Foucault for Chance Against a Transparent Civil Society

Foucault famously suggested a historical movement from spectacular punishment to disciplinary punishment. he was referring to the transition from public humiliation, torture and execution to the hidden routine of prison For Foucault that transition from one mode of punishment to another was the indicator of a general historical movement to institutions based on the visibility of everyone in the institution, the apparent depersonalisation of power and the movement of discipline in society as a whole from moments of excessive cruelty to long periods of routinised petty cruelty.

The vision of a society dominated by the disciplinary was modified soon afterwards in a move which becomes on of the dominant issues of Foucault’s work up to his death in 1984. He became interested in the security pursued by sovereign power which is not the detailed planning of society from above. In the disciplinary, we can see power trying to dominate chance and eradicate it through planning. In security, also associated with ‘governmentality’, and with antique notions of selfhood, Foucault finds that power may bow to chance A key example is the emergence of the Physiocrats in Eighteenth Century France. They moved away from the idea of the king’s servant trying to control the economy through protectionism, state monopoly and state control of high prices. The Physiocrats displaced the Mercantilists as the leading advisers to the Crown. The mercantilists aimed to prevent tangible wealth leaving the country in exchange for goods. The effect of their policies was to hold down living standards of the majority in order to guarantee the strength of the state measured by its holdings of gold. They tried to prevent rural famine trough state intervention. Physiocrats thought fear of famine was exaggerated and that the best way of guaranteeing enough food for everyone was to keep prices down.

The Physiocrats appear in Foucault as the opposite of the schemes of the French early modern monarchs, and other European monarchs, to plan new cities and organise the lives of the inhabitants in every detail Physiocrats thought allowing people to be free and to develop their own responses. was the best prevention for famine. Allowing the price of grain to go up would prevent famine as it would create an incentive for farmers to grow more of the crop concerned.

It’s in the market as something driven by chance that Foucault saw an antidote to rationalistic planning. Quite how far Foucualt was going in the direction of the capitalism of spontaneous human action is a matter of debate. What definitely comes through is not only opposition to state dominated economics but to the idea of unified transparent civil society or public sphere. With the decline of Marxism, a lot of leftist thought has resorted to notions of public sphere and civil society in opposition to capitalism Civil society is understood as defined by state administrators and actors in favour of state intervention against the looming chaos of market economics. Jürgen Habermas is the most obvious representative of such a view, and Habermas has gone beyond his Marxist background in influencing the discourse of social democracy and liberalism. His view of rational consensual civil society expresses itself in admiration for the constitutional state, which includes the European Union. Sometimes Habermas seems like the official philosopher of the EU and of Atlanticist democracy. To the disappointment of many Marxist fans, Habermas supports some US and European military operations. That shows how far he was from revolutionary Marxism, but also how a kind of low level Marxism, appealing to a rational unified ordered public sphere and civil society, guided by a constitutional state beyond passions, comes to the fore as the necessary means to resist the supposed chaos and cruelty of unrestrained capitalism. It’s a convenient doctrine for academics, NGO activists and state employees across Europe and across the Atlantic world.

Foucault certainly said that society should be defended, he meant that the state should be limited, and that even the state guided by intellectuals and acting for benign motives constrains freedom and administers every detail of society in a disciplinary way. Habermas recognises a tension between the liberal goal of a state resting on general law and the welfarist pracitce of administrative action outside general law. His solution is more and more rational discourse, which in practice will be structured by the state and by intellectuals in the broad sense. Foucault’s interest in what has been kept out of official and intellectual discourse leaves him with a much better sense that the willfulness of individual behaviour and the spontaneity of uneducated human behaviour in the economy is waht gurantees freedom. His account of he role ofGerman free market economists in the Odo group in opposition to the Nazis and playing a large role in the early post-Nazi German political and economic thinking, certainly suggests so.

Neo-Nietzschean Democratic Theory

The rather verbose phrase in the title of this blog is something I came up with while planning next semester’s MA course on ‘Contemporary Political Theory’. As the course is an elective following on from a required course in political philosophy from Plato to Nietzsche, I’ve stretch Contemporary to refer as far back as the early part of the Twentieth Century.

Neo-Nietzschean Democratic Theory is something I came up when thinking how to label the part of the course dealing with Foucault and Derrida. The section of Carl Schmitt is labelled Conservative Authoritarian, the section on Rawls is Egalitarian Liberalism, the section on Nozick is Libertarianism, the section on Sandel is Communitarianism, the section on Pettit is Republicanism, and the section on Habermas is Neo-Marxism I was struggling for a while for a label to apply to Foucault and Derrida. I was very eager to avoid the term ‘Post-Modern’. Foucault strongly rejected the term, and Derrida distanced himself from it. It carries to many associations with a lazy kind of relativism and social constructivism.

Why Post-Nietzschean Democratic Theory? Both Foucault and Derrida were deeply impressed by Nietzsche and gave him an important place in challenging idealist abstraction, teleology, and any belief in neutral facts unconditioned by perspective. They both shared Nietzsche’s resistance to social homogenisation and Nietzsche’s concern with paradox. Both drew on the idea of a ‘genealogy’, a history of concepts in which concepts do not have an abstract existence separate from social and historical forces.

Nietzsche does not look like a Democratic theorist, nevertheless his critical remarks on democracy can be taken as showing a concern for the subordination of individuality to majoritarianism in democracy. Such concerns come to the force in Derrida in Politics of Friendship, where amongst other things he is concerned with Nietzsche’s account of friendship and its relation with accounts of democracy and friendship. The constant interest of Foucault in the resistance of singularity to universality has a Nietzschean element. Both Foucault and Derrida are concerned with Democracy. It’s Derrida who took this view consistently, while Foucault in much of his work is suspicious of all power. After about 1976, he had more to say about different forms of state regime, and the desirability of a strong civil society to restrain the state. Both avoid the kind of consensualist rationalism about democracy that can be found in Rawls or Habermas. Derrida is more the average social democrat/egalitarian than Foucault, while Foucault focused more on the individual and the singular resisting the universal. Both are also concerned with the trauma of the individual constrained by social structures, and the paradox of sovereignty must bases itself on laws and rights which it is supposed to ground. Both though that violence must enter into that paradoxical moment, as Nietzsche himself thought.

Whatever anyone might think about the credentials of Nietzsche as a democrat, he certainly greatly influenced the two democratic thinkers Foucault and Derrida. He brings out the difficult side of modern liberal democracy, as it movers away from Classical participation to liberal representation, and as it rests on the coercive power of the state.

Tocqueville on Republican Politics and the Tyranny of Small Communities

Political Readings of Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville has been taken up within many perspectives: Religious Conservative, Libertarian near Anarcho-Capitalist, Neo-Conservative, Communitarian Left-Liberalism, Any other definition of Liberalism that might exist, Post-Marxist Democratic Theory, and no doubt a few positions I’ve overlooked. Despite this wide ranging appeal, some Marxists and near Marxists take him as the enemy. His support for, and involvement in the French colonisation of Algeria, and his assumption that Islam is culturally, intellectually and morally inferior to Christianity. are always emphasied by that tendency whoa re rather quieter about the racist and colonialist assumptions that can be found in Marx and other leftists of the time. Foucault’s Society Must be Defended provides an account of how left-wing and democratic thought originate in an idea of a kind of ‘race war’ with a ‘foreign’ elite.

Universalism and Competition between Nations
The support for colonialism has been regarded favourably by some Neo-Cons as a committment to universalising liberal-democratic ideas, though surely at its best Neo-Conservativism shows more respect for all religions and the right of all nations to self-government, even if with the assistance of US intervention. There is evidently an element of Islamophobia round the fringes of Neo-Conservatism. The Marxists and Neo-Cons are rather too keen to drag support for European colonialism in the 19th Century into another context. Tocqueville’s views on international relations were a mix of Realism and idealism. He was a Realist in the sense that he believed that nations conflict around questions of national pride and it is right to support the pride of your own nation. This itself refers to the element of this thought which emphasises the role of pride and the search for superiority in the human imagination, itself rooted in in his reading of Rousseau and Pascal. He was an idealist in the sense he believed that national policy should be directed to moral universalist goals like abolishing slavery, and he was certainly never at all attracted to the idea that any race is inferior or superior to any other. This post is principally concerned with his views on democratic theory and we will progress to that theme.

Tyranny of the Majority
The main concern here is to contest the assumption from a variety of directions that Tocqueville was for localism against the central state. We need to look at what he meant by the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Beofre we even consider Tıcqueville’s view of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, we have to deal with the widespread belief that John Stuart Mill coined that phrase. Mill used th phrase in On Liberty, but took it from Tocqueville, who he had met. Their relationship ended awkwardly, but Tocqueville certainly made an impact on Mill, who thought it worth writing long reviews on both parts of Democracy in America. Tocqueville used the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ in the Democracy to refer to local spirit in small town America. Though Tocqueville has enormous respect for the spirit of self-government in small town America, he also had deep concerns about the way that public opinion imposes conformity and crushes individuality in local communities. He thought a strong central state was necessary in order to balance that small town spirit. The inhabitants of the small towns needed to be able to appeal to a federal centre to resist the conformity of small towns. It is important to note that Tocqueville though public opinion could be just as dangerous to liberty as the state. That was the basis of his concern that democracy might lead to the worst kind of tyranny if a government resting on public opinion imposed the majority view in an authoritarian manner. Tocqueville should not, therefore, be invoked in support of the view that local participation in politics or the moral spirit of small communities, is the basis of liberty. This places Tocqueville closer to the more statist aspects of the Federalist Papers, than to the Jeffersonian belief in the absolute value of local community autonomy

Law and Conserving Liberty
Conservatism, in the sense of defending law against the tyranny of the majority, was best upheld by a new aristocracy, of the legal profession, which is necessarily committed to defending law and to its administration in a hierarchical structure headed by the central state. For Tocqueville the aristocracy was important in limiting monarchical power in the pre-democratic world. His
father was deeply connected with the ‘ultra-monarchist’ current in French politics. This is a misleading label in the sense that this current was for the aristocracy and against strong central monarchical power. Again for a good diagnosis, see Foucault, Society Must be Defended. Tocqueville caused great resentment in his family by adopting liberal constitutional democracy, which in the French context meant accepting the strong sovereignty of the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the concerns of the ultra-monarchists are in some way present in Tocqueville’s political thought.

Tocqueville and Republicanism: Politics and Human Spirit
Two points here: Tocqueville provides an alternative to recent Republican theory; Tocqueville cannot be associated with anti-political forms of Libertarianism and archaeo-conservatism. This is also present in the Marxist and anarcho-communist wish to abolish the state. These currents tend to find politics degenerate compared with the emergence of decisions from the ‘natural’ authority present in established communities. Tocqueville’s thought is Republican. He
thought politics was a part of the spirit of human communities and is necessary to liberty. He recognised that it rests on pride, envy, egotism and ambition, within himself and all who participate in politics, but considered competitive politics as the best way of using those tendencies in human character.

Tocqueville and Republicanism: An alternative to Current Republican Theory
The very welcome revival of Republican theory in Phillip Pettit and others, is largely a social democratic theory which places social and economic equality at the centre. Tocqueville recognised the need for state sponsored welfare, but was a lot more cautious about state action to promote equality, he thought the state has a role in preventing destitution not in redistributing property. Tocqueville provides an example of Republican participation as and end of human character, based on moderate welfarism and deep respect for property rights as the foundation of liberty and property, and the necessary basis for the independence of all from the state. Current Republicanism is very close to Communitarianism in assuming moral grounds for collective limitation of individualism, while adding more interest in politics as a part of human life. Tocqueville provides an alternative to the economic egalitarianism and to the moralistic view of politic as an instrument for moral goals.

Unifying Analytic Philosophy and French Philosophy

This post started off as a comment on Brian Lieter’s Blog which I’ve linked with this blog through an RSS feed, it is one of the best places to follow debates in the philosophical community. The comment became rather long and off topic so I’ve upgraded. The post I was reacting to was something quoting Jeff Macmahan (Rutgers) on the superiority of Analytic meta-ethics, to anything inspired by French philosophy. For those unfamiliar with metaethics, it refers to foundational issues in ethics (what the basic concepts are, their meaning, their validity, connections between them and so on).

Which French philosophy is opposed to the standards of Analytic Philosophy. The Phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have been taken up in relation to cognitive science, they are being taken seriously in Analytic Philosophy (overlooking the complication that some define Cognitive Science based philosophy as outside Analytic Philosophy because it does not put the analysis of concepts at the centre). Sartre and Merleau-Ponty did not think philosophy of consciousness should be based on breaking down a state of consciousness into separate parts; and they did not think contents of consciousness should be regarded as representations of ideas somewhere in the mind or of things in the external world. This puts into contact with at least two aspects of cognitive science: work on perceptual illusions which result from the context of a shape, colour patch or line in consciousness, the way we see one part of the visual field is determined by what we see in the rest of the field; work on anti-representationalism which concentrates on consciousness as embodied as a result of neural networks (changing networks of neurons in the brain which evolve according to feedback) in the brain.

Foucault has been discussed sympathetically by Charles Taylor and Ian Hacking, amongst others. Foucault seems to provoke the response either that he is a French charlatan or that he is an exception to French charlatanism because his work is very historical/social scientific in orientation. For Hacking, Foucault provides a model for discussing social reality and the structures of knowledge. Foucault’s work includes themes of how knowledge is institutionalised and how those institutions function; the ways in which truths exist in pragmatic contexts; the ways in which knowledge is structured and builds on basic concepts. These can be, and have been, taken up by Analytic Philosophers working on social epistemology, social ontology and history of science.

What about Lévinas, who does not do history or social science of any kind, and who writes in a rather particular and difficult style? He looks like someone outside the scope of Analytic Philosophy, or is he? Hilary Putnam clearly does not think so, the title itself of his book Ethics without Ontology is a tribute to Lévinas. Lévinas favours a first philosophy of ethics, of the supremacy of the other, over a first philosophy of ontology (being). Putnam has something similar to argue, though in more pragmatic terms, in which ethics arises in the externality of language and knowledge to the ego. We do not have an absolute internal grasp of objects, so our perspective is limited and externally caused. Has Putnam degenerated philosophically since he started writing about Lévinas? That is not a widely held opinion.

Maybe Derrida is the antithesis of philosophical good sense. Tom Baldwin, now editor of *Mind* clearly thinks Derrida is worth taking seriously and has found it worth writing, if not very much, on Derrida as have Graham Priest and A.A. Moore. The themes that come up in comparisons of Analytic Philosophy include: impossibility of private language, contextuality and indeterminacy of meaning, the paradoxes of trying to state what absolute infinity is. Derrrida’s philosophy is style dominated and this did sometimes become to much of an end in itself as time went on, but he started of with quite substantive discussions of Phenomenology, Structuralism, and post-Symbolist poetics. Despite Derrida’s reputation for being all style, he had quite substantive things to say about ethics, law and politics in his later work. His best work maybe includes a meta-narrative of the impossibility of a complete philosophical language, because every such language must include abstractions which can never be complete, which always become contradictory. Abstractions always contain the possibility of becoming contradictory because of the contextuality of language,i and that refers to the impossibility of an infinitely applicable concept, that is any universal concept. This is in line with the paradoxes of trying to asset a complete infinity which always encounters the problem that there could always be an infinity we can construct which is larger than any infinity we have constructed so far. It should also be noted that despite the widespread beleif that Derrida’s views on language are a development ıof those of Ferdinand de Saussure, he explicitly referred to Charles Peirce (founder of American Pragmatism) as the greater authority.

It would be difficult to write a truly comprehensive history of recent Analytic philosophy without mentioning some of the above examples. Not everything in French philosophy is equally great. A lot of commentators fail to take a critical distance from French philosophy, or their favourite part of şit, and treat explication of texts as a substitute for arguments. It is still a major area of philosophy. In the unification of French Philosophy from Sartre (or even Bergson) to Derrida with Analytic Philosophy, there is much that has already been gained and much more to come.

Martha Nussbaum and Michel Foucault on Eros and Ethics in Antiquity

Michel Foucault and Martha Nussbaum covered some similar territory with regard to the ethics of the Ancient world with regard to desire, sexuality, eros and love. In Foucault’s case, this was work towards the end of his life in Hermeneutics of the Subject, Uses of Pleasure, and Care of the Self (the last two were volumes two and three of History of Sexuality). In Nussbaum’s case, this was the work that really made her name: Fragility of Goodness and Therapy of Desire.

Comparisons of the two are not very frequent. Foucault tends to be best known amongst literary theorists; Nussbaum is known to philosophers (particularly those working in Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, and Ethics) and also to people in legal and political theory. There would be great benefits in more philosophers reading Foucault, there would also be benefits in cultural theorists reading Nussbaum.

There are intermittent comments on Foucault in Nussbaum. As far as I know, Foucault never had anything to say about Nussbaum. As far as I know, Nussbaum’s major comment on Foucault on antiquity, is that Foucault looked at sexuality with regard to the individual, and paid insufficient regard to the interest in its harmful effects on others in Antiquity. I don’t really see a great difference between the fundamentals in how Nussbaum and Foucault present Antique ethics as concerned with the health of the individual.

The underlying difference between the two maybe in what they try to build on Antique ethics. Nussbaum wants to build Aristotelian social democracy, Foucault is concerned with the difficulties of building a theory of political obligation on Aristotle’s ethics, or any Antique ethics. For Nussbaum, Aristotle shows a way out of a rigid concern with inner correctness. Aristotle becoems the bearer of an Antique moral externalism (morally significant actions have causes other than inner intentions). Foucault insists on exploring the difficulties Antique ethics poses for generating a sense universality in ethics and politics. The question for Foucault is how a self partly described in sexual terms has the right to sovereignty because it is sovereign over its passions. Upto the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, this poses difficulty for universalising theory. Aurelius does not even think it worth discussing the state directly, it is his daily rule of his passions which settles the question of the legitimation of his power. Foucault explores to the limit, the idea of particular right to sovereignty. This is important to him as it confirms his libertarian tendency to find all power alien. It should also be said that in Hermeneutics of the Subject that Foucault is working on the distinction between pastoral power and governmentality, which is the difference between state absolutism and limited state. So Foucault is beginning to get beyond the gestures towards libertarianism which leave open the question of what the least bad government is in its exercise of power.

Nussbaum is comparatively indifferent to the problems of power in Aristotle, that it rests on a particularistic understanding of who is fit to govern. Despite her discussions of sexuality and a feminine point of view, there is a Puritan desire for morally perfect government with the right to make people good lurking in Nussbaum. This may look harsh but she clearly does not get why Foucault is suspicious of all power and she is advocating a Communitarian type political theory in which the government is moral in purpose. Some of her reactions show a neo-Puritan political correctness completely lacking in Foucault despite his adoption/kidnapping by the politically correct cultural progressives. In Nussbaum’s Neo-Puritanism, consider her support for Cartherine McKinnon’s proposal to make pornographers open to civil damages because of the supposed consequences of their publications, or her resentment on video that someone commenting on her position on ethical responsibility to animals referred to her ‘hunting bigger game’ (than Rawlsian political contractualism). I’m concerned about the same issues as Nussbaum is, but I thought that was funny remark and that her response was slightly sinister in its wish to enforce her own very constrained view of civility. She clearly thought the editor should not have allowed such a remark.

Foucault was an irresponsible provocateur, Nussbaum is the New Engşand moralist. Clearly Nussbaum is the greater scholar of Antiquity, by a very long way, but she is not convincing when she tries to criticise Foucault for emphasising the distance between Antique ethics and general theories of obligation. It is important that at this time Foucault was developing a more nuanced view of different types of political regime. In all cases he was trying to learn from Antiquity how politics always refers to particularistic sovereignty.

Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Foucault

Foucault’s work from Society Must be Defended onwards needs to be understood in relation to Montesquieu and Tocqueville. We could even read Foucault as the third figure in a French liberal triumvirate spanning three centuries. This reading may have some problems attached to it, but no more than the other readings of Foucault around and less than most. Foucault’s reputation has been taken over by Post-Marxist/ Post-Modernist/Post-Structuralist leftists for whom liberalism is a dirty word. However, Society Must be Defended coincides with a liberal revival in France which includes a Tocqueville revival. It uses the terms and references of the two great French liberals (and republicans). It’s concerned with the kind of liberty that can exist under different kinds of regime. It’s concerned with the limitation of society in relation to the state. It uses Montesquieu to establish the evolution of the French state, bureaucracy and aristocracy in the Eighteenth Century. The understanding of the relation between the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution follows the analysis of Tocquville’s book of that name. Foucault refers to majoritarian and demagogic aspects of the emergence of left wing and democratic politics, very much in line with Tocqueville’s understanding of the possible dangers of democracy.

The reading of Foucault’s later work will be very incomplete until it is thoroughly understood and discussed in the terms of his two French predecessors in social and political thought devoted to liberty.

Foucault and Derrida. Antique Ethical and Political Concepts

Foucault and Derrida
Something I’m working on at present is the discussion of antique ethical and political concepts in Foucault and Derrida. Both published work focusing on this in 1984. In Derrida’s case in Politics of Friendship; in Foucault’s case the 2nd and 3rd volumes of History of Sexuality: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self.

Republicanism and Individualism: Ancient and Modern Liberty
In both cases, there is a turn towards what is known as Republicanism, the political approach according to which citizenship and participation in politics are good in themselves. There is a well established historical narrative that has been discussed going back to the Eighteenth Century according to which the Antique world understood liberty as independence of the nation and the absence of a single all powerful ruler, in which everyday life is very tied up with public rituals and the duties of citizenships, and in which liberty means participation. In this narrative liberty in the modern world is understood as individual freedom from outside interference, the limitation of the public sphere, the right of the individual to be indifferent to public affairs, and in which liberty means individual freedom from constraint. This narrative maybe goes back to Hobbes in the Seventeenth Century, it certainly appears in Montesqueiue, Rousseau, Hegel, Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Tocqueville. Kierkegaard refers to it in his discussion ancient and modern tragedy.

Foucault and Derrida do not challenge this narrative, but they do very effectively show the ways in which individuality appears in the antique world and the ways in which the unity of individuality and public citizenship becomes fractured.

Foucault on Sexuality
Foucault looks at the ways that the capacity to be a citizen is defined in terms of sexuality. The person capable of citizenship has sexual relations with social inferiors, young women or men. This indicates the way that antique citizenship is based on mastery of slaves, or at the very least not belonging to a slave class. capacity for citizenship was also understood in terms of control of the passions in self-mastery. The emphasis both on sexuality as mastery and limitation of sexuality is paradoxical. The paradox becomes greater in antique history as the merit of chastity is more and more recommended for the health of the soul. Foucault clearly has a particular regard for the period proceeding the greater emphasis on chastity. In the earlier period he sees creation of the self, individual freedom, through the emphasis on maximising pleasure.

Derrida on Friendship
Derrida picks up on the role of friendship mostly with reference to Aristotle. Aristotle’s typology of the main kinds of friendship are generally well known as part of his ethics. Derrida picks up on the political significance with regard to democracy. Democracy presumes friendship between citizens. Aristotle’s discussion refers to friendship in political terms, the ruler should be the friend of the ruled. Derrida points out political consequences of Aristotle’s views. Aristotle thought that friendship must be selective, if I have too many friends the idea of friendship is extremely weakened because the available energy is split between too many people. Derrida suggests that logically Aristotle is bound to find that a man’s friend can only be himself or a god. Friendship requires death, because I can only test someone’s friendship completely by testing their reaction to my death. Since democracy is defined as friendship, the politics of friendship is conditioned by the paradoxes of friendship. Democracy must become oligarchic because it rests on selection of friends. The friend is is defined by relation to the enemy, as Carl Schitt suggested. None of this can eliminate the problems of friendship,. Democracy has to become, it is ‘yet’, a ‘to come’.

Michel Foucault and Discursive Reality

This is inspired by current reading and online conversation with a friend. Unlike my friend, and many commentators, the more I read Foucault the less I see what he is often believed to do. That would be to understand reality in terms of discourse, which would be a form of social constructionism or constructivism. His account of sexuality in particular does not, as far as I can see, understand sexuality as constructed by discourse. ıt looks at the discourse surrounding sexuality, including science. The difference is important. Foucault sees medical, psychiatric, moral, religious, and philosophical discussions of sexuality as belonging to discourse, discourse which cuts across all subject divisions. Saying our knowledge of sexuality is discursive is not saying that sexuality is discursive. It does not deny that discourse is conditioned by observation and physical reality. Who would deny that our sexuality is affected by ideas about limits and the excitement of passing limits. However, despite popular mythology, Foucault does not say that sexuality is constructed by prohibitions. Sexuality is a reality labelled in many ways in different contexts. My friend correctly refers to this as Nominalism. Nomianlism does not deny physical realities though. Nominalism is not constructivism. The constructivist looking parts of Foucault are just as much about the eruption of physical reality in discourse as the definition of reality by discourse. That is why there is no master universal discourse in Foucault. He follows a materialism in which discourse emerges in the attmetps to control physical reality. I’ll ask my friend for citations and then I may have more to say.

Intuitionist Engineering Students. What Engineers Really Think about Philosophy of Maths

The issue of Philosophy of maths came up in a course on ‘Knowledge, language and Logic’ I gave at the technical university where I am based to a group of mostly engineering students. In that course I alternated between Analytic and Continental Philosophy, looking at 14 texts from Frege to Derrida. On one of the Analytic weeks, we were looking at Quine‘s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (in From a Logical Point of View) and I got onto the topic of ontological relativity in Quine, with reference to philosophy of maths. In ‘On What there Is’ (also in From a Logical Point of View), Quine mentions three basic position in philosophy of maths as ontological position. Formalism in maths corresponds with Nominalism about names and generalities; Logicism in maths corresponds with Realism about names and generalities; Intuitionism in maths corresponds with Conceptualism about names and generalities.

The question in philosophy of maths is whether numbers, sets, and other abstract mathematical entities exist separately from symbols and from mental concepts. For the Formalist, numbers etc. only exist as symbols manipulated by rules, which corresponds with Nominalist ontology according to which general names group individual things together and do not name any kind of abstract general thing. For the mathematical Logicist, numbers etc. exist outside symbolisation and outside the mind as real abstract things, which corresponds with the Realist ontology according to which general names name an abstraction uniting the individual things coming under that abstraction. For the mathematical Intuitionist, numbers etc. exist as mental constructs, which corresponds with the Conceptualist ontology aaccoring to which general names name a mental construct that unites many individual things.

I presented the three options and asked for a vote from the students. Intutionism/Conceptualism came out first by a long way, with Formalism/Nominalism clearly preferred to Logicism/Realism which was not at all popular. I was surprised because I assumed that they would be knee jerk Realists. I get the impression that the common sense ideology of scientists, including engineers is that scientific laws are true and refer to real objects; and that mathematical laws are true and are about real objects. From what the students said, maths academics may well have that attitude towards maths. They felt it’s an inevitable consequence of being a mathematician, that you believe in the reality of mathematical objects. The engineering students had a much more instrumental attitude towards maths.

I didn’t get onto Instrumentalism, Realism and Conceptualism in science However, we did get onto Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Michel Foucault‘s Archaeology of Knowledge, which clearly question Realism about scientific laws and theories, and even Realism about the objects of science. Students were much more sympathetic to both than I expected. The relationship with Nominalism and Constructionism, is too big to discuss here. I will just take the opportunity to suggest that we should be careful about assuming that either Kuhn or Foucault were representatives of a branch of Constructionism, know as Social Constructivism, which is how they are often taken. That is they are often taken to believe that scientific laws are social constructs. We might be better off thinking of them as
Nominalists. Foucault’s position over many stages of thought consistently includes a concern with the artifciality of categorisation, as compared with the pure physicality, or certainly unique individuality, of individual things.

Foucault and the Body; or Why Foucault is not a Post-Modern Social Constructionist

I’m following up the last post on Derrida and Nietzsche with a briefer post on Foucault. As I emphasised in the last post, neither Foucault nor Derrida can be reduced to a cliché of ‘Post-Modern’ social constructionism which excludes the body as natural object.

Like Derrida, Foucault never sailed under the flag of ‘Post-Modernism’, or post-ism of any kind. They are rather different cases, and though Derrida was Foucault’s student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, they appear to have had a long term falling out. This seems to have been more on Foucault’s side than Derrida’s. Despite Foucault’s expemplary qualities as thinker and libertarian social activist (future posts will return to the topic of Foucault and Libertarianism), he does seem to have been more prickly than Derrida. The prickliness seems to go all the way back to Derrida’s 1963 paper, ‘Cogito and Madness’ (collected in Writing and Difference), which is a critical but appreciative discussion of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

The stereotypical view of Foucault circulated by his ‘Analytical’ philosophical critics and his ‘Post-Modern’ fans (more typically to be found in humanities and social science departments other than philosophy) is that he was a relativist who denied the existence of truth or objective, knowledge, and that he had a related assumption according to which reality only exists as a discursive social construction serving power interests of some kind. Something similar to that ‘Post-Modern’ interpretation of Foucault is also widespread in interpretation of Thomas Kuhn, a leaidng figure in Philosophy of Science in the Analytic tradition. Again very different cases, but there is no more reason to think of Foucault as a Post-Modernist than there is to think of Kuhn in that way.

There are many issues to be explored in future, but just one for today. Just a remark that one of Foucault’s most widely read books, Discipline and Punish, does refer to the discourses of power/knowledge, but it also refers to discourse as what affects the body. There is something pre-discursive in Foucault, the body. There is no ‘body’ or ‘nature’ we can identify from outside discourse for Foucault, but physicality and natural forces are there. His view of power/knowledge is just as much an attempt to think of social relations in terms of natural forces, as a discourse centred theory. The body is experienced in social and discursive contexts, but is not eliminated as a body. It is the body where there is resistance to power.