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Foucault’s Alleged Irrationalism The Legacy of German Romanticism in the Thought of Michel Foucault

Foucault’s Alleged Irrationalism The Legacy of German Romanticism in the Thought of Michel Foucault

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Foucault’s Alleged Irrationalism: The Legacy of German Romanticism in the Thought of Michel Foucault Corey McCall Assistant Professor

of Philosophy and Religion Elmira College Elmira, NY 14905 mccallco@hotmail.com Abstract: Foucault’s is often construed as an anti-Enlightenment thinker, along with contemporaries such as Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Blanchot, and others. Much of this criticism conceives Foucault as heir to Early German Romanticism in some sense. This essay examines this claim by carefully examining the role of German Romanticism in Foucault’s work. I begin by explaining in the first section precisely what I mean by the term ‘Romanticism.’ In the second section, I look at the role of German Romanticism in Foucault’s early work, primarily in The Order of Things and Foucault’s essay on Blanchot, “The Thought of the Outside. This section examines Foucault’s conception of language and literature. In the final section, I explore the relevance of early German Romanticism for Foucault’s later work. Jürgen Habermas argues that this Romantic influence is most evident in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and that Foucault essentially outgrows this infatuation with Romanticism in his later writings. I contest this claim through a reading of Foucault’s 1984 essay “What is Enlightenment?” In particular, I show that the Romantic conception of Bildung or self-formation is essential for understanding Foucault’s reading of Baudelaire. My conclusion is that examining the influence of early German Romanticism can help us to better understand Foucault’s texts and philosophical motivations and thereby avoid what Foucault terms the “blackmail of the Enlightenment,” the idea that one must either be for or against Enlightenment ideals rather than critically interrogating them

For a long time, Foucault’s thought has been associated with a pernicious irrationalism. Biographers and interpreters alike have seen Foucault as a threat to rationality and aligned him with other purported irrationalist thinkers such as Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski, and others. 1 While there may certainly be a basis for such a conclusion based on a selective reading of Foucault’s texts (which is not to say a necessarily tendentious one), in this essay, I shall investigate the significance of this charge. What precisely does it mean to label Foucault an irrationalist? A way I would

like to pose the question that I hope will eventually prove more fruitful is: What is the significance of Foucault’s relationship to Romanticism? Commentators such as Jürgen Habermas, Joel Whitebook, Richard Wolin, and James Miller all agree that in some way Foucault’s texts, whatever their merits, are guilty of embracing and advocating unreason. While some, such as Miller in his biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, argue that this embrace of unreason was both liberating and formative for Foucault’s thought, others, such as Habermas and Wolin, worry that this advocacy amounts to at least a potentially dangerous anti-Enlightenment stance. 2 Whatever value they accord to this apparent irrationalism in Foucault’s work, these writers all agree that it is an important element in his writings. According to these commentators, Foucault is simply an anti-Enlightenment thinker. If true, such charges would make Foucault heir in some sense to various strains of Romantic thought both in France and in Germany. An example of this tendency that associates Foucault’s thought with Romanticism, from the ninth lecture of Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity will suffice to show how these various thinkers affiliate Foucault’s apparent glorification of unreason with Romanticism: [Foucault] classifies insanity among those limit experiences in which Western logos sees itself, with extreme ambivalence, faced with something heterogeneous. Boundary-transgressing experiences include contact with and even immersion in the Oriental world (Schopenhauer); rediscovery of the tragic element and of the archaic in general (Nietzsche); penetration of the dream sphere (Freud) and of the archaic prohibitions (Bataille); even the exoticism nourished by anthropological reports. Foucault omits Romanticism from this list, aside from one mention of Hölderlin. And yet, in Madness and Civilization a Romantic motif comes through that Foucault will later give up. Just as Bataille discovers in the paradigmatic experience of ecstatic self-unboundedness and orgiastic self-dissolution the eruption of heterogeneous forces into the homogenous world of an everyday life that has been compulsively normalized, so Foucault suspects that behind the

I do not wish to evaluate the merits of these various claims. in what way is Foucault a Romantic thinker? What is the legacy of Romanticism in Foucault’s thought. and. we shall see that Habermas may not be entirely correct in asserting that this Romanticism was manifest only in Foucault’s early thought of the 1960’s I shall develop this question in two ways. 3 According to Habermas. role of German Romantic writers for Foucault. I shall pursue what is. Following a brief initial section in which I lay out what I mean by Romanticism. In this paper. to my mind at least. Miller. for this is a task that others have already accomplished. what relevance does Romanticism have for Foucault’s project? Along the way. and others are correct in their assessments of Foucault’s irrationalism to one degree or another. Let us assume that Habermas. Much has been written about the debt Foucault owes Nietzsche. My claim in this section is that the Romantic theory of language is significant for Foucault’s analysis of the experience of language in The Order of Things. Rather. a much more interesting question: Assuming for the time being that these commentators are all correct.psychiatrically engendered phenomenon of mental illness. the question of critique. and in particular. and indeed behind the various masks of madness at that time. I turn to the political question animating Foucault’s writings. I believe that Habermas’ criticisms of Foucault . though admittedly less decisive. there is a Romantic tendency in Foucault’s early work that manifests as a glorification of unreason understood as an authentic limit experience. Wolin. furthermore. there is something authentic whose sealed mouth only needed to be opened up. In the third section. but few have considered the significant. Whitebook. I proceed with an analysis of the significance of Romanticism within Foucault’s work.

by extension. and. With this interpretation in place. as I said. Missing in Foucault’s affiliation of Baudelaire with Kant is a consideration of the German Romantic aesthetics of existence. his relationship to Enlightenment ideals is an ambiguous one. but is rather a thinker who wants to critically examine the possible dangers entailed by an uncritical acceptance of the benefits of scientific rationality. Indeed. In addition to examining the complexities of the relationship between Foucault and German Romanticism in both his early and later writings. 4 However. in this essay Foucault points to the askesis of modernity that he finds present in Kant’s conception of Enlightenment and links this with the writings of Baudelaire. can serve as an example of self-fashioning for us today. In short. we shall see that the characterization of Romanticism as simply a repudiation of Enlightenment ideals is overhasty. in this section I will begin with a brief interpretation of Foucault’s late text “What is Enlightenment?” Of particular interest to me here is Foucault’s treatment of Baudelaire. I do not want to rehash the terms of the debate between Habermas and Foucault. . Like the romantics before him. alongside Foucault’s own enlightening discussions of ancient and modern modes of self-fashioning. Instead. if properly differentiated from the Hegelian and humanistic treatments of this concept. the identification of Foucault as simply an anti-Enlightenment thinker underestimates the complexity of his thought.are too harsh and that Foucault is not simply an anti-Enlightenment thinker. I will argue that the early German Romantic conception of Bildung. I turn finally to the Romantic conception of Bildung or self-cultivation. this paper examines what it means to allege that Foucault is in some sense affiliated with Romanticism and hence his thought glorifies unreason in general. and his concept of the flaneur.

better known by his pen name “Novalis. Wackenroder (17731801). Frederick Beiser writes that [he] would like to examine one brief period of intellectual life in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries…. What is Romanticism? This section briefly describes how we understand the term Romanticism and the way we intend to employ the term throughout. The word defies simple definition.J. Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845). we must see . 8 Beiser argues that we must understand that Romanticism’s relationship to the German Enlightenment is much more complex than those who simply wish to characterize Romanticism as a reactionary movement against the core Enlightenment values of humanism and reason would have us believe. F.D. Schleiermacher (1767-1834). we speak of Romanticisms in the plural. Indeed. understood as a German intellectual and literary movement. he proposed that instead of speaking of Romanticism. 6 Recent authors have followed Lovejoy’s approach by focusing upon the earliest period of Romanticism in Germany. Beiser also includes Hölderlin as a figure on the “fringes” of the circle.W. and Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801). To take but one example of this approach that helpfully summarizes the dates and individuals involved in early German Romanticism. They were W.H. Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853).” 5 To deal with this scandal.1.Scholars generally agree about the about the approximate dates of Frühromantik: it began in the summer of 1797 and declined in the summer of 1801. ought to correspond to the time during which the journal Athenaeum was published. F. Beiser argues. There is also little disagreement about who were the central figures of this movement. Romanticism. the historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy claimed in 1923 that the term was “the scandal of literary history and criticism. Frederick Beiser. Schelling (1775-1845). In some ways. that of early Romanticism or the Frühromantik. and Manfred Frank.” 7 Elsewhere. According to thinkers such as Simon Critchley.

But this dismissal of literature (in the manner of Gide) is affirmed by Breton in a singular way. and so on) is. holism. of appropriating the world. For the Germans (Goethe. art history. That is the big difference. of memory: it is a matter of making a calm and exhaustive recollection of what has been learned [connaissance].B. on dreams. that of Breton as a writer of knowledge. Hence the interest he brought to bear on the unconsciousness. on madness. Like the German Romantics? M. of reducing it to the measure of man.F. analysis. ideas. but on top of it. Foucault’s ambivalence regarding German Romanticism in particular can be seen in his response to an interviewer from 1966 concerning the work of André Breton. in the Romantic reaction to the French Revolution. for example. I think—that of Breton as a poet of unreason. is that Breton established a clear communication between these two figures that had long been estranged. in particular. and the contrary. for Romanticism was a philosophical and political movement as well. C. Breton bringing knowledge into expression (with psychoanalysis. it was never—except in Diderot—a literature of knowledge. Hermann Broch). There is an image that needs to be obliterated. our Goethe. and. Before him French literature could well be concocted of observation.Romanticism as an heir to Enlightenment ideals. writing and knowledge. literature is knowledge when it is an enterprise of internalization. ethnology. For Breton. we must see this movement as something more than just a literary movement. whereas for Breton dreams are the unbreakable core of the night placed at the heart of day. of placing him near to what is farthest away from him. between German and French culture. its organicism. writing become knowledge (and knowledge become writing) is a means of pushing him beyond his limits. Foucault understood the importance of Romanticism but was hesitant about its metaphysical commitments. A different one should be placed. I think. in a sense. Yes but the dreams of the German Romantics are the night illuminated by the light of wakefulness. not over against it. of forcing him to face the insuperable. The interviewer’s question concerns the importance of Breton for contemporary thought: The most important thing. in my view. 9 Furthermore. and aestheticism. 10 This passage makes clear that Foucault’s ambivalence regarding Romanticism . Thomas Mann.

An even more pressing reason to reconsider Foucault’s relationship with Romantic thought can be cited. I shall turn to the last chapters of The Order of Things in order to show that Romantic thought informs Foucault’s conception of the materiality and the experience of language and literature that he presents here. There is a need to think with Foucault the question of who ‘we’ are today. for example.” Having examined the brief references to Romanticism in this text.may run deeper than suspicions regarding the Romantics’ metaphysical commitment. Foucault and the Experience of Language: Grammar and the Outside Foucault’s encounter with German Romanticism was in no way as decisive for his work as his encounter with Nietzsche. According to Foucault. is a thinking akin to Romanticism shorn of any pretensions to an absolute somehow prior to language or history. we will attempt to show in the following two sections that Romanticism remains significant for an understanding of Foucault’s thought. 2. however. the . This section examines the significance of Foucault’s references to German Romantic writers in his early texts. and a careful consideration of the relationship between early German Romanticism and Foucault’s thought will be necessary in order to comprehend Foucault’s genealogy of the critical attitude of modernity. and these references are not inconsequential. and Klossowski. Despite Foucault’s significant reservations regarding Romanticism. and what he thought he had found in 1966 in the thought of Breton and Surrealism. even as a Kantian regulative ideal. What Foucault wanted. as well as in thinkers such as Bataille. beginning with his essay on Maurice Blanchot entitled “The Thought of the Outside. Blanchot. But Foucault does refer to the German Romantics at fundamental points throughout his work.

an insight that Foucault discovers in the writings of Friedrich Schlegel. poetry. it leads to the absolute Ego. this experience of language leads to an effacement of the self in modern literature. in a way that recalls Romantic efforts to undo perceived unnecessary genre distinctions between literature and criticism. For Foucault. following Blanchot. Foucault’s hesitation regarding Romanticism concerns the role of the subject and the residual Cartesianism present in German Romanticism. i. I want to look at the political significance that this conception of language came to have for Foucault during his later period. 12 For Foucault. Various attempts to distinguish Foucault’s literary writings from his more “serious” texts do a disservice to Foucault’s thought. references I develop more fully below). criticism. . Finally. while for the Romantics. and philosophy are all of a piece for the German Romantics. Ultimately.importance of literature during the modern period stems from the idea that linguistic meaning can be conceived independently of the speaking subject and hence the ideal of language is no longer simply representational. the idea that language does not have to be a language that represents content to a disinterested observer.e. 11 Insisting upon the link between the concept of language that Foucault develops in the 1960’s in essays such as the one on Blanchot and in books such as The Order of Things demonstrates that Foucault’s more literary writings are consequential. Foucault and the Romantics diverge when it comes to their respective understanding of the significance of the materiality of language. Romanticism is important for its connections to the Kantian critical project (witness for example his various references to Friedrich Schlegel in Chapter Eight of The Order of Things.

Foucault writes: In the age of Kant and Hegel. but in some way cryptically. and later in the writings of Nietzsche. Mallarmé. Foucault designates this attempt to erect an independent space for speech the thought of the outside. Bataille.” 13 A speech truly shorn of the demands of discourse and the dictates of the speaking subject is first articulated in the works of the likes of Sade. The problem Foucault sees in beginning with the mystics’ conception of the outside is that according to these mystics one leaves oneself only in order to truly find oneself. and Hölderlin. Blanchot belongs to the lineage of those writers who have attempted to disengage speech from thought in order to erect an autonomous space for speech. in other words. Of Sade and Hölderlin.At the beginning of his essay on Blanchot. Discourse. speculating that one would have to return to medieval mysticism if one were to undertake rigorous genealogy of this attempt to divorce language from the propriety of the speaking subject. Klossowski. Artaud. for the enigmatic succor of “God’s failing. the experience of the outside—the former by laying desire bare in the infinite murmur of discourse. Foucault refers briefly to Friedrich Schlegel and connects him with the thought of Nietzsche. at a time when the interiorization of the law of history and the world was being imperiously demanded by Western consciousness as never before. “to wrap and gather oneself in the dazzling interiority of a thought that is rightfully Being and Speech.” Can it be said without stretching things that Sade and Hölderlin simultaneously introduced into our thinking. Sade. He begins his essay with a brief genealogy of this conception of language and thought freed of all propriety. the latter by discovering that the gods had wandered off . Sade never ceases speaking of the nakedness of desire as the lawless law of the world. for which the word would no longer be the sole property of the speaking subject. infinitely long no doubt. and. In the same period Hölderlin’s poetry manifested the shimmering absence of the gods and pronounced the new law of the obligation to wait. of course Blanchot. even if it is the silence beyond all language and the nothingness beyond all Being. Hölderlin. for the coming century.

to erase alienation. My claim will be that this experience of language remains important . Foucault in this passage no doubt has Hegel in mind. in Foucault’s thought remains ambiguous. and his passing reference in this text is no exception: The sparkle of the outside resurfaces in Nietzsche’s discovery that all of Western metaphysics is tied not only to its grammar (that had been largely suspected since Schlegel) but to those who. Foucault will later link this question of who has a right to speak to the question of critique. and to recover on earth the treasures that had been spent in heaven” (EW2. what Foucault in this passage refers to as the “interiorization of the law of history and the world. 14 However. 151). 150-151). Foucault’s references to Friedrich Schlegel are invariably references to grammar. At this point in his career. but instead praises Nietzsche for this thought.through a rift in language as it was in the process of losing its bearings (EW2. exemplified by his attempts to furnish a genealogy of critique in the 1983 lectures published as Fearless Speech. I would like to briefly investigate the place of grammar in concluding chapters of The Order of Things before concluding this section with some thoughts on this strange experience of language without a subject. to humanize nature.interiorize the world. The place of German Romanticism and Schlegel in particular. In order to address this ambiguity. Foucault clearly does not link Schlegel to this question of who has the right to speak. to move beyond the false moment of alienation [Entaüsserung]. have a hold over the right to speak…. to naturalize man. The writings of Sade and Hölderlin comprise a virtually secret countertendency to German Idealism’s search for the subject’s identification with the Absolute.(EW2. in holding discourse. 151).” These thinkers introduce a foreign element into the drive “to….

becomes linked to the activity of critique. and Freud as examples. by its inner coherence the functions that keep it alive. This facticity of language means . Language is not understood as finished work but as an emerging process. the very questionability of language itself in modern literature.for Foucault. at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. Language acquires a density and a being all its own.” writes Foucault. for it is an experience tied to how he believes his books can transform his readers. as the analysis of what is said in the depths of discourse. an experience that I shall attempt to link to the Romantic conception of Bildung and the question of philosophical and political critique. in the nineteenth century. 294). A second consequence of this historical mutation (which is. and. that indeterminate element by which a people identifies themselves as such. Nietzsche. we are able to discern the inner life of a people. one linked to history. and he cites Marx. in the whole architecture of its grammar. 291). Grammar expresses the will of a particular people. the discovery of history not as a narrative recounting of events but instead the condition of possibility for events as such) is that language is no longer reducible to the language of things. 16 During this period. the question regarding the nature of language and indeed. as Foucault writes. to the question of language and freedom. for language is no longer the transparent medium of representation (OT. just as life posits the vital interiority of an organism: Just as the living organism manifests. has become the modern form of criticism. so language. 17 “Philology. makes visible the fundamental will that keeps a whole people alive and gives it the power to speak a language that belongs solely to itself. 15 Through comparative grammar. language becomes linked not to knowledge but to the question and project of freedom (OT. 18 As Foucault will later put it.

that language is no longer the property solely of the speaking subject.’ But the word is of recent date. and there it encounters the untamed imperious being of words (OT. alongside life as such and the economical life of peoples.that language becomes constituted as an object of study. will. in an independent form.’ This is because at the beginning of the nineteenth century. an appearance simultaneously made possible and contested by philology: Finally. and role in society.e. and also the most unexpected. that language is no longer the site and medium of representation] the most important. since Dante. at a time when language was burying itself within its own density as an object and allowing itself to be traversed. culture. 299-300). it was also reconstituting itself elsewhere. This also means that language can be linked with the thought of the outside.” Instead. It is true that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this thought that language is not meant only to represent things to a speaking subject leads thinkers to posit race as the locus of language. questions with disastrous consequences. as is also. since Homer. functions. and Marx. the last of the compensations for the demotion of language [i. of literature as such—for there has of course existed in the Western world. Literature is the contestation of philology (of which it nevertheless the twin figure) it leads language back from grammar to the naked power of speech. either in The Order of Things or “The Thought of the Outside. his focus remains the critical dimension of language that he finds in Blanchot. difficult of access. and biology. through and through. as the criticism and study of language and their origins. is the appearance of literature. by knowledge. contests this autonomy of language. The history that Foucault recounts in these two texts is the history of the appearance of literature. folded back upon the enigma of its own origin and existing wholly in reference to this pure act of writing. Philology. in our culture the isolation of a particular language whose peculiar mode of being is ‘literary. But Foucault does not detail this particular history. a form of language that we now call ‘literature. But this only renders the legacy of . a dimension that can be linked directly to the thought of Nietzsche. Freud.

Romanticism for Foucault more complex and ambiguous for it is implicated in both the constitution of language as an object as philology and in the autonomy of language as literature. he claims that each of his texts should be transformative both for his readers and for himself: . Foucault claims that all of his books can be understood as experience books. I will conclude this section with a brief consideration of the German Romantic conception of Bildung in order to show the relevance of this concept for Foucault’s critical practice. Furthermore. to contest the exultation of beauty in Kant’s Third Critique. to affect his readers in some way. 3. it becomes clear what the function of literature was….” (OT. second. In an interview from 1978. 300): Literature as critique. on the other hand. Simply put. to show that Foucault’s discussion of literature in the 1960’s remains relevant for an understanding of his later texts and. the function of literature is to contest the legacy of classicism at every turn. and to contest the belief in writing as an autonomous activity (OT. simply to show that Foucault expected his books to do something. Romanticism marks the birth of philology in Schlegel. “From the Romantic revolt against a discourse frozen in its own ritual pomp. Romanticism inaugurates literature as an autonomous mode of expression. to contest the rigid genre distinctions classicism sought to cement. and that his thought unfolds under the rubric of experience. 300). Foucault and the Critical Experience of Reading: The Relevance of Bildung In this section. I turn from a consideration of the place of literature in Foucault’s early work to the question of language and critique in his later writings. On the one hand. The purpose of this is twofold: First. to the Mallarméan discovery of the word in its impotent power. Finally.

Of course. so that they too might become ‘experimenters. we must understand what Foucault meant by this ethical category of “experimentation. If I had to write a book to communicate what I’m thinking before I begin to write. But writing does not just denote a state of passivity. Foucault experiments upon himself and upon his thinking. An “experience” is usually thought of as something that one undergoes and thus the word denotes a passive state. in a sense. Writing is not merely a solipsistic endeavor on Foucault’s part. for he also hopes that his readers could have a similar experience through the act of reading his texts.” . I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system. That isn’t my case.What I think is never quite the same. 19 In his writing. either deductive or analytical and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. he is playing upon the etymology of the word “experience” in this passage. An experience is something that one comes out of transformed. I write a book only because I still don’t exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about. I’m an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order to not think the same thing as before. This is consistent with the Introduction to the second volume of The History of Sexuality. Foucault claims he undergoes an experience that transforms him. that I would like to be as full as possible. it denotes an active state in which one “experiments” upon the ethical material that one is in order to become otherwise. in which Foucault claims as his motivation for writing the desire to be free of himself: writing is a concrete practice of critique and a concrete practice of freedom. reading has an active dimension for Foucault. I would never have the courage to begin. because for me my books are experiences. Like writing. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. He hopes that through the practice of reading his readers can transform themselves. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. Through writing.’ In order to understand the relevance of the German Romantic conception of Bildung for Foucault’s practice of writing.

and yesterday. “[he] means a mode of . Foucault attempts to articulate the significance of Kant’s conception of enlightenment beyond its accepted narrow epistemological and formalistic significance. This self-articulation is not only a question of language. in particular with reference to the poet Charles Baudelaire. a difference between today. Elaborating upon Kant’s slogan for the Enlightenment as humanity’s attempt to overcome immaturity (heteronomy). of course. “An Answer to The Question: What is Enlightenment?” does not supplement his negative conception of freedom as freedom from “self-incurred immaturity” with a positive belief in history as a stage of inherent human progress. Foucault attempts to show how the practice of enlightenment can enable one to be autonomous. this text serves an example of what Foucault calls “the attitude of modernity.The most succinct development of the concept occurs in Foucault’s late text “What is Enlightenment?”. Augustine. In this text. Instead. and Vico as other thinkers who had posed this question of the significance of the present differently). 21 What is distinctive for Foucault in Kant’s presentation of the question is that he poses the question in essentially negative terms: The present moment of Aufklärung might provide an opportunity for escape. one that other ways of posing the question had missed (Foucault cites Plato. 20 He wishes to understand critique and the practice of Enlightenment as an attempt on the part of individuals to articulate themselves. 305). in which it was not (EW. because Kant’s question and answer regarding the nature of Enlightenment signal a new and distinctly modern way of conceiving the present. Unlike Kant’s other texts on history. Foucault elaborates upon this Kantian definition of Enlightenment by providing a genealogy of the concept of the present. understood as a moment in which freedom has become a possibility.” Foucault explains that by attitude of modernity.

but still keep in mind the tension between humanism and the Enlightenment: . a voluntary choice made by certain people. Foucault claims that an essential example of this sort of response to the vertigo of the modern self-reflexive moment can be found Baudelaire’s writings. Foremost among these is the claim that Bildung itself is a humanist concept. Whereas there are passages in Foucault’s writings that seem to place him firmly in the anti-Enlightenment camp. Surely Foucault would attempt to distance himself from an idea of this nature? On the question of humanism. and thereby justify the criticism with which I began this essay. Foucault in “What is Enlightenment?” is quite clear: We must avoid what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment. No doubt. by 1984 Foucault was writing that we needed to resist such polemics. in the end. 309). a bit like what the Greeks called an ‘ethos’” (EW1.” the choice foisted upon us by solemn defenders of the Enlightenment that one must be either for or against it. One can perhaps immediately think of several reasons why it would be ludicrous to associate the Romantic conception of Bildung with Foucault’s reading of Kant and Baudelaire. Foucault designates Baudelaire’s ironic response to the present and its elaboration of the figure of the dandy as an ascetic response to the exigencies of modern life.relating to contemporary reality. of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. a way too. The question with which I would like to conclude is the question of whether the Romantic conception of Bildung or self-cultivation can provide another example of an ascetic response to modernity alongside the examples Foucault of Kant and Baudelaire that Foucault develops in this text. and his attempt to ironically heroize the present and thereby find meaning in the transitory present. a way of thinking and feeling.

It remained an important concept for twentieth century German thinkers such as Adorno and Gadamer. Bildung is sometimes rendered as culture.” “diverse” set of phenomena known as humanism and the equally complex problematic of autonomy that is the leitmotif of the Enlightenment for Foucault.” we must escape from the historical and moral confusion that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment. Bildung is a concept with a complex history spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I merely wish to point out the Romantic conception of Bildung and its relationship to Enlightenment modernity as Foucault has interpreted it.” These more colloquial phrases betray the metaphysical . Difficult to translate.In any case. sometimes as cultivation or even edification in order to provide the connotation of education. Humanism must be distinguished from the Enlightenment. While I believe any attempt to clarify the complexities of this relationship between humanism and the Enlightenment would need to focus on the relationship between the humanist conception of Bildung developed in Germany during the early eighteenth century and the Enlightenment conception of autonomy and its particular articulation of Bildung. 312). 22 Foucault indirectly draws upon this tradition in his discussion of Kant. but the historian must also acknowledge the complex interdependence between this amorphous. my own ambitions are much more modest. just as I believe that we have to free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of “being for or against the Enlightenment. for the idea that one could leave behind one’s immaturity entails a conception of Bildung understood as self-articulation or self-cultivation. an important one if we are to bring some measure of clarity to the consciousness we have of ourselves and of our past (EW2. An analysis of their complex relations in the course of the last two centuries would be a worthwhile project.” or “fulfilling one’s potential. “inconsistent. of “coming into one’s own. and German educational theorists continue to question its significance.

combined with their practice of writing and their emphasis on experiences irreducible to the dictates of pure reason resonate with key aspects of Foucault’s thought. an education in feeling. that is. thought that writing could transform our perceptions of the world and thereby transform of our own conception of our place within it. and the simplest way to distinguish them might be through the central concept of Bildung.commitments of this concept. itself a legacy of Friedrich Schiller’s encounter with Kant’s moral philosophy. If we are to have an ethics truly relevant for our lives. The Romantics are critical of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason. an education that does not commit the sin of sacrificing feeling upon the altar of reason. commitments that ultimately extend back to the Greeks. too. Frederick Beiser points out that what distinguishes the German Romantic conception of Bildung from its predecessors is the Romantic emphasis on aesthetic education. argues that Kant’s emphasis on duty precludes any meaningful role for feeling and thus results in an empty ethical formalism. 23 Foucault argues that we must distinguish humanism from Enlightenment. The Romantic thinkers simply follow Schiller’s lead in advocating a sentimental education. Foucault’s thought does indeed have much in common with Romanticism. anticipating Hegel’s later criticism of Kant’s moral philosophy in The Phenomenology of Spirit. which they all share. and which they all develop in different ways. if we understand Romanticism properly. Schiller. then we must discover the importance of an aesthetic education. but they appropriate key features of the Enlightenment program. The Romantic thinkers’ ideal of Bildung. Foucault. as not simply the exuberant embrace of unreason but as in some sense a . I would argue that we need to distinguish both of these traditions from that of Romanticism.

1994). independent of the concerns of the maker. 170-171. “The Thought of the Outside. I would like to thank the participants of the conference for their probing questions and excellent suggestions. 15 Although Foucault skirts the issue here.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Trans. 11 Jacob S. Ed. 1954-1984. The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism. 8 Ibid. 1994). 1996). 13 Michel Foucault. Cf. 6. Ed. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton. Although Foucault refuses to draw the connection here. “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms. Benjamin’s ultimate concern was to demonstrate that the German Romantics sought the autonomy of the work of art. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Beiser. Beatrice Hanssen and Andrew Benjamin (London: Continuum. Volume 2: Aesthetics. Method. 6. Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. James Miller. As Beatrice Hanssen explains. See the Conclusion of the History of Sexuality. 2004). 6-7.” Configurations. See her Introduction to Walter Benjamin and Romanticism. MA: MIT Press. “Early Romanticism and the Aufklärung” and “Frühromantik and the Platonic Tradition. 1998).” Essential Writings of Michel Foucault. see Walter Benjamin. David Macey (NY: Picador. MA: MIT Press. 1987 [1985]). Harvard University Press. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge. Michael Kelly (Cambridge.” Continental Philosophy Review 36: 1 (2003). James D. MA: MIT Press. 172. 2001). Joseph Pearson (LA: Semiotext(e). 2002). Perversion and Utopia: A Study of Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory (Cambridge. 7:2 (1999). Fearless Speech. 5 Arthur Lovejoy. 1998).” The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Cambridge. the idea of a people extends from its origins in Herder and Fichte. through the German Romantics and eventually to the racist biologist theories of Nazism. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures.” The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 9 Beiser develops this claim in “Early Romanticism and the Aufklärung. 10 Michel Foucault. Ed. See also Timothy Rayner. Volume 1: An Introduction (NY: Vintage.continuation of the Enlightenment by other means. Vol. 2 Jürgen Habermas. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. A version of this paper was originally presented at the 2005 meeting of the Foucault Circle at Rollins College. 1 . Fisher points out the importance of Foucault’s more literary writings to his work as a whole in “What is an Oeuvre: Foucault and Literature. Trans. 12 Ultimately this hesitation concerns the importance of the relationship between Kant and German Romanticism. 2003). “A Simmer Between Two Words. Method. 14 Michel Foucault. and Epistemology. esp. 2003). MA: MIT Press. and Epistemology. 4 On this relationship. 46. NJ: Princeton University Press. and if we similarly reject the caricature of Foucault as a thinker concerned solely with destroying the grand edifice of thought erected by Enlightenment reason. “Between Fiction and Reflection: Foucault and the Experience Book. Ed. 2: Aesthetics. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. see Frederick C. 3 Jürgen Habermas. Lectures IX and X. hereafter EW2. he does make them plain elsewhere.” Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984. Ed. 2003). 1987 [1985]). The Passions of Michel Foucault (NY: Anchor Books. Volume I. cited by Frederick C. Beiser. Joel Whitebook. Trans. For a consideration of the importance of Fichte for German Romanticism that with Foucault’s conclusions about the role of the subject in German Romanticism. 1977) and his 1975-1976 lectures at the College de France recently translated as Society Must Be Defended. Faubion (NY: New Press. Richard Wolin. “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism. 1995).” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 39 (1924). 6 Ibid. Ed. 150. Foucault claims that his investigation of parrhesia is an attempt at a genealogy of the critical attitude in Western thought in the Afterword. 7 Ibid. James Faubion (NY: New Press. 1913-1926.

Ed. Alan Sheridan (NY: Vintage. Paul Rabinow (NY: The New Press. “Do We (Still) Need the Concept of Bildung?. and Vico saw it as a transition to something else.” The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. 22 For example. 290. “Nietzsche. 149-154. 304-305. Volume 3: Power.” EW2. Trans. Ed. 269-278.” Educational Philosophy and Theory. 239-240. “What is Enlightenment?” The Essential Writings of Michel Foucault. 1954-1984. “What is Critique?” in What is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth Century Questions and Twentieth Century Answers. 23 Thus in order to truly do justice to the relationship between Foucault and this idea. hereafter OT. James Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press). who distinguished between the ergon of language and the energeia or activity of language. 2000). 298. 18 OT. 1971 [1966]). one would have to not only examine the role the idea played in early modern Germany. Cf. 35 (2003). 17 Foucault cites Humboldt. See Michel Foucault. Ed. Freud. see Jan Masschelein and Norbert Ricke. OT. Marx. “Interview with Michel Foucault. Volume 1: Ethics. James D. Plato conceived the present as a particular era of the world. hereafter EW3. 19 Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. See Michel Foucault. but also examine the roots of this idea in ancient Greece and the role that it plays in Foucault’s interpretations of ancient Greek ethics. Augustine thought it in terms of a forthcoming event. 382-398. 1997). 20 Foucault makes this explicit in a 1978 text that is in many ways a companion piece to this one.Michel Foucault. 16 . 21 According to Foucault. Faubion (NY: The New Press.

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