I. Importance and Consequentiality of Evaluating the Enlightenment
II. Foucault’s Reformulation of the Dialektik der Aufklärung
III .Foucault’s vs. Habermas’ Evaluation of the Enlightenment
I.Importance and Consequentiality of Evaluating the Enlightenment
Max Weber’s thesis that the rationalization of Western societies in the course of the Enlightenment has been an irreversible process is one of the central and most consequential discoveries in modern European political thought. Its significance lies in the fact that any philosopher or social thinker who engages in an analysis of western societies must come to grips with the question what ‘Enlightenment’ means and involves. The various contemporary political theories of action can be distinguished in regard to their specific answers to that question, for these answers define the realm of that which is politically possible under the conditions of Modernity.
Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas, who represent two of the most influential theories, both present powerful arguments for their respective assessments of the Enlightenment. However, these assessments are rather incompatible. Foucault, who devoted much of his life to the struggle against the hidden workings of an apparently ubiquitous and suppressive power, presents a decisively pessimistic account. For him, the Enlightenment has increased and sophisticated the techniques of power, which pervades and – more significantly – constitutes societies and their members as an invisible force while shaping the forms of knowledge that are generally accepted as given by them. Habermas, whose social philosophy has repeatedly proven its applicability to (foremost German social democratic) concrete governmental questions, is not as monistic as Foucault. There is no central category such as ‘power’ in his thought. This seems to be related to Habermas’s objects of study as opposed to Foucault’s. Foucault likes to look at the borders of society, at the psychiatric clinic, the prison, and defamed sexuality. Habermas, while not denying the existence of these, rather focuses on the development of middle class life and its institutions, foremost the public sphere and political institutions such as the parliament.
Both of them are historical thinkers, and certainly both fill the empirical vacuum left by the Frankfurt school’s masterpiece on the Enlightenment, Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung, with historical scrutiny. Significantly, though, Foucault’s assessment of the Enlightenment stays much closer to the Dialektik der Aufklärung than Habermas. His reformulation of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s theses shall be discussed now, before engaging in a contrastive and evaluative analysis of Foucault’s and Habermas’ views of the Enlightenment.
II. Foucault’s Reformulation of the Dialektik der Aufklärung
Dialektik der Aufklärung can be seen as modern political thought’s true point of reference when it comes to the evaluation of the Enlightenment. One of its main theses is that the repression of outer nature by instrumental reason means a repression of inner nature. It is closely linked with the thesis that Enlightenment is myth. Myth splits reality into reality and appearance, a principle all later science rests upon. With myth, the domination over nature begins, for nature is demystified by means of reason. Science, and especially positivism, is the most recent and extreme stage of the development of Enlightenment. The reason Enlightenment turns back into myth in this development is that in the form of science, it becomes a mode of explanation that claims universality.
The domination of nature originates from man’s fear of the Other, which Adorno and Horkheimer identify with nature. Domination happens by mimesis, that is by man’s trying to become like nature or the Other. Enlightenment strives for ever greater equivalence in all spheres of life. (cf. DA 13) However, the self is also part of this Other, for it is also part of nature, which is shown very clearly in the fragment on the interest in the body. (cf. DA 246ff.) Thus, the repression of outer nature by instrumental reason is a repression of inner nature. In this way, Enlightenment represses persons’ autonomy and subjectivity, (cf. DA 34f. and 62f.) it reduces the possible to the actual, thus making hope impossible (cf. DA 32f.) and repressing the past, (cf. DA 37ff.) it makes fantasy wither and associates the body with shame. (cf. DA 246) Reason, the Dialektik der Aufklärung states with view on Fascism, ultimately destroys itself, and the autonomous personality disappears.
The parallels to Foucault’s stance towards the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Discipline and Punish, are numerous. Most of them involve a reworking of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s thoughts. Let us look at Foucault’s main thesis. Again, the Enlightenment appears as a more or less subtle tyranny. If the central category of the Frankfurt school was ‘domination,’ for Foucault it is ‘power’ in a special sense. Adorno and Horkheimer seem to stay with the traditional instrumental concept of power (power as the ability of some to impose their will onto others), but in fact, they anticipate Foucault’s notion of power. In the Dialektik der Aufklärung as well as in Foucault, power reveals itself in everyday practices hardly suspected to be acts of oppression. Adorno argues that the subject is reduced to an intersection of conventional reactions and objective functions, Foucault will venture to say that the subject is produced by them. Functions and reactions are what the workplace – hardly a place of self-actualization in Adorno, Horkheimer as well as Foucault – demands; private life demands it too, for example by way of the media and the culture industry; the residual public sphere demands it as well. For Adorno, Horkheimer and Foucault, to be a citizen is to conform to narrow and identical guidelines.
 References DA refer to Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1969.