The Foucault–Habermas debate is a dispute concerning whether Michel Foucault's ideas of "power analytics" and "genealogy" or Jürgen Habermas's ideas of "communicative rationality" and "discourse ethics" provide a better critique of the nature of power within society. The debate compares and evaluates the central ideas of Habermas and Foucault as they pertain to questions of power, reason, ethics, modernity, democracy, civil society, and social action.
The debate was a dialogue between texts and followers; Foucault and Habermas did not actually debate in person, though they were considering a formal one in the U.S. before Foucault's death in 1984. Habermas' essay, Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present (1984) was altered before release in order to account for Foucault's inability to reply.
Foucault discovers in Kant, as the first philosopher, an archer who aims his arrow at the heart of the most actual features of the present and so opens the discourse of modernity ... but Kant's philosophy of history, the speculation about a state of freedom, about world-citizenship and eternal peace, the interpretation of revolutionary enthusiasm as a sign of historical 'progress toward betterment' – must not each line provoke the scorn of Foucault, the theoretician of power? Has not history, under the stoic gaze of the archaeologist Foucault, frozen into an iceberg covered with the crystals of arbitrary formulations of discourse?—Habermas, "Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present" (1984)
Nancy Fraser's contentious, but oft-quoted, claim that Foucault's work is a mixture of "empirical insights and normative confusions" exemplifies the most common strategy of critique by those favouring Habermas. It attempts to demonstrate the incoherence of Foucault's practice of critical reflection while at the same time appropriating those aspects considered valuable. Demonstrating this incoherence is necessary from the Habermas position since he sought to establish the form of critical reflection, whereas Foucault sought to establish only a form of critical reflection.
In response, many of Foucault's advocates argue the Habermasian critique is tautologically presupposing what it seeks to show and that the critique is based on a misunderstanding of Foucault's work. In 1999, Ashenden and Owen published an edited volume of papers entitled Foucault contra Habermas: Recasting the dialogue between genealogy and critical theory in an attempt to re-engage the debate and shift the dialogue to new ground. Specifically, they aimed to 1) illuminate the stakes of the encounter between the different practices of critical reflection, 2) evaluate some major criticisms of genealogy made in the course of the debate, and 3) offer a critical response to Habermas' position from the perspective of Foucault's practice in relation to contemporary political philosophical and political issues.
- Jürgen Habermas. 'Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present' in Hoy, D (eds) Foucault: A critical reader Basil Blackwell. Oxford, 1986.
- Samantha Ashenden and David Owen. 'Introduction: Foucault, Habermas and the Politics of Critique' in Ashenden, S. and Owen, D. (eds) Foucault contra Habermas: Recasting the Dialogue between Genealogy and Critical Theory. Sage Publications. London, 1999.
- David Ingram (1994) "Foucault and Habermas on the Subject of Reason," in Gary Gutting, ed. (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Foucault Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 215–61. ISBN 0-521-40887-3
- Michael Kelly, ed. (1994), Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-61093-0