[If you’re just joining us, please click on the cover icon on the right side of the page to see the post that gathers all the discussions of Braver Reading Group, or click here.]
Due to cascading obligations I’ve only been able to read this chapter once, and am going to have to phone this one in, which is a shame: (1) it’s a great chapter, amply verifying the claims that Foucault can be understood very well with the realism matrix and as a late Heideggerian, (2) it raises a lot of fascinating philosophical issues in its own right, and (3) should be mandatory reading for anyone moved by Chomsky’s infamous dismissal of “postmodernism” (on-line HERE). Chomsky’s argument (that philosophical theory is often just a baroque way to state the obvious) ties in to Alexei’s interesting comments about metaphor (and the role of set theory for Badiou) at the tale end of the discussion of Chapter 5.
In lieu of a comprehensive book report and development of specific themes I’m just going to present some marginal notes and hope that they spark conversation. I’m leery of doing this. Usually on a first read of a really interesting work of philosophy like Braver’s, I write lots of disgruntled comments in the margins, and then in a second read I try to answer the questions from the author’s point of view in the most charitable manner possible. But I’ve only done half the work here, and I’m sorry if the below is as a result less philosophically valuable anything else I’ve posted in reaction to Braver’s book.
Exruciatingly Brief Overview:
Braver goes through the four periods of Foucault’s work, interpreting each in terms of his reading of late Heidegger through the realism matrix. The four periods are: (1) neo-Kantian (Madness and Civilization), (2) Archeological (The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, The Archeology of Knowledge), (3) Genealogical (Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1), and (4) Ethical (Volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality). Braver also quotes from now published lectures and interviews given by Foucault during these periods.
(1) What do we make of the fact that Foucault’s history is so often wildly distorted and inaccurate? For example read this TLS article about Foucault’s madness book by Andrew Scull. After excoriating Foucault’s choice of source material and interpretation of that material, correcting him on all sorts of minor factual claims, Scull asserts:
But the notion of a Europe-wide Great Confinement in these years is purely mythical. Such massive incarceration simply never occurred in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whether one focuses one’s attention on the mad, who were still mostly left at large, or on the broader category of the poor, the idle and the morally disreputable. And as Gladys Swain and Marcel Gauchet argue in Madness and Democracy (reviewed in the TLS, October 29, 1999), even for France, Foucault’s claims about the confinement of the mad in the classical age are grossly exaggerated, if not fanciful – for fewer than 5,000 were locked up even at the end of the eighteenth century, a “tiny minority of the mad who were still scattered throughout the interior of society”. Foucault’s account of the medieval period fares no better in the light of modern scholarship. Its central image is of “the ship of fools”, laden with its cargo of mad souls in search of their reason, floating down the liminal spaces of feudal Europe. It is through the Narrenschiff that Foucault seeks to capture the essence of the medieval response to madness, and the practical and symbolic significance of these vessels loom large in his account. “Le Narrenschiff . . . a eu une existence réelle”, he insists. “Ils ont existé, ces bateaux qui d’une ville à l’autre menaient leur cargaison insensée.” (The ship of fools was real. They existed, these boats that carried their crazed cargo from one town to another.) But it wasn’t; and they didn’t.
Assuming Foucault’s detractors are correct in the assertion that he data-mined to support false historical claims, what effect does this have on his substantive philosophical claims? Kant faced the possibility of this very problem with respect to social contract theory, which led him to develop hypothetical contractarianism. Is there some analogous move with respect to Foucault?
Every great philosopher constructs a history of philosophy in terms of the dialectical space as they reconceive it. And the reconstruction always involves distortion and simplification. This is fine. It’s part of the game. Great philosophers are almost constitutively historically mistaken yet dialectically correct (e.g. Kant on empiricists versus rationalists).
But when your philosophical view is Historical Phenomenological Ontology, I don’t know if it’s fine. If your view is that reality is somehow relative to historical epoch, don’t you have an obligation to get the epochs right? The big worry is that the plausibility of Historical Phenomonelogical Ontology is dependent upon getting them wrong. More on this below.
(2) The overwhelming majority of the increase to mean human life expectancy in the last century can be attributed to very few factors: childhood nutrition, cleanliness (shoes, boiled water, washing), vaccinations, and antibiotics. The modern biological explanation of why these things work (increase mean life expectancy) allows development of new medicines (though nothing developed since has effected mortality rates nearly as much as vaccinations and antibiotics). Pre-modern biology does not. Common sense says that in virtue of this modern biology is closer to the truth than premodern biology. The Foucault I’m getting from Braver is so socially constructivist that he has to deny this bit of common sense (e.g. discussion on page 375). Is that right?
(3) Just as the move from his earliest neo-Kantian period to the Archeology period can be understood as accepting Derrida’s criticism, can the move from Archeology to Genealogy be motivated in part by a rejection of what many saw at the time as Derrida’s linguistic idealism? In Archeology linguistic regimes of truth construct objects such as the subject. In Genealogy power relations do so as well.
(4) This is related to (1), (2), and (3). Doesn’t Foucault have to be a realist about power relations manifest in history itself in order to tell a story about how the subject is constituted at various points by these things? When we say things like, “It is the episteme or epochal understanidng of Being that determines what can be said or thought; the individual thinker is its effect, response, or conduit rather than its origin” (370), it really sounds like we are describing a machine, with “determination” being a kind of causality. Why isn’t this the very kind of lapse into realism that Braver shows Nietzsche to fall into with his account of power? On this reading, Foucault provides part of the story of how phenomena such as subjecthood emerge out of things that historians, anthropologists, etc. can measure. I think this is something like John Protevi’s take on Foucault, who is read as being part of the project by getting above (history, cultures, etc.) and below (biology) the subject. I should ask Protevi if that is a reading of Foucault, or just an appropriation of his insights. [Note that in conversation Protevi has a very interesting criticism of mainstream cognitive science as theorizing almost exclusively in terms of how societal and evolutionary scaffolding help humans accomplish computational tasks, and very little about how societal and evolutionary scaffolding prevents humans from accomplishing computational tasks that might be in the interest of the subject. This dual function is of a piece with the Ethics period late Foucault.]
(5) Circa page 373 we get again the by now ubiquitous internal/external metaphor to justify what Meillassoux calls semantic doubling.
(6) All of this discussion (in particular the Mendel stuff on 375) seems to be presupposing a fact/value dichotomy that may not be sustainable for the anti-realist. Factual claims such as assertions about genes are shown to only make sense relative to presupposed regimes that are valuative (note analog to Heidegger on the relationship between Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit). Then this is to undermine realism about those very facts.
But this move only works if we are not realists about the values underlying the facts in question. But what justifies this rejection of the valuative as being objective in it’s own right? Traditionally it has been realism about facts which provides the contrast so that we can denigrate values.
If the discursive standards that give rise to Mendel are really better than the replaced ones, then in a quasi-pragmatist (Jamesian and early Heideggerian (of the 1919 lectures), not Rortian) move, Foucault’s analysis is an explanation of why Mendel’s claims are closer to the truth than the previous theories.
Sabina Lovibond’s Realism and Imagination in Ethics pursues this kind of strategy to defend anti-anti-realism about ethics. She argues that the kind of fact/value distinction that someone like Stanley Fish (and Rorty, when he’s being uncareful) needs to defend his relativism presupposes an untenable semantic realism. So anti-realism about meaning leads to anti-anti-realism about “values,” which via early Heidegger and Foucault then reinstate certain realist theses about “facts,” since these facts are determined by the valuative regimes that underlay them.
(7) “In this way we discover A3 Pluralism behind every apparently univocal truth or permanent entity” (379).
I don’t get this. Anthropologists and linguists have by now determined all sorts of universal truths that hold across cultures, even among members of isolated cultures at varying levels of development. For example, our best science supports the hypothesis that stone age people as well as modern people make very uniform judgments about beauty based on facial symmetry and body proportions (for example men and women’s judgments about female beauty involves in part the extent to which the person being judged approximates an ideal chest/waist/hip ratio). Not only is this reliable across cultures, but pre-linguistic infants have been shown to reliably respond more positively to people with more symmetrical features and who exhibit other visible symptoms of being reproductively fit (in an environment with hunter-gatherer selective pressures). See Nancy Etcoff’s excellent Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty for an overview of why the main planks of “the beauty myth” myth are just false.
Another great source is the work of Dennis Dutton, a fantastic philosopher of art who actually studies how cultures radically different from ours treat objects that provoke aesthetic responses (I haven’t read his new book, The Art Instinct, yet; his articles are fantastic and I’m excited to read it). And there are compelling cultural universals governing both the kind of objects we rate as more aesthetically valuable and also how we should treat objects that are taken to be aesthetically valuable.
All of this is to say that I worry that Foucault is overstating the amount of variability in an effort to make Historical Phenomenological Ontology more plausible than it really is.
Of course there are differences within the communities and individuals that manifest these universals, but there is a real danger in overstating the amount of contingency and variability. All of the socially constructivist or relativist claims I learned in college in non-philosophy departments were defended with utter falsehoods presented as fact (e.g. Margaret Mead on Samoan sexuality, “the beauty myth” myth, the great Eskimo snow fallacy, the lies about Yaqui Indians from Casteneda’s books, falsehoods about the relation between music with quartertones and Western forms, etc. etc. etc.) to radically overstate the amount of cultural variability. Fool me once. . .
(8) “It’s my hypothesis that the individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the porduct of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.” (Foucault, quoted on 383) Isn’t this just a false dichotomy? Does it not work both ways? Was this part of the point of Foucault’s final Ethics period before his death?
(9) I’m not sure that some of Foucault’s more weighty pronouncements say about the death of the subject really say anything.
There is no algorithm for determining how much information about a word should be considered meaning-relevant information and how much of the information should be considered collateral information about the world (Dummett calls the lack of such an algorithm “the inextricability of meaning and belief”). If you allow too much information, then any change in related belief has to be considered a change in ontology. If you allow too little, then any change is a mere change in ideology. But again, there is no determinate fact of the matter about how such changes should be described. As Putnam argues somewhere, we could have continued to say that phlogiston exists (shoot, maybe he was talking about caloric) since negative valence electrons have most of the properties attributed. Contrariwise, we could have said that atoms don’t exist when the early Bohr model was overturned. Instead we say that we are talking about the same thing (preserving ontology) as he was but that we have different beliefs about those things. The eponymous first essay in Stephen Stich’s excellent Deconstructing the Mind is probably the clearest thing in analytic philosophy about this issue.
(10) If I had had the time to read this chapter a second time through, I would have liked to use the above marginal notes to think more about what really happens once you go with the late Heidegger and get rid of A5 Active Knower. One might argue that many of the R claims along Braver’s realism matrix come back in with regard to history itself.
Maybe not though, Foucault and late Heidegger still seem to accept the apophantic, Berkeleyan kind of argument against our ability to know things apart from how they appear to us. But what does this mean once the “us” here is something produced by language/power mechanisms/etc? To think this kind of production is to be able to think of the power mechanisms doing something different and not producing us. For example, if I say that the sentence “the moon exists” is true in virtue of its meaning and the relevant facts, I have a picture where the meaning or facts could have been different such that the sentence came out false. If I say that the knower exists in virtue of power relations I have a picture where the power relations could have been different such that there is no knower. But that undermines the phenomonenological part of Historical Phenomenological Ontology. We can no longer tie being to knowers in the phenomonological manner.
In this context, one would need a very close engagement with the really interesting things Braver says about the connection between truth and fiction in Foucault on pages 397-402.
(11) There is clear connection between Foucault on the subject and Harman’s R7 Thesis:
The human/world relation is just a special case of the relation between any two entities whatsoever. This is contrasted with A7 which would say that the human-world relationship is the ground of all the others.
The above points would have read better if thematized in terms of this. Again, is there a realist reading of Foucault where getting rid of A5 Active Knower (in fact explaining this knower as an emergently existing being) is precisely what brings you to embrace Harman’s R7?