Category Archives: Foucault

Kant’s ethics of autonomous obedience

I find it puzzling that, while there is a huge bibliography on Kant’s notion of freedom/autonomy, there is next to nothing on his notion of obedience/subordination even though the two notions are inextricably connected in both his ethics and his politics in a “profound paradox” (Paul Guyer: Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness, 2000, p. 1).  Freedom, which is only moral freedom, refers to free will under moral law, that is, will obeying its own law.  The exercise of freedom involves practices of obedience. Yet, studies of Kantian freedom focus on autonomy and have very little to say about forms of obedience because they see freedom as liberating and enabling rather than regulating and restricting.

Kant distinguishes between two uses of reason, the free public use and the autonomous private one.  While public reason is unfettered, private reason is obedient to its self-imposed moral law, a practice of “free submission” of the will to moral law for its own sake. Reason disciplines and controls the subject, not the citizen.  Autonomy is a duty and a submission:  The proper way for individuals to be free is to autonomously prescribe for themselves the duty of autonomy, which (duty) is the free submission of their morally self-legislative will to its own law.

I see Kantian autonomy is a kind of “government” that exercises power by “guiding the possibility of conduct,” structuring “the possible field of action” of individuals (Foucault:  “The Subject and Power,” in Dreyfus & Rabinow, Michel Foucault, pp. 220-21).  What makes possible this particular kind of modern government is freedom. Individuals are governed by being required to become self-governed subjects.  “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221).

Foucault is interested in these askeses of autonomous obedience, “the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself” (“Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, 19).  He raises this question: “Which kind of political techniques, which technology of government, has been put to work and used and developed in the general framework of the reason of state in order to make of the individual a significant element for the state?” (“The Political Technology of Individuals,” 153)  I suggest that a major political technique of government is Kantian autonomy, the obedience of those “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault:  18).

In all his three discussions of Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment” Foucault stresses that obedience is practiced not in public discussion (where citizens may openly express any views they have) but in private government (where subjects learn to police themselves), thus guaranteeing that thoughts of resistance and revolution will be internally suppressed and forbidden. Here are three quotes from these discussions.

In Kant’s view, critique tells knowledge: “Do you know up to what point you can know?  Reason as much as you want, but do you really know up to what point you can reason without it becoming dangerous?  Critique will say, in short, that it is not so much a matter of what we are undertaking, more or less courageously, than it is the idea we have of our knowledge and its limits.  Our liberty is at stake and consequently, instead of letting someone else say ‘obey,’ it is at this point, once one has gotten an adequate idea of one’s own knowledge and its limits, that the principle of autonomy can be discovered. One will then no longer have to hear the obey; or rather, the obeywill be founded on autonomy itself” (Foucault, “What is Critique?” 195).

Kant distinguishes between “on the one hand, a government of self which will develop in the form of the universal (as public discussion, public reasoning, and the public use of understanding) and, on the other, the obedience to which all those who are part of a given society, state, or administration will be constrained” (38).  Subjects obey on their own free will.  “The more you allow freedom to thought, the more sure you will be that the people’s mind will be shaped to obedience” (The Government of Self and Others, 38).

The question regarding Enlightenment as a political problem “is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible.  And Kant … proposes to Frederick II … what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason:  the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason” (“What is Enlightenment?” 37).  In short, Kant believes that “reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use” (36).   Hence the well-known command that he envisioned Frederick as a truly enlightened monarch addressing to his subjects: “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey” (The Government of Self and Others, 40). “Far from rejecting obedience to sovereignty, it was Kant’s unique achievement to have grounded obedience on the concept of autonomy.  Critique is a play of power and truth that gives the subject the power to govern itself, a power that is not necessarily opposed to obedience to sovereigns” (Schmidt & Wartenberg: “Foucault’s Enlightenment,” in Kelly:  Critique & Power, 1994, 290).

Autonomist and anarchist thought have not developed any systematic interest in ideas of freedom in Kantian liberalism.  The sources for radical self-institution and self-rule must be sought elsewhere.

February 20, 2019

Stathis Gourgouris: “Preliminary Thoughts on Left Governmentality”

“In the manufactured politics of crisis that we see increasingly in many societies around the world, the question of what politics can overcome the impasse of so-called democratic rule, which serves as a cover for the domination of liberal oligarchies, has become urgent. Mining the most radical elements in Foucault’s thinking about governmentality, this essay seeks to imagine a politics of left governmentality that would evade the pitfalls of left populism.”

Éric Alliez & Maurizio Lazzarato: “Clausewitz and la pensée 68”

‘The new theory of war and power was not able to confront and draw on real political experiments, since between the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, the radicalization that resulted from ’68 (“Rampant May”) faded, weakened, and finally collapsed in the repetition of the modalities of civil war codified by the revolutions of the first half of the century around the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks. After the failure of insurrection movements, the “Winter Years” began, and have yet to end.’

Colin Koopman: “The power thinker”

“With respect to the central concepts of political philosophy, namely the conceptual pair of power and freedom, Foucault’s bet was that people are likely to win more for freedom by declining to define in advance all the forms that freedom could possibly take. That means too refusing to latch on to static definitions of power. Only in following power everywhere that it operates does freedom have a good chance of flourishing. Only by analysing power in its multiplicity, as Foucault did, do we have a chance to mount a multiplicity of freedoms that would counter all the different ways in which power comes to define the limits of who we can be.”

Simona Forti: “Totalitarianism – Historical Regime or Bio-Power Intimate Vocation?”

‘In totalitarian regimes, power exerted itself over life not merely by suppressing it. It was not simply a question of an enormous, unprecedented, abuse of power that quelled the rights of the individuals. Political power succeeded in turning itself into both a total and capillary domination, by setting itself the as warrant of the security, the health, the prosperity and the life of the people, who required the elimination of a harmful and destructive “living part” in order to incarnate the ideal of a Hyper-Humanity.  In other words, totalitarian bio-politics has shown us what a political apparatus can achieve: in the name of security and public health, by appealing directly to the “productivity” of life, it is able to invade, with unparalleled intensity and capillarity, the existence of all, and entire existence.’


Éric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato on the “biopolitical governmentality of war”

“To our enemies”:  ’29.  In short, it is a question of drawing the lessons from what seems to us like the failure of the thought of ’68 which we have inherited, even in our inability to think and construct a collective war machine equal to the civil war unleashed in the name of neoliberalism and the absolute primacy of the economy as exclusive policy of capital. Everything is taking place as if ’68 was unable to think all the way, not its defeat …, but the warring order of reasons that broke its insistence through a continuous destruction, placed in the present infinitive of the struggles of “resistance.”

30. It is not a question, it is not at all a question of stopping resistance. It is a question of dropping a “theoricism” satisfied with a strategic discourse that is powerless in the face of what is happening. And what has happened to us. Because if the mechanisms of power are constitutive, to the detriment of strategic relationships and the wars taking place there, there can only be phenomena of “resistance” against them. With the success we all know. Graecia docet.’  This is the lesson of ‘the defeat of the Greek “radical left.”’