Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Theory and Criticism


Tom Carmichael


This thesis explores a contested issue in 20th century critical discourse: the nature and meaning of the historicity of rationality. It elaborates this issue in dialogue with the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer and the poststructuralist genealogy of Michel Foucault. For the Adomo and Horkheimer of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the historicity of rationality manifests itself in the form of a development, the development of instrumental rationality. This development stretches from what they postulate as its origin in humanity’s pre-history to the present at which they write; it encompasses the vast diversity of Western modes of thought, subsuming and organizing them according to its single logic. For Foucault, in contrast, the historicity of rationality implies constant change and discontinuity. The succession of Western modes of thought exhibits no such linear development; it constitutes a parade of incompatible interpretations. The genealogy of these interpretations reveals their contingency, and discloses the force required for their institution; it thereby makes history “effective” in a way foreclosed by more “traditional” histories, which, by pursuing origins, tend to reinforce or reify the present. The merits of these theoretical arguments are subsequently demonstrated in genealogical analyses of two events in the history of rationality: Francis Bacon’s institution of modem science, and René Descartes’ articulation of the “cogito.” The readings presented in these chapters emphasize the singularity of these authors’ work. They demonstrate the break that Bacon and Descartes instituted with respect to their predecessors, and identify the force that the institution of those breaks required. Crucial to these readings were their attention to the ascetic dimension of Bacon and Descartes’ discourses, which revealed that ‘rationality’ required a series of practical exercises that would transform the would-be scientist or philosopher, and constitute them in a new mode of having the capacity for true knowledge.



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