College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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Michel Foucault, history, experience, critique, historical conditions


This dissertation examines French philosopher Michel Foucault's theory of historical conditions. It argues that historical conditions take the form of what Foucault calls “historical a priori”: rules that are at once transcendental and historical, and that, as such, serve as historically modifiable yet necessary conditions of what is knowable, sayable, and thinkable in a given period and at a given place. These conditions, this dissertation show in a second step, extend to experience as such; experience is conditioned by historical a priori forms of knowledge, power, and subjectivity. Finally, the dissertation shows that these conditions form the limits of critique: critique of the present is only available for those historical-transcendental conditions that are already in the process of withering away. This dissertation intervenes in the secondary scholarship on Foucault’s work in three decisive ways. First, I show that the historical a priori—which is typically seen as a methodological failure—is not only a methodologically viable concept, but the operative form of historical conditions throughout the entire Foucauldian corpus. Second, I show that even though the concept of experience, due to Foucault’s repeated critiques of phenomenology, is a rather neglected concept in the scholarship on his work, Foucault develops a robust non-phenomenological account of experience. Third, pace charges of a normative lacuna in Foucault’s work, I show that Foucault is committed to autonomy as a historically immanent, yet necessarily underdetermined, norm. This account of historical conditions avoids the facile opposition between determinism and freedom, by showing that the historical a priori neither determines the individual’s action, nor is it rendered inoperative by the spontaneity of human freedom: rather, these conditions delineate a restrictive realm within which freedom can be exercised.

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