Michel Foucault has been called many things, from a young conservative to a faux radical, from a neo-liberal to an infantile leftist. Whatever the hermeneutical value of these epithets may be, there is a term with which Foucault is almost unequivocally associated, namely, critique.

As for the latter, it is, almost as inevitably as with Foucault, tied with the notion of history. In other words, it is difficult to imagine a properly critical philosophical enterprise that would not, at least to some extent, investigate concrete historical phenomena or present its argument with reference to particular historical events or general historical processes.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Foucault, a philosopher, a historian, and a critic, found himself critically investigating the historical sources of his philosophical outlook. Among the various attempts to trace this lineage, his 1978 lecture “What is Critique?” stands out as the most commonly referenced account of what Foucault called “the critical attitude”.[i]

What is more astonishing, however, is how little attention has been paid to the properly historical or, in other words, genealogical side of his argument. This astonishment can quickly turn into disbelief or perhaps even disquiet, especially if we consider the popularity of the not-being-governed slogan, not only among contemporary Foucauldians but also within the larger spectrum of present-day critical social movement.

Of course, Foucault did not characterize the critical attitude as the will of not-being-governed at all. What he actually wrote and said was: not-being-governed like that. Behind this small word, the French ainsi, lies a whole world of difference, we’re told. Foucault was not one of those dinosaur philosophers attached to such prehistoric terms as “the universal” or “the absolute”. The attitude he described was neither an expression of nor a call for some original freedom or fundamental anarchism, but, rather, the indicator and instigator of local and strategic struggles.

Message well received. Or has it been? In fact, like any other historico-philosophical argument, Foucault’s cannot be fully grasped without considering both sides of the hyphen, the historical and the philosophical. Likewise, like any other historico-philosophical argument, it cannot be fully appreciated if we do not follow the direction in which it was developed. In Foucault’s case, this would imply at least briefly stopping at the historical before rushing on to the philosophical.

Let us, therefore, begin at the beginning. Foucault claims that the rise of the critical attitude was anchored in three concrete historical phenomena. First, the will of not-being-governed like that was inscribed in the early modern religious movements of refusing, challenging, limiting ecclesiastical rule and implied a certain return to the Holy Scriptures. Second, it leaned on universalist ideas of natural law in order to counter what was perceived as unjust, abusive, or even fundamentally illegitimate legal systems and measures. Finally, it manifested itself in the refusal to automatically accept something as true just because an authoritative figure said it was so.

Described with Foucault’s own conceptual tool-set, the critical attitude thus historically emerged in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe, a period marked both by the explosion of governmental techniques and the numerous points of resistance to these primarily pastoral but also increasingly secular procedures. In short, the “art of voluntary insubordination” was, from its very inception in modern western societies, tied to concrete battles and discrete objectives, that is, to a will of not-being-governed “thusly”, “by these people”, “at this price”.[ii]

Inheriting this tradition, many of the current social uprisings tend to portray themselves in terms of clearly delimited refusals of governmental measures and political systems without any pretensions whatsoever at imposing, enforcing, or replacing them with governmental measures and systems of their own. Similarly, contemporary Foucauldian literature abounds both in theoretical exegesis and practical appreciations of such an understanding of critique. Is it coherent with what Foucault has said and written elsewhere? Is it practically tenable or even ethically suitable as a guideline for concrete political actions of groups and individuals?

Whatever the answers to these questions may be, and whatever the degree of our repulsion towards historiographical nitpicking, a properly Foucauldian (re)appraisal of Foucault’s conception of the critical attitude cannot turn a blind eye to the problems posed by the genealogical account from which it is derived.

For instance, if we acknowledge Foucault’s claim that it was indeed the Reformation that represented the “first critical movement of the art of not being governed”, we can no longer accept his description of the reformed “return to the Scriptures” as one of simple “refusal” of ecclesiastical rule.[iii] Without going into the nitty-gritty details of the reformed principle of Sola Scriptura, two things should be clear to anyone with at least a distant interest in this period.

On the one hand, neither Lutheranism nor Calvinism, to focus only on these two main strands of the Reformation of the time, discursively advocated for or practically implied what one could anachronistically call the “withering of the Church”. On the contrary, both represented a reorganization of the ecclesiastical phenomenon, that is, a refoundation of its internal functioning and external relations, and, thus, a continuation of the Church as the primary matrix of religious life and a fundamental factor in political and social organization.

On the other hand, the Reformation was far from a uniform phenomenon and there were many different ways in which the Scripture was evoked and referred to as the sole pole of religious certainty. Furthermore, in some cases, even this pole was eventually discarded and the certainty it connoted was left to the inner connection between an individual believer and God himself. To be sure, this latter point is not one of yawn-provoking historical detail. Instead, it implies acknowledging the existence of divergent sources and antagonistic traditions of the critical attitude, with quite different positions on how sacred truth can and should be attained and with quite different stances towards authority – both sacred and profane.

At this stage, one could go on and insist on several other problematic features of Foucault’s genealogy, such as, for example, the presumed local and strategic character of the Reformation, or the supposed structural equivalence of the critical attitude of the Reformation and that of the (Kantian) Aufklärung. If the first interpretation can be discarded quite rapidly by pointing to the rather general and all-encompassing goals of (at least the two main strands of) the Reformation, the second urgently needs a detailed account of how the critical attitude of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when insubordination was based on Faith, metamorphosed into the critical attitude of the Aufklärung, whose main moving force was apparently Reason.

However, just as important as revisiting these concrete points of Foucault’s historical account, is the question of the surprisingly transhistorical characterization of critique in terms of “virtue” and “courage,” to which it gave way. Simply put: is critique a historical phenomenon rooted in and indebted to modern western societies, or, rather, a transhistorical potentiality of human beings as such? While it would be, of course, theoretically possible to interpret the birth of the critical attitude as a temporal actualization of an inherently human aptitude, such a stance would seem to seriously harm the relevance both of Foucault’s concrete historical account and of genealogy as a method of philosophical research.

Just as Foucault’s insistence of qualifying the will of not-being-governed by apparently benign words as “thusly”, “by these people”, “at this price”, can stimulate our interest in various competing and conflicting historical traditions of critical governmentality, genealogy’s ultimate escape into the high spheres of philosophical abstraction can urge us to reflect on its interpretative limitations.

To do so, however, would mean repeating Foucault’s gesture towards Hegel: it would imply “an exact appreciation of what it costs to detach ourselves from Foucault; a knowledge of how close Foucault has come to us, perhaps insidiously; a knowledge of what it is still Foucauldian in that which allows us to think against Foucault; and an ability to gauge how much our resources against Foucault are perhaps still a ruse which he is using against us, and at the end of which he is waiting for us, immobile and elsewhere”.[iv]



[i] Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), 1997), 41–81.

[ii] Ibid., p. 75.

[iii] Ibid., p. 52.

[iv] See Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse,” in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 48–78, p. 74. The syntax of Foucault’s sentence has been modified to fit this text and all the references to “Hegel” replaced by “Foucault”.