Notes on an ontology of the present

You have no right to despise the present*

Arianna Bove

What is modern philosophy? Perhaps we could respond with an echo: modern philosophy is the philosophy that is attempting to answer the question raised so imprudently two centuries ago: Was ist Aufklärung?(1)

In outlining the contours of his project Foucault refers us to Kant’s answer to the question ‘What is the Enlightenment?’. This text is crucial for Foucault because it combines transcendental critique with the ethico-political perspective of cosmopolitan man. Drawing on Kant’s answer, Foucault tries to capture the particular attitude of the Enlightenment and posit it as the task of philosophical exercise. This is that ‘critical’ attitude to actualité that is a philosophy that interrogates history with a focus neither on its origin nor its telos, but rather on the question of its belonging to the present(2). This situatedness of philosophical thinking is premised on a view of man as both element and agent of the object of critical analysis (3) and shifts the task of critique from one of analytics of truth to that of an ontology of ourselves as diagnosis (4). The enquiry on the present is at the same time an enquiry of the present day, a search for the difference introduced by the present with respect to the past.

In classical age the question of the modern was often posed on an axis with two poles: the ancient and the modern. (…) It was formulated through the concepts of an authority that one could accept or reject (…) the new question of modernity has no longitudinal reference to the ancient, but rather a sagittal relation to its own actuality.(5)

For both Kant and Foucault the philosophical exercise entails preliminary thinking for oneself, sapere aude (Wahlspruch) as an invitation and task of one’s time. Foucault stresses that any attempt at thinking limits implies the opening to autonomy as self constitution.

As Deleuze and Guattari observe: when Foucault admires Kant for posing the problem of philosophy in relation not to the eternal but to the Now, he means that the object of philosophy is not to contemplate the eternal or to reflect History but to diagnose our actual becomings: a becoming-revolutionary that, according to Kant himself, is not the same thing as the past, present, or future revolutions. (6)

The condition of immaturity Kant outlines in his text on the Enlightenment, and the definition of Enlightenment as the process of exiting such condition are directly linked to a set of power relations that denote both an excess of authority and a lack of courage. Foucault notes: ‘From the very first paragraph, Kant notes that man himself is responsible for his immature status. Thus, it has to be supposed that he will be able to escape from it only by a change that he himself will bring about in himself’(7) : a practice of the self on the self, a matter of self conduct, a technology of the self. Hence, an ontology of the present cannot avoid questioning how not to be governed like this and at this price (l’art de n’être pas tellement gouverné). For Foucault, to resurrect the contents of the Enlightenment would actually be a betrayal to this ethical project, because the latter can only be enacted in the form of a critical attitude to the present.(8)

The point is not to preserve the remains of the Aufklärung, we must keep in mind and safeguard the very problem of this event and its meaning (the problem of the historicity of thinking the universal) as that which is to be thought.(9)

In Kant’s text, the Revolution is primarily what produces an effect through the change of the collective attitude, social imaginary and conceivable realm of possibility. (10) The Revolution has an impact as spectacle, as the trigger of that courage to think of limitation as something to liberate oneself from, rather than as the framework within which action and thought must be confined and deemed legitimate: this attitude requires the courage of ‘facing the task of producing oneself’. For Foucault, a critical and historical ontology of the present entails a genealogy of what constituted us and made us recognisable as subjects of what we say, do and think.

It must be considered not as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it must be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. The overcoming of the foundational character of the transcendental perspective consists in not deducing from the form of what we are what we can do and know, but in catching from the contingency, that makes us be what we are, the possibility of not being, not doing and not thinking what we are, do and think. (11).

Critique must become an épreuve d’evéneméntialisation, a production of events, the questioning of the actual field of possible experiences and practices, rather than an analytics of the formal conditions of truth and search for the legitimacy of their discursive status.


*Charles Baudelaire said of modernity.

(1) Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin, 1984. p. 32. also online at Foucault engages with Kant’s answer to this question mainly in four texts, one dated 1978- called Qu’est-ce que la critique? (translated in Italian as Illuminismo e Critica, Roma: Donzelli Editore, 1997) - the other two are both dated 1984 and called ‘What is Englightenment?’, one published in The Foucault Reader, the other on Magazine Littéraire, n. 207, the latter is an extract from the course at Collège de France on 5 January 1983, translated in Italian in Archivio Foucault 3, Milano: Feltrinelli, 1998. Other explicit references to Kant’s reply to the question appear in Foucault’s introduction to Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, published as ‘Life: Experience and Science’ in Essential Works: Aesthetics, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 465.

(2) See Paul Veyne’s ‘Foucault revolutionises History’, in A. I. Davidson (ed. )Foucault and his Interlocutors, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997, for an analysis of the philosophy which operates outside the domain of both eternity and historicity. Dreyfus and Rabinow also interestingly see Foucault’s project as avoiding the problems of both presentism and finalism in their Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Hertfordshire: Harvester Press, 1982. p. 118.

(3) Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits IV. Paris: Gallimard, 1994. p. 564-565 (my translation)

(4) ‘History today still designates only the set of conditions, however recent they may be, from which one turns away in order to become, that is to say, in order to create something new’. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? London: Verso, 1984. p. 96

(5) Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits IV, 1994, p. 681, (my translation)

(6) Deleuze and Guattari. What is Philosophy?, 1984. p. 112-113

(7) Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Essential Works: Ethics, 2000. p.306

(8) To which we also add Deleuze’s and Guattari’s call for thinking for oneself in their What is Philosophy?, 1994: ‘What is the best way to follow the great philosophers? Is it to repeat what they say or to do what they did, that is, create concepts for problems that necessarily change?’ p. 28.

(9) Michel Foucault, Archivio Foucault. Vol. 3. 1998. p. 206 (my translation of: ‘Laissons a leur piété ceux qui veulent qu’on garde vivant et intact l’héritage de l’ Aufklärung. Cette piété est bien sûr la plus touchante des trahisons. Ce ne sont pas les restes de l’Aufklärung qu’il s’agit de préserver; c’est la question même de cet événement et de son sens (la question de l’historicité de la pensée de l’universel) qu’il faut maintenir présent et garder à l’esprit comme ce qui doit être pensé’. Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits IV, 1994, p. 687.)

(10) See Kant, ‘The Contest of the Faculties' in Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Deleuze also recognises in this passage in Kant the importance of seeing the Revolution in its force as an event. ‘As Kant showed, the concept of revolution exists not in the way in which revolution is undertaken in a necessarily relative social field but in the ‘enthusiasm’ with which it is thought on an absolute plane of immanence, like a presentation of the infinite in the here and now, which includes nothing rational or even reasonable. The concept frees immanence from all the limits still imposed on it by capital (or that it imposed on itself in the form of capital appearing as something transcendent). However, it is not so much a case of a separation of the spectator from the actor in this enthusiasm as of a distinction within the social action itself between historical factors and ‘unhistorical vapour’, between a state of affairs and the event. As concept and as event, revolution is self-referential or enjoys a self-positing that enables it to be apprehended in an immanent enthusiasm without anything in states of affairs or lived experience being able to tone it down, not even the disappointments of reason. Revolution is absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 1994, p.101)

(11) Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in The Foucault Reader, 1984. p.319.

little site banner