Foucault and Arendt: the tensions and integrity of critical thinking

In this work, I present an interpretation of two thinkers, Foucault and Arendt. I place these thinkers within a tradition of critical theory running from Kant to Nietzsche. The opposition between modernism and postmodernism, between its philosophical sources, Kant and Nietzsche, has been widely overstated, for example, in the polemical stance taken by Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse ofModenfity (1987). 1 am concerned to show that this way of mapping does Foucault and Arendt an injustice. Foucault and Arendt accept Nietzsche's critique of reason and Western thought and attack Kant's official philosophy, an analytical philosophy of truth. Yet they also appropriate Kant's reflection on the Enlightenment and revolution (Foucault) and his aesthetic judgment (Arendt). More importantly, Foucault and Arendt embrace postmodern sensibility not as an absolute given but as an attitude that must be - at the risk of inviting Nietzschean scorn - constantly checked and examined. For them, critique is based as much on a serious and sustained interrogation of historical experience as it is on a deconstruction of metaphysical philosophy. Recognizing the problems of attaching labels to Foucault's work and that of Arendt, I focus on the tensions and complexity of their work. There are tensions in Foucault's thought between totalizing/detotalizing impulses, discursive/extra-discursive theorization, macro/micro perspectives, and domination/resistance relations as well as between ethical-political commitments and archaeological detachment. There are also tensions in Arendt's thought between creative rupture and exercise in retrieval, between agonism and consensus as well as between existential engagement and philosophical withdrawal. Critical thought, which is experiment as well as problematization, must constantly live within a field of tension. In this light, I argue that these tensions provide the elements for the uniqueness and coherence of their work and that viewing these tensions as a source of flagrant contradiction fundamentally distorts their intentions
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