Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 7

foucault7After equivocating over the necessity of an Objective stance, Veyne returns to a more consistently skeptical position in “The Physical and Human Sciences: Foucault’s Programme”, the seventh chapter of Foucault: His Thought, His Character. The central question of this chapter is the degree to which Foucault is epistemologically confident in his analysis of discourse, an analysis that makes little distinction between the so-called hard sciences and the human, social sciences. The answer, according to Veyne, is that Foucault believes in the scientific validity of his project, but that this “scientificity” can only be understood within the contingent realm of discourse. In other words, claims to knowledge, and knowledge about knowledge, can only be tentative and local.

This chapter also reinforces Veyne’s insistence that Foucault is both a philosophically aware historian of thought and a neo-positivist. Time is an intrinsic element of knowing, and within time, knowing is an embrace of particularities: “the ontological principle of Foucauldism [is] the principle of singularity (78)”.

The Hard Sciences, Like all Thought, Are Discourse

Using the term ‘discourse’, Foucault detected in human thought and action that which, for their part, present-day historians and theorists of science detect in the evolution of the physical sciences, using the expressions ‘paradigms’ (Thomas S. Kuhn), ‘research programmes’ (Imre Lakatos) or ‘styles of scientific thought (or reasoning)’ (Alastair C. Crombie and Ian Hacking). (80)

Science, as we have said, is maintained and endures with no help of ideas from heaven, which [sic] does not exist. Foucault tells us that this is because science is elaborated within the constraints of an institution, that of university research, and has to conform strictly to a certain programme, for fear of being represented as not telling the truth. It depends upon a set-up which, as we already know, is composed of rules, traditions, teachings, special buildings, institutions and powers, etc., and which sanctifies and perpetuates the prescriptions of science, ‘the rules for the formation of statements that are accepted as scientifically true’, and the scientific ‘game of truth’, that of successes and discoveries and also errors that are rectifiable and may be rectified. (87)

For Foucault, Genealogy Is A Science

Historians write history using other means. The semi-proper nouns that they use can likewise possess a scientific rigour, a rigour peculiar to the human domain. They attain that identificatory rigour by ‘densifying’ the description of the semi-proper noun in the same way as a realist novelist or a reporter, multiplying cogent details and relevant features that lend precision to the portrait of the referent and make it possible to distinguish it from events that present a misleading resemblance to it. Thanks to that densification, that intermeshing of tiny true facts, one avoids drowning in summary essentialist artefacts such as race, national genius, and so on. (79)

It is true that Foucault does not seem to be sure of himself. ‘I know perfectly well that I am inserted into a context,’ he writes. I nevertheless think that it is impossible to doubt the great, silent hope that sometimes buoyed him up…

As he saw it, a genealogical critique, as practiced by him, possessed – as did Galilean physics – all the scientificity of a well-founded empirical project. It sometimes happened that he made mistakes and he acknowledged the theoretical errors he had committed in The History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic; but his undertaking was, nevertheless, ‘into the truth’. The resolute tone of voice, that of a declaration of faith, in which he one day told me that Nietzschean hermeneutics had engineered a decisive break in the history of knowledge, showed clearly that he believed this and was hopeful. (82-83)

But the question of time and truth still remains to be resolved. For Foucault, the answer seems to have lain in two convictions: genealogical history is not a philosophy; it studies empirical phenomena and makes no claim to discover the whole truth. Furthermore, it ‘is related to the sciences and to analyses of a scientific type or to theories subject to rigorous criteria’. It can lead to detailed conclusions on ancient love, madness and prisons that are both scientifically established and perpetually provisional and revisable, just as are discoveries made by other sciences. Sooner or later, someone will do better than Foucault and people will be amazed at his short-sightedness. But, for him, it was enough to dispel the four illusions that, as he saw it, were correspondence, the universal, the rational and the transcendental. (83)

Genealogical Science: The Discomfort of Provisionality

If genealogical archaeology is a science, a successful enterprise, each of its conclusions, taken one by one, possesses a truth that is not relative, but is provisional. (84)

Unfortunately (and Foucault is almost obsessively aware of this), the impossibility of rising above and looking down on thought means that even the most revolutionary of thinkers can never escape from our little world of ‘discourse’. (84)

When he tries to shed light on this ‘thought that precedes free thought’, in other words a ‘discourse’, he thinks of himself starting from ‘a thought before thought, thought that is anonymous and constraining’. Stepping back from the space from which he was speaking, he positions himself, ipso facto, within another ‘discourse’ with which he is not familiar ‘and which will recede as fast as he discovers it’. The unease that those quotations reflect is characteristic of modern thought over the past two centuries. Is it any safer to believe in human rights than it was to believe in the god Jupiter? Here, again, our attitude is twofold, as it was when faced with Daphne’s bay tree. We are sure that our convictions are true and would be indignant if the existence of that truth was brought into question. Meanwhile, though, it is with a certain unease that we wonder what future men will think of our thoughts.

..[T]hat kind of unease tends to be buried deep in silence. (85)

Provisional Empiricism Is Not Relativism

At least, unlike Spengler, Foucault could not be and never was a relativist, since, in default of totality and truth that corresponds to reality, and without things in themselves, he did, after all, lay claim to scientificity and empirical truths that were provisional in perpetuity. Relativism – if it ever existed except as a breastplate to cleave in twain – was, despite its name, a doctrine that aspired naively to total truth. This distinguished it from historicism, for which the truth mattered less than the richness and diversity of Life and the ‘solemnity of becoming’ of which Simmel writes: for this suggestive and sympathetic thinker, there was a psychological a priori, just as there was a historical a priori for Foucault – each type of mind engendered a particular vision of the world. (86)

Relativism presumes the truth to be true, since it asserts that, in possessing its own truth, each epoch possessed not just beliefs, but the truth (which, however, was only true for that particular epoch). Its aspiration to total truth despite time is such that it is ready to do anything, even to the point of chopping it into pieces, each for a different epoch, in order to preserve it, albeit in pieces, since each of those shards of the truth are said to form a partial totality, if I dare risk that oxymoron. (86)


Power and Truth

Throughout the world, whatever is held to be true in a set-up has the power to win obedience and trains human beings to be obedient. It is true that the power of the prince is legitimate and it is true that one must obey one’s prince, whose faithful subject (in both senses of the word) one thus becomes. (88)

All power, all authority, whether practical or spiritual, and all morality claims to stem from the truth, assumes this and is respected as being founded on truth. (89)

The vast majority of truths are due to ‘a collection of procedures organized for their production, establishment, circulation and functioning’. These truths are linked in a circular fashion to the systems of power that produce them and uphold them and that reconnect them with that power’. So the great political problem is not error, illusion, alienation or ideology: it is truth itself – which is why Nietzsche is so important. (89)

What is to be done?

Some of you may find this a bitter pill to swallow. If you think that not all truths should be expressed and that values need to be saved, as the geese saved the Capitol (with the best of intentions), this is the point at which we must part company: for we have nothing left to say to one another. We are back with the old battle between, on the one hand, philosophy (unless it is Platonic), which desires at all costs to tell the truth, even at the cost of life itself and the world as it is; and, on the other hand, rhetoric, in other words propaganda, which, in order to be more convincing, bases itself on all the nonsense that people have in their heads, as Aristotle ironically put it. (90)

But where does that leave ourselves, we moderns? What are our ‘discourses’ on the various objects that make up our actuality? That is something that will only be discovered by those who, one day, will find themselves to be different. They will discover what was modern about us. We ourselves, meanwhile, cannot foresee ‘the figure that we shall cut in the future’. However, what we can glimpse is, if not what we are, at least what we are no longer. (90-91)

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