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The Limits to Scientific Reason – Habermas, Foucault, and Modernity

Lecturer: John McIntyre

Originally Taught: Winter School 2018

The “continental” tradition of philosophy has a long history of considering the place of scientific reason within society and its relationship to other forms of reason. Over recent years, there has been a discussion within Anglo-American philosophy which intersects with these concerns, particularly in relation to the dominant position of scientific naturalism which is committed to the view that (i) reality consists of nothing more than the entities to which the explanations of the natural sciences commit us, (ii) since scientific inquiries are our only source of real knowledge, all other forms of knowledge must be reducible to scientific knowledge and (iii) that philosophy should be continuous with science as to its methods, purposes and contents.

Whilst a number of responses to scientific naturalism have been formulated within the analytic tradition, the work of continental philosophers has not been adequately brought to bear. In an age where trust in social institutions such as democracy and science is under attack and, at the same time, neuro-scientists, evolutionary psychologists and their philosophical supporters proclaim to have discovered the “real” nature of art, morality, society, the self or freewill, the critical perspective of continental philosophers has much to offer.

The question of science and its role in modern society is found throughout the work of both Habermas and Foucault. Whilst championing philosophy’s ultimately broader purview, Habermas harnesses science. He crafts areas of sociology, anthropology, psychology into a developmental social theory which yields norms to diagnose the pathologies of modern societies. Foucault suspends scientific norms to adopt the distanced stance of an observer charting the development of human sciences and their entanglements with power and subjectivity. By developing comprehensive perspectives on society, both these philosophers reveal new possibilities for thinking about science and its role in modernity.

The course will contextualise the works of the two thinkers:  Foucault in terms of his later understanding of his project; and Habermas in terms of the ongoing development of core commitments. We will focus on key passages that bring into view the entanglement of scientific discourses with other discourses, power, subjects and objects and consider how this bears on the claims of scientific naturalism. We will examine not only what Foucault and Habermas say about science as a social institution but how they, at the same time, employ it. Rather than revisit the well-trodden path of the “debate” between Foucault’s and Habermas’ supporters, we will consider what the different stances adopted by the two thinkers tells us about modern reason, and the place of science within it.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1

In this lecture we will explore the nature and roles of the sciences in modernity.  Firstly, we will consider the extent of science’s rational authority and its capacity to trump other discourses. This authority will be viewed in the light of modernity’s increasing reflexivity, whereby human beings increasingly take themselves as objects of scientific investigation. This raises the question of possible limits to science’s jurisdiction.

We will then turn to Habermas, placing his life and works within a broad context to reveal the motivations and commitments which animate his entire project. We will examine Habermas’ early critiques of positivism and his first formulation of a comprehensive theory of rationality in Knowledge and Human Interest, a work which grants an important yet limited place to natural science alongside other forms of inquiry.

Lecture 2

This lecture will focus on Habermas’ magnum opus The Theory of Communicative Action in which he provides an ambitious systematic basis for social theory. Avoiding the voluminous detail, we will draw on this work in a way which bears directly on the themes of science, modernity and philosophy. In particular, we will see how Habermas employs his distinction between lifeworld and system, a distinction he argues is necessary to an adequate theoretical grasp of modern societies.

Habermas sees the lifeworld as the home of communicative action, in which we co-ordinate actions by an orientation to the “ideal speech situation”. Habermas draws on developmental theories of psychology and anthropology to show how “systems” have emerged to relieve the burden of excessive communications within the lifeworld. The danger for modernity is that these systems have assumed a life of their own and return to colonise the lifeworld’s communicative resources, so narrowing reason’s scope.

Lecture 3

This lecture brings Habermas’ theory to bear on concrete social questions which demand responses. In relation to recent advances in neuroscience, we will see Habermas defend a non-reductive notion of freewill against scientific naturalism. We will examine Habermas views on the place that religious language should be given in public discourses in modern democratic societies. We will also consider Habermas writing on the possible threats posed by unregulated genetic manipulation prior to embryo implantation.

We will then consider how Foucault radicalises Habermas’ approach by examining his essay What is Enlightenment?  We will develop an overview of Foucault’s archaeological works, by drawing on relevant aspects of The History of Madness and The Order of Things to broadly sketch Foucault’s understanding of the human sciences, their authoritative power effects and relations to other areas of rationality.

Lecture 4

This lecture will consider how Foucault draws on Nietzsche to develop his concept of a ubiquitous and inexorable power/knowledge (where knowledge is generally scientific knowledge) working constantly behind our backs. We will see how this power/knowledge draws on discourses, practices, concepts and objects such as the Panopticon prison to constitute particular types of subjects – delinquents, homosexuals and madmen, for example – which are not what they are until drawn into this web of knowledge/power. We will examine Discipline and Punish, History of Sexuality vol. 1 and various lectures and interviews.

Lecture 5

In the final years of Foucault’s work, he sought inspiration from ancient philosophy to develop the notion of the care of the self, whereby the self - not just power/knowledge - works upon, and determines, the self. We will discuss his account of the genealogy of the subject, particularly the “Cartesian moment” in which the modern sciences where born, not by the ever-increasing rigor of observation, but by the emergence of a subjectivity open to the “truth regime” we now accept as science. This will lead to a consideration science and its relation to philosophy which Foucault sees as a way of life by which one is transformed to see things differently.

We will conclude by comparing the work of Foucault and Habermas in terms of the broader framework of modern reflexivity. We will consider the ways each of their strategies fits within this framework, characterised by participant and observer perspectives and what each strategy reveals and occludes. We will discuss criticisms of both Foucault and Habermas to argue that what appear as irreconcilable differences, perhaps need no reconciliation, nor are that much different. This conjecture is brought back to bear on the question of science, its authority and its limits.



  • Habermas, J. 1971a (1968) Towards a Rational Society Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London.
  • Habermas, J. 1972 (1968) Knowledge and Human Interests Beacon Paperback USA
  • Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action vol 1 Beacon Press
  • Habermas, J. (1989) The Theory of Communicative Action vol 2 Beacon Press *pp.354-5
  • Habermas, J. 1989 (1962) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Polity Press Cambridge UK
  • *Habermas, J. (2003) The Future of Human Nature Polity Press
  • Habermas, J. 2009 (2005) Between Naturalism and Religion (trans. C. Cronin) Polity Press Cambridge UK  * “Freedom and Determinism” p151-181
  • Habermas, J.  2007  “The Language Game of Responsible Agency and the Problem of Free Will” in Philosophical Explorations, vol. 10 no. 1 March 2007


  • Foucault, M. 2006 (1961)  History of Madness  Routledge  Oxon U.K. *p.443-9
  • Foucault, M. 2002 (1966)  The Order of Things Routledge Classics Oxon. *p. 356-7, p. 375-380, Preface xvi-xxvi
  • Foucault, M. 1995 (1975)  Discipline and Punish Vintage Books New York. *p. 195-228
  • Foucault, M. 1979  (1976)  History of Sexuality vol. 1 The Will to Know Penguin Middlesex UK. *p.92-102
  • Foucault, M. 1997 The Politics of Truth Lotringer (ed) Semiotext(e) New York. *p.97-121
  • Foucault, M. 1980 Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and other Writings C. Gordon (ed) Vintage Books New York
  • Foucault, M. 1983 Fearless Speech 6 lectures at Berkeley online audio resource
  • Foucault, M. 1984 The Foucault Reader P. Rabinow (ed) Penguin Middlesex
  • Foucault, M. 1989a Foucault Live, Collected Interviews, 1961-84 S. Lotringer (ed) Semiotext(e) New York

*the asterisk indicates portions of texts that will be discussed or relate directly to the content of the course. They are supplementary, not essential for the course.