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1 Jonathan Langseth Foucault and Habermas on Power


Questions concerning the nature of power have been wide and varied. In the

introduction to the anthology, Power, Steven Lukes says that answering the question of what exactly power is “turns out to be far from simple” (Lukes 1). Definitions of power offered by the contributors to this anthology range from ‘the production of intended effects’ (Russell), to ‘a generalized facility or resource in society’ (Parsons). The debate centered on Michel Foucault and Jurgen Habermas is largely focused upon the question of the nature of power. More specifically, we should say it is a question of power relations, of the cause and location of domination and subjugation, and the question of justification. This immediately brings into question the nature of freedom, agency, and autonomy. Both authors have expressed as the normative task of their studies this very question of autonomy. Habermas, following the work of early critical theorists from Marx to Adorno, asks what forms of control over nature, society, or the individual, result in either emancipation or domination. Domination, says Habermas, “can only be altered by a change in the state of consciousness itself, by the practical effect of a theory which does not improve the manipulation of things and of reifications, but which instead advances the interest of reason in human adulthood, in the autonomy of action and liberation from dogmatism. This it achieves by means of the penetrating idea of a persistent critique.”1 Foucault has expressed his intention as consisting in exposing to the individual the false bondages of universalized knowledge: “My role…is to show people

Jurgen Habermas Theory and practice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 256

as evidence. and that this socalled evidence can be criticized and destroyed. some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history. and which in their turn reproduce this power. And lastly. this debate has its origin in the writings of the two authors themselves. First. and the relation between the individual and society in modernity. In this essay I will argue that although there are nontrivial discrepancies between the work of Foucault and Habermas. while revolving around questions of power and freedom. 3 Instead of directly attempting to answer what power is. that people accept as truth. et al. and persists to the present day. this debate raises the question of legitimacy in social hierarchy. 1980). Third. there are also important similarities.”3 From these two Martin. also brings into question the role of reason. 9 3 Michel Foucault. on the other. truth. 93 2 .2 that they are much freer than they feel. their approaches to the question of power are complementary. right. at the level of methodology. Foucault is interested in the how of power. To change something in the minds of people – that’s the role of an intellectual. this debate. Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books. that at least in one important respect. Hence we have a triangle: power. critique. to the rules of right that provide a formal delimitation of power. L.”2 2 The comparison of Foucault and Habermas’ approaches to an analysis of power is of importance today for a number of reasons. and further. this comparison asks what is the most viable approach to investigating the relational balance or imbalance between the individuals that compose society. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (London: Tavistock. to the effects of truth that this power produces and transmits. 1988). Second.H. truth. and approaches this question from two points of reference: “On the one hand.

1990). 93 4 5 . Rather he sees his own discourse as. in so far as they are truths. in so far as they are rules of right. and right. Foucault recognizes this fact and wants to move away from any talk of legitimacy. if power is the underlying force that produces discourse.3 points of reference Foucault reformulates the traditional question of political philosophy concerning how discourses of truth can fix limits on the rights of power. including the legitimacy of his own work. 1980). However. Power is dependent upon its surfacing in terms of truth (as knowledge) and right (as justification).”6 So the inversion is in actuality a kind of reciprocity: Power produces the discourse of truth as a necessary means of its own articulation and right. lacking legitimacy like all other discourses. into the question of “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?”4 In effect Foucault inverts the relation between power and truth from that of truth’s limiting effect on power to power’s production of truth. 274 6 Michel Foucault. then his analysis ultimately self-destructs.”5 Yet Foucault goes on to say.’ I believe this Ibid Jurgen Habermas. an ‘antiscience’ or ‘countermodernity. what he calls. truth. “…We cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. for Foucault’s own discourse would also be an articulation of power. and. are used as justification of social action. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press. These articulations. determine the way in which the individuals of particular societies conduct their lives. 4 Habermas argues that if Foucault is correct. as Habermas notes in his analysis/critique of Foucault in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: “Foucault abruptly reverses power’s truth-dependency into the power-dependency of truth. Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books.

Such a means is inherently universalized. and he views universalized truths in terms of dominating power relations. Concerning truth. Yet to the extent that Foucault implicitly posits value claims in the rhetoric of his work. our relations with other people.4 terminology can be interpreted in two complementary ways: as a means of exposing the historical contingencies that have produced certain conceptions of universal truth and/or as a contribution towards creating a counterbalance to the dominant forms of discursive. we have a fundamental interest in what we produce. In conjunction with his analysis of these imbalances. communication is distorted. practical. 6 At the outset it appears as though the debate between Foucault and Habermas is a debate about whether there exists. as Habermas suggests. Foucault wants to say that there is not one universal. but rather a multiplicity of truths. Habermas locates what he takes to be the three fundamental human interests: technical. and the degree to which we are free to choose both what we do and how we relate to others. We will have to ask what implications such a belief has for Foucault’s overall project. . and power (critical or self-reflective). 5 As a starting point of an analysis of power. and critical self-reflection is absent within society. communication (historical-hermeneutic). objectified power. Habermas sees the imbalance of power as directly related to the extent to which the production of labor is privatized. Habermas proposes a means by which a democratic distribution of power relations can be achieved. with corresponding medias and sciences respectively: work (empirical). Briefly. a single universalized criterion of legitimacy that stands as a gauge of the degree of the balance or imbalance of power. he is in fact already speaking in terms of legitimacy. objective truth. and emancipatory.

one on the inside. in disciplinary power. he sees a need to focus on the ever increasing prevalence. analysis of this sole form of power. Instead. Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books. a tower. allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. This is a form of power based more on efficiency than force: “…it arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside. annular building are seen without seeing. the peripheric building is divided into cells. corresponding to the windows of the tower. while those occupying the inner tower see without being seen. an annular building. or a schoolboy.7 8 The Panopticon creates a situation in which the individuals in the outer. a condemned man. Sovereign power is based upon rules of right and legitimacy. a worker. All that is needed. any universalized normative claim regarding the legitimacy of power is no more than power in the guise of a claim to sovereignty. is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman. which at one time would have produced an accurate expression of the state of affairs. a patient. like a rigid. but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact. Foucault finds the paradigm of disciplinary power in the architectural conception of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery.5 or whether. they have two windows. 1995). this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring. the other. heavy constraint. then. what he calls sovereign power and disciplinary power. as Foucault seems to suggest. at the center. 200 8 Ibid. since at least the beginnings of market economies. 206 7 . According to Foucault. each of which extends the whole width of the building. The person who is seen without seeing falsely believes him or herself to Michel Foucault. 7 Foucault argues that there are two heterogeneous forms of power at work within modern Western society. on the outside. to the functions it invests. is now one-sided.”8 The typical resistance to forms of sovereign power is. incorporated into forms of domination. of disciplinary power.

. Similarly.6 see without being seen. Such a form of power relations produces a false sense of individuality and autonomy. 9 Disciplinary power differs from sovereign power in a number of ways. geared at ordering the bodies of individuals in the most economic mode of utility. Further. etc. 102 9 . techniques. This conception of power is found manifest within multiple facets of society in the form of reports. apparatuses of control. 1980). but is infused within the very functions of society itself.”9 Rather than turning his attention to how power is justified or who holds power. They are a function of the process of efficiency just as much as those under surveillance. because those under surveillance cannot see the gaze of those watching them. techniques. disciplinary power is not imposed upon society from without. disciplinary power is found in localized discourses. Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books. the observed cannot know at any point whether or not they are being watched (or controlled). The social structure analogous to the architectural configuration of the Panopticon renders the exercise of power from a central location unnecessary because its effective procedure is found in the individual’s knowing or unknowing compliance. techniques of registration. Foucault looks at how power becomes evident in localized Michel Foucault. 10 The invisibility of disciplinary power is the result of its manifestation within the functional processes of society. First. The configuration of the Panopticon renders the actual exercise of power by any individual or party unnecessary. one individual or class does not impose disciplinary power over others. In fact disciplinary power incorporates those seemingly in control within its grasp. procedures. “effective instruments for the formation and accumulation of knowledge— methods of observation. procedures for investigation and research.

and do as so many historical events. a means of control that is not imposed from without as law. hierarchize. discourses. genealogy strives to explain the discontinuous succession of the sign-systems that coerce people into the semantic framework of a determinate interpretation of the world.”11 In Habermas’ words. “What is Enlightenment?” in Critique and Power. ed. Foucault wants to reverse the traditional mode of analysis centered on the theory of right and re-center it on an “analytics” of power. Archeology is a method of analyzing “instances of discourse that articulate what we think. “Two Lectures.7 techniques.”10 Foucault conducts an investigation of local discurvities and an ascending analysis of power relations as opposed to a global. Michael Kelly (Cambridge: MIT Press. ed. and exclusions.”12 12 In short.” in Critique and Power. say. following Nietzsche. while disciplinary power produces normalization. He argues that theories of right are designed to fix legitimacy of power. disqualified. This normalization is the result of a panoptical means of control. 1995) 22 10 Jurgen Habermas. all-encompassing analysis because localities are where power is implemented. 1990). but rather is infused unknowingly from within and is found in the very discourse of Michel Foucault. 11 Foucault calls his approach to exposing disciplinary forms of power a dual process of archeology and. where it becomes evident and manifest. 1995). genealogy. illegitimate knowledge against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter. norms. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press. Michael Kelly (Cambridge: MIT Press. and order them in the name of some true science. Genealogy “claims attention of local. “Whereas the archeology of knowledge reconstructs the stratum of rules constitutive of discourse. Legitimacy takes the form of law. 46 11 Michel Foucault. discontinuous. and this legitimacy is designed to eliminate the consciousness of domination and its consequences. 255 12 .

Their projects are similar at least in that they both analyze imbalances of power relations within society and try to suggest a way towards the freedom of consciousness from falsely objectified belief.8 everyday. an analysis of power in terms of legitimation must look both at distortions of and constraints on communication. even if unattainable. yet Foucault wants to expose the historical conditions responsible for local instantiations of power while Habermas wants to provide a non-transcendental/nonmetaphysical ideal by which to determine legitimacy of power in terms of the degree in which communication. rational forms of validation. 14 Habermas avoids Foucault’s criticism that viewing power in terms of legitimacy veils modes of domination by placing the communication and discourse that operate modes of domination at the very heart of the question of legitimacy. “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power.). 85 13 . Habermas says. etc. 1986). ed. In contrast with Foucault. Fix!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 15 Both Foucault and Habermas recognize the undemocratic distribution of power. norms. So. social existence. Steven Lukes (New York: New York University Press. religious or metaphysical to that of the discursive. which leads to action (and techniques. and locate power in its discursive articulation and the resulting actions such articulations produce. This approach relocates legitimacy from that of the sovereign. and at what ideal situations.” in Power. argumentative. Habermas conceives of power as manifest in discourse. “Legitimate power arises only among those who form common convictions in unconstrained communications. is constrained Jurgen Habermas. would enable undistorted communications.”13 Illegitimate power arises out of systematically distorted communication. 13 Like Foucault. Habermas argues for the need to analyze power relations in terms of legitimacy.

” while “critical social theorists…understand critique rather in the sense of a determinate negation that aims at a more adequate conception of reason.9 or distorted. “The Critique of Impure Reason. “The Critique of Impure Reason. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. From the outset Habermas concedes that this ideal is unable to be achieved. 4) Critical social theorists use agent’s conscious views as a starting point for their critiques. while critical social theorists attempt to reconstruct the basic humanist notions of subjectivity and autonomy 3) Foucault rejects transcendental and universal truth claims. according to which only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agreement of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.” Thomas McCarthy enumerates what he sees as the differences between Foucault and the Frankfurt school. all is power. while the Frankfurt school wishes to establish non-instrumental forms of reason that dissuade forms of domination. while Foucault (prior to volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality) “displaces the participant’s perspective with an externalist perspective in which the validity claims of participants are not engaged but bracketed.” 2) Foucault rejects humanism. and justice. is an intersubjectivistic interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative: discourse principle (D). under his view.” in Critique and 14 . This ideal.15 See “Discourse Ethics” in Jurgen Habermas. while critical social theorists attempt to relocate such truth claims in intersubjectivity.” since. which Habermas calls an ideal speech situation. as follows: 1) Foucault “attacks rationalism at its very roots. but asserts its necessity based upon the recognition of fundamental human interests and from a transcendental-pragmatic justification which proves that such an ideal is anticipated in every act of communication. freedom.” 5) Foucault sees the human sciences at large as promoting domination. truth. (Cambridge: MIT Press.14 16 In his essay. 1990) 15 Thomas McCarthy. 6) Foucault does not see genealogy as “being in the service of reason. while the Frankfurt school identifies only particular aspects of the human sciences as such. including Habermas.

It appears that Foucault drove himself into a corner that he was unable to back out of. 1994). 248-9. By viewing universality as the form of power he wishes to attack. if true. but also that such a claim. yet if he in fact claims that all truths and rules of right are forms of power it seems that he would be unable to locate which forms of power are domination and which not.’ in which one asks whether the claim that ‘all claims are relative’ is itself relative. self-destructs as with the relativist claim. If Foucault rejects all universal truth claims then what about his own claims? This is similar to the response to the relativist statement that ‘all claims are relative. Michael Kelly (Cambridge: MIT Press. in effect. Point 1 is also problematic for Foucault. And. 3. while the combination of 1. then we must ask of Foucault why he has given himself the intellectual task he has. Concerning point 5. collectively expose what appears to be an irreconcilable difference between Foucault and Habermas. as Habermas notes. if this is true. It seems that not only is Foucault making a universal claim in stating all truths and rules of right are forms of power. and 5.10 16 Of these six differences noted by McCarthy numbers 2 and 4 seem unproblematic for the present discussion. ed. while 6 seems questionable as far as Foucault’s intentions for genealogy (see quote by Foucault in the introduction of this essay). . Foucault certainly expresses the role of the human sciences in the execution of disciplinary power. for in his analyses he uses at the very least the basic forms of rationality that are inherent in the logical form of argumentation (such as modus ponens). How can one be critical without some standard by which to criticize? Power. if there is no way out of power relations and no way of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of power. he is unable to put forth his own account of a universal principle by which he or anyone else may conduct such an attack or critique.

production and communication.” in Critique and Power. and without which. ed. to struggle against disciplines and disciplinary power. Of the three fundamental human interests put forth by Habermas. This way of seeing… Such recognition can aid in the implementation of critique as suggested by Habermas. it is not towards the ancient right of sovereignty that one should turn.11 Yet if he put forth such a universal principle or standard it would contradict his intention of critiquing all universal truth claims. but towards the possibility of a new form of right. The attentive reader of Foucault sees the world differently. both production and communication become forms of domination. a salvageable component of Foucault’s thought that is compatible and complementary with Habermas’ project. in the quest for means by which the emancipation of humanity from forms of domination may be realized. 18 Despite his apparent inability to reconcile his methodology with his intentions.”16 How Habermas 16 Michel Foucault. Foucault’s contributions to social theory are not to be ignored. one which must indeed be antidisciplinarian. but at the same time liberated from the principle of sovereignty. or rather. “Two Lectures. He sees the critical element of human interests as a mode of self-reflection by which an individual or society is able to overcome domination. I think there is. 19 In his January 14th 1976 lecture Foucault said. 17 Although these claims seem justified and would require an in depth apologetics on the part of a Foucauldian. Michael Kelly . His analyses of power pierce through the surface of the present in a way that enables the individual to recognize certain artificialities universally and uncritically taken as fact. are impossible to obtain without the last. “If one wants to look for a nondisciplinary form of power. independent of such an apology. the critical interest. Habermas claims that the first two.

to see the panoptical structures that were disenabling individuals from seeing the nature of disciplinary power. institutions. are clearly expressed. the recognition of distorted forms of communication since power relations are articulated in discourse. Although Foucault is not explicit in delineating which forms of power are in fact forms of domination. if we consider the empirical-historical conclusions of his texts in the framework of Habermas’ conception of the discourse principle. 1995) 45 . (Cambridge: MIT Press. This form of critique is an intersubjective self-reflection to the degree in which interactions. Such awareness can aid the premises of the argumentation that takes place in communicative consensus. and regulatory rules by which they conduct themselves in social relations. as Habermas notes. This contribution is the ability for Foucault’s texts to induce in the agent’s consciousness the awareness of certain forms of domination hidden from view. Foucault’s genealogical method exposes to the reader how certain forms of domination have come into existence by their ability to increase efficiency and establish normativity. we find a useful contribution to the domain of discourse. 20 Critique as a means of leveling power relations. both communicatively and as regards production. thus giving individuals the ability to produce the norms. requires.12 reformulates the concept of critique can be seen at least as a step in such a possibility of a new form of right. using the discourse principle together with a rational criterion of distorted and non-distorted communication as a measure of the justificatory validity of power.