A critical ontology of ourselves: The Kantian foundations of Michel Foucault's philosophy

Robert Michael Ellis Robinson, Purdue University


In his final writings Michel Foucault surprises in saying that his “critical ontology of ourselves” extends the tradition of critical philosophy inaugurated by Immanuel Kant. He had previously described his project as a “critique of the subject,” which purports to demolish the Kantian conception of the human being as capable of autonomous thought and conduct. Despite the obvious tensions between these descriptions, the scholarship continually interprets Foucault's later turn to Kant according to his critique of the subject. The three essays of this dissertation challenge the efficacy of this interpretative strategy on textual and philosophical grounds. My thesis is that Foucault's turn to Kant is indicative of a break in the former's philosophical views, and therefore his earlier views must be proportioned to his more mature, and distinctively Kantian, philosophy. ^ Chapter One opens with the argument that Foucault's critique of the subject is incompatible his later self-inscription in the critical tradition, as it cannot accommodate a conception of autonomy. I then provide significant evidence that Foucault renounces his critique of the subject in order to accommodate autonomy. Not coincidentally, this renunciation occurs when Foucault begins to investigate Kant's reflections on enlightenment. Drawing on Foucault's investigations of Kant and the former's late work on truth-telling, I defend a moderate account of Foucaultian critique that satisfactorily avoids the weaknesses and problems often attributed to his critical project by critics. ^ Chapter Two argues that Béatrice Han's and Amy Allen's recent interpretations of Foucault's alleged critique of Kant are fundamentally misguided. After elucidating the Kantian character of Foucault's analysis of modern philosophy in The Order of Things, I argue that Han and Allen confuse Foucault's critique of modern philosophical anthropology for a critique of Kant. They fail to notice his distinction between the formal (transcendental) subject from the subject conceived as the essential self. This leads to their failure to notice that Foucault uses Kant's critique of metaphysics, notably the paralogisms of reason, to isolate the mistake of modern “anthropologism”. Finally, I contend that these facts show that Foucault's critique of the subject is best understood as furthering a Kantian skepticism about possible knowledge of human nature, which fits nicely with the account of critique defended in Chapter One. ^ Chapter Three focuses on the philosophy that informs Foucault's historical methodologies. Following Colin Koopman I argue that phenomenological interpretations fail to capture Foucault's mature articulations of his views. However, I challenge Koopman's interpretation on the grounds that it fails to account for the transcendental language in which Foucault casts his methods. I resolve this impasse by showing that Foucault draws significantly on the conceptual architecture of Kant's transcendental inquiry. Like Kant, Foucault sees a condition of experience as a rule that both enables and constrains, but uniquely accounts for these rules as social norms. Insofar as an analytic accounts for the rules that comprise the conditions of experience, Foucault's methods comprise an historical analytic of experience or “historical ontology”.^




Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University.

Subject Area


Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server