Braver Reading Group: Chapter 7 – Foucault’s History of Truth

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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.

Marginal Notes:

(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?

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Cogburn is a stereotypical beatnik, with a goatee, "hip" (slang) usage, and a generally unkempt, bohemian appearance, studiously avoiding anything resembling work, which he seems to regard as the ultimate four-letter word. Whenever the word is mentioned, even in a line like "That would work," he jumps with fear, yelping, "Work?!" He serves as a foil to the well-groomed, well-dressed, straitlaced Mikhail, and the contrast between the two friends provides much of the humor of the Reading Group.

8 thoughts on “Braver Reading Group: Chapter 7 – Foucault’s History of Truth

  1. Pingback: A Thing Of This World Reading Group. « Perverse Egalitarianism

    • Thanks for the kind words. We’re going to get John Protevi to provide some balance in a couple of days. Like Ian Hacking and Lee Braver, he does really interesting things with Foucault.

      In the context of Braver’s book, I think my marginal notes are probably insufficiently sensitive to the extent to which central facets of the realism/anti-realism dichotomies are themselves reconfigured once the Kantian subject and it’s role in the scheme/content distinction are moved beyond by late Heidegger.

      Nonetheless, your research and arguments have to be a data point in these debates now.

      I had the opportunity to teach, “But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art” (in Noel Carroll’s “Theories of Art Today”) last semester and it blew me away.

      “The concentration by theorists of ethnographic art on dubious cases drawn from the ambiguous margins of the artistic life of tribal peoples (areas where art disappears, or is gradually replaced by ritual, religion, or practical concerns), on misleadingly described artistic practices, or on needless attempts to make foreign arts exotic, has inclined many aestheticians to give up the search for artistic universals, or at best to remain silent on the subject. But neither the universality of art nor the universality of its central features is endangered by the existence of marginal or disputed cases of art in tribal (or European) culture. The investigation of ethnographic arts is only impeded by the dogmatic refusal to discuss and debate their general features. The list I have provided does not insist that each of its eight characteristics will be present in every work of art. I do claim that any human practice which had none of the features enumerated would not be art, and that any human practice which possessed most of them would be art; not “art in our sense,” but art in the sense that characterizes it through the whole of human history.” (237)

      I can’t recommend the essay highly enough to anybody reading this and interested in this constellation of issues. The eight universals and discussion of the relevant ethnographic and philosophical issues is masterful.

      Also I highly recommend reading Gottlieb’s NYT review of The Art Instinct. It will minimally make you put the book on your amazon wish list.

  2. 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?

    It seems to me that we need to make a distinction between ontological realism and ontic realism in order to make sense of out the massive social constructionism of people like Foucault. Foucault would have to be a fool to deny ontic realism about things like stars, geology, and germ theory, but it is precisely when we are concerned with human-centered “historical entities”(as Heidegger calls them) like psychiatry and “madness” that we must be ontological pluralists with ontology understand in the “phenomenological” sense.

    The ontological realist would say that “madness” exists. The ontological pluralist would say “madness” only exists because we think it does. The pluralistic who is an ontic realist would perhaps say there is a supervenience between ontic structure and how it appears for us, or at least frame things in terms of various physical entities having different socially enforced interpretations of the same physical world.

    • I’m not quite getting what the ontic/ontological distinction is doing here.

      Why isn’t what you describe just ontic anti-realism about certain classes of emergent properties?

      • Well, that is an interesting way to put it, but as Kim points out, there are causal problems in stipulating any kind of emergent properties so I am not sure “ontic anti-realism about certain classes of emergent properties” would do the work of establishing the ontological pluralism of HPO. I don’t know how emergentism can be causally cashed out in non-reductive terms, but maybe I just haven’t looked into the literature lately on solving Kim’s problems of causal spread.

        But I think to describe things to simply would be to do an injustice to the complicated ways in which the ontological classes of “emergent properties” like madness or sexuality are simultaneously dependent on factical, ontic conditions and “transcendental” ones concerning our phenomenology, language, and basic subjective experience.

        Basically, I think the distinction would do the work of making sense out of the fact that stars existed long before humans were around, but nevertheless, their “existence” as stars, as an “object” distinct from subject, depends on various social inscription factors and language games.

        It seems like if we really accept the ontological anti-realism of someone like Foucault without grounding it in some form of ontic realism, we are liable to lapse into a form of discourse where things like alternative medicine are given *equal* metaphysical status to scientific medicine. I’m sure other people can think of more domains of discourse where an ontological pluralism can lead to all sorts of annoying cultural relativity if it isn’t grounded in a firm realism concerning occurrent structure. It seems to me that most people are under the impression that it is “okay” within contemporary academic philosophy to hold onto all sorts of anti-realisms concerning the external world, etc. Given the extent to which we take seriously ontological pluralism without making clear a distinction between ontic and ontological pluralism, I am not surprised by such a lay conception of philosophy.

        Are laypeople wrong to say that contemporary philosophy has not even established the existence of the external world yet?

      • Don’t I need ontological realism if I want to say alternative medicine (crystals, whatnot) is BS and the theory that makes sense of antibiotics is not? Both agree onticly that bodies exist, but these bodies are conceptualized *as* different kinds of property instances. So don’t I need ontological realism to do the work you want?

        I’m not trying to be dense or fey here. I’m really trying to get the distinction as you are putting it forward.

      • No, not according to how I am framing things. If you want to say that water-memory is BS, you don’t need to be an ontological realist because from the framework set up by phenomenological ontology, if you are an ontological pluralist what “exists” for one person might not exist for someone else. For the homeopathic practitioner, the water-memory “exists” but when we actually look at it from the ontic level through scientific investigation, there is nothing there. From the ontological realist perspective, all we would have to say is that one person’s experience is the same as everyone elses and that we all use the same conceptual filters to experience the world. The ontological pluralists would say that everyone experiences the world differently because we all have different conceptual filters.

        Now, both the pluralist and the realist can be ontic realists, it is just a matter of realizing that this particular usage of “ontological” is largely phenomenological, following Heidegger. However, one could easily be a pluralist and an ontic anti-realist, saying that the ontic structure is actually determined and shaped by our cognitive structures. This can be seen in some of contemporary “quantum” theories of human consciousness like “what the bleep do I know?” I hold this position to be untenable with modern conceptions of physics and science, and thus, I think ontological pluralism needs to be married with a realism about the independence of ontic structure from our consciousness.

        Basically, if you follow the phenomenological definition of ontology, which has to do with disclosure, you can be a realist or an anti-realist, saying either that everyone has the same cognitive filters or that every experience is relative to the individual or culture. In both cases, one can be an ontic realist or ontic anti-realist. If you are an ontological realist and an ontic realist, then everyone experiences the same world exactly the same. If you are an ontological realist and an ontic anti-realist, then everyone is essentially constructing the same world and experiencing that construction the same way. If pluralist and ontic anti-realist, then this is the “quantum theory”. If pluralist and ontic realist, this is the “everyone has different interpretations of same world”.

        Does that make sense? Perhaps there is something I am missing here that renders my distinctions incoherent, but it makes sense in my mind (which doesn’t say much though).

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