Braver Reading Group: Chapter 7 – A Short Rejoinder (by John Protevi)


[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.]

[Note from Jon Cogburn—

I felt bad that project overcommitment made me phone in the post on Foucault to some extent, and that its hasty nature made it uncharitable both to Braver and to Foucault. So I sent my post to John Protevi asking him for a response. I knew that Protevi’s expertise could help make up for whatever sin I committed against Lady Philosophy. Also, what Protevi is doing with respect to biology and mind is pretty analogous to what Braver is doing with respect to realism/anti-realism debates insofar as both obliterate the supposed incommensurability of the analytic/continental split.

Unfortunately Protevi’s traveling in Europe right now so had to write the below quickly and without access to any of the relevant books; he’s particularly bummed that he didn’t have Braver’s book with him. There are some links to papers though that are really helpful.]

John Protevi’s Rejoinder:

1. About Foucault’s “false historical claims”: Gary Gutting has an essay in his Cambridge Companion to Foucault on this issue; we’d also want to consult Tom Flynn’s book on Foucault and historical reason (Volume 1 (mostly on Sartre, except for the last chapter) and Volume 2). Gutting says that Foucault makes historical claims as illustrations of his philosophical points, not as evidence for a historical argument. So in Madness and Civilization the point is to get at the episteme (later renamed regime of truth), which is the conditions for a statement to be serious, that is, to have a truth value, that is, to be recognized as belonging to the domain of knowledge claims — it could be true, even if it happens not to be; a statement attaining the status of discourse avoids Dirac’s gibe that “X is so bad it’s not even wrong.”

So the ship of fools is supposed to be an image that illustrates that episteme; it’s not a piece of evidence in a historical argument. Now it’s a little complicated in that Madness and Civilization isn’t as clear as Order of Things about practice vs discourse. You could say that MC is the Urtext out of which the archaeology of Order of Things (devoted purely to discourse as serious statements with a truth value) and the genealogy of Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (devoted to the interplay of discursive and non-discursive practices, that is, knowledge and power, as opposed to just knowledge for Order of Things) both emerge. So there’s more in Madness and Civilization than just analysis of discourse, which hurts the attempt to shield Foucault via Gutting’s “illustration vs evidence” distinction.

2. I think the absolutely most important thing about Foucault is that he restricts himself to the human sciences and leaves to the side the sciences that have passed the “threshold of scientificity” as he puts it. He just never considers physics or chemistry or really biology as opposed to medicine and public health, I think, at least after Order of Things (and that’s a special case). Again, Gutting is very good here, this time in his book on Foucault and scientific reason. Foucault is coming out of the French epistemology tradition, primarily Bachelard and Canguilhem. So I think he’d be happy to say that some sciences have passed such a threshold and that you can make realist claims about their findings: that is, they’ve broken free of their historical origins and can make claims that are reproducible given minimal commitments to logical consistency, such that any conceivable succeeding science will at least have to account for these findings. IOW, that they won’t be considered one day the way we now consider phlogiston (as errors or dead ends), but as special cases of a more general system. But I’m really at the limit of my competence in philosophy of science here, so forgive me if this is crude stuff.

In any event, Foucault never discusses biology past Darwin in Order of Things, but I think we can surmise that he might hold that microbiology passed the scientificity threshold with Watson and Crick. Which is not to say that the “genetic program” notion in Monod and Jacob, for example, can’t be criticized from a Developmental Systems Theory perspective. It’s just that such a DST criticism has to be able to account for the findings of the lac operon model; they can’t just dismiss it. Which is another way of saying that the statements of Monod and Jacob and of DST belong to the same episteme, AND that that episteme is qualitatively different (has passed the threshold of scientificity) from that governing criminology, say, or sexuality. There’s an awful lot more to say here about construction of objects in the human sciences versus that in other more “scientific” sciences, but this is a start I hope.

Anyway, another important thing about Foucault, at least post 68, is his attempt to do a “history of the present” which helps people struggling in their daily lives by giving them conceptual tools and / or a sense of the contingency of current power / knowledge regimes. So in the case of biology, he might say “sure, there’s a way to make a robust realist claim about the behavior of this or that microbe in this or that condition. But the interesting thing for me is to look at the history of public health. Sure, there’s some realist knowledge about microbes there, but there are also contingent power / knowledge practices at work here too whose history might help us in thinking /struggling about our own lives.”

Some of the most interesting stuff nowadays takes off from Foucault’s “biopolitics” concept, particularly the “biocapital” school of Niklas Rose and Melinda Cooper and others. I give references at the end of this article on Foucault and neoliberalism: http://www.protevi.com/john/Foucault_28June2009.pdf. Just to take one example: Rumsfeld is a big shareholder in the company making bird flu vaccine. Insofar as public health and national security and terrorism are now linked, in the wake of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, we have a lot to think about from this one little factoid.

3. I think a hard-core technical Foucaultian might disagree that the system of The Archeology of Knowledge constitutes “linguistic idealism,” though it is impossible for me to make the case properly here. But briefly, it would have to do with the status of the “statement” (= énoncé) and how F distinguishes it from sentences, propositions, and speech acts, and how he characterizes the episteme as the rules for the production and dispersal of statements. The episteme is not linguistic, the argument might go. But as I said this would be a very technical undertaking I think.

4. I try to argue that Foucault’s take on history in some of his lecture courses of the late 1970s is realist in some sense. The paper is here: http://www.protevi.com/john/Foucault_28June2009.pdf. Foucault will pretty consistently say that his “grid of intelligibility” (= governmentality, in this case) will “reveal” a “regime of truth” (e.g., liberalism) that “constitutes” objects (e.g., homo economicus). So I say that with the use of “reveal” rather than “constitute” F is a realist about regimes of truth which are themslves “interactively realist” vis-à-vis their objects insofar as they constitute them.

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About joncogburn

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.

2 thoughts on “Braver Reading Group: Chapter 7 – A Short Rejoinder (by John Protevi)

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

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for these comments; eat some cheese for me!

    1. About Foucault’s “false historical claims:” we do have to be careful here. Can we take Gutting’s way out, that “the ship of fools is supposed to be an image that illustrates that episteme; it’s not a piece of evidence in a historical argument”? It seems to me that even functioning as an illustration requires some claims of historical accuracy.

    There’s also the pragmatic requirement: in order to persuade people, Foucault has to stick fairly close to standard historical practices. History functions differently than fiction or poetry and even to reform it, he has to begin by playing along with it to some degree. Otherwise, he won’t be taken seriously and his attempts to liberate or reform the practice of doing history will fail.

    2. You’re certainly right that Foucault restricts himself to the human sciences and makes a remark in OT about how the hard sciences reliably produce truth or something like that. But I’ve always found that remark odd. At first, I thought he was making a joke (Well, we all know that THOSE disciplines do nothing but discover unadulterated truth, so we’ll just stick to these mushier disciplines), but later I just didn’t know what to do with it.

    I find it very hard to see Foucault sticking to a “threshold of scientificity,” after which some sciences have “broken free of their historical origins.” This would mean that only some truths are things of this world, whereas others allow us to break free of our human perspective to see things as they really are, and I have a lot of trouble attributing a view like this to F. There is a different way to justify his focus, namely, that what he’s really interested in is the formation of subjectivity (an emphasis that increasingly came into focus for him over the course of his career) and disciplines like psychology or criminology play a far greater role in this process than physics or chemistry.

    3. “Foucault will pretty consistently say that his “grid of intelligibility” (= governmentality, in this case) will “reveal” a “regime of truth” (e.g., liberalism) that “constitutes” objects (e.g., homo economicus). So I say that with the use of “reveal” rather than “constitute” F is a realist about regimes of truth which are themslves “interactively realist” vis-à-vis their objects insofar as they constitute them.”

    It sounds like you sketching out a position of ontological realism and ontic anti-realism, a pretty interesting animal. Is that right?

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