Kant and the “Private” Use of Reason

Readers of Kant’s little essay on the question “What is enlightenment?” have long recognized that the distinction between “public” and “private” uses of reason is both central to its argument and rather odd. Those perplexed by the distinction are in good company: in one of the written comments attached to the manuscript of the essay when, prior to its publication, it circulated among members of the Berlin “Wednesday Society,” Moses Mendelssohn characterized the distinction as “somewhat strange.”

The problem stems, in part, from the tendency to see the protection of a “right to privacy” as fundamental to modern, liberal societies and the further tendency to view this right as connected to the right of citizens (to employ the language of the Fourth Amendment) “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Attempting to map this onto Kant’s distinction only leads to massive confusions. For while Kant maintains that an unrestricted freedom to publish opinions is fundamental to the progress of enlightenment, he also argues that the “private use” of reason “may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered.”

Everything, of course, hinges on the peculiar way Kant goes about distinguishing public and private uses of reason. The “public use of reason” involves the use that individuals make of their reason in addressing that peculiar beast known as “the Public”, while the “private of reason” transpires in those cases then individuals perform certain tasks related to particular vocations. Indeed, Mendelssohn reframed the distinction precisely along these lines for his friends in the Wednesday Society: the “private use” of reason was “vocational” while the “public use” was “extra-vocational.” While this goes a long way towards clarifying the distinction, it doesn’t entirely remove the difficulties that plague Kant’s discussion.

Thanks to the now extensive literature on the “public use of reason” the use of the term “public” to refer to something other than various entities associated with the state probably seems less strange than the idea of a “private” use of reason that transpires in contexts that most present-day readers will have difficulties seeing as “private.” Kant provides three examples of individuals engaged in the private use of reason: (1) an army officer following an order given by a superior, (2) a citizen paying a tax levy, and (3) a clergyman instructing catechism students. I suspect that the difficulties present-day readers are likely to have with Kant’s discussion have much to do with the examples he picks — particularly the first one. History has not been kind to his essay: any discussion by a German philosopher of the need for soldiers to follow orders without arguing is bound to sound rather different in 2014 than it did in 1784.

Prompted by a recent exchange of emails with Robert Louden, who has also been working Kant’s essay, I thought it might make be worth spending some time exploring Kant’s account of the private use of reason.

The Distinction Between Public and Private Uses of Reason

In the fifth paragraph Kant distinguishes public and private uses of reason this way:

Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.

Here’s my translation:

I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world. The private use I designate as that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him.

Kant would seem to offer two different ways of framing the difference between public and private uses of reason:

  1. As a difference in the role of the agent: the private use of reason is associated with holders of “civil posts” while the public use of reason is associated with “scholars.”
  2. As a difference in the addressee: an agent is engaged in a “public use” of reason when addressing “the entire public of the reading world,” while the addressees of private uses of reason are not (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) immediately specified. .

In what follows I will try to work out how these two distinctions work.

Office Holders and Scholars

Like much else in the essay, the distinction between “scholars” and “office holders” seems straightforward enough until one attempts to unpack it. It strikes me that there is a certain asymmetry in the way in which Kant goes about drawing the position: the public use of reason is exercised by those who act as a scholar while the private use is exercised in a certain position. The reader would be well-advised to wonder what’s up with the “as” and the “in”.

What seems to be at work here is a distinction between the various roles that individuals take up and the positions that they occupy in society. Kant’s military officer, for example, occupies a certain position within the Prussian military but, outside of the responsibilities associated with that office, may also act as a scholar by writing articles that are addressed to a broader reading public.

Judge Richard G. Kopf

Judge Richard G. Kopf

For a more recent example, consider the case of Richard George Kopf, who has, since 1992, held the office of Judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska and, since February 2013, has also written posts for his blog, Hercules and the Umpire. If we apply Kant’s distinction to Kopf, we can say that when discharging the responsibilities associated with his position as a Federal District court judge, Judge Kopf is engaged in a “private use of reason,” while — in his capacity as a blogger at Hercules and the Umpire — he is engaged in a “public use of reason.”

While the particular terms that Kant uses to describe the different actitivites in which Mr. Kopf is engaged will undoubtedly strike us as strange, the distinction itself shouldn’t. In 2004 Judge Kopf wrote a decision that overturned the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (a Federal statute barring the medical procedure known as “intact dilation and extraction”) on the grounds that it did not include an exemption for those cases when the procedure would be “medically necessary to preserve the health of the woman.” While the norms governing legal argumentation are not entirely clear (and one of the concerns of Hercules and the Umpire is to try to talk about how judges go about their work), there is no reason to suppose that Kopf’s decision in this case reflects nothing more than his views on the moral status of abortion or, perhaps, an assessment of the soundness of the Partial Birth Abortion Act as a matter of public policy. It is not unreasonable to expect that the decisions reached by Federal Judges to the cases before them will turn on something other than a judge’s particular moral or political beliefs.

More recently, writing on Hercules and the Umpire, Kopf had this to say about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case:

The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues” — that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute. What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases?  What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would  have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?

Even before arriving at the final line of Kopf’s post — “As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu” — it should be obvious that Kopf is speaking, not in his capacity as a judge, but instead a scholar/blogger. In carrying out this discussion, he may appeal to certain arguments (e.g., those of Alexander Bickel) that will be more familiar to those in the legal profession than to lay readers, but there is nothing here that, in principle at least, could not be understood by a lay reader interested in learning something about the implications of the work that judges do.1 Kant would score this as an example of a holder of a civil post stepping out of that post and engaging in a public use of reason.

Citizens and Cosmopolitans

Another way of getting at the distinction between public and private uses of reason is to consider the addressee. In Kopf’s case, it should be obvious that the audience reading Hercules and the Umpire differs from the audience for his 474 page decision on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The former consists of anyone with access to a computer, an internet connection, and an interest in the subjects addressed on his blog. The latter consists, first of all, of the particular litigants in the case (who can be expected to read the decision with an eye towards framing a possible appeal) and whatever U.S. Court of Appeals (in this case, the Eighth Circuit) will be dealing with the appeal. The decision, of course, is also available — as what we would call a “public document” — to anyone who wants to read it, but as anyone who has spent much time reading court decisions comes to realize, reading them is a bit like listening in on someone else’s conversation.

Translating this into Kant’s terminology, it should be obvious that the audience for Hercules and the Umpire is, potentially, the “ganzen Publikum derLeserwelt.” But, at least at this point, Kant does not characterize who (or what) is the target of private uses of reason. The explanation for this is straightforward enough: while it’s easy enough to say that those who are involved in public uses of reason are, in principle, addressing anyone, the audiences for private uses of reason are discrete and varied. Confining ourselves to the three examples he uses:

  1. the officer makes private use of his reason when he translates the orders he receives from his superiors into actions that will be performed by those under his command
  2. The citizen makes private use of his reason when he take whatever steps are necessary to pay the levy demanded by the tax collector
  3. The clergyman makes private use of his reason when he instructs his congregation in the teachings of his particular faith.

Posed in this way, it would appear that not only are the particular audiences different inPrussian each of these cases, but that the character of the reasoning involved also differs significantly. Without knowing more than I do about eighteenth-century Prussian military practice, it is risky to specify what exactly is involved in the first example, but presumably it involves determining how orders (e.g., “set up defensive positions at location X”) are best executed. In other words, it rests on a combination of military training, previous combat experience, and the officer’s familiarity with the capacities of his troop. While it would be easy to find present-day parallels to the taxpayer (e.g., each year I spend quite a bit of time using Quicken and spreadsheets to pull together the information that I need to pay my Federal and state taxes), I suspect that the Prussian system was a good deal more straightforward, but there are, nevertheless, certain skills that Prussian taxpayers needed to have in order to go about doing what they need to do to pay their taxes.

In contrast to the taxpayer and the soldier, what Kant had in mind with the example of the clergyman is easier to comprehend (this is no accident: I’m inclined to think that the example of the clergyman is the only example that really mattered to Kant). Among other things, clergy are responsible for conveying the general principles of their faith to members of the congregation who differ greatly in their familiarity with church doctrine, life situations, capacity for understanding the finer points of scriptural interpretation, and so on. Clergy have considerable latitude in how they carry out this task, but there is a general expectation that they will not stray to far from the general principles that define their faith (e.g., Lutheran clergy may have rather different ways of explicating certain points of church doctrine, but it is reasonable to expect that their interpretations will coalesce around recognizably “Lutheran” interpretations of the main points of the faith).

A distinction of this sort would seem to be what Kant has in mind in the sentences that immediately follow the passage I quoted at the start of this post, though the way in which he frames the distinction is likely to raise additional confusions:

Nun ist zu manchen Geschäften, die in das Interesse des gemeinen Wesens laufen, ein gewisser Mechanism notwendig, vermittelst dessen einige Glieder des gemeinen Wesens sich bloß passiv verhalten müssen, um durch eine künstliche Einhelligkeit von der Regierung zu öffentlichen Zwecken gerichtet oder wenigstens von der Zerstörung dieser Zwecke abgehalten zu werden. Hier ist es nun freilich nicht erlaubt zu räsonnieren; sondern man muß gehorchen. Sofern sich aber dieser Teil der Maschine zugleich als Glied eines ganzen gemeinen Wesens, ja sogar der Weltbürgergesellschaft ansieht, mithin in der Qualität eines Gelehrten, der sich an ein Publikum im eigentlichen Verstande durch Schriften wendet, kann er allerdings räsonnieren, ohne daß dadurch die Geschäfte leiden, zu denen er zum Teile als passives Glied angesetzt ist.

Here’s my translation:

Now a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to public ends, or at least restrain them from the destruction of these ends. Here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather, one must obey. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.

Without, I hope, doing too much violence to the text, perhaps we can reformulate Kant’s argument this way:

  1. There are various ends that cannot be achieved unless individuals put aside their disagreements.
  2. The pursuit of these ends is best carried out when the government directs the actions of citizens.
  3. When engaged in the pursuit of these ends, citizens should not question the commands they have been given.
  4. During those periods when citizens are not engaged in pursuing these ends they should be free to raise objections in writing.
  5. Governments must respect their citizens’ right to raise these objections, subject to the conditions specified in #4.

Many readers, I suspect, may regard the second point as the red herring in Kant’s argument. While granting that there are some collective undertakings that require government direction, there are any number of others (e.g., running a restaurant, an academic department, or a professional baseball team) that don’t (though their successful pursuit may profit from the government enforcement of certain restraints on the actions of other individuals and other collective enterprises). It would appear that Kant — either out of conviction or for the sake of convenience — has simply accepted the enlightened absolutist program: the monarch holds the reins of power.

Readers might also note Kant’s characterization of the goals pursued by the government as “public ends” (öffentlichen Zwecken), which means that the “public ends” are achieved only when those who pursue them engage in a “private” use of reason. Even for someone as fond of paradoxes as Kant, this may be a bit much. But it does help to clarify what a peculiar world he seems to be constructing.

As a citizen (Bürger) individuals take up positions in the vast machinery that is “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft), a machinery whose proper functioning requires them to act “passively” — i.e., to carry out the instructions they receive without (then and there) initiating arguments about their propriety. But during those hours when they are not fulfilling their roles as part of the machinery, they are members of a broader society (i.e., the ganzen gemeinen Wesens) or, indeed, members of a cosmopolitan community (Weltbürgergesellschaft). In this role, they are something more than “passive” parts of the machine: they are cosmopolites — or, as we sometimes like to call ourselves, “scholars.”

Since I know a bit more about them, I’ll have more to say about scholars next time, especially scholars who spend some of their time in classrooms where they are engaged in what Kant would characterize as a private use of reason and some of their time at keyboards where they change, as if by magic, from functionaries in the machinery of the higher-education branch of the carceral-educational complex into members of the cosmopolitan community of readers and writers.

  1. That Kopf is well aware of potential tensions between these two roles is clear from his account of the restrictions on what he is willing to discuss. See http://herculesandtheumpire.com/the-who-and-why-of-this-blog/


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Rights, “Unalienable” or “Inalienable”?: A Concluding Philological Postscript

[This version has been revised since it was initially posted;  see below]

Since my posting of Bentham’s critique of the “Declaration of Independence” last Thursday, traffic on this blog has increased dramatically. While I appreciate the attention, I suspect that it will be fleeting and that my readership will soon return to the small, but persistent, company of friends of the Enlightenment who have sustained it over the last year and a half. But, before bidding adieu to Bentham and returning to the usual concerns of this blog, I thought I’d post a few final observations on the Declaration’s use of the phrase “unalienable rights.”

While Bentham was rather suspicious of the notion of  unalienable rights, my concern is not with the concept but with the words, the first one in particular. The Declaration clearly says “unalienable,” but I suspect that many of us labor under the impression that the text says “inalienable” (at least I know that I do and, when talking about the Declaration, regularly have to correct myself). While there is no difference (at least that I know of) in the meaning of the two words, I’m curious as to why we (or, at least, I) keep making this slip. Fortunately, our old friend, the Google Ngram, can bring some enlightenment.

Unalienable vs. Inalienable:  A Preliminary Sketch

We can start by noting the simple fact that, starting in 1832, usages of “inalienable” rapidly begin to become more common than “unalienable.”

In and Un

“Inalienable” starts its ascent in the early nineteenth century, peaks in 1862 (I bet that quick-witted readers already suspect why), and then begins a modest descent into the present. The track for “unalienable”, in contrast, falls steadily until around 1880 and then flatlines (this is one case where turning off the smoothing doesn’t produce much of a change).

The Ngram for the bigrams “unalienable rights” and “inalienable rights” more or less tracks that of the two adjectives.


Rights In and Un

This led me to wonder how frequently these adjectives are applied to nouns other than “rights.” Fortunately, Google has a tool that lets us find out.

It is simple enough to do a wildcard search with the Ngram by inserting an asterisk after “inalienable” or “unalienable”. The Ngram then will spit out a graph of the most frequent words that follow the two adjectives.  Here’s the one for “unalienable”:

Wildcard Unalienable


And here’s the one for “inalienable”:



Wildcard Inalienable

The results look much more cluttered here than they do on the Ngram Viewer itself, where dragging the cursor over the lines hightlights them, so readers might want to spend a few minutes playing around with this themselves (click here for “unalienable” and here for “inalienable”).

The main point here is that the most frequent use for both “inalienable” and “unalienable” was as a modifier for “right” or “rights” with (if we discard “and” and “in”) “inheritance” and “property” running a distant third and fourth (I suspect that “property” is not being used in the legal sense in most of these cases).  The fact that “inalienable” and “unalienable” are typically used in connection with rights got me to wondering how many of the occurrences were, in fact, quotations from the Declaration of Independence.  When I initially posted this discussion, I thought I’d figured out a way of getting at this, but I have serious doubts as to whether my procedure isolated what I was looking for.  So, until I’ve worked this out to my own satisfaction, it is best to leave this question open.


Lincoln’s Role

What, then, explains the fact that after 1860 or so, discussions of the Declaration of Independence have it speak of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights? The answer, as I suspect most readers have already figured out, has to do with Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln turns up 17 occurences of “inalienable,” all in the context of discussions of the Declaration of Independence (and here I should register the caveat that I am not a Lincoln scholar and that I am moving way out of my areas of competence).  While the bulk of them occur during his debates with Stephen Douglas, the most frequently quoted is from a speech delivered in his speech at Lewiston, Illinois of August 17, 1858:

Now if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

The only occurrence of “unalienable” that I could find in Lincoln’s works occurs in the report on the Lewiston speech that appeared in the Chicago Press and Tribune of August 21, 1858, an account that (according to the editors of the Collected Works) was picked up by other newspapers.

The reporter for the Press and Tribune rendered the relevant passage of the speech as follows (emphasis mine):

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The reporter had every reason to think that Lincoln said “unalienable” — that, after all, was the word that was in the Declaration.  That we, in contrast, tend to recall the Declaration as speaking of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights is but a small testimony to the role Lincoln played in securing a place for the Declaration in our cultural memory.


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Periods and Plots: A Postscript to Bentham’s Critique of the Declaration of Independence

Shortly after uploading Jeremy Bentham’s critique of the Declaration of Independence, I got around to reading the discussion in the New York Times of Danielle Allen’s questioning of the period that appears immediately after the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. According to the Times, she sees this “errant spot of ink” as leading to a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the Declaration. Here’s how the Times summarizes her argument (a draft of her paper can be downloaded here):

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights. “The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

The Times quotes Jack Rakove (whose volume Declaring Rights is worth consulting for those interested in how declarations of rights were framed in run-up to the only declaration of rights that Americans now bother to read) as pointing out that Allen’s work raises a significant issue about how to interpret the text:

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

At this point I suspect that readers of this blog are probably asking themselves, “what implications does this have for Jeremy Bentham’s attack on the Declaration of Independence?” Good question!

Bentham Vindicated

It strikes me that Allen’s discovery could perhaps be seen as lending further support to Bentham’s claim that the Declaration’s famous discussion of “unalienable rights” is inherently incoherent. Let’s take a look at (and, much as it might pain us, as patriotic Americans, admire the elegance of) what I take to be Bentham’s central point:

The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — by Jeremy_Bentham_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill_detailwhich, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness — they ” hold to be unalienable.” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure there rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights. — That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.

His point would seem to go like this:

  1. The Declaration maintains that there are certain rights (including, but not limited to, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) that ought not, under any circumstances, be alienated.
  2. It further argues that governments are established to secure these rights.
  3. But the establishment of a government necessarily involves the alienation of rights.
  4. Among the rights that must be alienated in #3 are certain of the rights that have been characterized as “unalienable” in #1.

As far as I can tell, the presence of the (potentially) spurious period matters not a bit to Bentham’s argument since his interpretation of the passage confirms Rakove’s point: even with the period after “the pursuit of happiness,” it was still obvious to him that the Declaration viewed the establishment of governments as essential to the securing of those rights. From this, he went on to argue that the argument advanced in the Declaration is fundamentally incoherent: government can’t secure those unalienable rights without requiring the alienation of certain of these allegedly unalienable rights. In other words, Bentham did not assume that the period ended the thought.

Though Bentham believed that it was clearly bonkers to assume that “Nature or Nature’s God” bestowed rights, he was willing to tolerate that claim, provided — of course — that those who talk this way could come up with some evidence:

If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, and all controversy was at an end.

He was, of course, not particularly pleased that, in response, all that the representatives of the American Congress offered was an invocation of “self-evident truths.” But what seems to have been the place where the Congress’ case tips over into what he would, in another context, characterize as “bawling on paper” was the self-contradictory claim that — period or not period — the whole purpose of establishing governments was to secure the list of “unalienable rights” compiled by the sage of Monticello.  For, in Bentham’s eyes, that list was so broad as to rule out the possibility of creating any government that would not, of necessity, infringe on certain of these allegedly “unalienable rights.”

Let’s Blame Locke

Not to drag things out (after all, it’s a national holiday in the country where I reside and we have rituals we need to perform: having been born in New Jersey, I am obligated to spend the rest of the day listening to every recording of Bruce Springteen’s “Sandy” in my iTunes library), but there’s one other part of Bentham’s argument that struck me as relevant to these troubled times.

Trying to make sense of the list of grievances compiled in the Declaration, Bentham observes,

For what, according to their own shewing, what was their original their only original grievance? That they were actually taxed more than they could bear? No; but that they were liable to be so taxed. What is the amount of all the subsequent grievances they alledge? That they were actually oppressed by Government? That Government has actually misused its power? No; but that it was possible that they might be oppressed; possible that Government might misuse its powers. Is there any where, can there be imagined any where, that Government, where subjects are not liable to taxed more than they can bear? where it is not possible that subjects may be oppressed, not possible that Government may misuse its powers?

What he is pointing out here was nicely captured in a famous sentence from the Declaration that he did not discuss:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The sentence (which reads slightly differently in Jefferson’s original draft) recalls an earlier one (the emphasis here is mine):

revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

JohnLockeThe author of that passage is, of course, John Locke (Second Treatise § 225).  Jefferson — perhaps recalling Locke and certainly aided by Franklin’s substitution of “absolute Depotism” for Jefferson’s “arbitrary power” — conceded that governments were not to be dissolved for what he termed “light and transient causes.” Instead, what was required was evidence of a concerted effort to revoke those “unalienable rights” that governments were supposed to secure. What he might have found in Locke (and, if he didn’t find it there, could have found in any number of latter day English libertarians) was a way of making the case of dissolving a government. Central to that case was the idea of a concerted plot against liberties.

What Bentham might have found toxic here was the combination of (1) a conception of the relationship between rights and government that is inherently contradictory and (2) a case for dissolving governments that focuses not on actual actions done by governments but instead on the potential implications of these current actions for future actions that this government might take. To sum up:  since (according to Bentham) governments must, inevitably, infringe on certain of the allegedly “unalienable rights” that individuals possess as a gift from “Nature or Nature’s God,” it is all too easy for these infringements to be read by those persuaded that they are, indeed, the carriers of “unalienable rights”) as part of a master plot against liberty itself.  By now, we should be all too familiar where this sort of argument tends to lead.

So, happy Independence Day, fellow citizens. And, to my friends from the Garden State:  may the “the Aurora” keep rising behind you.

[Updated with minor corrections and clarifications, July 6, 2014].


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Of Rights and Witches: Bentham’s Critique of the Declaration of Independence

It is not surprising that friends of the Enlightenment tend to assume that the Enlightenment was generally friendly towards the American Revolution. Richard Price had, after all, been an energetic supporter of the Colonial cause and, like Joseph Priestley, saw it as a link in the chain of “glorious revolutions” that stretched from 1688, through 1776, to 1789. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais spent several crucial years figuring out ways of getting weapons to the American revolutionaries. There was also considerable interest in the revolution in German-speaking Europe. The Basel Aufklärer Isaak Iselin translated the Declaration of Independence for the October 1776 issue of his journal Ephemeriden der Menschheit (a translation of a text by John Adams followed in a later issue). And, between 1787 and 1788 the Berlinische Monatsschrift devoted three articles to the recently enacted Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

There were, however, a few enlighteners who were not quite so enthusiastic. The Berlin radical enlightener Andreas Riem attributed the founding of the American republic to acts of deception by American colonists and by their British governors:

If the ministers of Great Britain had known the truth about the situation in its colonies, they would indisputably have acted differently. If the colonies had acted without deception, they would not now be a sort of anarchic state that maintains itself through weak bonds without any majesty, a state whose constitution is without true inner greatness and without the force that a well-ordered state ruled by a sovereign must have. Every province is sovereign, and so every province is by itself powerless! There is no spirit of harmonious unity, and everywhere there are false concepts of freedom!

And while the German Kantian turned Burkean Friedrich von Gentz, drawing up a comparison between the American and the French Revolutions, labored long and hard to emphasize how much more moderate and reasonable the Americans had been, he had some difficulties with the Declaration of Independence’s invocation of abstract rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the most relentless critique of the American declaration came from a thinker with impecable creditials as a radical enlightener: the great Jeremy Bentham. That Bentham’s critique is not as familiar as it deserves to be (and here I should record my profound thanks to David Armitage for calling it to my attention) stems from its having appeared not under Bentham’s own name but, instead, as the final chapter of John Lind’s Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (1776).

In a better ordered world, John Lind (1737-1781) would have been the subject of a BBC miniseries: his life appears to have been considerably more interesting than that of the dim-wits who populate Downton Abbey (in what follows I lean rather heavily on H. L. A Hart’s “Bentham and the United States of America,” Journal of Law and Economics 19:3 (1976): 547–67). He first enters the historical record as the Anglican chaplain in the British legation at Constantinople. But, after becoming “too agreeable” with the Ambassador’s mistress, he was sacked and, leaving the clergy (after all, isn’t the opportunity for “familiarity” with superiors’ mistresses one of the perks of the job?), he returned to London, and began a career as a lawyer and pamphleteer. As the situation with the colonies worsened, the British government made increasing demands on his skills as a propagandist: between 1775 and 1766 he turned out a series of small books attacking the actions of the colonists.

Lind was also a friend of the young Jeremy Bentham, who lived in Lind’s house at the time of the composition of Lind’s Answer and was recruited into writing the book’s final chapter. While the rest of Lind’s Answer — which marched, article by article, through the Declaration — probably deserves more attention than it gets, Bentham’s concluding summary is in a class by itself: sardonic, ruthless, and unfailing adept at finding the weakest points in the colonial case (though, unlike other critics, Bentham was curiously silent here on the great hypocrisy of the Declaration: a document signed by slaveholders that protests their potential enslavement by the home government).

In the transcription that follows (which, I fear, probably contains a few errors that, I trust, readers will point out) I have made a few minor changes in the use of commas but retained Bentham’s sometimes peculiar sentence structure and flamboyant use of emphasis. All of the footnotes (which, for the most part, refer to the particular grievances voiced by the American rebels and discussed, at length, by Lind in the earlier part of the book) are Bentham’s.  I’ve indicated, in parentheses, where the page breaks fall.

Lind Titlepage


IN examining this singular Declaration, I have hitherto confined myself to what are given as facts, and alleged against his Majesty and his Parliament, in support of the charge of tyranny and usurpation. Of the preamble I have taken little or no notice. The truth is, little or none does it deserve. The opinions of the modern Americans on Government, like those of their good ancestors on witchcraft, would be too ridiculous to deserve any notice, if like them too, contemptible and extravagant as they be, they had not led to the most serious evils.

In this preamble however it is, that they attempt to establish a theory of Government; a theory, as absurd and visionary, as the system of conduct in defence of which it is established is nefarious. Here it is, that maxims are advanced in justification of their enterprises against the British Government. To these maxims, adduced for this purpose, it would be sufficient to say, that they are repugnant to the British Constitution. But beyond this they are subversive of every actual or imaginable kind of Government.

They are about “to assume,” as they tell us, “among the powers of the earth, that equal and separate ( 120 ) station to which” — they have lately discovered — “the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God entitle them.” What difference these acute legislators suppose between the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is more than I can take upon me to determine, or even to guess. If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, and all controversy was at an end. Instead of this, what do they produce? What they call sell-evident truths. “All men,” they tell us, “are created equal.” This rarity is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.

The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness — they ” hold to be unalienable.” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights. — That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.

That men who are engaged in the design of subverting a lawful Government, should endeavour by a cloud of words, to throw a veil over their design; that they should endeavour to beat down the criteria between tyranny and lawful government, is not at all (121) surprising. But rather surprising it must certainly appear, that they should advance maxims so incompatible with their own present conduct. If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty’s province of Canada? Whence the unprovoked destruction of so many lives of the inhabitants of that province? If the right of enjoying liberty be unalienable, whence came so many of his Majesty’s peaceable subjects among them, without any offence, without so much as a pretended offence, merely for being suspected not to wish well to their enormities, to be held by them in durance? If the right of pursuing happiness be unalienable, how is it that so many others of their fellow-citizens are by the same injustice and violence made miserable, their fortunes ruined, their persons banished and driven from their friends and families? Or would they have it believed, that there is in their selves some superior sanctity, some peculiar privilege, by which those things are lawful to them, which are unlawful to all the world besides? Or is it, that among acts of coercion, acts by which life or liberty are taken away, and the pursuit of happiness restrained, those only are unlawful, which their delinquency has brought upon them, and which are exercised by regular, long established, accustomed governments?

In these tenets they have outdone the utmost extravagance of all former fanatics. The German Anabaptists indeed went so far as to speak of the right of enjoying life as a right unalienable. To take away life, even in the Magistrate, they held to be unlawful. But they went no farther, it was reserved for an American Congress, to add to the number of unalienable rights, that of enjoying liberty, and pursuing happiness; (122) — that is,— if they mean any thing, —pursuing it wherever a man thinks he can see it, and by whatever means he thinks he can attain it: — That is, that all penal laws — those made by their selves among others—which affeet life or liberty, are contrary to the law of God, and the unalienable rights of mankind: — That is, that thieves are not to be restrained from theft, murderers from murder, rebels from rebellion.

Here then they have put the axe to the root of all Government; and yet, in the same breath, they talk of “Governments,” of Governments “long established.” To these last, they attribute same kind of respect; they vouchsafe even to go so far as to admit, that “Governments, long established, should not be “changed for light or transient reasons.”

Yet they are about to change a Government, a Government whose establishment is coeval with their own existence as a Community. What causes do they assign? Circumstances which have always subsisted, which must continue to subsist, wherever Government has subsisted, or can subsist.

For what, according to their own shewing, what was their original their only original grievance? That they were actually taxed more than they could bear? No; but that they were liable to be so taxed. What is the amount of all the subsequent grievances they alledge? That they were actually oppressed by Government? That Government has actually misused its power? No; but that it was possible that they might be oppressed; possible that Government might misuse its powers. Is there any where, can there be imagined any where, that Government, where subjects are not liable to taxed more than they can bear? (123) where it is not possible that subjects may be oppressed, not possible that Government may misuse its powers?

This I say, is the amount, the whole sum and substance of all their grievances. For in taking a general review of the charges brought against his Majesty, and his Parliament, we may observe that there is a studied confusion in the arrangement of them. It may therefore be worth while to reduce them to the several distinct heads, under which I should have classed them at the first, had not the order of the Answer been necessarily prescribed by the order — or rather the disorder, of the Declaration.

The first head consists of Acts of Government, charged as so many acts of incroachment, so many usurpations upon the present King and his Parliaments exclusively, which had been constantly exercised by his Predecessors and their Parliaments.1

In all the articles comprised in this head, is there a single power alleged to have been exercised during the present reign, which had not been constantly exercised by preceding Kings, and preceding Parliaments? Read only the commission and instruction for the Council of Trade, drawn up in the 9th of King William III addressed to Mr. Locke, and others.2 See there what (124) powers were exercised by the King and Parliament over the Colonies. Certainly the Commissioners were directed to inquire into, and make their reports concerning those matters only, in which the King and Parliament had a power of controlling the Colonies. Now the Commissioners are instructed to inquire — into the condition of the Plantations, “as well with regard to the administration of Government and Justice, as in relation to the commerce thereof;”–into the means of making “them most beneficial and useful to England; — “into the staples and manufactures, which may be encouraged there;” — “into the trades that are taken up and exercised there, which may prove prejudicial to England;” — “into the means of diverting them from such trades.” Farther, they are instructed “to examine into, and weigh the Acts of the Assemblies of the Plantations;” — “to set down the usefulness or mischief to the Crown, to the Kingdom, or to the Plantations their selves.” — And farther still, they are instructed “to require an account of all the monies given for public uses by the assemblies of the Plantations, and how the same are, or have been expended, or laid out.” Is there now a single Act of the present reign which does not fall under one or other of these instructions.

The powers then, of which the several articles now before us complain, are supported by usage; were conceived to be so supported then, just after the Revolution, at the time these instructions were given; and were they to be supported only upon this foot of usage, still that usage being coeval with the Colonies, their tacit consent and approbation, through all the successive periods in which that usage has prevailed, would be implied; — even then the legality of those powers would stand upon the same foot as most of the prerogatives (125) of the Crown, most of the rights of the people, — even then the exercise of those powers could in no wise be deemed usurpations or encroachments.

But the truth is, to the exercise of these powers, on many occasions the Colonies have not tacitly, but expressly, consented; as expressly as any subject of Great Britain ever consented to Acts of the British Parliament. Consult the Journals of either House of Parliament; consult the proceedings of their own Assemblies; and innumerable will be the occasions, on which the legality of these powers will be found to be expressly recognised by Acts of the Colonial Assemblies. For in preceding reigns, the petitions from these Assemblies were couched in a language, very different from that which they have assumed under the present reign. In praying for the non-exercise of these powers, in particular instances, they acknowledged their legality; the right in general was recognised; the exercise of it, in particular instances, was prayed to be suspended on the sole ground of inexpedience.

The less reason can the Americans have to complain against the exercise of these powers, as it was under the constant exercise of the self-same powers, that they have grown up with a vigour and rapidity unexampled : That within a period, in which other communities have scarcely had time to take root, they have shot forth exuberant branches. So flourishing is their agriculture, that — we are told — “besides feeding plentifully their own growing multitudes, their annual exports have exceeded a million;” So flourishing is their trade, that — we are told — “it has increased far beyond the speculations of the most (126) sanguine imagination.”3 So powerful are they in arms, that we see them defy the united force of that nation, which, but a little century ago, called them into being; which, but a few years ago, in their defence, encountered and subdued almost the united force of Europe.

If the exercise of powers, thus established by usage, thus recognised by express declarations, thus sanctified by their beneficial effects, can justify rebellion, there is not that subject in the world, but who has, ever has had, and ever must have, reason sufficient to rebel: There never was, never can he, established, any government upon earth.

The second head consists of Acts, whose professed object was either the maintenance, or the amendment of their Constitution. These Acts were passed with the view either of freeing from impediments the course of their commercial transactions,4 or of facilitating the administration of justice,5 or of poising more equally the different powers in their Constitution;6 or of preventing the establishing of Courts, inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution.7

To state the object of these Acts, is to justify them. Acts of tyranny they cannot be: Acts of usurpation they are not; because no new power is assumed. By former Parliaments, in former reigns, officers of customs had been sent to America: Courts of Admiralty had been established there. The increase (127) of trade and population induced the Parliaments, under the present reign, for the convenience of the Colonists, and to obviate their own objections of delays arising from appeals to England, to establish a Board of Customs, and an Admiralty Court of Appeal. Strange indeed is it to hear the establishment of this Board, and these Courts, alleged as proofs of usurpation; and in the same paper, in the same breath, to hear it urged as a head of complaint, that his Majesty refused his assent to a much greater exertion of power: —to an exertion of power, which might be dangerous; the establishment of new Courts of Judicature. What in one instance he might have done, to have done in another, cannot be unconstitutional. In former reigns, charters had been altered; in the present reign, the constitution of one charter, having been found inconsistent with the ends of good order and government, was amended.

The third head consists of temporary Acts, passed pro re notá, the object of each of which was to remedy some temporary evil, and the duration of which was restrained to the duration of the evil itself.8

Neither in these Acts was any new power affirmed; in some instances only, the objects upon which that power was exercised, were new. Nothing was done but what former Kings and former Parliaments have shew their selves ready to do, had the same circumstances subsisted. The same circumstances never did subsist before, because, till the present reign, the (128)

Colonies never dared to call in question the supreme authority of Parliament.

No charge, classed under this head, can be called a grievance. Then only is the subject aggrieved, when, paying due obedience to the established Laws of his country, he is not protected in his established rights. From the moment he withholds obedience, he forfeits his right to protection. Nor can the means, employed to bring him back to obedience, however severe, be called grievances; especially if those means be to cease the very moment that the end is obtained.

The last head consists of Acts of self-defence, exercised in consequence of resistance already shewn but represented in the Declaration as Acts of oppression, tending to provoke resistance.9 Has his Majesty cut off their trade with all parts of the world? They first attempted to cut off the trade of Great Britain. Has his Majesty ordered their vessels to be seized ? They first burnt the vessels of the King. Has his Majesty sent troops to chastise them? They first took up arms against the authority of the King. Has his Majesty engaged the Indians against them? They first engaged Indians against the troops of the King. Has his Majesty commanded their captives to serve on board his fleet? He has only saved them from the gallows.

(129) By some, these acts have been improperly called “Acts of punishment.” And we are then asked, with an air of insult, “What! will you punish without a trial, without a hearing?” And no doubt punishment, whether ordinary or extraordinary; whether by indictment, impeachment, or bill of attainder, should be preceded by judicial examination. But, the acts comprised under this head are not acts of punishment; they are, as we have called them, this of self-defence. And these are not, cannot be, preceded by any judicial examination. An example or two will serve to place the difference between acts of punishment and acts of self-defence in a stronger light, than any definition we can give. It has happened, that bodies of manufacturers have risen, and armed, in order to compel their masters to increase their wages: It has happened, that bodies of peasants have risen, and armed, in order to compel the farmer to sell at a lower price. It has happened, that the civil magistrate, unable to reduce the insurgents to their duty, has called the military to his aid. But did ever any man imagine, that the military were sent to punish the insurgents? It has happened, that the insurgents have resisted the military, as they had resisted the civil magistrate: It has happened, that, in consequence of this resistance, some of the insurgents have been killed: — But did ever any man imagine that those who were thus killed, were therefore punished? No more can they be said to be punished, than could the incendiary, who should be buried beneath the ruins of the house, which he had feloniously set on fire. Take an example yet nearer to the present cafe. When the Duke of Cumberland led the armies of the king, foreign and domestic, against the Rebels in Scotland, did any man conceive that he was (130) sent to punish the Rebels? — Clearly not. — He was sent to protect dutiful and loyal subjects, who remained in the peace of the King, against the outrages of Rebels, who had broken the peace of the King. — Does any man speak of those who fell at the battle of Culloden, as of men that were punished? Would that man have been thought in his senses, who should have urged, that the armies of the King should not have been sent against these Rebels in Scotland, till those very Rebels had been judicially heard, and judicially convicted? Does not every man feel that the fact, the only fact, necessary to be known, in order to justify these acts of self-defence, is simply this: — Are men in arms against the authority of the King? — Who does not feel, that to authenticate this fact, demands no judicial inquiry? If when his Royal Highness had led the army under his command into Scotland, there had been no body of men in arms; if, terrified at his approach, they had either laid down their arms and submitted, or had dispersed and retired quietly, each to his own home, what would have been the consequence? The civil magistrate would have searched for and seized upon those who had been in arms would have brought them to a court of justice. That court would have proceeded to examine, and to condemn or to acquit, as evidence was, or was not, given of the guilt of the respective culprits. The Rebels did not submit, they did not lay down their arms, they did not disperse; they resisted the Duke: a battle ensued: some of the Rebels fled, others were slain, others taken. It is upon those only of the last class, who were brought before and condemned by Courts of justice, that punishment was inflicted. By what kind of logic then are these acts ranked in the class of grievances?

(131) These are the Acts — these are the exertions of constitutional, and hitherto, undisputed powers, for which, in the audacious paper, a patriot King is traduced — as “a Prince, whose character is marked by every Act “which may define a tyrant;” as “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” These are the Acts, these exertions of constitutional, and, hitherto, undisputed powers, by which the Members of the Congress declare their selves and their constituents to be “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown” pronounce “all political connection between Great Britain and America to be totally dissolved.” With that hypocrisy which pervades the whole of the Declaration, they pretend indeed, that this event is not of their seeking; that it is forced upon them; that they only “acquiesce in the necessity which denounces their separation from us:” which compels them hereafter to hold us, as they hold the rest of mankind; enemies in war; in peace, friends.”

How this Declaration may strike others, I know not. To me, I own, it appears that it cannot fail — to use the words of a great Orator— “of doing us Knight’s service.”10 The mouth of faction, we may reasonably presume, will be closed; the eyes of those who saw not, or would not see, that the Americans were long since aspiring at independence, will be opened; the nation will unite as one man, and teach this rebellious people, that it is one thing for them to say, the connection, which bound them to us, is dissolved, another to dissolve it; that to accomplish their independence is not quite so easy as to declare it: that there is no (132) peace with them, but the peace of the King: no war with them, but that war, which offended justice wages against criminals. — We too, I hope, shall acquiesce in the necessity of submitting to whatever burdens, of making whatever efforts may be necessary, to bring this ungrateful and rebellious people back to that allegiance they have long had it in contemplation to renounce, and have now at last so daringly renounced.

  1. Under this head are comprised articles I. II. so far as they are true, III. VII. IX. so far as the last relates to the tenure of the Judges’ offices. XI. XII. XIII. XIV. XVII. XVIII. so far as the last relates to the Declaration of the power of Parliament to make laws for the Colonies binding in all cases whatsoever.
  2. See Com. Journ. vol. xii. , p. 70, 71, 72.
  3. See Mr. Burke’s speeches. [Bentham's reference is to Burke's speech in Parliament of April 19, 1774 on a proposal to repeal the tea duty.  The speech had been published as early as 1775 by J. Dodsley.  It also appears to have been available bound in a volume containing other speeches (though editions in this form seem to be rare), which may explain Bentham's use of the plural)].     
  4. Article X.
  5. Article XVIII, so far as it relates to the multiplication of the Courts of Admiralty.
  6. Article XXI
  7. Article VIII.
  8. Under this head may be classed Articles IV., V. VI. IX. so far as the last relates to the payment of the Judges by the Crown. XV. XXII so far as the latter relates to the suspension of their legislatures.
  9. Under this head may be classed Articles XVI.,XXIII, XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII. Two other Acts there are, not comprised with any of the four heads, the XX and XXVIII. The former of there relates to the government of Quebec., with which the revolted Colonies have no more to do, than with the government of Russia: The latter relates to the humble petitions they pretend to have presented “in every stage,” as they style it, “of the oppressions,” under which they pretend to labour. This we have seen to be false. Not one one humble petition; no one decent representation, have they offered,
  10. Mr. Burke’s speech. [Bentham is again referring to Burke’s speech of April 19, 1774 and draws a parallel to Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act and the present discussion of the tea levy.   The relevant passage reads, “Sir, a partial repeal, or, as the bon ton of the court then was, a modification, would have satisfied a timid, unsystematic, procrastinating Ministry, as such a measure has since done such a Ministry. A modificatio [sic] is the constant resource of weak, undeciding minds. To repeal by the denial of our right to tax in the preamble, (and this too did not want advisers,) would have cut, in the heroic style, the Gordian knot with a sword. Either measure would have cost no more than a day’s debate. But when the total repeal was adopted; and adopted on principles of policy, of equity, and of commerce; this plan made it necessary to enter into many and difficult measures. It became necessary to open a very large field of evidence commensurate to these extensive views. But then this labour did knight’s service. It opened the eyes of several to the true state of the American affairs; it enlarged their ideas; it removed prejudices; and it conciliated the opinions and affections of men.”  E. J. Payne’s editorial note suggests a possible allusion here to Shakespeare’s use of  “yeoman’s service”  in Hamlet V:2, though this strikes me as a bit of stretch].
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Foucault, the “History of Thought,” and the Question of Enlightenment

My previous post examined how, during the last eighteen months of his life, Foucault repeatedly drew a distinction between the “history of thought” in which he was engaged and more conventional (though, in his view, “entirely legitimate“) approaches employed within the “history of ideas.” This distinction was related to his emphasis on what he called “problematization”: the process by which “a group of obstacles and difficulties” come to be seen as problems that prompt a range of possible responses. As he explained to Paul Rabinow in one of his final interviews,

The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematization not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought.1

This post will attempt to draw out some of the implications of Foucault’s distinction by exploring his discussions of a text that has been significant both for work in “history of ideas” and for Foucault’s discussion of the “history of thought”: Immanuel Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”

Enlightenment as Concept and Context

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a long-standing tendency —both among historians of ideas and others — to use Kant’s essay to clarify the aims of the historical period that we call “the Enlightenment.”2 This tendency has been aided and abetted by Kant’s having closed his attempt to answer the question posed by Johann Friedrich Zöllner in the Berlinische Monatsschrift by asking and answering a question about the attributes of his age:

If it is asked: “Do we now live in an enlightened age?” the answer is: “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”

While it is understandable that readers might be tempted to understand Kant’s phrase “Zeitalter der Aufklärung” as referring to what we have learned to call “the Age of the Enlightenment,” it is important (or so I’ve argued) to recognize that Kant and his contemporaries understood “enlightenment” as an activity or process in which one was engaged rather than a period to which one belonged. While they might — at their most optimistic — have argued that theirs was an age that was notable in its vigorous pursuit of this process, they were clear that there had been ages of enlightenment prior to theirs. It also bears remembering that, in the various discussions that led up to the posing of Zöllner’s question, there had been an extended discussion within the Wednesday Society (a secret society of “friends of enlightenment” whose members included, in addition to Zöllner and Moses Mendelssohn, the editors of the Berlinische Monatsschrift) of why, despite the concerted efforts of various enlighteners, enlightenment had made so little progress in Prussia.3

“Enlightenment” occupies a prominent, albeit somewhat peculiar, place in the history of ideas. For the most part, it tends to be used here in much the same way as it is used elsewhere: as a term that refers to a particular historical period. In that sense it functions less as a concept whose history is traced than as a historical context in which certain other ideas (e.g., “progress,” “death”, or “religion”) occur.4 It is, however, a context of a rather peculiar sort. In some cases, it serves simply a way of setting temporal boundaries and, in that usage, is roughly equivalent to “the eighteenth century” or the “long eighteenth century.” But since the eighteenth century (in either its regular or elongated forms) contained much that was not particularly “enlightened”, the term can also be used to denote a particular, temporally bounded, intellectual context. Understood in that way, historians of ideas have gone on to divide their time between explorations of the history of particular ideas within the broader context of “Enlightenment thought” and offering general discussions of the characteristics that define that peculiar entity known as “the Enlightenment.” The last several decades have also seen a variety of attempts to trace the history of the concepts of “enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment.” Much of what I’ve written might be understood as a contribution to that particular effort.

Foucault’s work has had a wide-ranging, but somewhat ambiguous, relationship to the history of ideas in general and to work on the Enlightenment in particular. The ambiguity can, in part, be attributed to the general skepticism with which an earlier generation of dix-huitiémistes received his work (see, for example, G. S. Rousseau’s dismissive review of the translation of Les Mots et le Choses in Eighteenth-Century Studies5) and to misgivings about what was viewed as Foucault’s general antipathy towards the ideals of the Enlightenment. The field of eighteenth-century studies was, as Leo Damrosch aptly put it, “born defensive” and its practitioners sometimes do not take kindly to critiques of the objects of its affection.6 And, finally, Foucault’s work was sometimes regarded as not sufficiently serious: in 1989, one of the readers’ reports I received when I submitted my article on discussions of the question “What is enlightenment?” to the Journal of the History of Ideas (while generally favorable) wondered whether my citation of Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s response might be too “trendy.”7

Times have changed: at this point references to Foucault’s discussion of Kant are hardly unusual. But while his work has had a pervasive influence on the history of ideas, the contrast he drew between his “history of thought” and conventional approaches in the “history of ideas” remains largely unexplored (at least by historians of ideas). In this post I will explore whether his (no longer trendy) discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is enlightenment?” might be as good a place as any to attempt to remedy that.

Problematizing the Enlightenment?

In his Berkeley lecture, Foucault argued that Kant’s 1784 essay in the Berlinische Monatsschrift marked

the discreet entrance into the history of thought [emphasis mine] of a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering, but that it has never managed to get rid of, either. … From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly. What, then, is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today?8

At the close of the lecture, he went on to suggest that the question Kant was attempting to answer opened up the possibility of a series of “historico-critical investigations” that

are quite specific in the sense that they always bear upon a material, an epoch, a body of determined practices and discourses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western societies from which we derive, they have their generality, in the sense that they have continued to recur up to our time: for example, the problem of the relationship between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law; the problem of the role of sexual relations; and so on (49).

He stressed that he was neither imputing a “metahistorical continuity” to these problems nor suggesting that it would be necessary to trace all their variations. But he did stress that

What must be grasped is the extent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes of relation to oneself. The study of modes of problematization [emphasis mine] (that is, of what is neither an anthropological constant nor a chronological variation) is thus the way to analyze questions of general import in their historically unique form (49).

When read in the context of Foucault’s 1983 discussions of the aims of his “history of thought” it is clear that he seemed to have seen a particular affinity between Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and his own work. Kant was regarded as making a contribution to the “history of thought” and one of the implications of his work was a concern with “modes of problematization.” In this light, it may be worth recalling that Foucault had begun his 1983 lectures at the Collège de France by confessing that Kant’s essay on enlightenment was “something of a b1azon, a fetish for me” and that it “bears some relation to what I am talking about.”9

But the relationship between this opening invocation of Kant’s essay and the discussion of the “government of self and others” that followed is far from clear. Kant returns briefly in the February 23 lecture, in the context of a discussion of Diogenes and Plato (292). An echo of this discussion returns in his Berkeley lecture when Foucault suggests that Kant was proposing something along the lines of a parrēsic contract to Frederick the Great (i.e., if you let us argue, we promise to obey).10

We can get a somewhat clearer sense of what Foucault seems to have found appealing in his final discussions of Kant’s essay if we contrast Foucault’s 1983 discussions with his 1978 lecture to the Société française de Philosophie “What is Critique?” There, Foucault associated the emergence of what he termed the “critical attitude” with the question of “how not to be governed” — a question that, as he immediately stressed, was not equivalent the demand not to be governed “at all,” but instead had to be understood in the context of efforts to question

How not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of these principles, in view of such objectives and by the means of such methods, not like that, not for that, not by them ….”11

What we find here reads like a preliminary formulation of what he would later characterize as the work of “problematization”: the attempt to govern in a certain way is met with a response that insists on not being governed in that specific way (while leaving open the prospect of other forms of governance).

In a discussion of Foucault 1983 lectures, Frédéric Gros summarized their relationship to the 1978 lecture this way:

In 1978 Kant’s text was situated in the perspective of a “critical attitude” that Foucault dates from the beginning of the modern age and in opposition to the requirements of a pastoral governmentality (directing individuals’ conduct by the truth). Posing the question of Enlightenment involved rediscovering the question: how not to be governed in that way? The problem posed was that of a “desubjectification” in the framework of a “politics of truth.” Modernity was then defined as a privileged historical period for studying the subjecting/subjectifying forms of knowledge-power. In 1983 the question of Enlightenment will be thought of as the reinvestment of a requirement of truth-telling, of a courageous I speaking the truth that appeared in the Greeks, and as giving rise to a different question: What government of self should be posited as both the foundation and limit of the government of others? The meaning of “modernity” also changes: it becomes a meta-historical attitude of thought itself 12

While Gros does an excellent job of capturing the main differences between the two discussions, I have a few minor reservations about his account.

The first has to do with the question of which of “Kant’s texts” is actually central to this account. Though Foucault somewhat coyly delays invoking the title of Kant’s little essay until the close of his 1978 lecture, for the most part this earlier discussion attempts to work out the parallels between the various contexts in which objections to governance emerge and the concerns of Kant’s three critiques. In contrast, his 1983 discussions of Kant emphasize the difference between Kant’s critical philosophy and more historical focus of Kant’s essay on enlightenment. My second reservation concerns Gros’ characterization of “modernity” as a “meta-historical attitude.” How can we to reconcile this with Foucault’s stress, in his 1983 Berkeley lecture, that the inquiries prompted by Kant’s essay need not be concerned with tracing a “metahistorical continuity over time,” but instead should focus on particular “modes of problematization”? My final question has to do with what, exactly, is supposed to be “problematized” by the question “What is enlightenment?”

For my immediate purposes, this final question is of greater import than the first two reservations, since it may help to clarify the differences between analyses of Kant’s essay that take their bearings from conventional approaches in the history of ideas and the approach of Foucault’s proposed “history of thought.” But we still have one earlier text to talk about in which Foucault distinguished the “history of thought” from the “history of ideas.”

Foucault on Cassirer and Hazard

As I noted in an earlier post, one of Foucault’s more interesting discussions of the Enlightenment has been routinely ignored: his 1966 review of the French translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung. Contrasting Cassirer’s approach to Paul Hazard’s Crise de la conscience européenne, Foucault argues that Hazard tended to assume that “an ‘age’ (siècle) has, like everything else, consciousness, opinions, anxieties, aspirations ….” Cassirer, in contrast, dispensed with the discussion of individual motivations, biographical accidents, and minor thinkers and also avoided the analysis of economic and social determinants. Instead, he concentrated on the “inextricable web of discourse and thought, of concepts and words, of énoncés and affirmations,” which he proceeded to analyze “in its own configuration.” The result, Foucault argued, was a study that explored an “autonomous universe of ‘discours-pensée‘” that “isolates from all other histories the autonomous space of ‘the theoretical’.”

My earlier discussion had been content to note the parallel between Foucault’s description of what he saw Cassirer as doing and his own procedure in the Archaeology of Knowledge, but overlooked a few lines near the end, whose significance should now be a good deal clearer. Here Foucault noted that Cassirer’s account was not without its shortcomings: it gave philosophy in general and “reflection” in particular an unwarranted primacy. Foucault went on to argue,

Without a doubt it will be necessary — it will be our task — to free ourselves from these limits which are still disturbingly reminiscent of the traditional history of ideas.

But, reversing course, he ended by praising Cassirer for not limiting the Enlightenment, as had been customary, to England and France and for refusing to “play the game of looking for missing pieces and warning signs for the future.” He argued that, at the very moment when National Socialism were reviving a virulent form of German nationalism, Cassirer revealed “the calm, irresistible, enveloping force of the theoretical universe.” The result was a book that “founded the possibility of a new history of thought[emphasis mine]” — a possibility that Foucault viewed as a point from which “we others can take our departure.”

At the risk of reading too much into what might, after all, simply be a turn of phrase, the appearance, at this early date, of “history of thought” is worth noting, especially since Foucault contrasts it with approaches (both in Hazard and in Cassirer’s weaker moments) that remain tied to the conventions of the history of ideas. And, of courses, it is also significant that this contrast occurs in the context of a study of the Enlightenment.

What is most striking here are the differences between Foucault’s 1966 and his 1983 accounts of the “history of thought”. In 1966 he countered approaches like those of Hazard with an approach that would explore an “autonomous universe of ‘discourse-thought” [discours-pensée].” But in 1983, the aim of the “history of thought” was to explore those moments when individuals

step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and to question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals.13

The contrast becomes a bit clearer if we note that there remains, despite these changes, a continued emphasis on emphasis on the function of “archaeology.”

In my last post, I noted that one of occasions on which Foucault invoked the idea of “history of thought” was a discussion with members of the Berkeley history department. In response to the suggestion that “archaeology” might be seen as emphasizing “discontinuities” while genealogy stressed continuities, he responded:

No: the general theme of my research is the history of thought. How could we make the history of thought? I think that thought cannot be disassociated from discourses and we can’t have any access to thought, either to our own present thought, or our contemporaries’ thought, or of course thought of people of previous periods, but through discourses. And that is the necessity of the archeological consideration. And that has nothing to do with continuity or discontinuity. You can find either continuity or discontinuity in those discourses.

This may help to clarify the differences between the treatment of the “history of thought” in Foucault’s review of Cassirer and the way in which he presented it at the close of his life. What remains constant is the role of discourses, which serve as the sole access we have to “thought.” It is this that renders the consideration of “archeology” necessary. What changes is the emphasis in his later work on the particular ways in which systems of thought become problematic.

Against the tendency to assume that systems of discourse were some inherently “discontinuous”, he stressed the way in which it was possible to trace the emergence, at certain particular sites of contestation, of problems that persist for shorter or longer periods of time. Understood in that way, the “history of thought” might be understood as

the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that – for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.14

Would it, perhaps, be possible to add one further term to the list of things that, at particular historical moments, people begin to care about: namely, “enlightenment”?

What Was — and What Still Might Be — Problematic About Enlightenment?

One of the things that initially puzzled me about Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” was his lack of interest in either the context in which the question arose or the answers that others offered (he mentions Mendelssohn’s response briefly in his Berkeley lecture, but has little to say about it). Granted, he had other concerns and it is possible that, had he been granted more time, he might have had more to say about an essay that clearly mattered a good deal to him. Then again, it may be that my problems with Foucault’s treatment of Kant’s answer are the result of expecting a “historian of thought” to do the sort of work that is normally done by “historians of ideas.”

As a historian of ideas who (I hope) has learned something from Foucault’s “history of thought,” what interests me about the question Kant was answering (and it is worth noting that this not the same thing as being particularly interested in Kant’s answer) was how — in the space of a year — a question about the advisability of clerical participation in marriage ceremonies turned into a wide-ranging discussion of the limits of civil and ecclesiastical power, the relationship of writing and thought, the obligations of citizens to their rulers, and so on. Could we see this, perhaps, as an example of “problematization” with a vengeance?

Foucault’s approach to these matters was, in one sense, quite traditional: he privileged Kant’s response and took little notice of the various lesser thinkers who sought to answer Zöllner’s question. Further, his exclusive focus on Kant’s answer prevented him from seeing that, at the origins of these arguments, there lay a set of concerns that ought to have interested him: the role of ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the administration of marriage, the potentially corrosive effects of discourse on obedience, and (particularly in the case of Mendelssohn’s response) the conflict between different regimes of knowledge. Finally, in his influential little footnote Zöllner had suggested that the question “what is enlightenment?” was “almost as important” as the question “what is truth?” — a suggestion that might have been of considerable interest for a thinker who was skilled in the art of exploring the complex rules that govern games of truth and power.

Foucault, however, regarded Kant’s essay as a “blazon, a sort of fetish,” which may explain why he was reluctant to subject it to the cold, merciless, and endlessly provocative analysis that characterized the best of his work.


  1. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997) 119.
  2. See James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52 and “Enlightenment as Concept and Concept,” forthcoming in Journal of the History of Ideas — until publication, a preprint is available at https://www.academia.edu/4177077/Enlightenment_as_Concept_and_Context. 
  3. I’ve discussed these points at length in my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). 
  4. For example, Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason; the Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1948),  John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment : Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York, 1981), and Peter Harrison, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 
  5. G. S. Rousseau, “Whose Enlightenment? Not Man’s: The Case of Michel Foucault,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 6:2 (1972): 238–56.
  6. This view of Foucault continues to turn up from time to time: for example, see Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011) 23-24. 
  7. James Schmidt, “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:2 (1989): 269–91.
  8. Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 32.
  9. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 6-7.
  10. I’ve discussed this point in “Misunderstanding the Question” 50-51.
  11. Foucault, “What is Critique?” in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 384.
  12. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 378-379.
  13. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” 117.
  14. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Semiotext(e), 2001) 74.
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“The Radical Enlightenment” – Diametros Volume 40

Volume 40 of the online philosophy journal Diametros (available here) focuses on “The Radical Enlightenment.”  The main event is the latest in the ongoing series of exchanges between Jonathan Israel and Margaret C. Jacob, along with discussions of Israel’s work by Sebastian Gardner and Przemysław Gut.  The issue also includes articles by Eric Schliesser on Toland and Smith, Bert van Roermund on the Code Civil, Zbigniew Drozdowicz on Voltaire, a discussion of the role of rights, responsibilities, and republicanism in the Enlightenment by Kenneth Westphal, and my thoughts on Burke and Gillray (at least some of which may already be familiar to readers of this blog).


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On Michel Foucault’s Distinction between the “History of Ideas” and the “History of Thought”

In a May 1984 interview with Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault characterized his general approach as follows:

For a long time, I have been trying to see if it would be possible to describe the history of thought as distinct both from the history of ideas (by which I mean the analysis of systems of representation) and from the history of mentalities (by which I mean the analysis of attitudes and types of action [schémas de comportement]. It seemed to me there was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought — this was what one could call the element of problems or, more exactly, problematizations. What distinguishes thought is that it is something quite different from the set of representations that underlies a certain behavior; it is also quite different from the domain of attitudes that can determine this behavior. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it its meaning; rather, it is what allows one to step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and to question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals. Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects on it as a problem.1

It is not entirely surprising that the phrase “history of thought” turns up quite a bit in Foucault’s writings: after all, he held a chair at the Collège de France on the “history of systems of thought.” But, unless I’m mistaken (and the point of this post is, in part, to see if I am) there have been few discussions in the secondary literature of the way Foucault attempted to distinguish his proposed “history of thought” from more familiar approaches in the area of intellectual or cultural history.

A cursory search led me to M. Lane Bruner’s 2006 article “Rationality, Reason and the History of Thought” in Argumentation, which begins by quoting another of Foucault’s late invocations of the term (188) and goes on to explore possible parallels between Foucault’s use of the concept, Hegel’s notion of the cunning of reason, and my colleague Neta Crawford’s work on the history of arguments about slavery and forced labor.2 I also came across Bregham Dalgliesh’s discussion in a recent issue of Parrhesia of the relationship of Foucault’s approach to that of Kant and Nietzsche.3 But while Bruner and Dalgliesh discuss the distinction that Foucault draws between his proposed “history of thought” and the approaches of the “history of ideas” and the “history of mentalities,” their concern tends to lie with Foucault’s relationship with his philosophical predecessors, rather than with the implicit contrast he was making between his own inquiries and the sort of work in which historians of ideas see themselves as engaged.

While there is much to be gained by examining Foucault’s debts to Nietzsche, Kant, and others, what interests me is the way in which Foucault sought to differentiate his work from that of his contemporaries in the fields of intellectual or cultural history. As a test case, I’d like to explore how his account of Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” differs from accounts of the essay that have been offered by those of us who, for better or worse, see ourselves as engaged in one or another of the various enterprises that cluster under the heading “intellectual history.” This post will take a closer look at the way in which Foucault distinguished the “history of thought” from “the history of ideas.” Its sequel will attempt to apply this distinction to discussions of Kant’s famous little essay.

Characterizing the “History of Thought”

The phrase “history of thought” turns up quite frequently in Foucault’s final writings, most notably in the context of a series of 1983 discussions of his work on the concept of parrēsia. While there are a few earlier uses of the phrase (one of which I’ll discuss next time), it appears that it was only in the end of his life that the term began to function as a way of characterizing his own particular approach.

He began his January 5, 1983 lecture at the Collège de France by attempting to summarize his work “over the last years, even over the ten or maybe twelve years I have been teaching here” as follows:

In this general project, which goes under the sign, if not the title, “the history of thought,” my problem has been to do something rather different from the quite legitimate activity of most historians of ideas. In any case, I wanted to differentiate myself from two entirely legitimate methods. I wanted to differentiate myself first of all from what we may call, and is called, the history of mentalities, which, to characterize it completely schematically be a history situated on an axis going from the analysis of actual forms of behavior to the possible accompanying expressions which may precede them, follow them, translate them, prescribe them, disguise them, or justify them, and so forth. On the other hand, I also wanted to differentiate myself from what could be called a history of representations or of representational systems, that is to say, a history which would have, could have, or may have two objectives. One would be the analysis of representational functions. By “the analysis of representational functions” I mean the analysis of the possible role played by representations either in relation to the object represented, or in relation to the subject who represents them to him or herself — let’s say an analysis of ideologies. And then I think the other pole of a possible analysis of representations is the analysis of the representational values of a system of representations, that is to say, the analysis of representations in terms of a knowledge (connaissance) — of a content of knowledge, or of a rule, or a form of knowledge — which is taken to be a criterion of truth, or at any rate a truth-reference point in relation to which one can determine the representational value of this or that system of thought understood as a system of representations of a given object.4

The phrase turns up again in an April 1983 discussion at the History department at Berkeley, where — in response to a question about the relationship between archaeology and genealogy that suggested that while the former emphasized discontinuities, the latter might be seen as stressing continuities — Foucault stated:

No: the general theme of my research is the history of thought. How could we make the history of thought? I think that thought cannot be disassociated from discourses and we can’t have any access to thought, either to our own present thought, or our contemporaries’ thought, or of course thought of people of previous periods, but through discourses. And that is the necessity of the archeological consideration. And that has nothing to do with continuity or discontinuity. You can find either continuity or discontinuity in those discourses.

Finally, he closed the second of the four lectures he gave at Berkley in the fall of 1983 on the notion of parrēsia by posing the distinction in this way:

I would like to distinguish between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought”. Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. I am trying to analyze the way institutions, practices, habits, and behavior become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways, who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. The history of ideas involves the analysis of a notion from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its context. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices which were accepted without question, which were familiar and out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions. The history of thought, understood in this way, is the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that – for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.5

There are, no doubt, any number of other places where he used the phrase (I trust that readers will point out others), but this may be enough to begin to give us a sense of how Foucault proposed to use the term.

The most obvious points would seem to be the following:

  1. The term “history of thought” functions principally as a way to contrast what he is doing to the approaches of something called “the history of ideas.”
  2. In the January Collège de France lecture the “history of ideas” is further subdivided into two different “entirely legitimate methods”: (a) the “history of mentalities” — which ranges from “the analysis of actual forms of behavior to the possible accompanying expressions which may precede them, follow them, translate them, prescribe them, disguise them, or justify them, and so forth” — and (b) the “history of representations or of representational systems” — which is concerned with either “the analysis of representational functions” or with “the representational values of a system of representations.”
  3. The Berkeley lecture offers a somewhat different characterization of the concerns of the history of ideas: “a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word.”
  4. The defining feature of the “history of thought” would appear to be that it is concerned with “the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices which were accepted without question, which were familiar and out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions.” In short, the focus of “the history of thought” falls on what Foucault calls the process of “problematization.”

The term “problematization” also turns up quite a bit in Foucault’s work from the 1980s, often in the context of his discussions of the concerns of his proposed “history of thought.” For example, the May 1984 interview with Paul Rabinow that I quoted at the start of this discussion continues

the work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has made them possible — even in their very opposition; or what has made possible the transformation of the difficulties and obstacles of a practice into a general problem for which one proposes diverse practical solutions. It is problematization that responds to these difficulties, but by doing something quite other than expressing them or manifesting them: in connection with them, it develops the conditions in which possible responses can be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what the different solutions attempt to respond to. This development of a given into a question, this transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems to which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response, this is what constitutes the point of problematization and the specific work of thought (118).

At this point, Foucault emphasizes that what he is proposing is quite different from “an analysis in terms of deconstruction (any confusion between the two methods would be unwise).”

Rather it is a question of a movement of critical analysis in which one tries to see how the different solutions to a problem have been constructed; but also how these different solutions result from a specific form of problematization. And it then appears that any new solution which might be added to the others would arise from current problematization, modifying only several of the postulates or principles on which one bases the responses that one gives. The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematization not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought (119).

As a result, it might make sense to add a fifth point to our list:

5.  The “history of thought” is concerned, not with the functioning of systems of representation but rather with the “work of thought,” which begins at the moment when prevailing systems of representations and practices become problematic.

While there is more to be said about how Foucault goes about defining the “history of thought” (I’ve found Dalgliesh’s discussion particularly helpful), this may suffice to give a general sense of the way in which he proposes to distinguish what he is doing from the so-called “history of ideas.” The question I’d like to explore here is whether this distinction actually holds up.

Foucault’s Two Accounts of the “History of Ideas”

Understandably, Foucault is more interested in clarifying what the “history of thought” involves than he is in laying out the various practices in which historians of ideas might be engaged. In all of his discussions of the “history of thought” the “history of ideas” functions chiefly as a way of designating what it is that Foucault sees himself as not doing.  But if we compare the characterization of the “history of ideas” that he offers in his Collège de France lecture with the characterization that we find in his Berkeley lecture on parrēsia, we find two somewhat different accounts.

The Collège de France discussion is by far the most complicated, distinguishing between two different branches (the history of mentalities and the history of representations) which are subject to further subdivisions. The following might suffice as a rough sketch of Foucault’s account:

Collège de France Discussion

In contrast, the Berkeley discussion gives us a much simpler presentation of the concerns of the history of ideas. The focus now falls exclusively on “notions” and the task of the historian of ideas is confined to determining when (and, I suppose, how) these notions emerge, how they develop, and how their emergence and development might be contextualized.

Berkeley Discussion

The difference between the two accounts may amount to nothing more than the particular contexts of the two presentations:  the discussion at the Collège de France occurs at the start of what will a semester of lectures, while the discussion at Berkeley is sandwiched into the end of the second of four lectures. Obviously, Foucault had a good deal more time to draw distinctions in the earlier discussion than he did in the latter.  But as the characterization of the tasks of the “history of ideas” became simpler, the contrast to what Foucault’s “history of thought” became sharper: the former confines itself to tracing the history of concepts, whereas the latter focuses on the ways in which a wide range of beliefs and practices become subject to reflection and revision. When the “history of ideas” has been reduced to an examination of the history of “notions” — as opposed to an account of cultural practices (i.e., “mentalities”) and systems of representation — it is easier to see it as different from the type of inquiry in which Foucault sees himself as engaged.

This distinction is more difficult to draw in the case of the initial characterization of the scope of the “history of ideas”, which could be seen as expansive enough scope to include at least some of Foucault’s own earlier work. For example, in what sense is Les Mots et les Choses not an attempt at writing a history of the rise and fall of the various systems of representation in the human sciences? Or, couldn’t Surveiller et Punir be read, among other things, as the history of the emergence of those disciplinary practices served as the rationale for the modern prison? Much of the force of Foucault’s initial discussion of the distinction between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought” stems from the way in which it suggests that these earlier works, which at one point might have been read as contributions to an enterprise (which, for want of a better term, could be called the “history of ideas”) that was expansive enough to cover the study of various cultural practices and representational systems were, in fact, pursuing a somewhat different research program. As his particular research program became clearer, it became possible to operate with a sharper contrast between it and a drastically simplified “history of ideas.”

The articulation of the concept of “problematization” would appear to play a leading role in sharpening this contrast. It provided Foucault with a way for him to stress that certain of his earlier works — especially those that were read as “structuralist” forays into the study of representational systems — were, in fact, doing something quite different. And (at last for some of us) one of the more attractive features of his later work was that it focused on the ways in which the history of certain concepts (e.g., parrēsia or the idea of self-governance) were transformed in the face of particular challenges or changing historical contexts. But a problem still remains.

Once the demarcation between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought” is defined by the latter’s concern with moments of “problematization,” it is hard to see why at least some of the work done by “historians of ideas” could not be characterized as contributions to the “history of thought” in Foucault’s particular sense of the term. For certainly one of the things that at least some historians of ideas have explored is the way in which concepts and practices become problematic and are subjected to rethinking and reinvention. To clarify this issue, it might be helpful to pick a particular case and see the ways in which Foucault’s discussion of it differs from accounts offered by “historians of ideas.” One case immediately comes to mind: his discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” I’ll look at it in the sequel to this post.

  1. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997) 117.
  2. M. Lane Bruner, “Rationality, Reason and the History of Thought,” Argumentation 20:2 (2006): 185–208.
  3. Bregham Dalgliesh, “Critical History:  Foucault After Kant and Nietzsche,” Parrhesia, no. 18 (2013): 68–84. See also his 2002 dissertation Enlightenment Contra Humanism: Michel Foucault’s Critical History of Thought (PhD Thesis, Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, 2002) (http://hdl.handle.net/1842/1725).
  4. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 2-3.
  5. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Semiotext(e), 2001) 74.
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