Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 2

One of the strongest objections to Foucault’s philosophy is that his theory of discourse appears to resemble an old sociological perspective: structural functionalism. Structural functionalism is a sort of biological approach to understanding society: all parts of society work together to allow that society to function. The emphasis is on equilibrium, harmony and interdependence (though not equality). In Veyne’s analysis of Foucauldian “discourse”, we can detect the same sense of a whole that is greater than its parts (albeit in a more decentralized manner), a whole that is governed by a set of immanent, interconnected and yet undetected assumptions that both create and are created by the discursive apparatus, or “set-up”.

So what’s the problem? As with structural functionalism in general, Foucault’s discourses appear to emphasize the status-quo. What is, is meant to be. This sort of naturalistic fallacy assumes that what we see today is the natural function of society (perhaps via evolution). In terms of Foucault’s discourse theory, you could argue that the logical outcome of this approach is a palpable conservatism. Far from resisting discursive power, human beings are unaware, as Veyne points out, “of the limits that it imposes” and, as such, they appear more like cogs in the proverbial wheel. As Neil Brenner has commented, “one major implication of Foucault’s genealogical distance from the problem of human agency is an objectivist, functionalist mode of analysis which cannot adequately distinguish power from resistance.”


Chapter 2

[W]e can escape from our provisional fishbowl only thanks to the pressure exerted by new events as they happen, or else when someone or other invents a new ‘discourse’ that is well received. However, even then, we shall leave one fishbowl only to find ourselves trapped in a new one. In short, this fishbowl or ‘discourse’ is ‘what may be called a historical a priori ‘. To be sure, that a priori, far from being an unmoving law that tyrannizes human thought, is constantly changing, and we ourselves eventually move on to a new one. But we are not conscious of this: those who live at the time have always been unaware of the limits that it imposes, just as we ourselves, today, are unable to perceive our own limits. (27-28)

Far from being lying ideologies, ‘discourses’ map out what people really do and think, without realizing it. Foucault never did establish a cause-and-effect link working in either direction between ‘discourses’ and the rest of reality; the set-up and the plots that unfold within it exist on the same level. (29)

[I agree with Veyne’s point that Foucault saw “ideology” as an inherently negative concept (like Marx). But then I’m reminded of Roy Macridis’s functionalist definition of ideology: Without ideology, we are almost without a conscience, without law and order, without an anchor and a port. Without ideology, we can have no vision of other worlds we want to sail to. Ideologies fashion our motivations, our attitudes, and the political regimes under which we live. They not only shape and consolidate values; they also command change and movement. Except for the last part, doesn’t this sound a lot like “discourse”?]

The ‘discourse’ itself is immanent in the set-up that models itself upon it … and that embodies it in society. The ‘discourse’ determines the singularity and strangeness of the period, and the local colour of the whole set-up. (31)

So why was Foucault so adamant in insisting that he was not at all close to Weber? Because, in Weber’s thought, he found no recognition of the principle of singularity and he believed that what Weber was looking for were essences. I am sorry to say that his idea of Weber was incorrect. He did not see that Weber was just as nominalist as he himself was. (35)

[Hmmm… I have to agree with Foucault on this one. Does the following passage from Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism sound like nominalism? One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born – that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate – from the spirit of Christian asceticism.]

[S]ince a ‘discourse’ is immanent in historical facts and in any set-up of which it is, itself, the ultimate formulation, it does not carry history along with it, rather it is carried along by history, together with its inseparable set-up. [A set-up is sometimes called a dispositif or apparatus. In Power/Knowledge, Foucault says, “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.”] (35)

And given that ‘discourses’ do not succeed one another in accordance with any dialectical logic, they do not supplant one another for any good reasons, and they are not judged by some transcendental court, but are only related by what is the case, rather than what should be the case, they supplant one another and their relations are those of strangers, or rivals. Thought thrives on conflict, not reason. (36)



Foucault: His Thought, His Character (Chp. 2)
By Paul Veyne

Veyne, Paul. Foucault: His Thought, His Character. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010. Print.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.