Critical reproblemization

Foucault and the task of modern philosophy

RP 091 () / Article

It was a matter of analyzing … the problemizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily thought – and the practices on the basis of which these problemizations are formed.

Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure 1

Michel Foucault is well known for having periodically redescribed his previous studies in light of his current project.2 A case in point is the two introductions to The Order of Things. The 1970 ʻForward to the English Editionʼ frames the book as an analysis of discursive practices;3 yet the original 1966 ʻPrefaceʼ makes no mention of the rules of discourse, but foregrounds the study of ʻthe modes of being of things, and of the order that divided them up before presenting them to the understanding.ʼ4 In the later introduction, Foucault was redescribing The Order of Things in terms of the theory of discourse set forth in his 1969 methodological tract The Archaeology of Knowledge. But this does not mean that this redescription is simply a distortion.5 For even if this sort of account can readily mislead, it can also open paths for rethinking and amending the prior study so that it might complement and cohere with the new line of inquiry.

If we grant this, then there is an issue of how best to evaluate and make use of such redescriptions. The question is most pressing for those redescriptions from the early 1980s when Foucault offered thoughtful retrospective accounts of his work as a whole. He characterized his projects as forming three interrelated axes of the analysis of human being as a subject of reason and truth.6 In 1983 he enriched this redescription by introducing the notion of problemization.7 Foucault had been wondering whether ʻit would not be possible to consider the very historicity of forms of experienceʼ by ʻbring[ing] to light the domain where the formation, development, and transformation of forms of experience can situate themselves: that is, [in] a history of thought.ʼ8 It appeared to him that ʻthere was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought: this was what one could call the element of problems or, more exactly, problemizations.ʼ9 Foucault came to view all his work as having been concerned with problemization.

As the crux of Foucaultʼs final redescription, the notion of problemization can be grasped as a creative reworking of Heideggerʼs account of equipmental deficiency. Foucault was explicit in his last interviews that for him Heidegger was ʻan overwhelming influenceʼ,10 ʻthe essential philosopherʼ who determined his ʻentire philosophical developmentʼ.11 He operated with a more or less Heideggerian construal of the practical constitution of our modes of being. According to Foucault, subjectivity emerges only in the event of a problemization when thought comes to reflect upon and offer responses to tensions, difficulties and pro

blems in a gathering of practices. Foucault seems to suggest that we cannot even think about our ways of existence until they have become problematized, much as Heidegger posits that Dasein becomes conscious of objects only in the advent of an equipmental breakdown. Philosophy for Foucault is a special engagement with problemizations: what he styled a critical history of thought oriented toward disclosing (and transgressing) the contingent limits of our modes of being. This article offers an account of Foucaultʼs conception of problemization; it concludes with a brief exercise in the redescription of the sexualité series as a critical reproblemization of the modern experience of sex.



Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Georgia Continental Philosophy Circle, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia (March 1997) and the Thirty-second Annual Meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, University of Kentucky, Lexington (October 1997). For helpful comments I am indebted to Tim Craker, Hubert Dreyfus, and the members of the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy, among whom I wish especially to thank Peter Osborne for his shepherding of this article towards publication.
1. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume Two, trans. Robert Hurley, Pantheon, New York, 1985, p. 11.
2. For discussion, see Thomas R. Flynn, ʻTruth and Subjectivation in the Later Foucaultʼ,  Journal of Philosophy 82, 1985, p. 352; and Thomas McCarthy, ʻThe Critique of Impure Reasonʼ, in Ideals and Illusions: On Reconstruction and Deconstruction in Contemporary Critical Theory, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1991, p. 221 n. 29.
3. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Vintage Books, New York, 1970, p. xiv.
4. Ibid., p. xxii.
5. There are significant differences between the historical ontology of language as presented in The Order of Things and the character of discourse as presented in The Archaeology of Knowledge. For discussion, see Gary Gutting, ʻIntroduction. Michel Foucault: Userʼs Manualʼ, in Gary Gutting, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, pp. 16–18.
6. See Foucault,  The Use of Pleasure, p. 4; Michel Foucault, ʻWhat is Enlightenment?ʼ, in  The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, Pantheon, New York, 1984,
pp. 48–9; and Michel Foucault, ʻOn the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progressʼ, in ibid., pp. 351–352. See also Michel Foucault, ʻThe Subject
and Powerʼ, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
1983, p. 208; Michel Foucault, ʻTruth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault October 25, 1982ʼ, in Technologies of Self: Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1988, p. 15; Michel Foucault, ʻThe Return of Moralityʼ, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interview and Other Writings, 1977–1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, Routledge, New York and London, 1988, p. 243; and Maurice Florence [Michel Foucault], ʻFoucault, Michel, 1926–ʼ, in Cambridge Companion to Foucault, pp. 315–16.
7. The ʻIndexʼ, in Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits, 1954–1988, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald, Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1994, vol. 4, p. 875, lists only two
instances of this term prior to 1983, both of which have a markedly different use and sense to subsequent usage. For a different assessment of Foucaultʼs late notion  of problemization than the one I shall be advancing, cf. Robert Castel, ʻ“Problemization” as a Mode of Reading Historyʼ, in Jan Goldstein, ed.,  Foucault and the Writing of History, Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge MA, 1994, pp. 237–52. As will become clear, I do not see ʻproblemizationʼ as at bottom a method for doing history. Rather, a problemization is itself the condition of possibility of engaging in a special kind of philosophical history – what Foucault termed ʻa critical history of thoughtʼ. For a comparable view, see Charles E. Scott, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Ethics and Politics, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996, pp. 115–16 and passim.
8. Michel Foucault, ʻPreface to The History of Sexuality, Volume IIʼ, in The Foucault Reader, p. 334.
9. Michel Foucault, ʻPolemics, Politics, and Problemizations: An Interviewʼ, in ibid., p. 388.
10. Foucault, ʻTruth, Power, Selfʼ, pp. 12–13.
11. Foucault, ʻThe Return of Moralityʼ, p. 250.