Foucault's Kantian critique: Philosophy and the present

Philosophy and Social Criticism 34 (4):357-382 (2008)
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Abstract
In several lectures, interviews and essays from the early 1980s, Michel Foucault startlingly argues that he is engaged in a kind of critical work that is similar to that of Immanuel Kant. Given Foucault's criticisms of Kantian and Enlightenment emphases on universal truths and values, his declaration that his work is Kantian seems paradoxical. I agree with some commentators who argue that this is a way for Foucault to publicly acknowledge to his critics that he is not, as some of them charge, attempting a total critique of Enlightenment beliefs and values, but is instead attempting to transform them from within. I argue further that Foucault's self-professed Kantianism can also productively be read as a means of encouraging change in his intellectual audience, a call to courage to take up the thread of Enlightenment thought that Foucault finds in Kant's essay, `What is Enlightenment?': that of directing one's philosophical efforts towards questioning and transforming one's own present in its historical specificity, for the sake of promoting the values of freedom and autonomy therein. Though much of Kant's philosophical work is focused on that which lies outside of history, Foucault locates in some of it a concern for what is happening here and now that, I argue, he encourages his audience to take up for themselves through tracing his own intellectual lineage to Kant. In so doing, he encourages contemporary philosophers to consider the value and effects of their work on the present social and political contexts in which they live.
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