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Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault is described by Britannica as a French philosopher and historian, 1926-1984. France has been described as a place where a philosopher can be a celebrity. The philosopher John Searle has written (now on Google) about his conversations with Foucault:

I once asked him, Michel, how come you write such strange prose? You don’t have to write like that. You don’t talk like that.” And he said that that was really required by the French intellectual environment. He once said to me, “If I wrote as clearly as you do, people in France wouldn’t take me seriously, because they think that if they can understand everything, it must be superficial.

Camille Paglia, professor and social critic, disliked Foucault and went into areas of thought of no concern to me. The following four paragraphs are hers, just in case you are interested:

I never met or saw Foucault in the flesh. My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naïve American academics.

I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault's scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution. I militantly maintain that the intellectual gurus of my college years -- Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg -- had far more vision and substance than did the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault.

It is simply untrue that Foucault was learned: He was at a loss with any period or culture outside of post-Enlightenment France (his later writing on ancient sexuality is a garbled mishmash). The supposedly innovative ideas for which his gullible acolytes feverishly hail him were in fact borrowed from a variety of familiar sources, from Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Durkheim and Martin Heidegger to Americans such as sociologist Erving Goffman.

Foucault's analysis of "power" is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault's analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original -- except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don't know is that Foucault's commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Saussurean linguistics (which I reject).

Back to the subject of bad writing, someone has given us the following Foucault sentence:

It does not await the moment when, on the basis of what they were not yet, they became what they are.

To add to this, in his book The Order of Things, Foucault has a section under the heading The Theory of the Verb. Our dictionaries tell us that a verb is a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence. Foucault takes more than four pages to describe the verb.

In his book The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault writes:

For many years now historians have preferred to turn their attention to long periods, as if beneath the shifts and changes of political events, they were trying to reveal the stable, almost indestructible system of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant readjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are the suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick lay of events.

Long periods of history — events and culture — is what I've studied, and I don't know what he is talking about with his "irreversible processes" or "motionless bases covered with a thick layer of events." Good history, I believe, can be sequential, contextual and simple, without attempts at grand generalization or analogy.

It appears that Foucault was interested in accurate representations of the past — or truth as some call it. The big problem in writing history is judgment in selecting and interpreting the information we gather. I didn't find Foucault agreeing with this, but perhaps I didn't look hard enough. In his wordy way he may have agreed.

In his "Order of Things,' Foucault asks how words can acquire different meanings. His translator put the question as follows:

How is it that words, which in the primary essence are names and designation, and which are articulated just as representation itself is analyzed, can move irresistibly away from their original signification and acquire either a broader or more limited adjacent meaning.

The answer is common knowledge. Words are abstractions (not the embodiment of essence as Plato claimed). The meaning of words (and sentences) changes with specific contexts.

I turn to the Encyclopedia Britannia for its summation.

Britannica describes Foucault as having asked, in its words, what types of human beings are there? What is their essence? What is the essence of human history? Of humankind? It adds: "Foucault sought not to answer these traditional and seemingly straightforward questions but to critically examine them and the responses they had inspired."

We are learning from geneticists about human biology. Wondering about an essence beyond this that applies to humanity in general strikes me as something for metaphysics and people who believe in their infinite ability to know. Regarding individuals there is variation biologically, culturally, in values and in ideas. There is variation in history's unfolding that defies the concept of essence. Of course, we need to question. but I'll be waiting for someone to tell me how these questions about essence to which Foucault's sought answers have stimulated knowledge about history.

We can tell ourselves that humanity is essentially a creature that tries to avoid pain, but this or a few other big abstractions would not tell us enough about humanity or its history to be useful in a classroom lecture or any book.

Britannica's summation of Foucault's work:

Between 1971 and 1984 Foucault wrote several works, including Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison), a monograph on the emergence of the modern prison; three volumes of a history of Western sexuality; and numerous essays. Foucault continued to travel widely, and as his reputation grew he spent extended periods in Brazil, Japan, Italy, Canada, and the United States. He became particularly attached to Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco Bay area and was a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley for several years. Foucault died of a septicemia typical of AIDS in 1984, the fourth volume of his history of sexuality still incomplete.

Finally, there is this — for me annoying — five-star comment sent to Amazon regarding Foucault's book The Order of Things:

I am not at all qualified to comment on this book. Many highly intelligent and educated people have written books on this book. So, I'll just say that as a humble consumer and reader that I'm very happy I spent my money on it, even though I only understand a small part of what is written.

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