The Phenomenological Panopticon and the Historical a Priori: Towards a Genealogy of the Transcendental Subject
A teleological conception of history begins with Hegel and terminates with Foucault. The following text will not concern itself with Hegel and the Hegelian interpretation of history, it will not be an extensive analysis of the notion of historical teleology, nor will it attempt to discuss every thinker who has used this notion. Neither will it attempt to lay down a comprehensive history nor theory of the Subject. Instead, we will focus on a comparison between the historical and philosophical methodologies of Edmund Husserl and Michel Foucault and their respective theories of the Subject, while extending the antagonism between the two thinkers into a critique of phenomenology and the phenomenological subject as an instance of what Foucault terms governmentality. The goal will be to understand what each thinker means exactly by the term historical a priori, how it emerges from their respective accounts of subjectivity, their differences, similarities and/or complementarity and mutual opposition. It will be seen that Husserl, by introducing an intentional-transcendental interpretation of history attempts to bring it into a unity and to demonstrate that whatever occurs throughout history conforms to a necessary teleology. History, according to Husserl, is teleological, purposefully driven and therefore altogether meaningful. Nonetheless, it is a meaning that needs to be uncovered through a deeper reading of history. Quite the opposite will be shown to be the case with Foucault. Foucault offers us a history that unfolds through accidents, contingencies and struggles for power and domination. Including, as we will attempt to show, but not limited to, phenomenology itself. Foucault bears witness to a history without purpose and a subject without an essence or a unity. Meaning is ours to create, contest and defend in a struggle of resistance against the totalizing understanding of history and experience. Foucault’s goal is to unhinge and disturb precisely the types of sedimented grand narratives that portray the present as a natural and inevitable outcome of the past. Toward the end, we will draw a parallel between phenomenological methods and what Foucault refers to as pastoral power, in order to expose phenomenology as a panopticonic regime of truth and a type of governmentality.
According to Aldea & Allen, 2016, Husserl’s Crisis marks a methodological turning point for phenomenology, where eidetic structuresare no longer only constitutive of individual or present collective reality, but are now also spread out throughout the entire historical horizon of civilizations and the sciences in particular. The goal of the historical a priori is to realize “the universal structures of meaning constitution” (Aldea, Allen, 2016 2), that have now become historical. The historico-invariant structures are intentional and transcendental. This implies that they are simultaneously subject-constituted and objective. In other words, the historical a priori is inter-subjectively and teleologically determined through the lifeworld. It is important to note that these notions: Lifeworld, Intentionality, Transcendental, Eidos etc., they all represent essences; unchanging fixed points of historical and present experiential coherence. This is where Foucault’s point of contention with the classical historical a priori lies. Foucault is radically opposed to the idea of radical universality and his view of history, is that of radical contingencies.
“One way of understanding the Husserlian notion of teleology is to identify it with a certain commitment to an Enlightenment notion of scientific rationality driven toward complete knowledge.” (Aldea, Allen, 2016 4) In this sense, Husserl’s project is a classical, western, totalizing meta-narrative, where philosophy serves to unify and bring together the specialized developments from all the other scientific disciplines into a meaningful whole with the added historical function of showing how the over-arching logic of the movement of reason can morph and change its outer layers, embodied in both cultural practices and scientific revolutions. With Husserl, no revolution is absolute, because nothing can deter reason from realizing itself and therefore, authentic disruptions are only apparent disruptions. Husserl was committed to the idea of progress. This raises some serious ethical worries i.e. how would Husserl reconcile, had he witnessed, the Nazi atrocities of WWII with the idea of a purposefully driven historical-eidetic universe? An interesting and important question, but one for a different occasion.
Foucault’s historical a priori is properly termed a genealogy. Genealogies are aimed at dismantling what, according to Foucault, are false claims to reason, universality or to any element of stable invariance of truth across time: “even though something called ‘‘history’’ holds a privileged place in Foucault’s methodology, this privileging is not tied to any universal or trans-historical claims about the historicity of reason or of philosophy as a rational enterprise” (Aldea, Allen, 2016 4). In many ways, Foucault’s project is a history of the historical a priori, it is a way of historicizing history itself and offering alternative narratives. Foucault is fundamentally anti-teleological.
Husserl claims the existence of a transcendent reality which grounds and provides the possibility for a practical engagement and mastery of our environment through human activity and technological intervention. The application of scientific knowledge as technology, only testifies to the existence of the universal reason, the proper origin of which is to be uncovered within the cultural lifeworld of the constituting subject or inter-subjectively, through the community of monads. Foucault rejects any systematic theory of the subject, substituting Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity with discontinuous practices of the self or techniques of subjectivation. It is precisely the local practices of self-mastery and the governmentalities or technologies of the self that allow for the constructive fabrication of the “transcendental”. According to Foucault, universal reason is another instance of mythological thinking used to hide the various relations of power, different forms of (self)governance that shape our relationship with each other, with “the truth” and the world.
We could point to a distinctive, though somewhat superficial similarity between the Foucaultian and Husserlian readings of history using the notion of deep history offered by James Dodd in the article Deep history: reflections on the archive and the lifeworld. Both philosopher-historians make a point to deviate from traditional historiographical approaches. Both thinkers aim to locate the conditions of possibility for knowledge and experience. They both engage with historical epistemologies. But where Husserl aims to unearth the working of an a priori reason dwelling deeper than what traditional readings in the history of science can offer, or beyond/underneath the everyday unreflective human experience; Foucault instead aims to show that there is no a priori of history other than that which exhibits temporary regularities and local constructions. In Husserl’s case the conditions of possibility are ideal, eternal and universal, while for Foucault, they are material, local and temporary.
Both thinkers are concerned with the history of the present. Both recognize the importance of tracing the a priori back to the present. “This is of course also to say that the whole of the cultural present, understood as a totality, “implies” the whole of the cultural past in an undetermined but structurally determined generality” (Husserl 1989, 371). And also: “After all, it does seem to me that one of the major functions of what is called “modern” philosophy — whose beginning and development can be situated at the very end of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century — one of its essential functions is questioning itself about its own present reality” (Foucault 2010, 14–15). The difference however, is sharp. They differ in their methods, ethics and goals. Where Husserl is seeking the universal invariant which explains and reinforces present cultural practices (to save them from the crisis) within scientific discourse, Foucault seeks to undermine them. The first seeks to uncover the (necessary) a priori of history, while the latter aims to demonstrate the (contingent) history of the a priori.
One may be tempted to argue that Foucault and Husserl are aiming to achieve the same thing through different means. Some researchers may believe in the possibility of integration. Since Husserl is concerned both with the universal and the particular, while Foucault insists on the one-sided predominance of the particular, there will be many attempts to assimilate Foucaultian historiography to Husserlian teleology in an attempt for reconciliation. This paper argues that such a reading is unacceptable and only serves to sacrifice Foucault’s originality and his critical views to the traditional narrative of philosophical continuity. It is precisely such totalizing readings that Foucault constantly resists and refuses. A Husserlian reading of Foucault is effectively a subversion of the genealogical project. If we are to remain Foucaultians, as opposed to elite academic bureaucrats, we must put our foot down and resist such illusory dreams of suave objectivity.
Harry Nethery’s dissertation Husserl and Foucault on the subject: The companions, offers precisely such an attempt at laying the common ground for Husserlian and Foucaultian scholarship. Despite the problematic nature of the thesis, Nethery offers a good account of the antagonism between the two thinkers. Foucault’s anti-teleological stance goes hand in hand with his anti-subjectivism. Accordingly, Husserlian teleology finds its grounding in the phenomenological theory of the subject. “If Foucault’s general project is to be understood as a critical ontology of the present, in which we focus on the contingent limits of our present and possible fields of experience, then he will resist any view of the subject in which the subject is posited as the origin of all meaning” (Nethery 2013, 16). The problem of positing the subject as constituting as opposed to being constituted lies in the fact that such theorizing would serve to disguise the power-structures which determine the subject from without. A transcendental subject is a subject which denies and therefore desires her own subjection by remaining oblivious, as opposed to a subject who realizes that her subjectivity is in fact a product of power-relations. The latter is already desubjectivized and forced to engage in a struggle towards liberation through constant questioning and self-transformation. The problem with phenomenology is essentially the same as the more wide-spread problem of, for instance, liberal governance. A subject that assumes her freedom and autonomy is one that presumes such autonomy and thereby suppresses the possibility of resistance. In our contemporary situation, a phenomenological subject is a liberal subject par excellence.
In order to displace the subject, Foucault offers an immanent critique of phenomenology by deterritorializing the technique of the Epokhe. The Epokhe (ἐποχή) is a phenomenological act of “bracketing” the external reality. A suspension, of the naïve, the natural-scientific and the every-day human attitude; the entrance hall to phenomenology. The ἐποχή is the starting point and an initiation, without which the phenomenological attitude remains hidden. In classical phenomenology the technique of suspension is directed outwards onto the world in order to allow for the transcendental subject to emerge from the transience of the phenomenal reality. It is the first step towards grounding the subject transcendentally, leading eventually to the fully formed intentional subject. “Whereas Husserl suspends the world to find the subject, Foucault suspends the subject to find the systems in which the subject is constituted, and thus enacts a reversal of Husserl’s phenomenological method” (Nethery 2013, 20). What Foucault offers to the phenomenological, subjectivizing technique of the self, is a counter-conduct and an alternative technique that we can term self-bracketing. By bracketing the self, one ceases to be a subject (to herself) and engages in an anti-phenomenological struggle to escape the normalizing, institutional discourse of phenomenological discipline.
A comprehensive account of the Husserlian project is offered by Edmund Hyder in Foucault, Cavaillès, and Husserl on the historical epistemology of the sciences: “Transcendental philosophies of science seek to ground norms in the origins of conscious experience. They explain their validity by arguing that the latter are implicit in the structure of experience, whether this experience is my own or that of my predecessors” (Hyder, 2003 188–189). This is an excellent summary. It shows the direct link between the phenomenological theory of the subject and social norms grounded in their historical episteme, while demonstrating (through our Foucaultian reading) that it is the first that binds the second to the transcendental consciousness through the third, thereby strengthening their tripartite hold on the self. In the above passage, Hyder does not explicitly mention the role of the episteme. And since we still need to discuss Husserl’s notion of the Lifeworld in more detail, placing the two notion side by side may prove very effective in demonstrating another contrasting element, the effects of which are felt within the philosophical arena of history.
The concept of Lebenswelt translated as lived experience or lifeworld is one of several skeleton keys which helps the phenomenologist identify, trace and reactivate the sedimented meaning-structures that operate like links in a chain, both within the immediate experience of the subject and throughout the history of (Western) science and culture. It refers simultaneously to a custom, an epistemology and a set of pre-given cultural practices. It accounts for the effectiveness of scientific practices in the present, their underlying social reality as well as the tradition that hands down these ideal structures from generation to generation unknowingly. It belongs both to the immediate self-given experience of the subject as well as the inter-subjectively constituted common realm of objectivity. The Lifeworld is also one of the ideal structures that can be revealed through the technique of the Epokhe, since the natural attitude tends to take the lived experience for granted. The lifeworld is a universal par excellence, one that is arguably much more elusive than the universals of Madness, Justice, Truth and others, that Foucault sought to deconstruct. Despite the enormous difficulty of deconstructing the lifeworld as part of an archaeology of phenomenology, such an Herculean undertaking is a battle that every Foucaultian should be ready to wage.
“The life-world was always there for mankind before science, then, just as it continues its manner of being in the epoch of science” (Husserl, 1989 123). The lifeworld is a pre-theoretical realm of intuited data. It is the common-sense that dwells underneath formalized scientific statements and that which the scientist naturally relies upon when cornered by epistemic questioning. The difference between the Husserlian lifeworld and the Foucaultian episteme is that the first aims to justify these unconscious structures as legitimate intuitions of ideality and grounds for knowledge, whereas the latter serves to show the unconscious bias, a structure which is material, contingent and most of all, one that is placed or deployed through the operation of various power-mechanisms. Both the episteme and the lifeworld operate on a deeper level of reality, they both account for the present and the past, and they both present themselves as anonymous conditions of knowledge and experience.
Having offered a surveyable exposition of the lifeworld, we should now take more time in drawing up a schema for the Foucaultian notion of the episteme. The episteme is most comprehensively discussed in Foucault’s magnum opus: The Order of Things: “I am not concerned, therefore, to describe the progress of knowledge towards an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognized; what I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the episteme in which knowledge, envisaged apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or to its objective forms, grounds its positivity and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility; in this account, what should appear are those configurations within the space of knowledge which have given rise to the diverse forms of empirical science. Such an enterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of that word, as an ‘archaeology’” (Foucault, 1995 xxiii-xxiv). Right from the preface, by drawing up the distinction between history and archaeology, Foucault immediately distances himself from all teleological conceptions of science, reason or progress. To put it bluntly, Foucault is crafting a weapon that can be used as an anti-science, one that identifies the conditions of possibility for science, meaning, tradition and/or any set of common cultural practices, but one that exposes these same conditions as entirely arbitrary. With Foucault, science is “founded” on the political economy of science which disguises itself through the episteme. Phenomenology, by contrast transforms the episteme into a lifeworld, re-constituting relations of power and domination by universalizing or naturalizing and thereby strengthening the relations of force which support and promote the status quo i.e. “the order of things”. With Husserl, the conditions of possibility testify to the “growing perfection” of teleological reason, while Foucault takes pains to separate the conditions of possibility from a positive grounding by demonstrating that the epistemological conditions of knowledge are material and discontinuous.
Already in his introduction to Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, according to Thomas Flynn, Foucault begins to distance himself from the phenomenological tradition, the inherent Kantianism and Hegelianism (and undoubtedly the Cartesianism) of phenomenology being the main reasons. Setting aside Flynn’s entirely unjustified ascription of normativity to Foucault, the article; Foucault on experiences and the historical a priori: with Husserl in the rearview mirror of history, offers another illustrative quote for the exposition of the Foucaultian historical a priori: “What matters here is to remove all chronological and historical succession from the perspective of a ‘progress,’ to reveal in the history of an experience, a movement in its own right, uncluttered by a teleology of knowledge or the orthogenesis of learning. The aim here is to uncover the design and structures of the experience of madness provided by the classical age (HM, 122)” (Flynn, 2016 57). Once again, testifying to Foucault’s anti-teleologism and the rejection of the idea of progress. Foucault’s account of experience is accordingly “astructural” in character. Very much the opposite of the Husserlian eidetic structures scattered across the Heraclitean flux, or the stream of consciousness, the Foucaultian madman presents an account of the self which dwells in pure difference. Structure is only imposed externally through the operation of power. It is through the panopticonic gaze that e.g. madness could, I argue, acquire a phenomenological dimension by way of a forceful imposition of a unity (of a subject) onto the self. The closest that one may arrive at attaining a real, “authentic” or full experience, according to Foucault, is through the work of limit experiences, but even then, there can be no claim to a transcendent, unchanging realm of truths, ideas or forms, but rather an effect of self-transformation. Limit experiences thus constitute one of many techniques of the self. Acts of desubjectification. Alternative narratives belong to alternative lifestyles. Counter-conduct, therefore, is both direct and indirect, present and historical. One must transgress today and one must write a history of past transgressions, all at the same time. Phenomenology engages in a “struggle” of the opposite type. One that aims to territorialize, stabilize, legitimate or in other ways account for “the way things are”, by returning to “the things themselves”.
It is therefore, through the deployment of an episteme, that our experiences become structured, either eidetically or otherwise, it is the episteme; the lifeworld that nails the self to the subject. We are phenomenologically chained to our own identity. This is what accounts for the intricate nexus of power and knowledge in phenomenological discourse. This is the way in which phenomenology compels us to speak the “truth” about ourselves as (transcendental) subjects, thereby constituting us (externally) as subjects. Creating a very powerful Cartesian illusion of autonomy and independence serves to hide the multiple relations of conflicting forces and micro-dominations underneath the apparent unity of the self.
Let us now approach the question from a new angle. Perhaps we could lay the groundwork for an original account of phenomenology as a technique of subjugation; the phenomenological Panopticon. In order to do so, let us first briefly summarize the idea of the Panopticon. The panopticonic gaze is discussed in Discipline and Punish: “Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately” (Foucault, 1975 200). Clearly, the Panopticon represents a condensed literary model of disciplinary power, but the effect of the panopticonic gaze can be interpreted in a partially literal sense (in terms of actual physical spaces of the factory, the school or the barracks etc.) or in an entirely metaphorical sense (an internalized surveillance of the self as a result of training and subjectivation). It is the latter, and its manifestation in pastoral power, which we will use as a more concrete analogy, that will prove particularly useful in deconstructing the phenomenological gaze.
In order to see phenomenology as a type of governmentality, we must demonstrate (at least for the time being) that the method by which the self is anchored to the unity of the transcendental subject is similar to the technique by which the Christian subject is initiated into and/or maintained within — i.e. governed, through pastoral power. This could serve as a preliminary introduction to a “Genealogy of the Transcendental Subject”, a more comprehensive critique of transcendentalism. We must now turn to a text entitled Security, Territory, Population; a collection of lectures given by Michel Foucault at the College de France, where the thematic of pastoral power as a disciplinary technique and a method of governance is discussed in some detail.
“The pastoral relationship in its full and positive form is therefore essentially the relationship of God to men. It is a religious type of power that God exercises over his people” (Foucault, 2007 124–125). This is where the idea of the pastor or the shepherd originates from, and the people, those that are governed, occupy the place of the flock. Naturally, there is the additional mediation of the priest who serves as the intermediary between God and the people. What testifies to the original (and perhaps obvious) alliance between the state and the church is that the very same mediating function was occupied by the King. Resulting in the often uneven and well-known distribution of powers and their contestation between the King and the clergy. One particular feature of pastoral power is that it is exercised in a way that is mobile, it administers bodies in territorial transition. “The
shepherd’s power is not exercised over a territory but, by definition, over a flock, and more exactly, over the flock in its movement from one place to another. The shepherd’s power is essentially exercised over a multiplicity in movement” (Foucault, 2007 125). Another feature, is that pastoral power is an “individualizing” power. “The shepherd counts the sheep; he counts them in the morning when he leads them to pasture, and he counts them in the evening to see that they are all there, and he looks after each of them individually. He does everything for the totality of his flock, but he does everything also for each sheep of the flock” (Foucault, 2007 128). The third and final feature of pastoral power is that it is inherently teleological. God has a plan for his flock and the people need a guide, in the form of a priest or a prophet who leads the flock to a purposefully determined end, making sure that each and every one stays in line and follows. It is the latter in particular that shows a strong resemblance to the ideas deployed in the Crisis. The idea of the destiny and the resolution of the crisis, “the telos which was inborn in European humanity” (Husserl, 1989 15), where each is a single individuated monad in a community (or flock) of monads who constitute the lifeworld inter-subjectively. Not to mention that phenomenological influence is also highly mobile, its effects are felt well outside the lecture hall. Wherever one goes, she can perform an Epokhe, meditate on the “nature” of the subject, her experiences, her directedness to objects, the linguistic meaning-systems and the history of western thought etc. We have here, an internalized form of self-surveillance through a particular theory of human experience, science and history. The phenomenologico-panopticonic gaze is thus introverted and internalized through a particular practice of the self, a form of self-mastery that exhibits a structure and therefore ensures a behavioral consistency, a conformity to a norm. It seems that “God sees us” through phenomenology, just as well as he could see us through the eyes of the school teacher or the prison warden.
We have embarked on an ambitious project and despite the institutional constraints and regulations, like requirements for the thematic unity and the word-count of an academic piece of written text, we were able to cover a lot of ground during our undertaking. By scrutinizing the Genealogical and Phenomenological accounts of history, we have shown that their similarities and resemblances are only apparent and superficial. By refusing the phenomenological project, we have proposed an alternative “theory” of the self, history and the sciences. A Foucaultian reading of The Crisis reveals that phenomenology is a powerful technique of control and subjugation; a scaled and rational application of a subjectivizing grid of eidetic essences that bind the self to the subject and the subject — to the norm. The phenomenologico-panopticonic gaze, analogous to pastoral power, operates at two levels of subjectivation: The individual level and the level of the group. The first individualizes and essentializes the self, creating a powerful illusion of freedom, disguising the relations of power which constitute our experience. The second, imposes a structure and paralyzes our relations with each other, through the conceptual web of interrelated notions of the lifeworld and the community of monads.
By way of summary, let us recall the Foucaultian notion of parrhesia (παρρησία). “Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy” (Foucault, 2001 19–20). The goal of this paper was to engage in a parrhesiastic game with the institution of phenomenological philosophy and offer an alternative account of history and the self. To expose Husserlian phenomenology as a type of modern governmentality; a power-structure, similar to Christian pastoral forms of governance, subjugation and subjectivation. With the criticism laid down, I hope to have presented a powerful starting point for a more comprehensive and in-depth genealogical project that can be used to attack Husserl’s Crisis and prevent it from assimilating the Foucaultian perspective into yet another western or Eurocentric account of science, progress and “human destiny”.
Thank you for reading.
This text has also been published in the “Epokhe Magazine”, here’s the link to the article: Phenomenological Panopticon @ EpocheMagazine.org
 The invariant elements or essences within human experience that can only be uncovered through the ‘bracketing’ of the natural attitude or the Epokhe.
 i.e. the lifeworld — a shared cultural space of tacit rules and taken-for-granted practices
 An episteme is a term coined by Foucault and it refers to a set of pre-given notions which determine the foundation of scientific knowledge for a specific historical period. We will discuss the term in length by contrast to its sibling term lifeworld.
 An interesting direction for research, which could serve as one of many sub-sections for a book-length project studying the historical a priori between Foucault and Husserl. One that I am hoping to undertake in the future.
 That is, the final attribute of pastoral government needed for our purposes specifically.
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