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http://psc.sagepub.com/ Philosophy & Social Criticism http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/6/709 The online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/0191453711400244 2011 37: 709 originally published online 14 June 2011 Philosophy Social Criticism Thomas Biebricher The practices of theorists: Habermas and Foucault as public intellectuals Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com can be found at: Philosophy & Social Criticism Additional services and information for http://psc.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts: http://psc.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/6/709.refs.html Citations: What is This? - Jun 14, 2011 OnlineFirst Version of Record - Jun 29, 2011 Version of Record >> at Copenhagen University Library on January 3, 2014 psc.sagepub.com Downloaded from at Copenhagen University Library on January 3, 2014 psc.sagepub.com Downloaded from
Page 1: The Practices of Theorists Habermas and Foucault as Public Intellectuals

http://psc.sagepub.com/Philosophy & Social Criticism

http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/6/709The online version of this article can be found at:

 DOI: 10.1177/0191453711400244

2011 37: 709 originally published online 14 June 2011Philosophy Social CriticismThomas Biebricher

The practices of theorists: Habermas and Foucault as public intellectuals  

Published by:


can be found at:Philosophy & Social CriticismAdditional services and information for    

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- Jun 14, 2011 OnlineFirst Version of Record 

- Jun 29, 2011Version of Record >>

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Page 2: The Practices of Theorists Habermas and Foucault as Public Intellectuals


The practices oftheorists: Habermasand Foucault as publicintellectuals

Thomas BiebricherGoethe-Universitat Frankfurt

AbstractThe scholarly works of Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault have been subject to ongoing scrutinyfor a number of decades. However, less attention has been given to their activities as publicintellectuals and the relation between these and their philosophical and theoretical projects.Drawing on their own conceptualization of the role of the intellectual, the article aims toilluminate these issues by examining Habermas’ advocacy of a ‘Core Europe’ and his defense ofNATO bombardments in Kosovo in 1999 as well as Foucault’s involvement with the Grouped’Information des Prisons (GIP) and a wide variety of his interviews, op-ed articles, etc. In showingthat the intellectuals’ views differ in important ways from those of the scholars but nevertheless inha-bit a crucial position in the overall edifice of their oeuvres, the article concludes that the practices oftheorists deserve more attention for a comprehensive and more nuanced account of their thought.

KeywordsAlbert Camus, Europe, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, , intellectual, Kosovo


The scholarly works of both Habermas and Foucault have been subject to ongoing

scrutiny for a number of decades. However, their activities as ‘public intellectuals’1 have

received much less attention. Yet both thinkers have taken on this role. Foucault had

been involved in numerous political and social causes ever since his return to France

from Tunisia in 1970.2 Habermas, in contrast, has rarely lent his name to political

Corresponding author:

Thomas Biebricher, Cluster of Excellence ‘Formation of Normative Orders’, Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt,

Senckenberganlage 31, 60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Email: [email protected]

Philosophy and Social Criticism37(6) 709–734

ª The Author(s) 2011Reprints and permission:

sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.navDOI: 10.1177/0191453711400244


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movements but continues to be a regular and influential contributor to the op-ed pages of

German newspapers, and occasionally French and American, ones, where he offers

astute political analyses, in which he does not shy away from taking sides.3

In this article I would like to examine these ‘practices’ of two of the most influential

contemporary public intellectuals. What interests me in particular is the relation between

these practices and the respective theories of the intellectuals. In turn, I will explore

whether the prima facie tensions that exist between the two can be accounted for with

reference to Habermas’ and Foucault’s respective understanding of the role of the


Although I will devote a significant part of this article to highlighting such tensions,

my ultimate purpose is not to make an ad hominem argument that accuses Foucault and

Habermas of failing to practise what they preach.

Rather, I would like to treat their practical activities as an additional dimension of the

respective oeuvres that has been under-appreciated and might prompt us to look at the

works of both Foucault and Habermas in a different way.4 Specifically, it will serve

as an antidote to the incessantly circulating cliches of Foucault as the cynic of power

whose self-defeating anti-humanism effectively undermines all emancipatory political

action and thus inadvertently strengthens the status quo,5 and those of Habermas as the

dreamer of universal reason and consensus who is out of touch with reality.

Finally, there are two potential reservations regarding the task of this article that

I would like to address immediately. First, there is the question whether political theory

is well advised to focus on interviews, political activities and even more or less personal

letters in its assessment of a particular thinker. While I have my own reservations about

an overly biographical approach to political theory that will sift through the personal cor-

respondence of a writer to find additional clues to his or her thought, I believe that such

concerns do not apply to the material I intend to analyse in this article.6 As intellectuals,

both Habermas and Foucault are self-chosen public figures; the activities, writings and

interviews I will make reference to are all published by them or with their explicit per-

mission, and neither of them has ever tried to keep any of these ‘practices’ secret, as if

they were part of a private sphere to be respected by commentators – quite to the con-

trary. Therefore, I believe that it is perfectly legitimate to explore the relation between

scholarly endeavors and activities as intellectuals, not the least because both are widely

regarded not just as philosophers but as political philosophers.

Second, raising the question of tensions between scholarly treatises and practices seems

to presuppose a certain unity of an oeuvre – in this case including the dimension of practices.

This assumption is contentious, particularly, with respect to Foucault who has often

stressed the discontinuities in his writings.7 However, while I concur with the view of

Foucault’s work as one of many diachronic shifts and displacements that seems to defy

any internal unity, it is, once more, Foucault himself who has emphasized the intricate

relation between his writings and his political activities: ‘But if one is interested in doing

historical work that has political meaning, utility and effectiveness, then this is possible

only if one has some kind of involvement with the struggles taking place in the area in

question’ (Foucault, 1980: 64). This is particularly obvious in the link between his work

for the GIP (Groupe d’Information des Prisons) and Discipline and Punish. But it has

been asserted by Foucault as a more general pattern that holds for much of his scholarly

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work: ‘If I do the analyses I do, it is . . . because I have been involved in certain conflicts

regarding medicine, psychiatry and the penal system’ (ibid.: 65).

In the case of Habermas my approach appears even less problematic given the many

substantive interrelations between his scholarly work and his op-ed activities as well as

his occasional attempts to articulate the relation between scholar and intellectual with

reference to himself, which also presupposes a minimal unity. Such a minimal unity,

in my view, only amounts to the assumption that theories and practices are not entirely

independent from one another and, thus, it is possible to increase our understanding of

the one through the other.

The article is structured as follows. As a preface to the core of my analysis I offer a

brief discussion of Habermas’ and Foucault’s views on the notion of the intellectual.

I will then proceed to examine a number of cases of their ‘public intellectualism’. Of

course, I can neither cover each and every op-ed piece by Habermas, nor all of the many

resolutions signed by Foucault. With regard to the former, I will focus on two particu-

larly controversial cases, namely his advocacy of the NATO bombardments during the

Kosovo War in 1999 and his plea(s) for a European constitutional process that might

necessitate a ‘Core Europe’ acting as a transitory catalyst. My discussion of Foucault will

place considerable emphasis on his role in the founding and operating of the GIP but also

make reference to a fairly wide range of other reported activities, resolutions and inter-

view statements. In the final section, I will draw together the findings and offer some

concluding thoughts about the link between scholar and intellectual in the two cases

examined as well as on the relation between theory and practice in general.

1 General vs. specific intellectual

Conveniently, both Habermas and Foucault have addressed the concept of the intellec-

tual themselves in more or less detail. Therefore, their own considerations can serve as a

starting point for a comparison of their activities as intellectuals.

The concept of the intellectual is largely absent from Habermas’ thought until the

1980s, when he explicitly scrutinizes the history of intellectuals in Germany in a speech

on Heinrich Heine, the German poet and satirist who ends up spending many years of his

life in political exile in Paris (Habermas, 1987a). I will return to Habermas’ historical

sketch once I have examined Foucault’s differing conception of the intellectual. For the

time being, let us consider Habermas’ view on what characterizes an intellectual. Just

like Heinrich Heine in his political comments, the latter becomes active in the name

of public interests, although she or he cannot claim any special expertise regarding the

particular matter at hand. Paying respect to the specific logic of the political, economic,

legal or aesthetic sphere in which the embattled topic is located, the intellectual inter-

venes as a relative dilettante, ‘in order to widen the spectrum of topics and arguments

considered and to keep the political communication open’ (Habermas, 1990: 97).8 It

is only in passing that Habermas has referred to himself as an intellectual – and quite

unenthusiastically, one might add. He views the role of the public intellectual attributed

to him as frequently ‘irritating’ and a disturbance to his academic work (ibid.). There can

be no doubt, though, that this concept of the public intellectual fits Habermas rather well.

As such he particularly gained recognition beyond academic circles through his

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involvement in the so-called ‘Historians’ Controversy’ in the 1980s. Strictly speaking it

was Habermas’ own op-ed piece in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, which trig-

gered the whole debate, when he responded to another article by Ernst Nolte previously

published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that had relativized the racial genocide

of the Nazis as a response to the Bolshevik class genocide.9 At the time, many historians

criticized Habermas’ involvement in a debate located in their domain as an illegitimate

crossing of borders, but, as has been pointed out, such an ‘amateurish’ engagement is

exactly what Habermas considers to be the role of the intellectual. The purpose of the

latter is to spark and enrich public debate and the very provocation inherent in the lack

of formal competence is supposed to contribute to that task. In a way, the intellectual as

envisioned by Habermas is no more than an informed citoyen, who explicitly rejects any

claims to expertise and thus performatively shows the possibility and necessity of open

and inclusive political discourse, not the least against the exclusionary strategies of

‘experts’ (See Habermas 2009a).

Ever since the ‘Historians’ Controversy’ Habermas has used the op-ed pieces of

newspapers at home and abroad to intervene in issues that range from the Kosovo War

to the Holocaust Memorial and, more recently, to the fate of newspapers once they are

controlled by finance investors or the fallout of the financial crisis and, particularly, the

current sovereign debt crisis of some European countries that threatens to erode

European unity and solidarity (see Habermas, 2007; 2010; 2011). The views he

expressed have rarely gone unchallenged in the ensuing debates, but concrete positions

aside, Habermas has rarely failed to accomplish the intellectual’s most general goal, to

provoke and trigger complex and controversial public debate.

In Foucault’s thought the concept of the intellectual reaches the height of its signifi-

cance in the 1970s when he coins the term ‘specific intellectual’ in juxtaposition to the

‘general intellectual’ (see Foucault, 1980: 126).10 Foucault, as far as I know, has never

explicitly attached the label of specific intellectual to himself, and, although some of his

activities fit the description quite well, others, as I will show below, are far more congru-

ent with the concept of the general intellectual. What is the specific intellectual?11 Fou-

cault uses the negative foil of the general intellectual in the tradition of Voltaire, Emile

Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre to clarify the features of the specific intellectual. The general

intellectual speaks in the name of the universal, takes the side of humanity, reason, or

truth and seeks to represent all those excluded from the circuits of public debate. The

archetype of the general intellectual is the writer who exposes the secrets of power and

reveals the truth behind ideological distortions and thus acts as a normative compass for

the people (see ibid.: 126–7). At times, Foucault sharply distinguishes his own work

from that model – although, as mentioned above, it is unclear whether Foucault wants

to claim the label of specific intellectual for himself. The genealogist of the 1970s has

no intentions of veiling the partisan character of his analyses but explicitly embeds his

own work in societal power relations even to the degree of a problematization of intel-

lectuals themselves as ‘agents of this system of power’ (Foucault, 1977: 207). The spe-

cific intellectual lays no claim to a position representing the general interest and also

abstains from advice regarding ‘what is to be done’: ‘they [the masses] know perfectly

well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of

expressing themselves’ (ibid.). The task of the specific intellectual is a different one. She

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or he provides localized, specific and thoroughly partisan knowledge related to the par-

ticular context she is immersed in professionally.

In contrast to the writing lawyer who is the archetype of the general intellectual, the

specific intellectual’s blueprint is ‘the savant or expert’ (Foucault, 1980: 128). Foucault

sees the general intellectual in decline after the Second World War with the simultaneous

rise of the specific intellectual. Still, what kind of knowledge can the latter provide? Fou-

cault’s elaborations are mostly clad in military metaphors. He refers to the task of the

genealogical intellectual as ‘to analyze the specificity of mechanisms of power, to locate

the connections and extensions, to build little by little a strategic knowledge’ (ibid.: 145).

The intellectual ought not to impose her or his analysis onto others, instead she or he is

‘to provide instruments of analysis, to locate lines of weakness, strong points, positions

where the instances of power have secured and implanted themselves, [in short (T.B.)] a

topological survey of the battlefield’ (ibid.: 62). Due to the intellectual’s intimate knowl-

edge of a particular institution, technology or science he or she can offer strategic pro-

files of these fields but also, furthermore, historical accounts that detail the contingency

of various ‘systems of power’, from which their transformability can be inferred: ‘these

things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was they were

made’ (Foucault, 1994c: 127).12 Unlike its organic counterpart in the descriptions of

Antonio Gramsci, the specific intellectual is not aligned with a specific political project

but lends her or his analyses to those who require them in their oppositional struggles.

Taken to the extreme, the specific intellectual shows utter indifference to the subject

positions from which resistance emerges, as long as there is resistance (see Foucault,

1994a: 108). Conversely, any identification of a normative framework by the intellectual

– the preferred action of the general intellectual – is viewed as deeply problematic

because of its normalizing and exclusionary effects: ‘It is because of the need not to tie

them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me of trying to tell them

‘‘what is to be done’’’ (Foucault, 1989: 284).

How do these accounts relate to each other? It seems fairly obvious that Habermas’

concept of the intellectual and his own activities would have to be considered to be sub-

sumable under Foucault’s notion of the general intellectual. Habermas, at least see-

mingly, speaks as a citoyen who attempts to represent the common good – possibly of

humanity, and thus does everything that the specific intellectual tries to avoid. Further-

more, Foucault’s specific intellectual fashioned after the expert is the complete opposite

of Habermas’ dilettante who questions the demarcation lines between various realms and

provokes through his or her very lack of expertise. Interestingly, though, Foucault him-

self has often stressed his relative lack of expertise in the various fields he has worked on

such as medicine, penal institutions and history as a ‘scientific’ discipline itself. Addi-

tionally, Foucault’s self-description as someone whose role it is ‘to raise questions in

an effective, genuine way, and to raise them with the greatest possible rigor . . . to pose

problems, to make them active, to display them in such a complexity that they can

silence the prophets and lawgivers, all those who speak for others or to others’ (Foucault,

1989: 288) is strongly reminiscent of Habermas’ self-understanding as someone who

tries to enrich and broaden a potentially impoverished public debate. This is also con-

firmed by Foucault’s characterization of the intellectual as someone who tries to ‘partic-

ipate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play)’ (ibid.:

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463). Thus, it already becomes apparent that the initial impression of a clear-cut dichot-

omy between the general intellectual Habermas and the specific intellectual Foucault is a

simplistic model that is in need of qualification.

Being familiar with Foucault’s distinction of the two types of intellectuals and his impli-

cit criticism of the general intellectual, Habermas, nonetheless, has repeatedly asserted the

importance of the latter type for the German context. This assessment is based on Habermas’

reading of the history of the German intellectualism briefly hinted at above. In his speech on

Heinrich Heine Habermas paints the picture of Germany as a ‘belated nation’ (Plessner) with

regard to intellectuals that stands in explicit contrast to France.

While the latter predominantly applauded the activities of Voltaire, Zola and Sartre,

the intellectuals were viewed with much greater suspicion in the German context of the

Second Reich, where the intellectual was ridiculed as a political dilettante (Weber) or

vilified as an enemy of the nation (Mann) (see Habermas, 1987a: 28). According to

Habermas, it is only after the Second World War that Germany starts to embrace the

notion of the intellectual in a more positive fashion. Still, even in the postwar context

the status of intellectuals is far from unequivocal. Habermas refers to the fierce criticisms

of intellectuals to be found in the works of Arnold Gehlen, Kurt Sontheimer and Helmut

Schelsky, who coincide in their assessment of intellectuals as societal pathology. There-

fore, Habermas concludes: ‘We can be content if Sartre’s self-understanding of the ‘‘gen-

eral intellectual’’ (Foucault) spreads around here’ (Habermas, 1990: 36).13

We can conclude from this that the respective positions on what it means to be an

intellectual are not as diametrically opposed as it might seem initially. Habermas and

Foucault both argue for the need to historicize the concept of the intellectual. While Fou-

cault claims the adequacy or predominance of the specific intellectual in the French con-

text after 1968, Habermas’ historical account of Germany as a belated nation of

intellectuals lends some plausibility to the general intellectual as an acceptable model

for this context – at least for the time being.

Now it is time to take a closer look at some of the concrete activities of the two


2 Habermasian politics, or, The impurity of becoming

As mentioned above, Habermas has been an extremely prolific and visible public intel-

lectual with numerous op-ed pieces in German, French and American newspapers.

Here, I will focus on only two cases that, in my view, highlight the complex relation-

ship between Habermas’ theories and his ‘practices’ as an intellectual. These are his sup-

port for the NATO bombardments of Belgrade in the Kosovo War in 1999 and his

spirited advocacy of an integrated Europe based on a constitutional treaty up until the

French and Dutch referenda.

2.1 Towards a future cosmopolitan condition – legality and legitimacy in theKosovo War

By 1999 it had become apparent that the Serbian government in Belgrade actively sup-

ported activities of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Kosovo region carried out by Serbian

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militias. After an arduous process of negotiations NATO decided to resort to military

action in order to stop what were considered to be crimes against humanity. In an unpre-

cedented way NATO took action without a mandate by the UN Security Council, which

was unable to reach a decision mostly due to Russian and Chinese resistance. The bom-

bardments triggered intense controversies in many NATO countries. In Germany, the

government’s active support of the military action almost tore the governmental Green

Party apart because of its long-standing pacifist tradition. In the midst of these events

Habermas offered his reading of the situation in an op-ed piece published in the German

weekly Die Zeit.

Habermas’ argument examines the normative legitimacy of the NATO intervention.

The particular angle he chooses emphasizes the goal of a more thorough juridification of

the international arena along the lines of a cosmopolitan law envisioned in Kant’s Per-

petual Peace in contrast to the law of nations that forms the basis of current international

law. Habermas places the Kosovo conflict in the context of a process of ever-increasing

enforcement potentials of human rights.

So far, their effect has mostly been confined to declaratory appeals to a moral univers-

alism and often enough they have thus remained an empty promise. Habermas wants to

see this situation rectified through a codification of individual rights held by the mem-

bers of an international citizenry, which could even be claimed against a particular state

and would be enforceable by the international community. Given the frequency of

domestic conflicts, in which governments more or less openly side with a warring faction

and thus partake in crimes against humanity ranging from displacement of people and

‘ethnic cleansing’ to full-scale genocide as has happened in Rwanda and Sudan, Haber-

mas’ position commands some prima facie normative plausibility. Habermas views the

Kosovo War as a crucial point of transition from the post-1648 law of nations to a truly

cosmopolitan law that provides human rights with legal teeth through enforceability

(Habermas, 1999: 8). To put it in stark terms, the international community either clings

to a legalistic recognition of Serbian sovereignty and thus indirectly cements the status

quo in international law with dire consequences for those persecuted and displaced, or it

shuns the legal constraints and claims the moral legitimacy of an intervention that sup-

posedly relieves the suffering of those subject to ‘ethnic cleansing’ and, more generally,

signifies a step towards a future cosmopolitan condition (Kant). But Habermas wants to

soften the edges of this seemingly aporetic alternative by introducing the notion of

‘emergency help’, which can be found in German criminal law (§ 34 StGB) and has

equivalents in many other domestic legal orders. According to Habermas, democratic

governments can resort to ‘emergency help’ as an ultima ratio when all other options

have been exhausted. Just like the citizen is entitled to defend her or his neighbor through

the use of force in a concrete situation where recourse to courts and law enforcement

agencies is not given, analogous interventions by countries should be covered by the

notion of emergency help. However, Habermas’ attempt at a legal circumscription of the

NATO intervention leads to immense difficulties and thus remains ultimately


In domestic contexts the legality of emergency help is tied to certain preconditions

derived in analogy to police law.15 The legal status of police actions – and it is often

claimed that the NATO intervention is just that on an international scale – in domestic

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contexts can be assessed according to three criteria: is the intervention suitable,

necessary and appropriate. Taking a closer look at the first criterion of suitability already

reveals the problems of Habermas’ argument.16 The question is whether the bombard-

ments are likely to achieve the goal of the emergency help, i.e. stopping the killing and

‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo. The response reveals two important points. First, after a

certain point the suitability of the bombardments can no longer be upheld, given the

widely reported intensification of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ after the beginning of the ‘police

action’.17 Second, the paradoxical implications of the emergency help argument come to

the fore, because the more determined the Serbian government is in pursuing its project

of forced displacement the less justifiable is the intervention in legal terms (see Blanke,

2000: 513). Whether the police action is legal or not, is up to the alleged perpetrator. This

shows that the emergency help argument cannot really shoulder the normative burden

entailed in the justification of the bombardments, aside from the fact that even if the

notion of emergency help had less problematic implications and were already fully

acknowledged in the international arena, the decision whether the preconditions for a

‘police action’ are given clearly has to be reserved for an independent (judicial) institu-

tion and cannot be made by the NATO states themselves (see Habermas, 1999: 5).

This means that Habermas’ argument rests on the anticipation of a ‘perceived future

cosmopolitan condition’ (1999: 5) and willingly accepts an ‘unavoidable temporary

paternalism’ (ibid.: 6) to bring about this future state of affairs.

Despite the caveats Habermas adds, namely that ‘NATO’s self-empowerment should

not become the rule’ (1999: 6), his position amounts to a justification in close analogy to

the ‘Part B’ of Karl-Otto Apel’s version of ‘Discourse Ethics’. In this second part of his

‘Discourse Ethics’ Apel had addressed the crucial question of how to establish the pre-

condition for a generalized implementation of discourse ethical procedures, or, to be

more precise, how to justify the actions necessary for their establishment. Is it legitimate

to use force in order to bring about conditions that make the use of force unnecessary? To

be sure, this is not an entirely new question for political philosophy. One finds different

versions of it in many other works, e.g. in Max Weber’s discussion of the tension

between an ethics of responsibility and an ethics of ultimate ends. Apel’s solution is

to rest the justification of use of force or strategic action more generally on the agreement

of the ideal communication community. Unfortunately, this highly speculative notion

can easily degenerate into a fig leaf for hard-nosed ‘the-ends-justify-the-means’

decision-making rationales, because what exactly the opinion of the ideal communica-

tion community is seems to lie in the eye of the beholder to a very large extent. Habermas

has signaled awareness of the question to which Apel’s ‘Part B’ responds without siding

with the latter or offering any elaborate solutions of his own (see Habermas, 1992). In the

case of the Kosovo War he appears to settle for a different version of ‘Part B’, because

the normative status of the intervention supposedly hinges on the anticipated consent of a

future world citizenry that could potentially provide a post-hoc justification. But of

course, given the peculiar nature of political decisions and that events that come with

unintended consequences abound and involve – in the famous words of Don Rumsfeld

– unknowables of which we do not even know that we do not know them, their consent is

far from guaranteed and Habermas’ construction appears hardly less speculative than

Apel’s and is open to appropriation from all sides. Furthermore, it hardly deserves

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mentioning that in the case of withheld consent from the future world citizenry there

would only be a very limited reversibility to the actions in question, mostly in the form

of retribution, which comes with its own normative problems such as eligibility, retro-

active application, etc.

The fact that Habermas is willing to travel down this normatively troubling road

where force is used illegally is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but before I ascertain

these issues I want to examine another case of Habermas’ public intellectualism, which

reveals a similar dilemma, namely his advocacy of a ‘Core Europe’ as a potentially nec-

essary step towards a more deeply and constitutionally integrated European Union.

2.2 Core Europe and the European Constitution

European integration has been an issue on Habermas’ agenda for a long time. Particu-

larly the essays in his book The Postnational Constellation originally published in

1998 make a comprehensive case for a united Europe; still, it has to be added that

Habermas’ assessments with regard to the chances of successful transition towards a

constitutional democracy of Europe have grown ever more pessimistic culminating in

some recent newspaper op-ed articles chiding particularly German elites for recklessly

having abandoned the European project out of parochial national interests.18 The main

reasons for Habermas’ advocacy can be found in his elaborations on a discursive theory

of democracy in Between Facts and Norms and many other publications. Here, Haber-

mas had emphasized the importance of deliberative processes that are ensured and spec-

ified through constitutional norms. One of the many theoretical accomplishments of that

theory is a convincing case for the inextricable link between democracy and the rule of

law in contrast to the many views that consider the relation to be a trade-off. But Haber-

mas subsequently becomes aware that the project of a deliberative constitutional democ-

racy on the national scale is increasingly anachronistic given the predominance of the

‘postnational constellation’, i.e. increasing interdependence and transnational economic

integration. This conviction forms the base of his support for a strong European Union.

The response to the postnational constellation can only be supra-national (democratic)

decision-making. Under those circumstances processes that lie beyond the sovereign

powers of individual nation-states could be brought under a regulatory regime, those

affected by a political decision would more strongly coincide with those who have made

the decision and through a harmonization or at least coordination of Europe-wide social

standards ‘the’ European welfare model could be saved from the erosive effects of a

‘race to the bottom’. It is easy to see now where Habermas’ enthusiasm for a European

constitution comes from. If a necessary condition for functioning deliberative democracy

is a constitution, as Habermas has argued ever since Between Facts and Norms, and the

appropriate scale of democracy in the postnational constellation is the supranational one,

the European constitution inhabits a crucial place in Habermas’ thought on democracy in

the 21st century. Although support for the European Union is not in itself a controversial

position, Habermas’ insistence on a constitution has attracted lots of criticism to which

he has responded in countless speeches, articles and interviews (see Habermas, 1998;

2009b). However, the point I would like to focus on is a different one and easily the most

contentious aspect of Habermas’ stance on Europe. On 31 May 2003 an article by

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Habermas, signed by Derrida, four other European intellectuals and Richard Rorty,

appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung along with op-ed pieces of these authors

in other European newspapers. The article addressed transatlantic relations in the wake

of the Iraq War as well as the internal state of affairs of the European Union that dis-

played divisions between Don Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe (see

Habermas and Derrida, 2005). From this assessment of the situation, which constituted

a rare and somewhat unexpected case of collaboration between Habermas and Derrida,

two issues emerged as the most controversial ones and were taken up over and over again

in the ensuing debate.19 The first one, on which I will focus, is Habermas’ push for a

group of ‘core European nations’ (ibid.: 5) to lead the way toward a more deeply inte-

grated union. Habermas refers to this ‘avantgardist core of Europe’, which happens to

coincide largely with Rumsfeld’s ‘Old Europe’, as a ‘locomotive’ (ibid.: 6) of European


Common security policy as well as common defense policy and a decreased veto

power of individual member-states are supposed to generate a momentum that attracts

others in the long run. Commentators from central and eastern Europe in particular were

quick to disagree. Not only could Habermas’ caveat that ‘taking a lead role does not

mean excluding’ (Habermas and Derrida, 2005: 6) easily be discounted as a rhetorical

fig leaf, the list of common traditions serving as a resource for a European identity listed

in the piece also seemed to generalize the experience of Germany, France, the Benelux

countries and maybe Italy, but hardly did justice to the experiences more common to cen-

tral and eastern European countries. ‘In European countries secularization is relatively

developed’ (ibid.: 9) write Habermas and Derrida, but the role of religion in Polish soci-

ety certainly does not conform to this judgment. And while the statement that ‘Europeans

have a relatively large amount of trust in the organizational and steering capacities of the

state, while remaining skeptical toward the achievements of markets’ (ibid.) accurately

captures French etatisme and the German sentiment of Obrigkeitsstaatlichkeit, Italy’s

political culture is already hard to square with it let alone the post-totalitarian societies

of eastern Europe that tend to view the state with great suspicion. Thus, while Habermas

portrayed ‘Core Europe’ as a transitory and inclusive arrangement, the fact that

European identity seemed to be reduced to a Core European identity lent credence to

those who fear that this transitory ‘Core Europe’ is nothing but a pragmatic-looking

cloak for the hegemonic aspirations of Germany and France.

Finally, and in connection to the peculiar characterization of European identity that

seemed to exclude eastern European experiences at least to a certain extent,21 it was Core

Europe’s position vis-a-vis the United States that triggered some heated debates in the

aftermath of Habermas’ article.

To accuse Habermas of outright anti-Americanism smacks of ignorance given his

long-standing personal links to the United States and the great influence of American

political and philosophical thought on his own work. Nevertheless, the main point of

Habermas’ article was to claim that first signs of the ‘birth of a European public sphere’

(Habermas and Derrida, 2005: 4) were showing when mass demonstrations against the

Iraq War swept through European cities on 15 February 2003. The link between the uni-

fying experience of demonstrations focused on one particular topic and the topic itself

being that of protest against the US administration suggests that the ‘Other’ against

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which Europe is to define itself could very well turn out to be the United States. This

would explain the selective character of the list of European traditions presented by

Habermas that may not accommodate eastern Europe but certainly highlights some dif-

ferences between western Europe and the United States such as secularization, (welfare)

statism, or the slightly technophobe awareness of the ‘costs’ and dialectic of enlighten-

ment. Habermas’ concern with regard to the role played by the current American admin-

istration22 in world affairs comes to the fore when he writes that ‘Europe has to throw its

weight on the scales to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States

. . . to defend and promote a cosmopolitan order on the basis of international law’ (ibid.:

6 and 8). Many have doubted the feasibility of building Europe ‘against’ the United

States, not the least because so many of the very real transatlantic points of disagreement

seem to hinge strongly on the administration in power. Has the election of Barack Obama

in 2008 meant that the United States no longer serves as a bogeyman to frighten the Eur-

opeans into unity? Furthermore, as Umberto Eco was quick to point out, the United

States may reorient itself towards the economically booming regions of Asia in the

medium turn and it remains to be seen if Europe after all is not in much more need of

the United States than the other way around (see Levy et al., 2005: 14–20).

Thus, it is not only problematic to pitch Core Europe against the United States for the

sheer inaccuracy of such an account regarding common traditions and identities shared

across the Atlantic, it is also problematic for very pragmatic reasons.

Without delving further into the substantive issues at stake let us now turn to a more

analytical assessment of Habermas’ stance on Core Europe and the Kosovo War.

2.3 How to get from A to B

How can the advocate of a moral universalism of inclusiveness condone a potentially

exclusionary ‘Core Europe’ and how can the champion of communicative action justify

an illegal use of force against Serbia? This is a pointed formulation of the puzzle that

Habermas’ interventions as public intellectual constitute. I would like to suggest that

these interventions should not be seen as odd aberrations from an oeuvre characterized

by unfaltering universalism and commitment to general consensus. This characterization

in itself is rather a cliche often attached to Habermas due to his early but significantly

relativized endorsement of the ‘ideal speech situation’. Instead, Habermas’ reflections

as a public intellectual inhabit a definite position in his overall system of thought.23 The

latter in its strictly scholarly aspects is impressive and some might even say unrivalled

when it comes to sophisticated normative theorizing. Habermas has gone to great pains

in order to identify procedures to justify norms, democratic arrangements, or other states

of affairs. However, his scholarly works remain relatively silent when it comes to a dis-

cussion of the ways and means of bringing about these normatively desirable conditions,

which is to say, the dynamic and genuinely political aspect of a normative critical theory

receives much less attention in his writings.24 This void left by Habermas the philoso-

pher is filled by Habermas the intellectual. This division of labor serves an important and

systematic purpose in my view. As a philosopher addressing the classic question ‘what is

to be done’, Habermas would be wide open to the charge of elitism. Furthermore, the

choices involved in an assessment of a political strategy regarding the question how

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to get from A to B, often involve glaring paradoxes and dilemmas that make it necessary

to strike painful compromises and engage in wagers on the future and how things will

eventually turn out. The philosopher is well advised not to get entangled in these issues

too deeply. Her or his task might be considered the identification of desired states of

affairs based on philosophical arguments. However, how to realize these conditions,

what risks to take and what means to choose are matters that cannot be decided by phi-

losophical fiat but – ultimately – only by the actors themselves. According to Habermas’

self-understanding and his distinction between the philosopher and the intellectual, only

the latter is entitled to speak to these questions and contribute to the debate as a con-

cerned citizen, whose voice is just one more in the cacophony of an anarchic public

sphere (See Habermas 2009a).

Let me briefly illustrate what I have in mind with reference to the Kosovo War, Core

Europe and the European Constitution in general.

It has already been shown above that the logic of Habermas’ argument regarding the

NATO bombardments relies on the implicit assumption that, although being illegal at the

time, the intervention would be retroactively justified by a world citizenry that has

reached a cosmopolitan tradition. Above, I have already spelt out the various ways in

which this assumption could very well turn out to be misguided: the world could never

reach a cosmopolitan condition anyway, this could be due to the unforeseen conse-

quences of this very intervention, or, even in a best-case scenario of an existing cosmo-

politan condition, the citizenry could withhold its post hoc consent. In other words,

Habermas’ taking sides leaves his position exposed to the repercussions of all kinds

of things that could go wrong on the road from the law of nations to a truly cosmopolitan


The philosopher can argue convincingly for the normative desirability of the latter,

but only the intellectual can enter the discussion relying on emphatically fallible and thus

much more modest validity-claims than the ones the philosopher raises.

Similarly, Habermas has provided persuasive and rich arguments in favor of a supra-

national European democracy. However, the path towards this desirable state of affairs is

riddled with paradoxes, trade-offs and risky strategies. Core Europe may function in the

way Habermas hopes it will. The initial cluster of more deeply integrated countries

demonstrates the merits of such a close union and thus attracts more and more additional

members. Still, there is a realistic chance that Core Europe ossifies into a more and more

insulated union within the union, seals itself off against the new member-states out of

protectionism or due to cultural disagreements and transforms itself into a small Europe

under the hegemony of Germany and France. This would be an outcome that could not be

further from what Habermas has in mind. In the light of this unpredictability the philo-

sopher has to step aside for the intellectual to voice an opinion that may claim to be

informed but explicitly rejects any claim to real expertise, philosophical or other.

Finally, the same constellation can be highlighted with reference to the European con-

stitutional process Habermas advocates. In the absence of an already functioning public

sphere that, according to Habermas, will only eventually result from a common consti-

tution, the process will be far from all-inclusive and in this sense imperfect. However, the

alternative would be for a functioning and somewhat inclusive public sphere to emerge

on its own, which Habermas for good reasons believes to be unrealistic. Thus, if there is

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to be any movement at all in the direction of a constitutional Europe, the standards of

inclusiveness, equality of access, etc., so important to Habermas’ normative thought

have to be violated. And while it must not be ruled out that the blind spots of the con-

stitution due to lack of inclusiveness can be remedied over time given Habermas’ com-

mitment to a ‘living’ constitution that can be amended and reinterpreted indefinitely, it

might just as well be the case that an initial elite succeeds in setting a constitutional

agenda that prejudices future constitutional developments in a fundamental way and

makes sufficient and equal access to public spheres, etc., unreachable.

In sum, what Habermas’ public interventions’ discussed here share, is that they

address what could be called the impurity of becoming, i.e. a world that lacks the perfec-

tion and purity that philosophical thought at times seems to presuppose. In the face of

vicious cycles and Gordian knots the intellectual enters a wager and has to espouse

actions that are morally, legally and politically questionable, hoping that the decision

will somehow be redeemed in the future.

The conclusions I draw from this with regard to the issues raised in the Introduction of

this article are the following. Generally speaking, it seems obvious to me that public

interventions like the ones discussed here deserve to be taken into account when asses-

sing Habermas’ oeuvre as a whole. What they show is that the cliche of a hopelessly

unrealistic theory of naıve altruism, consensus and reason does not do justice to

Habermas’ thought. The latter turns out to be much more multifaceted as it embraces a

more strategic and consequentialist reasoning.25 With respect to the relation between the

scholarly theories and the political interventions, there is obviously some tension, but since

the one mostly focuses on defining and justifying certain conditions, while the other is

concerned with the dynamic that could lead to realizing these conditions, one could also

view the relation as one of mutual complements that relies on a division of labor between

philosopher and intellectual and the different validity-claims they can legitimately raise.

After this examination of some of Habermas’ interventions as a public intellectual let

us now turn to some of Foucault’s activities.

3 Foucault – hyperactivism, rights and communication

3.1 Foucault and Camus on an ‘ethics of revolt’

The first apparent tension between Foucault’s scholarly texts and his activities as an

intellectual refers to the very fact of his activism that could be considered utterly futile

in the face of power regimes forming and transforming themselves seemingly unim-

pressed by individual or collective action aimed at what could be considered relative

emancipation as described in books like Discipline and Punish. However, there is a

long-standing controversy over the status of Foucault’s gloomy depictions of the ‘carc-

eral society’ or other disturbing images. Early on, commentators well-versed in the

hyperbolic style of Nietzsche’s genealogical narratives have pointed to the analogies

between these and Foucault’s genealogical writing of history, in which rhetoric and style

play an equally important role. Thus, the gloomy descriptions are supposed to provoke

an existential response on behalf of the readers who could be prompted to take action due

to the alarmist scenarios found in Foucault’s books (see Foucault, 1989: 144; Hoy,

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1986). Nevertheless, others have pointed out that such catastrophic rhetoric could turn

out to be a double-edged sword: ‘What happens is that the more powerful the vision

of some increasingly total system or logic . . . the more powerless the reader comes

to feel’ (Jameson, 1984: 57). In other words, paralysis is just as likely an effect as acti-

vism is. To be sure, there is little to be found in Foucault’s writings that would justify the

hope for some form of grand emancipation or liberation. Societies without power are

abstractions for Foucault and even in the light of the various revisions of Foucault’s

notion of power this means that there will always be government, subordination and even

subjugation, although the forms will vary in important ways. So why resist?

This has always been a difficult question to respond to for Foucault, who willingly

forfeits recourse to a framework of universal norms that fuels Habermasian critique and,

as mentioned, refuses to engage in millenarian hopes of the Great Reversal. Foucault’s

attitude is neatly summed up in the following well-known statement: ‘My point is not

that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same

as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position

leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism’ (Foucault, 1984: 343). Still,

in my view, this does not fully answer the question why one would choose hyperactivism

over apathy.

Opting for hyperactivism in the absence of motivational resources like the ones just

mentioned (universal norms, hope) places Foucault’s attitude in an intriguing intellectual

proximity to a figure who is rarely discussed in the context of poststructuralism. This

figure is the French philosopher Albert Camus who is usually placed in the intellectual

tradition of existentialism. It is obvious that Foucault and Camus are deeply at odds when

it comes to important philosophical issues. Camus’ commitment to a subject that pro-

vides an absurd world with meaning out of itself, as it were, smacks of the humanism

that Foucault attacks so relentlessly in The Order of Things. The rebel that Camus envi-

sions struggles in affirmation of a common human bond, which would easily fall prey to

Foucauldian criticism of an ahistorical essentialism. In short, I do not mean to attempt an

assimilation of the two philosophical profiles and projects. Nevertheless, when it comes

to Foucault’s activist attitude there is a lot that is reminiscent of Camus’ famous inter-

pretation of the Myth of Sisyphos. The latter figure, whose crime it was to outsmart Tha-

natos so humans would finally be spared the scourge of death, blends easily into Camus’

‘rebel’ (or ‘the revolting individual’, to choose a more literal and less corny translation of

the respective book). What ties them together is an awareness and acceptance of the ulti-

mate futility of their (oppositional) actions when considered from the point of view of an

eschatological thinking that envisions some point of culmination in human history that

would bring about fundamental emancipation, etc. Like the doctor Bernard Rieux in The

Plague who fights death incessantly knowing all too well of the idle nature of his strug-

gles, the smiling Sisyphos who rolls the rock up the hill and whoever else chooses to

revolt do so without a glimmer of hope for redemption. Yet they continue to revolt in

the broad sense of the term and choose activism over apathy.

With regard to what could be called an ethic of revolt there are indeed surprising cor-

respondences between Camus and Foucault. Both opt for a form of revolt in sharp con-

trast to the notion of revolution, which they view with deep suspicion. Foucault’s

reservations concerning the PCF and the Marxist concept of revolution are well

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documented (see Foucault, 1989: 223).26 Camus’ The Rebel is a response to the excesses

of Stalinist communism that he sees rooted in a Hegelian apotheosis of history and the

accompanying dream of a revolution as a fundamental transformation of societal life and

human nature that is bound to descend into mass slaughters (see Camus, 1956: 246–52,

288). Camus’ revolt/rebellion, instead, is oppositional action that knows its limitations

and accordingly is tempered by moderation (ibid.: 294).27 Nevertheless, there is a

determination to the individual’s actions that can count as another similarity between

Camus and Foucault. What distinguishes the rebel is the willingness to risk one’s life

in the act of revolting. Camus has emphasized this particularly with reference to the

historical phenomenon of the so-called social revolutionaries in Czarist Russia who

receive an overall positive interpretation in many of his plays, especially Les Justes.

These ‘fastidious assassins’ (ibid.: 164) as Camus calls them in The Rebel are willing

to give their own lives in exchange for taking another’s.

However, in contrast to the suicide bombers of today, they fiercely refuse to jeopar-

dize the lives of non-combatants, when trying to assassinate generals or politically lead-

ing aristocrats.28 The fascination that this existential dimension of the revolt had on

Foucault comes to the fore in the most obvious manner in the various discussions of the

Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is, of course, a somewhat controversial chapter in his

life as a journalist/intellectual. Be that as it may, Foucault’s initial siding with the rev-

olutionary movement certainly is due to the spirit of revolt he attributes to the uprising:

‘The impulse by which a single individual, a group, a minority, or an entire people says

‘‘I will no longer obey’’ and throws the risk of their life in the face of an authority they

consider unjust seems to me to be something irreducible’, writes Foucault in an op-ed

piece entitled ‘Useless to Revolt?’, which appeared in Le Monde in May 1979 (Foucault,

1994a: 449).29 Interestingly, Foucault chooses the term ‘revolt’ over ‘revolution’

throughout most of the article30 and, of course, eventually answers the rhetorical ques-

tion of the title in the negative. Finally, there is a point of similarity that stands in close

connection with the existential experience of a revolt just mentioned. It is a sense of sol-

idarity that emerges out of the act of revolting. For Camus this is a key feature of the

concept he develops in The Rebel. It is summed up most elegantly in his variation on

Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum: ‘I rebel, therefore we exist’ (Camus, 1956: 22). The will-

ingness to give one’s life presupposes that there is something beyond the individual’s

existence worth dying for. The refusal to go along with unendurable conditions any lon-

ger affirms a common bond between human beings and creates a strong sense of human

solidarity that Camus highlights once more with reference to the camaraderie celebrated

by the social revolutionaries who choose execution over betraying those whom they con-

sider their brothers and sisters. Now, it would seem that this somewhat flat humanism is

something that Foucault could not concur with and it rarely finds any correspondence in

Foucault’s writings where this humanism is attacked most fiercely, especially in the

Order of Things. However, examining once more what intrigued Foucault about the Ira-

nian Revolution one cannot miss his fascination with the sense of community generated

through the people’s movement (Foucault, 1988: 214) – something that is also present

during his stay in Tunisia where he supports groups of oppositional students and thus

experiences what he considered a major politicization (see Eribon, 1991: 193). Foucault

even refers to ‘the collective will of the people’ he saw on display all over Iran, explicitly

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acknowledging that, hitherto, he had taken the idea of a collective will to be just another

‘political myth’ (Foucault, 1988: 215).

In sum, there are some startling similarities between the humanist existentialist

Camus and what could be called his Other in any number of philosophical controversies,

that is, Foucault, when it comes to the question of revolt. I will return to this relationship

in the conclusion but first let us complement these more general considerations with an

examination of some of Foucault’s more specific projects as an intellectual.

3.2 The GIP and beyond

During the tumultuous events of 1968 Foucault is in Tunisia. In his support of

oppositional students he overcomes the ‘speculative skepticism’ (Foucault, 1994a:

279) regarding political activism that had remained as a bitter taste in his mouth after

his brief membership in the French Communist Party during the 1950s. Politically reju-

venated he returns to France in 1969–70 to teach at the newly founded university in

Paris-Vincennes, which shortly turns into a hotbed of political activism with Foucault

at the helm of many protests, etc. (see Eribon, 1991: 210).

It is soon afterwards that he co-founds the Groupe d’Information des Prisons (GIP),

which is of eminent importance for Foucault as a scholar31 but also as an intellectual,

because of the popularity the group gains in French public discourse. The crucial position

that the GIP has with respect to Foucault’s visibility as an intellectual as well as the sub-

stantive goals of the group make it a perfect starting point for my discussion.

What was the purpose of the GIP? At the most general level its aim was to inform the

public about prison conditions and the penitentiary processes taking place in and outside

the prisons.32 This was done with the explicit goal in mind to strengthen the position of

the prisoners. The GIP did not mean to idealize criminals but it argued that prisoners

were a marginalized population that suffered grave injuries far beyond what could be

considered a ‘just’ punishment. There are two aspects of this plea I will emphasize in

the following and from which a more general profile of the ‘politics’ of the intellectual

Foucault will emerge. First of all, let us focus on the way Foucault, speaking for the GIP,

expresses the wrongs that the prisoners have to endure. Commenting on a controversial

trial taking place at the time, Foucault attacks the prison as an ‘institution which is sup-

posed to apply the law but which, in reality, suspends it: once through the prison gates,

one is in the realm of the arbitrary, of threats, of blackmail, of blows’ (Foucault, 1994a:

419). Against this, the rights of prisoners have to be defended or claimed in the first place

(ibid.: 420). What is surprising about this statement is that Foucault resorts to the voca-

bulary of law and rights. This invocation of legal devices stands in marked contrast to

many aspects of his scholarly work. Foucault’s reservations regarding law and rights are

spread throughout his works in the 1970s, from the Nietzschean assumptions regarding

the necessary injustice of any system of law in the early 1970s to the relative

obsolescence of law vis-a-vis the rise of the norm or, to be more precise, the colonization

of the former by the latter, that is affirmed over and over throughout lectures and writings

(see Foucault, 1989: 197).33 Similarly, the significance of rights-claiming as a political

strategy is seriously discounted in many statements, the most pointed of which can be

found in the preface to Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari: ‘Do not demand of

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politics that it restore the ‘‘rights’’ of the individual’ (Foucault, 1994a: 109).34 Interest-

ingly, the practice of rights-claiming lies at the center not only of Foucault’s activities at

the GIP but also of many other public interventions of the intellectual. It is almost tedious

to list all of the many documented references to rights that need to be claimed, restored

and respected. From the prisoners whose rights are defended by the GIP (see Eribon,

1991: 224–37) to prisoners in Iran – after the revolution – who are to have ‘every means

of defense and every possible right’ (Foucault, 1994a: 441); from the general observation

that ‘against power one must always set inviolable laws and unrestricted rights’ (ibid.:

453) to the right to abortion that Foucault advocates as a member of the Information

Group concerning Health (GIS) (ibid.: 425); from the human rights he sees as that ‘which

one confronts governments with’ (ibid.: 471) in reference to the situation after the mil-

itary coup in Poland in 1981 to the ‘absolute right to stand up and speak to those who

hold power [and] this new right – that of private individuals to effectively intervene

in the sphere of international policy and strategy’ (ibid.: 475) invoked in the famous Boat

People Resolution from 1981.35 The latter has become the object of shrewd analyses

(Lemke, 2001; Keenan, 1987) that detect a subtle performative undermining of tradi-

tional rights in this resolution, which is to pave the way towards a ‘new form of right’

Foucault had called for in a lecture from 1976, a form ‘which must indeed be anti-

disciplinarian, but at the same time liberated from the principle of sovereignty’ (Fou-

cault, 1980: 108).36

Whether Foucault only subscribes to a rights discourse for strategic reasons – after all,

rights-claiming is treated as a political strategy here anyway – or genuinely relapses into

the traditional notion of subjective (human) rights, it is undeniable that this practice is of

the utmost importance for the activities of the intellectual and places him in a tension with

his other scholarly persona that is hard to miss. It is all the more interesting that these activ-

ities and the form in which they take place, i.e. claiming rights and invoking the law, have

gone rather unnoticed by the legions of commentators on Foucault’s work. Before I draw

any broader conclusions let me turn to the other major purpose of the activities of the GIP

that point towards a more general aspect of Foucault’s practices as an intellectual, which

could raise some eyebrows of those more familiar with his scholarly work.

First of all, I would like to briefly remind the reader of Foucault’s reservations with

respect to (public) communication. In the History of Sexuality, vol. 1, the productivity of

power is illustrated at length through its ability to incite discourses over sexuality.

Always hesitant to ascribe an emancipatory potential even to ambitious models of com-

munication Foucault states with a fair amount of hyberbole: ‘The more talking goes on,

the more power there is’ (Foucault, 1989: 157) and suggests ‘developing silence as a cul-

tural ethos’ (Foucault, 1994b: 122). Still, while silence may appear as the prime strategy

against a power that makes subjects speak (about themselves), it has never been unri-

valled. In his thoughts on the polyvalence of discourses it becomes clear that reappro-

priating discourses and instilling them with new meaning is another equally as

important strategy to be pursued (see Foucault, 1978: 100–1). Nevertheless, one would

be hard-pressed to find textual evidence in Foucault’s scholarly work that not only

refrains from condemning communication tout court but takes the additional step of

advocating processes of (public) communication for their desirable effects, whatever

their specific nature may be. Therefore, it is deeply intriguing to find the GIP and

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Foucault pursuing this very strategy when it comes to supporting the prisoners and their

rights. The GIP wanted to inform the public about the prison conditions and raise ques-

tions regarding penitentiary practices (see Foucault, 1994a: 394). Thus, the power of

transparency and publicity as a device of oppositional practices is already implicitly

affirmed. More specifically, the goal Foucault has in mind is that of creating a

‘counter-discourse of prisoners and delinquents’ (Foucault, 1989: 76). The significance

of this counter-discourse would lie in the ability to ‘force the institutionalized networks

of information to listen . . . and to confiscate, at least temporarily, the power to speak on

prison conditions’ (ibid.: 79). This idea of a counter-discourse entails several aspects.

First of all, it illustrates the view of the intellectual Foucault on public debate and the

public sphere more generally. Obviously, he rejects any notion of censorship; quite to

the contrary he argues for a multiplication of channels and relays of communication

in order to enhance the amount of information available: ‘Why do we suffer? From too

little: from channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient. ...

Rather, we must multiply the paths and the possibility of comings and goings’ (ibid.:

305). Another episode in Foucault’s life as an intellectual is strong testimony to these

convictions. In 1973 he acts as a co-founder and consecutive contributor to the new daily

paper Liberation. The mission statement of the paper, to enrich public discourse through

new perspectives – mostly from the left of the political spectrum – coincides with the

notion of an impoverished public sphere that is in need of additional channels to spread

more information (see Eribon, 1991: 252). Furthermore, it is not the ‘classic’ general

intellectual speaking for someone else who is to serve as the subject of a counter-

discourse but rather the specific intellectuals to be found in the respective realms and

institutions, e.g. the prisoners – possibly even wardens and staff – themselves (ibid.:

227–8). This has already become clear in the quote mentioned above and it is further

confirmed by the practice of distributing questionnaires to the prisoners so the responses

could be published by the GIP to inform the public about prisoners’ needs and wants as

they themselves conceived of them (ibid.).

Moreover, Foucault’s project of a ‘Chronicle of the Workers’ Memory’ in Liberation,

in which he planned to interview workers about their experiences in order to bring these

memories into circulation, can be cited in this regard.37 In other words, it is the irreplace-

able individuals themselves who acquire the power to speak and have their voices

heard.38 Finally, what is the purpose of this communication aside from the revelatory

scandalization of prison conditions and penitentiary practices? An important secondary

effect to which Foucault refers repeatedly is the building of community and one might

even say solidarity. In a discussion of the functions of film he emphasizes the importance

of this medium in serving as a collective memory of experiences and enabling recogni-

tion of one’s own life-events as part of an experience shared by others (see Foucault,

1989: 123). Sharing a collective experience is also emphasized as an important motiva-

tional factor for oppositional action with respect to the situation in Poland39 and, once

more, with respect to the Iranian Revolution (see Foucault, 1988: 224). What are being

built through the flow of public communication are oppositional identities that emerge

in the course of the very act of opposition.

As mentioned above, this notion of solidarity built on a common struggle plays a cru-

cial role in Camus’ notion of revolt and thus signifies another important correspondence

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between the two thinkers’ stance on oppositional practices. However, as the similarities

between Foucault and Camus have already been scrutinized above, in the following

I would rather like to focus on the questions related to the issues raised in the Introduction.

The tension between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ has already become apparent. A relative

dismissal of the significance of rights in the scholarly treatises is countered by frequent

and explicit references to the practice of rights-claiming in Foucault’s activities as an

intellectual. Reservations regarding the emancipatory potential of (public)

communication derived from Foucault’s notion of discursive power stand against a

commitment to an extended public sphere in which marginalized voices acquire the

power to speak. It should be added, though, that an implicit appraisal of symmetrical and

unrestrained relations of communication can already be attributed to some passages in

Discipline and Punish as Jim Johnson has shown in a controversially discussed article

(see Johnson, 1997). Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that there remains a tension

that, in contrast to Habermas’ case, cannot necessarily be mitigated with reference to a

division of labor between scholar and intellectual. One possible preliminary conclusion

from this constellation could be that it may prove beneficial to review the conventional

interpretation – if there is such a thing – of Foucault as a critic of liberal thought and the

latter’s emphasis on rights, public debate, etc. If our understanding of the intellectual

Foucault informs our analyses of his scholarly works, we might be prompted to give

more emphasis to aspects that have been marginalized so far and/or view these works

in a completely different light altogether. In fact, I would argue that it is only possible

to disregard these practices if one might entirely separate them from Foucault’s work

as a theorist, which is a position that seems hard to defend – particularly with regard

to Foucault’s above-mentioned position that ‘theory does not express, translate, or serve

to apply practice: it is practice’ (Foucault, 1989: 75).


In this article I have attempted to examine the activities of Habermas and Foucault as

public intellectuals. The guiding assumption in this undertaking has been that there exists

a tension between the scholars and the intellectuals and their respective endeavors. My

starting point has been the discussion of the concept of the intellectual offered by

Habermas and Foucault themselves. From there I have proceeded to scrutinize two major

intellectual ‘interventions’ by Habermas, his advocacy of the NATO bombardments in

the Kosovo War and his support for a constitutionally integrated Europe. In turn, I have

taken a closer look at Foucault’s role in the GIP and, then, elaborated on a couple of

themes, particularly rights and public communication, which are of crucial importance

not only for the GIP but other activities of Foucault as well. This account was prefaced

by a brief discussion of some intriguing parallels regarding the ‘ethics of revolt’ between

Foucault and Camus.

Let me briefly summarize the findings before I offer some concluding thoughts on the

larger issues at stake here.

Although it appeared initially that there was a neat dichotomy between the ‘general

intellectual’ Habermas and the ‘specific intellectual’ Foucault, it turned out that this rela-

tion was more complex. Habermas may fit the category of the general intellectual fairly

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well, but it is difficult to subsume Foucault under the label of the specific intellectual.

Not only because Foucault never explicitly claimed the label of the specific intellectual

for himself but, more importantly, because some of his actions and self-descriptions as

intellectual fit the model of the general intellectual much better. This is at least curious,

given that Foucault at times argues vehemently in favor of the specific intellectual. It has

to be noted, as well, that both Habermas and Foucault lean towards a historicization of

the concept of the intellectual. Thus, if one accepts Habermas’ point about Germany as a

laggard when it comes to the acceptance of ‘public intellectualism’ one can come to the

conclusion that general and specific intellectuals need not be mutually exclusive but are

more or less legitimate relative to a particular spatio-temporal context.

With regard to the contention formulated in the Introduction, a tension between

some aspects of the theories and the respective ‘practices’ of Habermas and

Foucault can be confirmed. There is no need to overstate these tensions. Still, a

tension clearly exists, for example, between Habermas’ deontological commitments

in Discourse Ethics and his consequentialism when it comes to a future cosmopoli-

tan condition as well as Foucault’s reservations about the significance of individual

rights affirmed in many of his scholarly treatises and the pervasive reference to the

importance of rights found in GIP documents and in many other pieces by the

intellectual Foucault.

This takes us to some concluding thoughts that point beyond the scope of this article.

First of all, I would argue that the contested relation between Habermas and

Foucault deserves some renewed attention from a perspective that does not focus

exclusively on their scholarly works. Since an understanding of their activities as

intellectuals offers us a more complex view of their overall oeuvres, this may also

lead us to a different interpretation of the way these oeuvres relate to each other

beyond a simple dichotomization.

Furthermore, it is the link between Foucault and Camus, which has hardly received

any attention at all so far, that I would highlight as an area that warrants further scru-

tiny. As has been shown, Foucault’s hyperactivism as an intellectual shows surprising

parallels to the existentialist ethos of the rebel endorsed by Camus. The latter’s rich

thought on political violence and the ethics of revolt remains a largely untapped

resource so far – presumably due to the tides of intellectual fashion. In my opinion,

it could serve to further illuminate the relation between Foucault’s theories and prac-

tices, if nothing else.

Finally, the most fundamental issue that the article has only implicitly addressed is

the perennial question of the relation between theory and practice in general. Part of

that question is an issue I have addressed in the Introduction, namely, to what extent it

is important or even necessary to give at least some consideration to the ‘practices’ of

theorists when assessing their work. In my view, those practices are largely disre-

garded in the spirit of time-honored metaphysical dualisms, according to which prac-

tice is only the impure and deficient counterpart to the realm of pure thought. Legions

of scholars analyse the books written by Habermas and Foucault, only very few con-

cern themselves with their activities as intellectuals. But how important are theoretical

differences in themselves aside from practice, or, in the pragmatist words of William

James: ‘Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical

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difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right. . . . If no prac-

tical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the

same thing, and all dispute is idle’ (James, 1904). The first thing to be noted, then,

is that the politics of Habermas and Foucault – and for that matter Derrida and many

others as well – are often remarkably similar. Publicity, access to the circuits of public

debate and individual rights are elements on which those writers – practically speak-

ing – seem to be able to agree, all philosophical differences notwithstanding. I do not

believe that purely philosophical differences in themselves are entirely insignificant,

therefore I would not want to travel down the pragmatist road all the way. As com-

mentators, however, we should examine the merit of philosophical controversies care-

fully when they make very minuscule difference in political practice – especially to

the extent that we regard thinkers like Foucault and Habermas as political philoso-

phers. While their thought cannot and should not be reduced to the respective political

implications, I find it equally impermissible simply to disregard the fact that

Foucault’s politics as an intellectual bear an almost eerie resemblance to some of the

values Habermas’ liberal political thought espouses. Thus, I think it is of crucial

importance to award some consideration to the ‘practices’ of theorists, not only

because there might be a tension between theory and practice but also because they

will often serve to provide us with a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding

of the overall oeuvres. Given that Habermas almost deliberately splits his intellectual

personality into a scholar and an intellectual, in order to have the latter say and write

things that the former is not entitled to, according to the very theories of the scholar, it

would be imprudent to disregard that intellectual, who makes up an integral element

of Habermas’ overall project. In Foucault’s case the intricate albeit tension-laden link

between theory and practice is even more apparent, as has been mentioned above.

Thus, the proof of the theoretical pudding does not lie in practice, but its taste is

enriched when practice is considered.


The author would like to thank Andrew Rehfeld and Leslie Paul Thiele for helpful comments on

earlier versions of this article.

1. For a discussion of the notion of the ‘public intellectual’ see Alcoff (2002) and Gattone (2006).

2. One notable exception is the analysis of Foucault’s controversial reports on the Iranian

Revolution in Afory and Anderson (2005).

3. Habermas’ esteem as a public intellectual has been steadily growing in recent years. On the

occasion of his 80th birthday in 2009 the newspaper Die Zeit referred to him as an ‘intellectual

superpower’ and most commentators would agree with Hockenos who regards him as ‘Ger-

many’s public intellectual No.1’. See Hockenos 2011.

4. For an example of such an integrative reading see the provocative intellectual history of

Foucault by Eric Paras (2006) and the intellectual biography of Habermas by Specter (2010).

5. Along these lines, Habermas himself has referred to Foucault as a ‘Young Conservative’

(1981: 13).

6. Of course, this is not to say that letters cannot contain such important clues. Machiavelli’s

‘Letter to Vettori’ is just one of countless examples.

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7. See, however, Foucault (1994a: 266) for an explicit reference to the links between various

parts of his oeuvre.

8. All translations from German are mine.

9. See Eine Art Schadensabwicklung (1987b) where all of his contributions to the debate are


10. At times, though, Foucault seems to be perplexed by the sheer concept of the intellectual:

‘The word ‘‘intellectual’’ is foreign to me. I have never encountered any intellectuals’

(1989: 302). However, at other times, he has embraced the label without any qualification

or specification: ‘I am an intellectual’ (1994a: 453).

11. See Pickett (1996) for a discussion of what he refers to as the ‘new’ intellectual.

12. See also the following famous characterization: ‘I dream of the intellectual destroyer of

evidence and universalities, the one who, in the inertias and constraints of the present, locates

and marks the weak points, the openings, the lines of power . . . ’ (Foucault, 1989: 225).

13. See also Habermas’ comments on anti-intellectualism in western Germany against former

GDR intellectuals after 1990 (Habermas, 1997: 139).

14. Note that the legal situation has been slightly altered since the United Nations adopted the

principle of the responsibility to protect in 2009.

15. Habermas has confirmed this view with respect to the first Gulf War. See Habermas (1991:

24). In the following, I exclusively refer to the legal situation in Germany but I assume that

most western legal orders have equivalents given the importance of the respective regulations

for the rule of law.

16. Necessity of an action is given if there is no less intrusive alternative, and appropriateness

refers to the balance between ends and means.

17. Even Habermas himself has considered this in passing, when he refers to ‘military strikes,

which were to serve as deterrents to stop him [Milosevic], but in the end only gave him a

pretense to continue’ (1999: 3); see also Habermas (2006a: 27–9) where he addresses this

issue more extensively without altering his position.

18. See The Divided West (2006b) for a compilation of Habermas’ op-ed pieces on Europe and

Europe: The Faltering Project (2009b) for a compilation of Habermas’ op-ed pieces, essays

and speeches on Europe.

19. See Levy et al. (2005) for a compilation of the many op-ed pieces written in response to the

initial essay.

20. In the following years, Habermas has shied away from the contentious notion of ‘core Europe’

and instead has referred to a ‘politics of graduated integration’. See Habermas 2009a, 78.

21. Note, however, that Habermas is far from oblivious to the particular experience of eastern and

central European countries: ‘And the Central and Eastern European countries, while certainly

working hard for their admission into the EU, are nevertheless not yet ready to place limits on

the sovereignty that they have so recently regained’ (Habermas and Derrida, 2005: 5). This is

exactly the reason why a core Europe will have to move forward alone if it is not to be bogged

down by the reservations of the new member-states.

22. Note that Habermas is not concerned with the American people as much as with the

administration. The accusation of anti-Americanism thus seems far-fetched.

23. A similar albeit slightly different position lies at the center of Specter (2010).

24. See Biebricher (2007) for an elaboration of this claim with regard to deliberative democracy.

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25. One can even sense vaguely Schmittian undertones in Habermas’ argument about the need for

Europe to define itself – at least to some extent – against another entity; for example, the

United States.

26. Foucault was a reportedly unenthusiastic member of the French Communist Party from 1950

to 1953 when the Stalinist leanings of the party and a general disillusion with Marxism on

Foucault’s part prompted his leaving the party. See Eribon (1991: 50–60) and Foucault

(1994a: 248–50). A brief intellectual liaison with Maoism at the beginning of the 1970s aside,

Foucault kept a distance from French radical leftism.

27. ‘Rebellion, at the same time that it suggests a nature common to all men, brings to light the

measure and the limit which are the very principle of this nature’ (Camus, 1956: 294).

28. ‘The rebel has only one way of reconciling himself with his act of murder if he allows himself

to be led into performing it: to accept his own death and sacrifice. He kills and dies so that it

shall be clear that murder is impossible’ (Camus, 1956: 282). The restrictions of space do not

permit me to problematize this normatively questionable ethic.

29. More bluntly, Foucault also refers to the masses that ‘face the machine guns bare-chested’

(Foucault, 1988: 217). Foucault’s stance on the legitimacy of political violence is somewhat

difficult to infer. The terrorism of the 1970s is unacceptable to him as well as the Maoist

fantasies of a violent overthrow of the established order. See Eribon (1991: 260 and 247).

Still, the Iranian uprising that certainly involved violence at some point is not criticized by

him – at least not in the initial phase.

30. In another piece Foucault explicitly argues that the Iranian Revolution lacks all the defining

features of a conventional revolution. See Foucault (1988: 213).

31. Foucault’s lectures from 1971 to 1973 as well as Discipline and Punish focus on the peniten-

tiary system; as mentioned in the Introduction, Foucault has explicitly affirmed the influence

that the experience with the GIP had on his research during those years and beyond. See Fou-

cault (1994a: 244–5 and 458).

32. See Eribon (1991: 224–5) for the complete founding statement.

33. See also Hunt (1992) and for a differing view Tadros (1998).

34. See also Foucault (1989: 339) and Foucault (1980: 106).

35. See also Foucault’s elaboration on rights-claiming as a strategy for the gay movement in an

interview called ‘The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will’ (Foucault, 1994b: 157–62).

36. See also Foucault’s suggestion of a ‘new relational right’ (Foucault, 1994b: 158) that is taken

up in Golder and Fitzpatrick (2009).

37. Foucault, admittedly, ended up doing only one of these interviews and stopped working as a

regular contributor altogether fairly soon after the paper had been launched. The reasons seem

to lie both in the factionalism that ensued between the various editors and also in a general

shortage of time on Foucault’s behalf. See Eribon (1991: 253–4).

38. In an interview with himself and Foucault Deleuze makes explicit reference to the attempt to

give irreplaceable individuals a voice: ‘It was on this basis that you organized the Group for

Information on Prisons (GIP), the object being to create conditions that permit the prisoners

themselves to speak’ (Foucault, 1989: 74). See also Pickett (1996: 461–2) who emphasizes

this aspect of Foucaultian ‘resistance’.

39. ‘But in the behavior of the Poles there was an experience that can no longer be obliterated.

What am I referring to? First, the consciousness they had of all being together. That is para-

mount. Thirty-five years of the previous regime had convinced them, finally, that the

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invention of new social relations was impossible. In a state like that one, each individual can

be consumed by the difficulties of his own existence. One is, in every sense of the word,

‘‘occupied’’. This ‘‘occupation’’ is also the solitude, the dislocation of society. . . . So the

Poles discovered something they knew but had never been able to bring fully into the light

of day – their shared hatred of the regime. That hatred was inside each one of them, to be sure,

but now surfaced and was clearly formulated in words, discourses, and texts, and it was con-

verted into the creation of something new and shared in common’ (Foucault, 1994a: 467–8).


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