The Concept of Criticism and the Critical Act

Michel Foucault, in a lecture on Kant entitled “What is Criticism?” argues that while Kant’s first Critique uses the concept of criticism to determine ontological objective universal knowledge, Kant’s article “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” uses the concept in an historical-political context. The critic asks not only what the necessary conditions for possible knowledge are, but also, how one can subvert or resist knowledge that controls one’s understanding and conduct. In framing the concept of criticism in this way, Foucault transforms the concept and attunes it to operate within a framework of a politically-active genealogy.

Walter Benjamin investigates the concept of criticism in early Romanticism. Criticism, Benjamin argues, for the Romantics, is what exposes that which is inherent within the art work. It reveals the essential structure of every work of art and at the same time completes the work of art by disclosing what the artist does not display in the work itself. The concept of criticism, as Benjamin terms it, is a “philosophico-problem-historical.” It assigns the critic the role of continuing the work of art by making the art-work a center of essential reflection.

Both Benjamin and Foucault transform the concept of criticism and use it to portray the process of reflection and analysis. Criticism is defined in terms of its function for thought, reason and consciousness.


Lyat Friedman