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Stirner and Foucault: Toward a Post-Kantian Freedom
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© 2003
PMC 13.2

  • 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. 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. 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 established. Rather, morality should be based on a universal law -- a categorical imperative--which can be rationally understood. For Kant, then, there is only one categorical imperative, which provides a foundation for all rational human action: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (38). In other words, the morality of an action is determined by whether or not it should become a universal law, applicable to all situations. Kant outlines three features of all moral maxims. Firstly, they must have the form of universality. Secondly, they must have a rational end. Thirdly, the maxims that arise from the autonomous legislation of the individual should be in accordance with a certain teleology of ends.

This last point has important consequences for the question of human freedom. For Kant, moral law is based on freedom -- the rational individual freely chooses out of a sense of duty to adhere to universal moral maxims. Thus, for moral laws to be rationally grounded they cannot be based on any form of coercion or constraint. They must be freely adhered to as a rational act of the individual. Freedom is seen by Kant as an autonomy of the will -- the freedom of the rational individual to follow the dictates of his own reason by adhering to these universal moral laws. This autonomy of the will, then, is for Kant the supreme principle of morality. He defines it as "that property of it by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of objects of volition)" (59...

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