Askesis and Critique: Foucault and Benjamin

Ori Rotlevy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While Foucault referred to Benjamin just once in his entire corpus, scholars have long noticed affinities between the two thinkers, mainly between their conceptions of history: their emphasis on discontinuity, their historiographical practices, and the role of archives in their work. This essay focuses, rather, on their practice of critique and, more specifically, on their conception of the relation of this practice to exercise or askesis. I examine the role of askesis as a self-transformative exercise in Foucault’s late work and how this concept reverberates throughout his idea of critique as the exercise of an ethos demanding arduous work. Against this background, the role of exercise (Übung) in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Traeurspiel, his interest in ascetic kinds of exercise or schooling, and its ties to critique are discerned. This comparison reveals significant similarities in Foucault’s and Benjamin’s conception of philosophy, as well as different emphases in their inheritance of the Kantian critical project: critique as an exercise of an attitude attentive to possibilities for transformation in the present vs. critique as involving an attitude-transforming exercise; critique as a modern ethos that needs to be reactivated vs. critique as propaedeutic, as a preparation for a modern tradition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-53
Number of pages26
JournalFoucault Studies
Issue number32
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Critical Theory
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Michel Foucault
  • Pierre Hadot
  • Spiritual Exercise
  • Walter Benjamin


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