Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 6

books6I’ll be honest – I am no expert on Heidegger. So I’ll have to take Veyne’s account of Heidegger, entitled “Notwithstanding Heidegger, Man Is An Intelligent Animal” at relatively face value.  Veyne’s central aim in this chapter is to distinguish Foucault from Heidegger. Though Veyne won’t admit this, many have lumped Foucault in with the erstwhile Nazi; to the refined palettes of philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, and to Foucault himself, a relationship with Heidegger is not a negative association, but to liberals it is a grave sin. Generally speaking, I think Veyne succeeds in making the distinction, but, once again, he falls into the Rationalist trap by insisting on an objective ledge from which Foucault can steady his gaze. Perhaps Veyne’s own reflexive liberalism is breaking forth.


Foucault as an Empiricist and Skeptic

For all that our eyes perceive or ever will perceive are singularities that are partially repeatable: hence, among other things, the exact sciences, but also the practices and knowledge about our daily and our understanding of one another. We have thus learnt that the sun rises every day. Foucault and Hume faced the same struggle . . . (66)

[Quoting Nietzsche] And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. (67)

Nietzsche’s philosophical novel, telling of humanity’s education, cannot hope to reach any conclusion (but, never fear, that will not stop it forging on; the human mind is never annihilated and besides, human history does not depend on the history of philosophy). (67)

Veyne covers familiar territory. As an empiricist and sceptic, Veyne’s Foucault does not see beyond the horizon, but, just like a pet cat or iguana, the lack of theoretical ambitions does not paralyze him. People exist within and between singularities, just like all other “intelligent animals”, and continue to live, function and multiply. I am reminded of Aristotle’s use of technê, shorn of its connection to theoretical grounding. Knowledge is seen as useful knowledge, whether or not it leads to the Absolute.  I’m also reminded of A. R. Louch’s well-known argument that the social sciences cannot move beyond ad hoc explanations of human behaviour. Any observations about human existence and policy are “piecemeal, the conclusions tentative, and dependent upon a [particular] moral point of view”.


Veyne’s Summary of Heiddeger

Having slipped into my bullet-proof vest, I venture to suggest that Heidegger, that original thinker, set out to restore to an age that had forgotten all about transcendence an equivalent of what used to be called Spirituality which was refined enough to be acceptable…

In an age in which history and truth stand in opposition, he proposes an Absolute whose sudden and unexplained appearances introduce a new age yet are ‘historical’ in their discontinuity. Heideggerism constitutes a vast historical landscape illuminated by flashes of lightning that are so many ‘events’, Ereignisse… a new age makes its presence felt to us, each with its particular communities, works, cultures (ours is technological) and religious beliefs. Dispersed and divergent though they are, these events all have a common origin and that origin is an Absolute that imposes upon us, not truth, strictly speaking, but its unchallengeable Presence… (68)

Let me dare to name it: Dasein is a soul. This soul will be authentic so long as it does not forget its mutual and immediate relationship with Being; it will be inauthentic if it forgets that relationship and dissipates itself amid the day-to-day multiplicity of things that characterizes a scientific approach. This high-flying gnosis is a theology without God… (69)

His was one of those souls that have a sense of something elevated, oceanic, endlessly blue, beyond that which is verifiable. That presentiment explains how it is that some of Heidegger’s partisans are so fervent, or indeed aggressive. Many people, maybe most, have to some degree that presentiment of a blue sky beyond the sky that we see. No one is obliged to believe them, but it would be ridiculous to condemn them (rather, they are to be envied for that gift). But with dechristianization, they no longer know how to feed their desire for that blue sky. (70)

If Gestell, technology, is our destiny today, thanks to the opening up of an Ereignis, must we resign ourselves and wait fatalistically for that to come to an end, when there will be a subsequent Sending? (71-72)

If a human being thinks about this and listens to the Dasein within him, he will discover that any transaction with things – ideas, perceptions – is only possible for a being such as himself, who transcends nature and comes into direct contact with Being, the Absolute. This, according to Heidegger, should be the basis of all philosophy.

This hews closely to my own take on Heidegger, though my understanding is admittedly pretty pedestrian. Heidegger talks of “eruptions”, or Ereignis, that lead to unique and incommensurable stages in human history. Yet behind these discontinuities lies a Spirit that binds us together. [Sorry, I don’t want to be too flippant, but on the few occasions that I’ve read Heidegger, I always think about Obi Wan Kenobi and the “force”.]


Returning to Foucault: Do we need that ledge, Paul?

For an empiricist such as Foucault, that Being is a verbal phantom provoked, I imagine, by what is claimed to be an intellectual intuition, a phantom that can be made to say whatever one wants…If human beings constantly make mistakes, that is because they never accede to the truth itself but can only reach it through the ‘discourses’ in which it is buried, ‘discourses’ that are never the same from one period to another. (73)

Surely that was a generalization, even a proposition of philosophical anthropology! So what happened to his skepticism? It is true that, at that point, his skepticism had just reached its limit. Foucault’s declaration that is cited above states a truth that is the last word on the human condition: there is an ultimate truth and that, disappointing as it is, is it … arguably, everything is relative, but the assertion that everything is relative is not relative. (73)

Like I’ve argued before, Veyne appears bound to the traditional objectivist critique of relativism / post-modernism / perspectivism / historicism / empiricism / skepticism – that truth claims made about the nature of truth must themselves be grounded in something immutable. Like a ledge above the abyss of nihilism, Veyne is convinced that Foucault must ultimately come to ground here, since it requires “the objectivity it purports to deny“. Foucault’s generalization about the relative nature of truth must itself, in order to be coherent and convincing, be anchored to a foundational assertion.

But doesn’t Veyne contradict his own discussion from the beginning of the chapter? Doesn’t he seem to lose his nerve? Isn’t he now saying that human existence does “depend on the history of philosophy”? As I wrote in my Chp. 3 analysis, “I think a more elegant solution is is to argue that all truth claims, including meta-claims about truth claims themselves, are contingent and provisional. Doubting doubt  is not self-cancelling; it is, indeed, entirely consistent.” Moreover, how are contingent meta-claims any more paralyzing (or not) than first-order claims? 

So Foucault has written an anthropological generalization. But that anthropology is empirical, since it did not stem from reflection upon any transcendental subject that holds the key to the world; and Foucault wrote it after meditating on historical facts. (73)

I don’t find this Humean defence a particularly convincing answer to the Kantian double-bind!


Veyne’s Summary: There Is No External Totality Available

The conclusion must be that man is not a fallen angel recalling the heavens; nor is he the Shepherd of Being, as Heidegger claims. Rather, he is an erratic animal about which all that can be known is his history… Consequently, if, for us humans, there are no true truths other than those that are empirical and singular, that is because a physical or mental event is the product of conjunctions of a variety of causal series, conjunctions that are just another word for chance, as we all know. (73)

However, for Foucault, nothing is a reflection of an ideal; each policy is simply the product of a concatenation of causes; there is no external totality available; it expresses nothing more elevated than itself, even if we do drown its singularity in noble generalizations. (76)

We must not panic at the idea of not being able to cling on to the skirts of fully satisfactory truths. Our faculty of knowledge is more than equal to that possessed by animals which, like ourselves, may make mistakes but nevertheless by and large manage to cope with the details of their existence… We know many little truths and empirical singularities, we act upon whole series of phenomena, which we are able to study and manipulate. We can achieve practical or even scientific results in both the exact and the human sciences. (76)

Veyne’s use of the word “practical” is intriguing. It sounds a lot like Rorty’s pragmatism. I wonder: should my next book be Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject, or Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature?

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