Elsewhere (5)
Thick Air

Foucault Undone

1:

Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse that it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 1980.

2:

Truth for [Foucault] is not something absolute that everyone must acknowledge but merely what counts as true within a particular discourse… However, it is not difficult to show that a relativist concept of truth of this kind is untenable. If what is true is always relative to a particular society, there are no propositions that can be true across all societies. However, this means that Foucault’s own claim cannot be true for all societies. So he contradicts himself. What he says cannot be true at all.

The relativist fallacy also applies to the concept of knowledge. One cannot hold that there are alternative, indeed competing, forms of knowledge, as Foucault maintains. Inherent in the concept of knowledge is that of truth. One can only know something if it is true. If something is not true, or even if its truth status is uncertain, one cannot know it. To talk, as Foucault does, of opposing knowledges is to hold that there is one set of truths that runs counter to another set of truths. It is certainly possible to talk about beliefs or values that may be held in opposition by the authorities and by their subjects, since neither beliefs nor values necessarily entail truth. But Foucault’s idea that there are knowledges held by the centralising powers that are opposed to the subjugated knowledges of the oppressed is an abuse of both logic and language.

Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, 1996.

3:

foucault, n. A howler, an insane mistake. “I’m afraid I’ve committed an egregious foucault.”

From the Philosophical Lexicon.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this kind of relativistic position is best understood not as an epistemic insight but as a political prejudice. For some, it is ideologically intolerable that so called ‘Western ways of knowing’ should be largely preeminent in their effectiveness and rewards. If certain ways of looking at the world tend to produce advantages, both materially and culturally, this must somehow be ‘unfair’ and subject to correction, or at least disdain. Thus we arrive at assertions that, for instance, the scientific method and expectations of evidence should not be “privileged” above other, less reliable modes of thinking. In common usage, this levelling of knowledge claims reduces analysis to mere opinion or lifestyle choice, and is corrosive to critical thought for fairly obvious reasons. In order to maintain a pretence of ‘fairness’ and non-judgmental equivalence, there are any number of things one cannot allow oneself to think about, at least in certain ways.

As Windschuttle points out,

Despite its logical untenability, the genealogical method holds a great attraction for Foucault and his followers. In debates with their opponents… they hold what they believe is an unassailable position by focusing on who is speaking rather than on what is being said. They use the genealogical method to absolve themselves from the need to examine the content of any statement. All they see the need to do is examine the conditions of its production – not ‘is it true?’ but ‘who made the statement and for what reasons?’. This is a tactic that is well known in Marxist circles, where, to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says. If someone can be labelled ‘bourgeois’ everything this person says will simply reflect the ideology of that class.

The Foucauldian version is little different. In debate, any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing ‘discursive formation’ or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned. One of the reasons for Foucault’s popularity in the university environment is that he offers such tactics to his followers – tactics which should be regarded as a negation of the traditional aims of the university: the gaining of knowledge and the practise of scholarship. Foucault’s influence on the type of academic debate so frequently found today should be a matter of great concern. Instead of talk about real issues, all we get is talk about talk. Instead of debates based on evidence and reason, all we get is a retreat to a level of abstraction where enough is assumed to have been said when one has identified the epistemological position of one’s opponent.

More Windschuttle here and here.

Comments

Anna

No-one must win! All must have prizes!

David

Well, that does seem to be the gist of it. Though I suspect Foucault would have been quite happy to see the West’s “regime of truth” lose to some suitably rough and brutal alternative. But that’s what happens when you dress up masochistic fantasies in philosophical drag.

sdferr

Isn't it possible that Foucault will not actually be undone until such time as he is forgotten altogether (or very nearly so), as for instance has happened with Johan Joachim Becher? I mean, we don't even bother to make jokes about Becher.

David

Maybe Foucault is just funnier and harder to forgive. And while there can’t be too many alchemists around these days, Foucault’s influence still informs quite a lot of leftist rumbling. “Science studies,” for instance, or “post-colonial theory,” etc. - the tendentious pseudo-disciplines. There are still some devotees out there who ought to be embarrassed.

Brian H

Isn't it just a sleight of hand? Truth and beliefs aren't the same thing. Bad Foucault!

pst314

"Though I suspect Foucault would have been quite happy to see the West’s 'regime of truth' lose to some suitably rough and brutal alternative."

You can replace suspicion with certainty: Foucault enthusiastically praised the Ayatollah Khomeini. And speaking of "rough and brutal", Foucault died of AIDS contracted while having rough sex in San Francisco bathhouses. Do these two facts seem to contradict each other? Well, with POMO theory you can reconcile all contradictions.

David

Brian,

“Truth and beliefs aren’t the same thing.”

I wouldn’t assume they were interchangeable, no. But this is the thing. It seems to me that proponents of PoMo tend to regard truth as merely an artefact of language and social consensus, or some rhetorical imposition, with no meaning or existence outside of social intercourse. I don’t think this is how a physicist or cosmologist would choose to define the term, and I think the difference matters. Defined in this way, i.e. as by Foucault, “truth” is no longer the same thing as “what actually happened” or “what actually is the case.” And this seems a little sly. (The Earth, for instance, didn’t suddenly start orbiting the Sun when human beings figured it out and talked about it. So far as we can tell, it’s been orbiting the Sun – and not the other way round - for five billion years or so, regardless of what any given group of people thought at any given point in history.)

By annexing the meaning of truth in such a way - as a matter of language and consensus, not what actually is - the store has been handed over straight away and all that’s left is claustrophobic wordplay. In much the same way, one might slyly define reality as “things that people concern themselves with and talk about” - as opposed to “that which exists (irrespective of whether human beings are aware of it or particularly bothered).” It seems to me the latter definition of reality is more to the point.

Alcuin

"to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says" - the classic intellectual indolence of the Ad Hominem fallacy, still alive and well in student/Lefty circles.

Roger Scruton describes (link below) his journey to conservatism, and notes that those attracted to the Left either have a chip on their shoulder (such as Prescott over failing his 11+), or are of a spiteful nature, and find the class war suitable to their talents. Compassion seems to have been cast off by today's Left and left in the dirt as unworthy of their Great Intellects, more suited to the likes of Christians, or similar bourgeois non-entities. Scruton also notes of Foucault:

"Foucault is dead from AIDS, the result of sprees in the bath-houses of San Francisco, visited during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity. But his books are on university reading lists all over Europe and America. His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it. Only in France is he widely regarded as a fraud."
http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=6D1C3A6A-C4BC-4EAD-8E7A-21EFE02F441D

The fallacies and rhetorical tricks of the Left get ever more devious and sophisticated - small wonder they are attracted to Islam, which has had 1400 years to hone its tactics. When I read Windschuttle I was mainly impressed with his serious irritation at having to write such a book at all. But unfortunately we must learn the enemy's tricks, lest we fall to them.

"Deception is the basis of all warfare" - Sun Tzu

steveaz

George Orwell, from his essay, "Looking Back on the Spanish War:"

"This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history."
[...]
"...[W]hat is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that "the facts" existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone."
[...]
"It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys."
[Bold is mine.]

Now fast-forward to 2008, as our modern nation struggles against the caustic effects of a now-faddish "Neo-tribalism," and you will see just how prescient Orwell was when he said to one Arthur Koestler that "History stopped in 1936." Indeed, it did, and today's Dictatoriat terrifies me just as much as it did Orwell back in the good ol' halcyon days of 1945, when he wrote his essay.
-Steve

AntiCitizenOne

I'm not sure about the existence of truth, but I'm definitely sure about the existence of False.

David

Steveaz,

“…it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

In fairness, some postmodernist arguments are much less objectionable than Foucault’s (or at least they’re objectionable for different reasons) and the objection may be with how those ideas are applied politically, generally by other postmodernists. Some register that the contingency of a truth claim doesn’t mean that it can’t be weighed against other such claims and deemed more convincing (and convincing for better reasons). But the less objectionable arguments are, despite the arch language, pretty thin and banal. They don’t really bring anything new to the table. And the arguments that are more objectionable are generally self-refuting. See, for instance, below:

http://curmudgeonjoy.blogspot.com/2007/02/notes-on-rorty.html

Another, more general, objection is the default emphasis on language and social consensus as the measure of all things. By which I mean, reality is defined as, or assumed to mean, “things that people concern themselves with and talk about” - as opposed to “that which exists (irrespective of whether human beings are aware of it or particularly bothered).” Thus, if a child is immersed in, say, astronomy rather than football, they may well be regarded, wrongly, as being uninterested in reality. (As opposed to uninterested in certain types of social interaction, which is not the same thing.) The conflating of reality and society is, I think, rather creepy. The default emphasis is on society, not the individual – who is, implicitly, reduced to an artefact of society, and whose character can presumably be reconstructed by society as is seen fit.

Which, I’m sure, is a comfort to us all.

erm

I'm tending towards agreement with AC1.

Truth is an intangible which is approached (but never grasped).. by discriminating/awakening to false concepts, in a process of elimination.

Foucault philosophy is merely one such falsehood.

Alberich

Truth, justification and belief are necessary but arguably not sufficient conditions for knowledge. Suppose that you have been living in the woods for the past three years and re-emerge to tell me that the Prime Minister's name begins with B. This is true, justified and you believe it, but it is not knowledge.

Indefeasibility might be introduced as a fourth criterion, which supposedly would complete a quartet of sufficient conditions, but this introduces at least as many difficulties as it solves.

First, if a thesis is indefeasible then no counterexample could count against it. The thesis can account in advance for all objections against it, as for example do most variants of determinism. It cannot therefore serve as a criterion of scientific knowledge.

Might mathematical knowledge be indefeasible? Not really. It is a working assumption that mathematics is consistent but not complete. We do know (a) that it cannot be both consistent and complete and (b) that its consistency is unprovable - at least without appeal to yet a stronger axiomatic system whose own consistency must then be assumed. To the exent that nothing rules out the possibility of our one day waking up to find it is complete but inconsistent, mathematics is eminently defeasible, and perhaps this should be a source of encouragement.

"No-one believes this sentence." (Jean Buridan)

steveaz

David,
"The conflating of reality and society is, I think, rather creepy. The default emphasis is on society, not the individual – who is, implicitly, reduced to an artefact of society, and whose character can presumably be reconstructed by society as is seen fit."

Bingo! And you wrote it so clearly, D.

It appears that Foucault's semantics, and by default, those of our Post Modernists, hinge on their overlord-like definition of "society." To them society is totalitarian - and that suits them fine. Cue Orwell's quote above.

This is anathema to the American concept of individual self-determination as well as to our entire "Bill of Rights." In effect, America ranks its Constitution over our republic's myriad societies, which must rankle Foucault's acolytes no end.

So, I view the PoMo strand as a foreign movement attacking our Constitution, just like any other pathogen which might infect a body from without. And, just as Hepatitis targets the liver's function (or constitution), this one deliberately targets gun-owners, religious people and capitalist entrepreneurs.

This ordering of a plurality of societies all coexisting under one Constitution is the defining feature of our nation, and it is this hierarchy that the PoMo movement seems designed to invert.

Trimegistus

Postmodernism is nothing but an intellectual fig-leaf for the old Marxist project. Human nature, society, good and evil, and truth itself must be infinitely malleable for their social-engineering schemes to work. Therefore the very concept of objective truth must be destroyed. Which M. Foucault is only too happy to oblige with.

BackwardsBoy

Absolute truths do exist. I find it amazing that there are some misguided souls who actually believe there is no such thing as good or evil. This twisted logic leads to a myriad of bad decisions in life, some discovered sooner, some later. While unfamiliar with the writings of Foucault, from what I've read here, he seems to be a metaphysical "useful idiot".

rabbit

George Orwell convincingly argued that "subjective truth" is an indispensible instrument of tyrany. And Stalin and Mao provided the empirical evidence.

Although Mao did have one good point. Sometimes our intellectual leaders aren't worth very much.

David

Speaking of “useful idiots,” there’s always Professor Gayatri Spivak, another tenured “literary critic and theorist” and self-described “Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist,” whose clotted prose tends to obscure her tendentious assumptions. When Spivak expresses herself a little more clearly - usually after external, hostile prompting - her moral contortions start to become apparent. Speaking at Leeds University in 2002, Spivak offered the following “analysis” of suicide bombing:

“Suicide bombing--and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs--is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others... Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning... you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing... It is a response... to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.”

http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/2002/08/more_coming_soo.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=49F8FC7E-F40B-46B2-A887-A2328E99F9BD

Note how the distinction between suicide and murder is rendered indistinct; there are, apparently, “no designated killees”. Just as Foucault claimed that there was nothing to distinguish Truman’s America from Stalin’s Russia (– just think about that for a minute -), Spivak accuses America of terrorism, while bending over backwards to romanticise and excuse definitive terrorism. Her language is florid, but the meaning is disgusting.

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