Overcoming "the Present Limits of the Necessary": Foucault's Conception of a Critique

Southern Journal of Philosophy 55 (S1):7-24 (2017)
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This essay offers a novel interpretation of Michel Foucault’s original and often misunderstood conception of philosophy as a critical activity. While it is well known that Foucault’s critique undertakes to disclose contingent limits of thought that appear necessary in the present, the nature of the obstacle whose overcoming critique is meant to facilitate remains poorly understood. I argue that this obstacle, “the present limits of the necessary,” resides on the unconscious level of thought Foucault identified as the object of analysis for an archaeology of knowledge. Therefore, Foucault’s conception of a critique can be grasped only against the background of the distinctive conception of thought that informs his archaeological analyses of discursive practices. According to that view, thinking is always shaped by some historically specific system of unconscious norms that define the contingent set of conceptual possibilities subjects are able to recognize in the present. Drawing on Foucault’s largely neglected remarks on the obvious and the habitual, I argue that these unconscious norms of thought are enacted habitually in a discursive practice, which endows them with an appearance of obviousness. In this way, I explain how something contingent appears in the guise of necessity and begins to function as part of the present limits of the necessary. Finally, I argue that the task of a critique to expand the scope of conceptual possibility by disclosing these unconscious limits of thought is motivated by Foucault’s commitment to the ideal of autonomy understood as subject’s self-determination.
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