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The transformation of a problem – Michel Foucault’s Hegel-reception in regard to Judith Butler’s concept of the subject

With regard to the discussions about the cultural transfer of theories as they were presented by François Cusset for the French-American context and by Pierre Bourdieu for the French-German interrelation, I would like to discuss a specific example of the Hegel-reception in France. Some different interpretations of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (“Phänomenologie des Geistes”) in the twentieth century clarify, that these interpretations are integrated into cultural contexts, discursive practices and political movements. In their effects these interpretations have crossed the language boundaries and the borders of national discussions. If my suggestion is right that a lot of the philosophical texts and statements of Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite are motivated by the problematic nature of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and that Michel Foucault's Hegel-reception can be understood as a discussion of the discursive effects of the French neo-Hegelianism, it seems to be possible that also the reception of Foucault at American universities (since the end of the 1960s) is in some respects related to a Hegelian problem (Cusset2008, XII, 27-30, 304-5). With regard to the relation of Hegel and Foucault, this problem could be explained as the question about the possibility of the historicity of knowledge without presupposing a fixed identity of the subject. In the American context, Judith Butler (1987, 1995) evolved this problem as a question about the effects of political structures in relation to the identity of the subject and his body. She refers to Foucault's notion of the “subjectivation” (“assujettissement”, Butler1995, 35) as well as to Hegel's notion of the “unhappy consciousness”.

So it seems that we have to deal with a transformation of a problem which has been reproduced in different cultural contexts and in different ways. I would like to examine this transformation due to three questions: 1. What are the meanings of the subject in Hegel's Phenomenology? 2. In which discursive context is the Foucauldian transformation of the Hegelian notion of the subjectivity situated? 3. How does Judith Butler combine elements of the Hegelian and the Foucauldian concept of the subject?

1. Elements of the Hegelian notion of the subject in the Phenomenology of Spirit

Hegel published the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807 in Jena during the disturbances of the Napoleonic expedition. The content of this difficult and ambitious text is related to the historical context which is characterized by the post-revolutionary situation in France, and by the philosophical discourse of that time concerning the post-Kantian philosophies of Jacobi, Fichte and Schelling. In relation to the problem how the philosophical science can be developed as a history of the self-consciousness (“Selbstbewusstsein”), Hegel considers the subject as a self-reflexive and contradictory movement. He explains this reflexive structure according to the “dialectical movement” of the experience of the consciousness by which the phenomenal knowledge gets reviewed and valued critically. In the “Introduction” Hegel describes the condition of this genesis of knowledge as the “conscious insight into the untruth of phenomenal knowledge, for which the supreme reality is what is in truth only the unrealized notion” (Hegel1807, 50). According to this condition, the consciousness changes the knowledge about itself as well as the knowledge about his object until it reaches the true knowledge itself.

Especially in the later chapters of the Phenomenology the complex figures of knowledge are correlated to historical constellations, for instance to the movement of the enlightenment (“Aufklärung”) or the French revolution. In this sense Hegel develops a philosophical reflection about the variability of the relation between the subject and its object in a historical dimension. In so doing he operates with a notion of true knowledge which is founded onto his insight that the “substance” has to be thought as the “subject” and vice versa: “...the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself.” (Hegel1807, 10). In consequence of this concept of historicity, the subject is not only an individual self, because it is at the same time a part of the progressive movement of the universal consciousness which Hegel calls Spirit (“Geist”) and whose self-reflexive structure implies the possibility to think the transformation of knowledge in a pure logical way (what Hegel develops in the “Science of logic” (1812-16)).

In the chapter about the “Self-consciousness”, Hegel develops a form of the self-knowledge which is denoted by the contradiction between the individual and the universal. This contradictory structure gets mediated by different sorts of “Bewusstseinsgestalten” like the relation of “lordship and bondage” (“Herrschaft und Knechtschaft”), “stoicism and skepticism” or the “unhappy consciousness” (“Unglückliches Bewusstsein”). By passing through these different figures, the self-consciousness realizes itself as the active agent of knowledge and reaches the certainty of “reason” (“Vernunft”).

With the relation of “lordship and bondage”, Hegel developed a conception in which the Self reflects on basic human conditions like desire, perception, recognition and the relation of dependence and independence. The point is that the servant consciousness emancipates itself from the master consciousness because of his immediate connection to the desired object and his self-transformation in the working process. In this formation process the Self recognizes the independence of his knowledge, but stays as a kind of “stubbornness” (“Eigensinn”) in the servitude. On account of its social and philosophical implications the figure of “lordship and bondage” has been recognized in different historical and cultural contexts, while the constellation of the specific elements of the “fields of reception” led to different transformations of this figure.

2. Michel Foucault's Hegel-reception and the dissociation of the subject

The intensive Hegel-reception of Foucault began during his years of study at the “École Normale Supérieure”, where he became a student of the Hegel-expert and -translator Jean Hyppolite, who was also the supervisor of his diploma about Hegel’s Phenomenology in 1949 (Foucault2001, 19). In his extensive text Genesis and Structure of Hegel´s Phenomenology of Spirit (1946-47), Hyppolite considers an existential perspective which he explains because of the literary descriptions of the experiences of the consciousness: “In many cases in which the experiences of the consciousness were discovered, Hegel describes a kind of existing, the vision of a particular world” (Hyppolite1946, 16). But Hyppolite doesn't reduce the meaning of the notion of the experience to this existential perspective, because he also considers the reflexive moments of experience. He describes the Phenomenology as a kind of reminiscence of experiences in the medium of the philosophical knowledge. The logical genesis of sense which is not reducible on the anthropological individualism, Hyppolite develops in his later text Logic and Existence (1952).

How the tragical notion of experience in his early text Madness and Civilization (1961) (Baugh2003, 162) and his later considerations about a non-anthropological history of ideas clarify, Foucault follows the philosophy of his teacher in some respects. In that text Foucault established a critical view of the reasonable and normative conception of the historicity of knowledge and created an alternative history of unreason on the basis of phenomena which are excluded by the notion of reason. With the text The order of things (1966), Foucault realized a conception of a history of humanities which describes transformations of knowledge in correlation to discursive practices in a non-teleological and discontinuous way. Referring to the discourse of the historical epistemology, especially of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, he makes clear that the human being is an invention which has been made possible by the archaeological structure of scientific and philosophical knowledge in the modern age-“epistémé”. In this sense Foucault's philosophical criticism of Hegel is characterized by a kind of “historization” of the concept of a universal transmission of knowledge in terms of totality. But his method of description of unconscious structures of knowledge is in some respects a recourse to the premise of a historical totality – a point that Foucault himself criticizes in his later text Archeology of knowledge (1969).

Referring especially to some texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault developed in the 1970s a genealogical method for the description of the historical distribution of discursive practices in relation to different types of power like social or political doctrines, techniques of observation or disciplinary regulations. This method allows him to define the modalities of the subject without assuming an autonomous or an fixed anthropological identity. Instead of the notions subjectivity, consciousness or psyche, Foucault uses in his text Discipline and punish (1975) the term “soul” as the „element“ in which a certain power-regime and a specific field of knowledge are connected with each other (Foucault1975, S. 42). This conception implies that the “subject” is an incorporated version of the disciplinary regulations which control the body and his expressions in this way intrinsically. That means that the “soul” is both an element of historical situated power-knowledge-relations and an intensifier of their normative regulations, so that the body becomes “a productive as well as a subjected body“ (Foucault1975, 37). In 1975 Foucault answered a question about the role of the “lordship-bondage” relation for his notion of power in the following way: “The Hegelian master-slave dialectic is the mechanism by which the power of the master disappears while he exercises this power. On the contrary I would like to show that the power intensifies through its own practice; power does not change on the other side secretly.” (Foucault2002, 1057). In his transformation of Hegel’s conception of sovereignty, Foucault describes power as a self-amplifying structure and rejects the Hegelian conception of the bipolar interrelation between master and servant. So we see that Foucault considers the discursive positions of the subject, the performances of the body and the meanings of the knowledge as constituted by historical situated power-regimes and their transformations (Foucault1975, 39).

Approximately after the publication of The order of things in 1966, Foucault criticized Hegel also in a strategic way. But this strategic or polemic criticism which Foucault formulated mostly in interviews, public discussions or essays was mainly directed against the predominance of a humanistic ideology in the neo-Hegelian, Marxist, existentialist and phenomenological discourses at the French universities during the 1950s and 1960s (Bourdieu2002, 5). In 1966 Foucault said in an interview: “the persons mainly responsible for the contemporary humanism are definitely Marx and Hegel” (Foucault2001, 699). In this regard Foucault could be seen as a supporter of the movement of structuralism or “post-modernism” and as a critic of ideological or prophetic discourses.

The most of the polemic statements of Foucault against Hegel illustrate that he refers to the Hegelianism of the post-war period which is in several respects a consequence of the early 1930s, when philosophers like Jean Wahl, Alexandre Kojève or Jean Hyppolite rediscovered Hegel’s Phenomenology. In his lectures in Paris during the first half of the second world-war (between 1933 and 1939, published in 1947), Kojève has produced a very effective interpretation of the “lordship and bondage”-relation which he understands as the specific human fight for recognition on the basis of social conflicts. These very popular lectures have effected an anthropological and existential change in some philosophical discourses and has led to a multiplication of interpretations of the Phenomenology. Kojève writes about the main topic: “The Phenomenology is a philosophical anthropology, independent of what Hegel thinks about that. Her theme is the man as a human being, as the real existence in the history. Her method is phenomenological in the modern sense of the word” (Kojève1947, 39). In this sense his interpretation is more a transformation or an actualization than a close interpretation of the Hegelian text, because he neglects the reflexive dimension of the philosophical knowledge largely to describe a post-historic way of human existing. The “humanistic effect” of this transformation in the post-war period in France is one reason for the Foucauldian transfiguration of the Hegelian philosophy.

3. Judith Butler's recapitulation of the Foucauldian and the Hegelian concept of the subject

Judith Butler evolves a concept of the subject with regard to the Hegelian notion of the “unhappy consciousness” as well as to the Foucauldian notion of “subjectivation“, unlike the project “to escape from Hegel” which Foucault proclaimed as the condition of his genealogical research (Foucault1970, 44). Butler´s recapitulation of the subject could be seen as a late result of the American reception of the “French Theory”, especially of Foucault's The will to knowledge (1976), and is situated in the political and cultural context of the 1980s and 1990s (Cusset2008, 151). Butler's question in this context is: how it is possible to articulate alternative positions to current power-regimes when we must assume that these regimes determine the conditions of these alternative positions (Butler1995, 21).

With regard to the French reception of Hegel's Phenomenology, she clarifies that some of the Hegel-interpretations have overrated the “lordship and bondage”-relation and have forgotten to discuss the conclusion of this chapter. In contrast to these interpretations, Butler considers especially the „unhappy consciousness“ as a criticism of normative regulations which Foucault formulates similarly in his later texts (Butler1995, 36). So the “unhappy consciousness” is characterized by an internalization of normative regulations which are evolved from the consciousness to overcome his fear of death which is caused by the finitude of his body. In this way the normativity becomes a psychological dimension of the subject and generates a form of self-subjection. In her dissertation of 1987 Butler describes the Hegelian subject generally as an “ek-static one, a subject who constantly finds itself outside itself, and whose periodic expropriations do not lead to a return to a former self” (Butler1999, XIV).

Concerning Foucault's conception of “subjectivation”, Butler criticizes that he has not considered the psychological sphere of power. The reflection and realization of power in and through the psyche of the subject means also that the subject becomes a former of power-relations and that its actions are necessary for their reproduction. Because the transformations of the power through the actions of the subject are in some degree unpredictable and irreducible on logical and historical rules, the subject is not determined by the power as well as the power is not determined by the subject in a necessary way (Butler1995, 20). Concerning her political question, Butler´s concept of contingency implies that the “subject” is not only the subjected body, but also the point of resistance against current power-regimes.

Hence, Butler refers to Foucault's notion of a self-amplifying structure of power and rejects his discourse about the knowledge to develop a psychoanalytic discourse about the subject which includes the Hegelian perspective of the subjective and individual knowledge of the “unhappy consciousness”. She explains the difference between Hegel and Foucault by Foucault's concept of the “proliferation” (Butler1995, 60) of power which avoids the meaning of the Hegelian dialectic concept of the reproduction, however, without considering the historical implications of these conceptions.


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