One of the most celebrated philosophers of the 20th century is Michel Foucault. At once both vilified and lauded, Foucault is a fascinating and demanding thinker. He certainly proved to be a challenge when his conception of the Self became the centerpiece of my Master’s thesis.
Yet I’ve always maintained that his philosophy (or should I say, philosophies) is much more accessible than commonly believed. He is not the radical relativist and nihilist that some people have argued. What he is, I believe, is a member of a small but recurring tradition within Western thinking: a skeptic who eschews complex beliefs and judgments, grand narratives and Rational Truth. Like Francis Bacon or David Hume, Foucault reminds us to be cautious and to build our knowledge from the particular and the local. In other words, his philosophical arguments are informed by a historian’s manner of examining the world.
Nevertheless, Foucault’s thought goes well beyond the cautious empiricism and skepticism of Bacon, Hume and modern historians. Foucault is primarily concerned with the conditions of truth. By this I mean the conglomerations of particular “knowledges”, skills, problems, institutions and power relationships that he called discourses. Within each discourse – he studied but a few, including madness, sexuality and criminality – is a set of particular assumptions that provide the conditions for distinguishing truth from untruth. But, of course, Foucault would argue that truth (and its other, untruth) is a historical artifact. It is contingent and variable and fluid and local. And it only makes sense within a web of discursive elements that are usually hidden, tacit and implicit.
So Foucault’s quest, if I can call it that, was (and is, for his followers) to uncover the layers within each discourse and lay bare those implicit assumptions that allow us to make pronouncements of true and untrue, right and wrong.
What follows are notes from the opening chapters from a recent book on Foucault by Paul Veyne. I plan to go through this book chapter by chapter, and eventually add my own comments to the quotation notes that I’m taking with my C-Pen. So far, I think Veyne’s book has been one of the clearest and most accurate discussions I’ve ever read of Foucault’s thought. If you’re adventurous, please follow along with me, and feel free to ask questions. Maybe I can provide a coherent response. Maybe.
Foucault: His Thought, His Character
By Paul Veyne
Veyne, Paul. Foucault: His Thought, His Character. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010. Print.
He was something that, in this day and age, is rare, a sceptic thinker who believed only in the truth of facts, the countless historical facts that fill the pages of his books, never in the truth of ideas. For he acknowledged no transcendent principles as the foundation of truth. Yet he was not a nihilist; he recognized the existence of human liberty… and he did not think that, even when set up as a doctrine of ‘disenchantment’, the loss of all metaphysical and religious bases ever discouraged that freedom from having beliefs, hopes, indignations and revolts… (1)
Foucault’s philosophy is, in truth, an empirical kind of anthropology with a coherence of its own, the originality of which is founded on a historical critique. (2)
For Foucault, as for Nietzsche, William James, Austin, Wittgenstein, Ian Hacking and many others, each of them with views of their own, knowledge cannot be a faithful mirror to reality. No more than Richard Rorty does Foucault believe in that mirror, or in that ‘specular’ concept of knowledge. According to him, the object, in all its materiality, cannot be separated from the formal frameworks through which we come to know it, frameworks that Foucault, settling upon an ill-chosen word, calls ‘discourse’. That, in a nutshell, says it all. (6)
Sexuality and madness are things that certainly exist; they are not ideological inventions. However much one speculates, the fact remains that a human being is a sexual animal, as physiology and sexual instinct prove… However, we are not in possession of a truth that corresponds to things, since we can only reach a ‘thing in itself by way of the idea that we have constructed of it in each different epoch (an idea of which its ‘discourse’ is the ultimate formulation, the differentia ultima). So… had there been no ‘discourses’, object x that has successively been seen as divine possession, madness, insanity or dementia, and so forth would nonetheless exist, although, in our minds, we would be unable to place it. (11)
Works on history and physics that do not communicate through general ideas are assuredly full of truths… In every age, contemporaries are thus trapped in ‘discourses’ as if in a deceptively transparent glass bowl, unaware of what those glass bowls are and even that they are there. False generalities and ‘discourses’ vary from age to age. But in every period they are taken to be true… the ancient and recent past of humanity constitutes a vast cemetery of now dead great truths. (14)
[Foucault] takes history as his starting point and selects from it samples (madness, punishment, sex) in order to make explicit the underlying ‘discourse’ and infer from this an empirical anthropology… The instrument that Foucault used, namely hermeneutics, the elucidation of meaning, is something people use every day. This everyday practice was not affected by the skepticism that undermines general ideas. (15)
Foucault’s fundamental method is to understand as well as possible what the author of that text wished to say in his own time.
Foucault favours a kind of hermeneutic positivism: we can know nothing for certain about the self, the world or the Good, but between ourselves, whether living or dead, we can understand one another. Whether our understanding is correct or mistaken is another matter… but we may, after all, end up understanding one another. (16)
…a ‘discourse’ – a collection of real practices… (17)
‘Discourses’ have ‘remained invisible’ and constitute ‘the subconscious of, not the person speaking, but the thing said‘ (my italics), ‘a positive subconscious of knowledge, a level that eluded the consciousness’ of the agents and that they used ‘without being aware of doing so’.
Obviously, the word ‘subconscious’ is no more than a metonymy; there is no subconscious, Freudian or otherwise, except in our brains; so, instead of ‘subconscious’, read ‘implicit’. (18)
The task of a historian who follows Foucault is to detect those ruptures that are concealed by misleading continuities. (20)
… Foucault the philosopher simply practices the method adopted by all historians, that of tackling every historical question on its own merits and never as a particular case of a general problem, let alone of a philosophical question. (21)