Comparing the Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault

By Frank Wang
2014, Vol. 6 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

This paper contrasts the philosophy of Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas to determine whether there is any point of substantial convergence between the two.1 To do so, the essay first argues that the projects engaged in by each philosopher are different. Foucault is concerned with giving a genealogical account of the diffusion of power, whereas Habermas is concerned with creating a political philosophy based on the recognition of the communicative capacities of rational human beings, which Foucault neglects.

Second, the essay argues that in their respective projects, the stress on the importance of the social contract differs. For Foucault, the social contract is the means to which the bourgeois class used to secure social order to protect their property and it was a step toward the diffusion of power; whereas for Habermas, he completely rejects the use of a social contract to create social order, for he finds communicative action to be capable of addressing weaknesses that social order does not account for. Third, it argues that whereas Foucault recognizes power relations as foundational for social order, Habermas considers consensus a better alternative. Fourth, it argues that their take on the role of specialized knowledge differs. For Foucault, specialized knowledge serves the function of determining how to normalize, while for Habermas, specialized knowledge serves to emancipate the individual and offers them further grounds to make valid claims. Fifth, it points out that power is perceived differently by each scholar: for Foucault, power produces the individual. For Habermas, it compromises the lifeworld. Sixthly, the essay offers different critiques of each philosopher to show that even the critique of each philosopher must be framed differently. Lastly, it argues that they disagree normatively.

Accumulatively, the essay argues that based on these differences, it is difficult to conceive of a point of convergence between the two philosophers that does not compromise the ideas presented by each.2

Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault

A glimpse of Foucault’s project as shown in Discipline and Punish demonstrates that Foucault is concerned with a genealogical account of the diffusion of power. Prior to the development of prisons, punishment was carried out through a centralized monarchical power. The punishment targeted the body, and the pain inflicted was equivalent to the extent of the crime to show that a violation against the law was an indirect attack against the sovereign, and retribution was to be delivered without mercy.3 The pain served both the function of retribution and also the function of inducing confession. The public display of punishment instilled fear and reminded spectators of the absoluteness of the sovereign’s power. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, public punishments became rare, and Foucault sought to account for this change and its implications.4

Habermas’ project is, on the other hand, to recognize the inter-subjective dimension of social reality that was neglected by western philosophers such as Foucault, and to create a political theory based on that recognition. Throughout his lectures, he deconstructed western philosophers to show that beginning with the mature philosophy of Hegel, subsequent philosophers opted for subject-centered reason that neglected the importance of the inter-subjective dimension of social reality.5 Consequently, a philosophical path was carved that was based on the rejection of the Enlightenment, specifically of reason.

To defend reason, Habermas offers the theory of communicative action. In it he argues that the use of language is the fundamental method in which humans coordinate actions. When using language, they implicitly engage in a commitment to justify their action on the basis of what they perceive to be good, rational reasons. These commitments are validity claims and actions coordinated by validity claims serve as the basis of communicative action; this is also the inter-subjectivity account that philosophers, for various reasons, have neglected.6 Clearly, their project differs.

Their perspective on the feasibility of grounding social order through a social contract differs as well. For Foucault, the social contract is viewed as historical reform that contributed to the diffusion of power from the sovereign to the bourgeoisie. With the creation of the property-owning bourgeoisie class, punishment was modified to secure their interest. 7 This was done through a rearrangement of the social contract: 8 No more torturous public executions that are against humanistic values of the Enlightenment; in its place is the creation of laws that broadened the spectrum of crimes punishable by law to include the protection of property. 9 To secure the codification of the reformed social contract, details of why one is punished was made publicly known and criminals were made to work in public places to demonstrate the reforming of minds.10 The bourgeoisie, thus, recreated a social order in which they were the possessors of power through a reformed social contract; hence, power diffused from the sovereign to the bourgeoisie.

Whereas Foucault notes that social contract is crucial to the social order in which the bourgeoisie became possessors of power, Habermas is critical of using it as a foundation for social order at all. The first problem that Habermas identifies with the social contract theory is that rational egoists would require a legal mechanism to compel compliance; however, in a state of nature no such legal mechanism exists.11 Second, the Hobbesian’ notion of social contract assumes that one must oblige by its terms for the failure to do so result in punishment. In other words, this notion does not account for any moral obligation to do what one feel ought to be right, rather it assumes that people follow a moral code to avoid pain. The third problem is that social contract can be coerced onto those who did not participate in the dialogue that determined its terms. By setting a universal moral status through the contract, it can impose moral obligations that are disagreeable to non-participants. An imposition of a moral code without deliberation and consent runs against the foundation for communicative action.

As an alternative, communicative action addresses all three problems. First, a validity claim does not require social contract to exist. Instead, it requires two or more rational interlocutors free from the influences of power and money. In an ideal speech situation, this is possible.12 Second, since validity claims require that interlocutors justify their claims to reach a consensus, interlocutors will subscribe to a universal morality that they agree to and can live up to. The third problem is also addressed if mutual recognition of good reason is spread throughout society, where interlocutors are convinced that the moral is rationally derived and agreeable; hence, their acceptance gives it a universal character.13

On the contrary, Foucault recognizes that it is not the force of better reasoned argument that encourages consensus; rather, it is through control of minds that creates compliance. For example, the French penal code of 1810 signified the institutional creation based on the principal of docile body. The prison created disciplinary conditions aimed at influencing the body by controlling the mind of prisoners, and when the body becomes docile, it becomes a “political anatomy… also a ‘mechanics of power’ … [for] it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines.”14 Elements of the institution of prison such as timetables, behaviour expectations, statistical gathering became fundamental to the principle of discipline and crucial to the enforcement of rehabilitation. Thus, the docile body became the product of the rehabilitated mind and non-habilitated minds were institutionally coerced into complying with the norm of docile body.

In addition, Foucault shows that the moderns, beginning with the reformers of the Enlightenment, have succeeded in influencing the mind by turning the individual into an object of knowledge.15 Hence, the glorification of knowledge lies not in its capacity to understand the objective world as commonly celebrated by Enlightenment thinkers, but it lies in its success in microscopically analyzing the internal and the external conditions of individuals to allow better institutional coercion. The disciplines of psychology, criminology, etc., all serve the purpose of enriching methods of normalization of human behaviour and enforcing the power structure of modern society.

Habermas does not share the same cynicism on the role of specialized knowledge. The development of systematic approaches to mathematics among other new sciences formed during the Scientific Revolution, and the subsequent philosophical developments of the Enlightenment contributed to the decline of the religious authority.16 In its place is the authority of reason. Thus, the development of knowledge led to a separation of value spheres and corresponding validity dimensions. The spheres include scientific, moral, and aesthetic with corresponding validity dimensions of truth, rightness, and truthfulness. In essence, the development of knowledge has enriched the sphere of grounds that makes a validity claim valid. Claims can now appeal to truth, rightness and truthfulness. Thus, knowledge is not a way to enforce the power structure; instead, knowledge helped break individuals from religious traditions and gave them new spheres to make valid claims. In essence, it has served an emancipatory function, which contrasts significantly to Foucault’s notion of knowledge serving a normalizing function.

Hence, contrary to Foucault, Habermas thinks that modernity is a worthy project – albeit unfinished. Modernity is unfinished, because there is a gap between the specialized knowledge (i.e. scientific, moral and aesthetical knowledge) and everyday life.17 It is worthy because of the gains it has made, especially in the expansion of individual freedom. To complete modernity, it requires a discursive selection of scientific, moral and aesthetical values that modernity has to offer such that there are more possibilities for valid claims, and that lifeworld will not be compromised by the encroachment of systems of power and money. Hence, he writes “Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the models supplied by another epoch; it has to create its normativity out of itself.”18

But for Habermas to reduce Foucault’s conception of knowledge to power is misleading.19 As Foucault once stated, “…When I read this…thesis, “knowledge is power,” or “power is knowledge,” I being to laugh, since studying their relation is precisely my problem. If they were identical, I would not have to study them.”20 In fact, while they do exist in a mutually reinforcing relation, Foucault does not claim that all forms of knowledge are reduced to domination mechanisms nor does he entirely dismiss the scientific objectivity in specialized knowledge production. He does, for example, give benefit of doubt to the discipline of psychiatry and recognises its objective element. 21 Thus, power, contrary to Habermas’ reduction, can be productive. In reality, it produces the individual.22

Power produces the individual, because power has further diffused into the micro practices of institutions themselves. Because countries recognize the importance of population management in relation to economic advancement, and because it is contrary to liberal ideals that power be centered in an authoritarian regime, micro practices of power relation became the effective regime. This allowed a widespread of institutions with the capacity to discipline and enforce normalization. Techniques used are the same as that of the prisons: schools and hospitals use timetables, both have norms and examinations that one must obey and participate in as well as disciplinary punishments to normalize non-conformists.23 Those with certain roles within each institution became possessors of power and this relationship of domination and submission is exposed to everyone since birth.

While power is not the foundation for society for Habermas, he does recognize its existence and its effect. This can be observed through his concept of instrumental action. Contrasting communicative action, instrumental action is the result of instrumental reasoning, which means that the end one aspires to achieve is determined independently of the means of its realization, and that it is through intervention in the objective world that this is possible. 24 Instrumental reasoning thus has a strategic element that allows for verbal or physical coercion, and the social order as a consequence of instrumental reasoning will reflect the desire of the dominant interlocutor.

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