Foucault on Knowledge, Discourse and Phenomenology

Some thoughts on Foucault arising from the Methodology course I give to Political Science MA Students.

Foucault: Phenomenology not Constructivism
My main thoughts are that Foucault is not the kind of social constructivist he is often taken to be; and that his epistemology can be better understood if it is interpreted in a Phenomenological context. The Phenomenological aspect of Foucault should orientate understanding away from intellectual construction to embodiment, the extended mind, and perceptibility. All the discussion of archeology, genealogy, the order of discourse and so on, can be better understood as bringing perception into the conceptual than as conceptual construction.

Throughout the phases of his work, there is a constant underlying concern with Phenomenological themes. If he’s talking about abstract discourse or about punishment of criminals, Foucault is always concerned with the revelation of truth. Truth is appearing, there is a coming into light. The last phrase is very reminiscient of Heidegger. Heidegger turned Husserl’s abstract transcendental forms of Phenomenology into Being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is a big thought in Heidegger, but here we can say it includes the concrete experience of always existing in a world of care, concern and Being-with.

Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Cognitive Science
Heidegger’s approach to Phenomenology leads the way to Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty used psychological science and aesthetic references in order to explain consciousness as what is always orientated as a whole to the world, as a part of the way that the body is not just in the world, it is always orientated to the word in the perceptions of time and space, and the experience of the body. Merleau-Ponty introduces a strongly naturalistic element into Phenomenology, which is part of what has made his so influential now that the connections between cognitive science and philoosphy are such a big area. Heidegger has also been taken up in this context by Andy Clarke (his website which is very good for downloads of his work is on a list of links with philosophers, on this blog, who post their work on their website), Michael Wheeler and others.

Merleau-Ponty is dealing with the extended mind, because the mind is entangled with the body in its physical relations with the world. All ideas of isolated consciousness are abandoned. Consciousness and perception exists in the body’s relation with the world. Discourse about the world and our relations with forces in the world extend ‘consciousness’ beyond private experience.

Phenomenology: Naturalistic and Poetic
In later Merleau-Ponty, particularly in The Visible and the Invisible is more concerned with the philosophical discussion of subjective experience than with the naturalistic discussion of the world. It is still concerned with the idea of ‘flesh’ at what arises where consciousness finds contradiction and uncertainty. This links back to Heidegger and sideways to Maurice Blanchot.

In a very provisional way, we could distinguish between Phenomenology as a Naturalistic account of perception, and Phenomenology as the poetic discussion of the subjective experience of the limits of consciousness. We do not have to see them as contradictory. It is Blanchot’s discussion of the experience of writing and of poetry which seems to be indirectly invoked by Foucault sometimes. He sometimes refers to the absence, nothingness from which visible objects emerge. It is discourse which enables objects to emerge against the background of nothingness, and silence

Power, Forces and Nominalism
All of Foucault’s discussions of the construction of discourse or knowledge, the order of things, power-knowledge and so on, are concerned with how to make the invisible visible. It is the staging of punishment, its physicality which draws attention to the idea of a truth in the social world. Foucault is not a constructivist when he refers to the way truth appears in the relations of forces which make up power. Power is understood in a slight naturalistic way as the relations between forces, it is which introduces war into social relations; forces and war are always already there in the social world. Discourse shapes this but is also shaped by it, and we can only understand discourse as the making visible of the invisible. The discontinuities of knowledge, the places where theories and concepts break down and give way to new ones, are the product of this relation between the visible and the invisible. Knowledge exists in the difference between them, as what stands out from a blank background.

The assumption by critics and defenders of Foucault that he has a theory of constructed reality is a flawed one. Our knowledge of objects must be constructed in some way and that interacts with objects themselves in a grasp of reality which brings structure and order. We should consdier the widespread misconception that Foucault thinks sexual desire is produced by the prohibitions of law, prohibition produces the excitement necessary to desire. In History of Sexuality, Foucault is very clear that sexuality is shaped by discourse, prohibition and law but in an interactive way with the body, with psychology, with the inherent nature of sexuality. Like objects, sexuality could never exist in a purely inherent form before it is conditioned by discourse, but ıt is not the product of discourse. Something like Putnam or Davidson’s or McDowell’s mediation between Internalism and Externalism in the meaning of words and the content of beliefs would be an appropriate comparison here, but not one that we can develop right now.

If we adhere to a very rigid direct realism, every word we use, every belief content, refers directly to a real object. In that case Foucault may seem constructivist in a very socially relativistic way. But when Foucault links power and knowledge, he is stating what he considers to be a historical reality, that objects of power become objects of knowledge. That does not deny validity to knowledge, it does not deny some independence of science from social conditions, it does deny an absolute separation. Power is nominalistic in Foucault, it is a term which brings together many situations of conflicts of forces. There is no great abstraction which can be called power in general. There is no abstract discursive shaping of reality in a radically constructivist manner, there is a discussion of the multiplicity of forces, including the forces behind the emergence of psychological or social science. It should be taken as a discussion of how truths appear, how knowledge emerges, not as an attack on knowledge or truth. For Foucault, we are always struggling to bring the dark and obscured things into light as knowledge and truth, we are struggling to make the world perceptible.

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.