Foucault and philosophy

Posted on my site

What is philosophy if not a way of reflecting, not so much on what is true and what is false, as on our relationship to truth? … The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusions, one detaches oneself from what is accepted as true and seeks other rules – that is philosophy.

Michel Foucault. (1997) [1980]. ‘The Masked Philosopher’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, Allen Lane, p. 327. Translation modified.

Random thoughts in response
‘What is philosophy?’ This is a question that Foucault raises on numerous occasions in various forms throughout his work. For all the variations in his response to this question, he always insisted that philosophy operated firmly within a historical context and could only manifest itself through quite specific historical practices and events and the way we engage historically with ourselves and others.

Philosophy, for Foucault, is not a question of stripping away historical accidents so that we can discover what is absolutely true for all time, rather it is a way of examining the ways in which people and systems of knowledge have made a division between the true and the false in very specific historical contexts. These divisions directly impact on the ways people conduct themselves in relation to themselves and others. Philosophy should also, in Foucault’s view, deal with the question of what is happening right now and with what our responsibilities are in relation to this very specific conjuncture.

And speaking of the current conjuncture specifically as it relates to the discipline of philosophy… Like other humanities disciplines, philosophy is under threat in that it is unable to produce the kind of ‘outcomes’ that are valued by neo-liberal systems of thought. Neo-liberalism (for those who came in late) is a form of thought which reduces all social relations to economic relations. As Foucault remarks: ‘It is a matter of making the market, competition, and so the enterprise, into what could be called the formative power of society’. [1]

Much ink has flowed on the pernicious and all pervasive effects of neo-liberalism with, it seems, only a limited success in stemming its diffusion through all areas of social and cultural existence. The crisis over the announcement of the closure of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy and undergraduate programs in philosophy at Middlesex University in London on 26 April 2010 raises the problem of neo-liberal management culture yet again with particular acuteness. The suspension of staff and students and disciplinary hearings in reaction to their protests at the closure also have worrying implications for the continued existence of necessary social spaces for intellectual dissent and academic freedom. [2]

Academic culture and corporate culture are two very different entities and attempts to meld the two over the last twenty years in particular have had disastrous effects in terms of the maintenance of a healthy academic culture which can only make a worthwhile contribution to the social body precisely because it has different goals from the business, government and service sectors. A healthy society requires a balance between all four sectors. The university cannot be conveniently assimilated into the service sector, a currently popular strategy which seeks to reshape it primarily as an institution which ultimately focuses on providing ‘education services’.

The university is not simply about teaching and training people to engage in the work force and be compliant economic citizens or to serve the interests of industry and the maintenance of a healthy population with ‘useful’ forms of research. In addition to this, theoretical research aimed at pushing the boundaries of knowledge or questioning the structures of received knowledge serves the general community in other ways than the maintenance of economic relations. Criticism and analysis of social practices also keep repressive and questionable systems which seek to micromanage populations ‘for their own good’ in check. Philosophy sits (or ought to sit) squarely within this area of social critique and intellectual insight into the human experience.

But neo-liberalism is not the only problem that is faced by the discipline of philosophy in the current conjuncture. There are struggles over the definitions of what constitutes philosophy. Such definitional struggles as Pierre Bourdieu points out are struggles for power ‘over a vision of the natural and social world’[3] One of the most salient struggles in the English language world is the struggle between analytic philosophy and its ‘other’ which it describes as ‘continental’ philosophy.

To all appearances, analytic philosophy has over a long period of time and long before the current crisis, completely colonised the term ‘philosophy’ in university and other educational settings in the English language world. Philosophy departments in the UK, North America and Australia are almost unilaterally dedicated to this form of the discipline and any academics practising so-called ‘continental philosophy’ within those institutional settings are usually there as a grudging token concession to a style of thought that, it has to be recognised, has found immense popularity elsewhere. The very term ‘continental philosophy’ is constructed as the obverse of analytic philosophy. Even those using the term to describe their own practice do so by referring to analytic philosophy as the norm. (I will leave aside for the moment the question of non-analytic and non European practices of philosophy, which are usually relegated to departments of religion.)

Those who have disputed analytic definitions of philosophy have been forced to work in any other department except philosophy or have been forced to secede and create new departments. The scandalous split in philosophy at the University of Sydney into General Philosophy and Traditional Philosophy in the 1970s is a case in point, as is Eugene Kamenka’s secession from Philosophy at the Australian National University in the late 1960s to create the now sadly defunct History of Ideas unit. Middlesex was one of the very few departments labelled ‘philosophy’ which practised almost exclusively European style philosophy which makes its fragmentation and semi-demise even more of a loss.

‘Continental philosophy’ is something that clearly can only be treated with suspicion by ‘more rigorous’, ‘more scientific’ and less ‘politicised’ practices of analytic philosophy. In general, given this unfriendly reception, practitioners of post-War European styles of philosophy are more commonly found outside of philosophy departments in the English language world.

In a recent work, eminent analytic philosopher Michael Dummett while recognising this important and destructive fracture in the discipline of philosophy and calling for reconciliation, does nothing but add further fuel to the fire with the blurb on his book declaring that ‘Philosophy is a discipline that makes no observations, conducts no experiments, and needs no input from experience. It is an armchair subject, requiring only thought.’[3] It is a statement guaranteed to outrage the socially and historically oriented philosophers working in the wake of post War structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy.

This definition, if nothing else, draws attention to fundamental disagreements over what constitutes the proper subject matter and method of philosophy. In the analytic tradition, the categorisation of language practices and their rigorous logical deployment are paramount. Statements and concepts are rigidly sorted into a variety of categories – eg ethical statements, metaphysical statements, epistemological statements, mind versus body debates and so on and so forth. One then examines how chains of reasoning operate within these categories (often by reducing them to quasi-mathematical formulae). The ultimate goal is to arrive at an orderly system untainted by historical and political concerns which allows one to get to the ‘truth’. Only then after one has carefully ordered one’s categories can one make rigorous interventions from this elevated platform into matters of political and social concern. Analytic philosophy allows for difference in how truth might be interpreted in typical fashion by grouping activity in this area into different categories, for example: ‘the correspondence theory of truth’ or ‘the perspectivist notion of truth’. This fits in perfectly with the post Enlightenment model of science with its rigorous and rational methods (superior to all other methods) of uncovering a knowledge and truth independent of historical circumstance.

The methods of analytic philosophy also bear remarkable similarities to the eighteenth century project (as described by Foucault in The Order of Things) which sought to classify all knowledge into tables and to find a way to transparently match representations and things. If one could just get those tables right – then we could have true knowledge about and a true representation of things. These methods also resonate with the bureaucratic ideal of everything placed in an orderly manner in its right place, in the correct drawer of the filing cabinet.

Analytic philosophers criticise ‘Continental philosophy’ for its adulation of ‘great names’ and close textual studies of a variety of philosophers but it is unclear how far this differs from obligatory references to the ‘great names’ and the employment of ‘methods’ developed by thinkers in the analytical tradition. These great figures include the Greek philosophers of course, selected other European philosophers such as Descartes and Kant, Wittgenstein, Frege, Locke, Quine, Moore, Ryle, Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Dennett as well as others.

Further, analytic philosophy arguably divorces the notion of philosophy from what is popularly and commonly understood by the term. Undergraduate students embarking hopefully on courses in philosophy departments are all too often disappointed by the rigidity and decontextualised nature of the offerings – with pre-prescribed and highly contrived set pieces for reflection operating somewhat like mathematical formulae. It is small wonder that students have turned en masse to psychology to provide them with the forms of reflection they crave, thereby regrettably further feeding into the power that psychology exerts in the direction of the pathologisation of all human experience and the reinforcement of mechanisms of social control. This is not to say, however, that there are not notable efforts by philosophers working within the analytic tradition, such as Alain de Botton, to try and make philosophy more publicly accessible. But I would argue that de Botton is the exception rather than the rule.

Students no doubt, also cannot help but notice a gender landscape that is overwhelmingly male in the delivery and practice of any kind of philosophy. Women are all too often relegated to the feminist ghetto away from the ‘serious’ work. One could further usefully embark on a discussion of the specific forms of masculinity that are represented in philosophy – and this applies to all forms of philosophy of whatever persuasion. Plato’s vision of the practice of philosophy as being the province of bearded males over 50 remains well and truly alive today.

I hasten to add, of course, that for all its pretensions to occupy the whole of the territory, analytic philosophy and the university departments which support its dissemination are under serious threat everywhere in the English language world. Departments have been merged with other humanities schools or have disappeared altogether. I welcome Dummett’s call for disciplinary reconciliation in order to make philosophy once again an institutional and intellectual force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, given the definitions he offers, it is more than clear that there remains much work to be done in persuading certain sectors (not all of them analytical) to adopt a far broader and more inclusive notion of the territory philosophy might cover. [5]

To be continued…

[1] Michel Foucault, (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Course at the Collège de France. 1978-1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 148.

[2] For ongoing up-to-date information on this situation see the Save Middlesex philosophy site and Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog

[3] Pierre Bourdieu (1987) Choses Dites, Paris: Minuit, p.171.

[4] Michael Dummett (2010) The Nature and Future of Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] I refuse under any circumstances to use the ghastly and ubiquitous term ‘philosophical enquiry’ so fondly used by analytical philosophers.

3 thoughts on “Foucault and philosophy

  1. Hello Clare,

    I just found this site and am delighted with it. Thank you for putting your self into this.

    In relation to the above article does it not seem to you as if the elements of conflict were necessary for people to push each other forward and beyond? When I look from the outside at the conflict between continental and analytical philosophy it is as if we were, on either side, blind people perceiving only a portion of the elephant.

    Does the conflict not tell us about the moment in time that we human beings find ourselves in? The isolation of philosophy from the social historical processes seems as absurd as the limitation of philosophy to verifiable natural processes as if we were still simply unable to see the miraculous in each and every practice of life still trapped by the misery.

    You mention how students are looking for answers in psychology “further feeding into the power that psychology exerts in the direction of the pathologisation of all human experience and the reinforcement of mechanisms of social control.” And I wonder if we should not be looking for answers in reuniting the different fields in one human knowledge that understands the place of each one? Although it is true that they are each rich enough to have their own space, don’t the many separations simply point to deepening our own schizophrenia?

    I am not as versed in the language you’re using so I would somewhat innocently ask: Are psychology and philosophy not the realms of our inner life? Is psychology not also the connection between our selves and the world around and beyond? Is philosophy not also religion even if it humanized the divine?

    Does it not seem to you that one of the problems with psychoanalysis today is that they are still pretending to analyze the individual without helping him or her understand how their family was molded by society? That in psychology we talk of individuals as if they could be disconnected from their entourage and in sociology we talk about people as if they could be disconnected from their individuality? That we pretend to hold the everlasting archetypes in psychology without realizing that the archetype was dehumanized in a very concrete world? Or a world of concrete should equally work!

    Beyond asking for a space for continental philosophy and a reconciliation between both wouldn’t we be even more “philosophical” if we asked for a reunification of all the spheres of knowledge into a more coherently human experience in which less effort is wasted in specializing people into separating from each other? Isn’t one of the difficulties today that there are too many experts in too many fields but very few acting for the well-being of the whole? Very few willing to dare to question the fact that we’re living extremely inhuman lives and that the problem is not only in the economic inequality but in the system of hierarchies, authorities, gender?

    Thank you again for sharing your conflict that I wholly support!


  2. Hi Elena, Thank you for your long and comprehensive comment. I will reply as soon as I have given it some thought


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