in a parliament, Habermas’ theory breaks down because allowing representatives means allowing agents of formal institutions within the system of power to speak for citizens; however, their understanding of lifeworld can be limited and they can be corrupted by power and money. But if citizens do not wish to rationally deliberate, then agents of systems of power must exist.

Conversely, Foucault views individuals in a completely different light. In institutions, individuals are social deviants that fail to conform to the norm that institutions have constructed. They are the subject of normalization and they are not judged based on intrinsic rightness of their action, but based on the extent of deviation their action is relative to everyone else.26 Those who deviate far are subject to disciplinary actions. The negative implication is that it can compel brilliant minds into conformity. John Stuart Mill highlights, “But in a true sense, that of originality in thought and action… nearly all… think that they can do… without it….[However] originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of.”27 Whereas Mill is discussing conventional social forces that stifle genius, Foucault is discussing institutionally created norms that stifle social deviants, who may possess brilliant minds. Thus, it can be argued that Foucault implicitly suggests that the institutional norms that was made possible partly due to Enlightenment education ironically turns on what the Enlightenment values , and that is it fails to distinguish between brilliance from deviance.

Foucault’s account of the diffusion of power ultimately leads him to produce the Panopticon metaphor. The Panopticon is a prison in which cells are distributed in a circle with a central tower capable of monitoring each cell; however, prisoners cannot see inside the tower and so they do not know when they are being monitored. Furthermore, they are given the impression that anyone from of the public can monitor them.28 Given the diffusion of power, Foucault extends this image to contemporary life. Citizens are constantly being monitored by institutions and by technology; more importantly, they are reminded of the monitoring by the presence of figures of authority, or examinations, or video cameras, but they do not know when exactly they will be monitored.29 Thus citizens, like prisoners, are aware of the necessity to conform to the institutional demands of normality and consciously enforce upon themselves control. Thus, the ultimate diffusion of power is complete: each citizen becomes the disciplinarian of himself.

There are also limits to Foucault’s theory. For example, while Foucault presents Panopticon surveillance as a top-down initiative, he does not account for the possibility of bottom up, synoptic surveillance. With the technological development of the cellular phones with the capacity of documenting pictures and videos, it has allowed the rise of citizen journalism. A devoted Foucaultian will likely immediate argue that the rise of citizen journalism extends further the capacity for institutions such as governments to Panoptically monitor citizens, for they possess the skills to access individual phones and check what is recorded. However, at the same time, this technology has allowed citizens to see through the glass of the central tower, and has given them the capacity to monitor those who monitor them.30 Thus, there needs to be an update to Foucault’s metaphor of Panopticon: whereas previously the citizens could not see through the glass to know who monitors them and when they do, now at least that glass has become clear.

Nonetheless, Foucault’s account of modernity is powerful on two counts. First, it suggests that regardless of the genuine desire for a doctor to want to heal patients, or for a professor to want to research for its sake, they cannot escape without entirely surrendering their professions the power structure that they are situated in, nor can they escape the possibility that the knowledge they produce can be used for a purpose beyond their desire regardless of the objectivity they place in their studies. Second, since one is subject to being microscopically analyzed since birth, it raises the question of whether resistance is possible, and why one should bother to try. The power structure is so entrenched and so prominent that it seems inescapable; yet as Habermas rightly criticizes, he provides no convincing methods of altering such grim reality. 31

After all, Foucault himself was an adamant advocator for marginal groups and improved treatment of prisoners. This is so because they are groups outside the norm of society; thus, they possess values that can meaningfully critique the normality that excludes them. Political actions for Foucault are thus design to offer a critique, and they may speak a universal issue that transcend nationality (such as gay rights). However, Foucault does not acknowledge the extent to which these marginal groups should be heard nor does he clarify whether if these marginal groups possess the capacity to make changes to societal norms. Thus, the only justification for taking such political actions is purely based on the notion that critical advocacy itself is a form of resistance, not because Foucault says that doing so will in fact allow changes.

In a Marxist view then, Foucault’s analysis would suggest that liberation from oppressive norms is improbable. This is because Foucault demonstrates that there is no single authority of power that can be targeted against, since power is diffused microcosmically. Overthrowing the bourgeoisie is useless because the institutions that allow modern society to function will be necessary for a subsequent regime. Thus, politics is continuous struggle with no liberation insight.

Habermas also shares sympathy for marginal groups. For Habermas, it is in civil societies that marginal groups should assemble. The ideal that Habermas presents is a society in which civil society can and will influence formal decision making bodies, because it is the forum for communicative rationale and communicative action to form. Furthermore, a similar challenge put to Foucault can be put to Habermas. Habermas does not clarify the extent to which the input from civil society should be heard. Precisely because Habermas recognizes that in practice, civil society can be irrational or anarchic, there must be a limit; but he does not show what that is.

Moreover, the normative vision revealed through their support for marginal groups differs. For Foucault, he is reluctant to present a normative vision, for he considers that a disguised will to power in which he authoritative asserts a universal, dominant moral standard. Hence, all Foucault expects in his support of marginal groups is that they be given a voice – that the wrongs of contemporary society are made heard and that people are critically aware of the oppressive nature of power relations everywhere. It is clear that there is tension: how can Foucault’s support for certain groups not suggest his normative vision? In fact, as Habermas notes, if all Foucault recognized was power relations without an implicit normative vision, then he does not possess the capacity to be critical at all. This is so, because being critical requires a standard of right and wrong, of just and unjust. Being an advocate as Foucault was shows that the protests he participated can reflect his normative vision of a just society, regardless of his insistence on having none. Conversely, Habermas supports marginal groups within civil societies because they embody the possibility of communicative action; consequently, he supports the idea of an active civil society over what the civil society is consisted of as long as it is rational and within the confines of the law. In other words, it is in direct accordance to his normative vision to support the deliberative function of marginal groups in civil societies. Hence, not only is there a difference between admitting that one has a normative vision, there is a difference between why they support marginal groups.

In conclusion, this essay argues that while the possibility of integrating the philosophy of Foucault and the philosophy of Habermas has been alluded to by some scholars, based on the works of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, substantive integration is difficult because there are so many points of divergence. The scholars differ on their respective projects (genealogical account of the diffusion of power versus a philosophy based on inter-subjectivity), their interpretation of the social contract as the foundation for social order (contributor to the diffusion of power versus impractical grounding for social order), their conception of what constitutes the foundation for social order (compliance/power relations versus consensus/communicative action), their observations on the role of specialized knowledge (normalizing function versus emancipatory function), and the role of power (production of individuality versus coercion of the lifeworld). Furthermore, they differ on their stance on whether or not one should have a normative vision. Hence, it is difficult to find a point of convergence between the two philosophers.


Allen, A. “Discourse, Power, and Subjectivation: The Foucault/Habermas Debate Reconsidered.” In The Philosophical Forum, 2009.

Best, S. The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas. NY: The Guilford Press, 1995.

Foucault, M. Discipline & Punish The Birth of the Prison. NY: Random House, 1995.

Foucault, M. Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. Laurence D. Kritzman. New York: Rutledge, 1988.

Habermas, J. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity Twelve Lectures translated by Frederick G. Lawrence. MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Ingram, D. Habermas: Introduction and Analysis. NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Mill, J.S.The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill On Liberty, The Subjection of Women & Utilitarianism.NY: Modern Library, 2002.


1.) Before outlining the paper, it must be noted that there already exists a rich body of literature surrounding the two philosophers, because Habermas has directly criticized Foucault, but Foucault passed away prior to offering a sufficient response; hence, some scholars have taken upon themselves to defend Foucault, while others sought to advance further Habermas’ philosophy bearing potential Foucautian criticisms in mind. To engage in that discourse is not the purpose of this paper for it is beyond the limits of this paper; instead, it seeks to compare and critique the philosophers based on the primary texts of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

2.) The possibility of combining the two philosophies was suggested by Amy Allen. The point of this paper is to contrast her work by addressing all the differences between Foucault and Habermas.

See Allen, A. “Discourse, Power, and Subjectivation: The Foucault/Habermas Debate Reconsidered.” In The Philosophical Forum, 2009.

3.) Foucault, M. Discipline & Punish The Birth of the Prison. (NY: Random House, 1995), 3-5. From now on, sources referred to by last name only unless otherwise indicated.

4.) See Foucault, 7-8.

5.) Habermas, J. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity Twelve Lectures translated by Frederick G. Lawrence. (MA: MIT Press, 1990),Vi-vii.

6.) “The concept of a communicative reason that transcends subject-centered reason… is intended to lead away from the paradoxes and levelling of a self-referential critique of reason. On another front, it has to be upheld against the competing approach of a systems theory that utterly shoves the problematic of rationally aside, strips away any notion of reason as an old European drag, and then light-footedly takes over from the philosophy of the subject.” See Habermas, 340.

7.) “France has all too many impracticable roads that impede trade; thieves who obstruct the free circulation of goods could be put to building highways.” See Foucault, 109.

8.) “…although the new criminal legislation appears to be characterized by less severe penalties…it is sustained in reality by an upheaval in the traditional economy of illegalities and a rigorous application of force to maintain their new adjustment…at the level of principles, this new strategy falls easily in the general theory of the contract. The citizen is presumed to have accepted once and for all, with the laws of society, the very law by which he may be punished…. The right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defence of society….” See Foucault, 89-90.

9.) “…the economy of illegalities was restricted with the development of capitalist society. The illegality of property was separated from the illegality of rights. This distinction represents a class opposition because…the illegality that was to be most accessible to the lower classes was that of property…” See Foucault, 87.

10.) Thus it’s clear that “the shift in illegal practices is correlative with an extension and a refinement of punitive practices.” See Foucault, 77.

11.) Ingram, D. Habermas: Introduction and Analysis. (NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 122.

12.) “Reason is by its very nature incarnated in the context of communicative action and in structures of the lifeworld. To the extent that the plans and actions of different actors are interconnected in historical time and across social space through the use of speech oriented toward mutual agreement, taking yes/no positions on criticisable validity claims, however implicitly, gains a key function in everyday practice.” See Habermas, 322.

13.) As claims, they transcend any local context; at the same time, they have to be raised here and now and be de facto recognized if they are going to bear the agreement of interaction participants that is needed for effective cooperation. The transcendent moment of universal validity bursts every provinciality asunder; the obligatory moment of accepted validity claims renders them carriers of a context-bounded everyday practice. Inasmuch as communicative agents reciprocally raise validity claims with their speech acts, they are relying on the potential of assailable grounds.” See Habermas, 322.

14.) See Foucault, 138.

15.) "In short, try to study the metamorphosis of punitive methods on the basis of a political technology of the body in which might be read a common history of power relations and object relations. Thus, by an analysis of penal leniency as a technique of power, one might understand both how man, the soul, the normal or abnormal individual have come to duplicate crime as objects of penal intervention; and in what way a specific mode of subjection was able to give birth to man as an object of knowledge for a discourse with a 'scientific' status" See Foucault, 24.

16.) See Habermas, 107-114.

17.) See Habermas, 365.

18.) See Habermas, 7.

19.) “The human sciences are and remain pseudo-sciences because they do not see through the compulsion to a problematic doubling of the self-relating subject; they are not in a position to acknowledge the structurally generated will to self-knowledge and self-reification – and thus they are also unable to free themselves from the power that drives them.” See Habermas, 265.

20.) Foucault, M. Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. Laurence D. Kritzman. (New York: Rutledge. 1988), 43.

21.) See a more thorough discussion of this by Steven Best, The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas. (NY: The Guilford Press, 1995), 193.

22.) "The individual is no doubt the fictions atom of an ‘ideological’ representation of society; but he is also a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called ‘discipline’. We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’… In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domain of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.” See Foucault, 194.

23.) See Foucault, 210-212.

24.) See Habermas, 315-317.

25.) See Habermas, 364-365.

26.) “In a sense, the power of normalization imposes homogeneity, but it individualizes by making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialities and to render the differences useful by fitting them one to another. It is easy to understand how the power of the norm functions within a system of formal equality, since within a homogeneity that is the rule, the norm introduces, as a useful imperative and as a result of measurement, all the shading of individual differences.” See Foucault, 184.

27.) Mill, J.S.The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill On Liberty, The Subjection of Women & Utilitarianism.(NY: Modern Library, 2002), 67.

28.) See Foucault, 201-202.

29.) See Foucault, 206-207.

30.) For example, part of citizen journalism is tracking the activities of representatives of power through social media, such as twitter.

31.) “But if it just a matter of mobilizing counter power, of strategic battles and wily confrontations, why should we muster any resistance at all against this all-pervasive power circulating in the bloodstream of the body of modern society, instead of just adapting ourselves to it?...Only with the introduction of normative notions of some kind could Foucault begin to answer this question.” See Habermas, 284.

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