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.

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.