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Stirner and Foucault: Toward a Post-Kantian Freedom
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Stirner and Foucault:
Toward a Post-Kantian Freedom
Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to explore and to develop a post-Kantian concept of freedom—that is, a notion of freedom that is not circumscribed by the categorical imperative or determined by pre-ordained rational and moral coordinates. The paper attempts this through an exploration of Max Stirner’s and Michel Foucault’s reflections on freedom. Both thinkers, while not usually discussed together, share a similar critique of essentialist identities and universal rational and moral structures, and the relations of domination and exclusion that flow from them. Broadly speaking, both thinkers see the classical Kantian idea of freedom as redundant, as it is dependent upon fixed rational and moral postulates that restrict individual autonomy. They reconceptualize freedom in ways that increase the power the individual exercises over him or herself. Moreover, they recognize that, rather than freedom being an abstract, metaphysical ideal removed from the world of power, it is in fact situated in relations of power and must be understood in these terms. Stirner, as we shall see, dispenses with the classical notion of freedom altogether and develops a theory of ownness to describe this radical individual autonomy. I suggest that such a theory of ownness can provide a more positive grounding for Foucault’s own idea of freedom as involving a critical ethos and an aesthetics of the self. By examining the subtle connections between these thinkers on the question of freedom, it is possible to arrive at a “postmodern” understanding of freedom that goes beyond the Kantian parameters laid down for it.

Max Stirner and Michel Foucault are two thinkers not often examined together. However, it has been suggested that the long-ignored Stirner may be seen as a precursor to contemporary poststructuralist thought.1 Indeed, there are many extraordinary parallels between Stirner’s critique of Enlightenment humanism, universal rationality, and essential identities, and similar critiques developed by thinkers such as Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and others. However, the purpose of this paper is not merely to situate Stirner in the “poststructuralist” tradition, but rather to examine his thinking on the question of freedom, and to explore the connections here with Foucault’s own development of the concept in the context of power relations and subjectivity. Broadly speaking, both thinkers see the classical Kantian idea of freedom as deeply problematic, as it involves essentialist and universal presuppositions which are themselves often oppressive. Rather, the concept of freedom must be rethought. It can no longer be seen in solely negative terms, as freedom from constraint, but must involve more positive notions of individual autonomy, particularly the freedom of the individual to construct new modes of subjectivity. Stirner, as we shall see, dispenses with the classical notion of freedom altogether and develops a theory of ownness [Eigneheit] to describe this radical individual autonomy. I suggest in this paper that such a theory of ownness as a non-essentialist form of freedom has many similarities with Foucault’s own project of freedom, which involves a critical ethos and an aestheticization of the self. Indeed, Foucault questions the anthropological and universal rational foundations of the discourse of freedom, redefining it in terms of ethical practices.2 Both Stirner and Foucault are therefore crucial to the understanding of freedom in a contemporary sense—they show that freedom can no longer be limited by rational absolutes and universal moral categories. They take the understanding of freedom beyond the confines of the Kantian project—grounding it instead in concrete and contingent strategies of the self.

Kant and Universal Freedom

In order to understand how this radical reformulation of freedom can take place, we must first see how the concept of freedom is located in Enlightenment thought. In this paradigm, the exercise of freedom is seen as an inherently rational property. According to Immanuel Kant, for instance, human freedom is presupposed by moral law that is rationally understood. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant seeks to establish an absolute rational ground for moral thinking beyond empirical principles. He argues that empirical principles are not an appropriate basis for moral laws because they do not allow their true universality to be...