Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The King is dead. Long live the King.

I was looking for a bit of information on Michel Foucault, and turned to The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (Pantheon Books, New York 1984). I was going for something else (which I'll get back to later), but this passage from the introduction seemed to speak more plainly to the kerfluffle over the Wieseltier review of the Dennett book "Breaking the Spell." Atrios picked up Leiter's critique, and Pharyngula weighed in, and still the issue has generated more heat than light.

So, in the interest of shedding a bit more light, let's start with Rabinow's introduction to Foucault's work.

The context here is a debate on Danish TV (and try to imagine that in America, even on PBS) between Chomsky and Foucault. Rabinow begins by characterizing Chomsky's position:

For Noam Chomsky, there is a human nature. This point is fundamental: unless there is some form of relatively fixed human nature, true scientific understanding is impossible. Starting from his own research, Chomsky asked: How is it that on the basis of a partial and fragmentary set of experiences, individuals in every culture are able not only to learn their own language, but to use it in a creative way? For Chomsky, there was only one possible answer: there must be a bio-physical structure underlying the mind which enables us, both as individuals and as a species, to deduce from the multiplicity of individual experiences a unified language. There must be, Chomsky insists, a "mass of schematisms, innate governing principles, which guide our social and intellectual and individual behavior. . . there is something biologically given, unchangeable, a foundation for whatever it is that we do with our mental capacities." Chomsky's scientific career has been devoted to uncovering these structures. His aim: a testable mathematical theory of mind. His lineage: Cartesian rationality.
Stop right there, and take that in. Rabinow is discussing this issue on philosophical grounds, the underpinnings beneath all assumptions about what "reason" is and how "reason" functions and why reason is important. He places it as the underpinning of Chomsky's analysis, and puts his view in the context of Cartestian rationality. Which, frankly, is where these discussions need to occur, but don't.

If you wade through the comments at Pharyngula, for example, you will find all kinds of arguments about where reason comes from; but no coherent discussion about what reason is. All the assumptions are that "science" represents "reason," and all agree on what "science" is (have they even read Francis Bacon, much less Thomas Kuhn or Richard Rorty?). Pay attention, too, to the comment about Chomsky's assertion about "human nature." If that universal is removed (and philosophers and some anthropologists would gladly show you how to do that, should you ask them), Chomsky says true scientific understanding is impossible. That seems to be a crucial issue in Dennett's work, and yet no one raises it. Why not? Because the investigation would stop right there? Is that a "scientific" analysis? Or proceeding from comforting assumptions?

Michel Foucault rejects Chomsky's view of both human nature and science. In a methodologically typical fashion, Foucault avoids the abstract question: Does human nature exist?, and asks instead: How has the concept of human nature functioned in our society? Taking the sciences of life during the eighteenth century as an example, Foucault draws a distinction between the actual operational categories within a specific discipline at a particular historical moment and those broad conceptual markers such as "life," or "human nature," which, in his opinion, have had very little importance in the internal changes of scientific disciplines. According to Foucault, "It is not by studying human nature that linguists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists the structure of myths. In the history of knowledge the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of . . . designat[ing] certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history." Foucault is highly suspicious of claims to universal truths. He doesn't refute them; instead, his consistent response is to historicize grand abstractions. In the last analysis, he doesn't take a stand on whether or not there is a human nature. Rather, he changes the subject and examines the social functions that such concepts have played in the context of practices "such as economics, technology, politics, sociology which can serve them as conditions of formation, of models, of place, etc. . . . what [it is] in social forms that makes the regularities of science possible." (emphasis added)
Which, in part, is where Thomas Kuhn's "paradigms" come in. But to read the comments on the web, you'd think science was one seamless paradigm of constantly unravelling knowledge of absolute truth, progressing ever "forward." Or what Wieseltier called "contemporary superstitions."

For Foucault, there is no external position of certainty, no universal understanding that is beyond history and society. His strategy is to proceed as far as possible in his analyses without recourse to universals. His main tactic is to historicize such supposedly universal categories as human nature each time he encounters them. Foucault's aim is to understand the plurality of roles that reason, for example, has taken as a social practice in our civilization not to use it as a yardstick against which these practices can be measured. This position does not entail any preconceived reduction of knowledge to social conditions. Rather, there is a consistent imperative, played out with varying emphases, which runs through Foucault's historical studies: to discover the relations of specific disciplines and particular social practices.
Now, am I saying at this point that Foucault is right, and that Chomsky and the "scientific" view of the world, is wrong? Not at all. Foucault's reasoning takes him, as he acknowledged in the interview, too close to Nietzsche for me. Much of what he says I disagree with for other reasons, as well. Still, his analyses are powerful, and insightful, and have to be taken into account. As my favorite seminary professor used to say, "Life is messy," and that messiness extends to our intellectual understanding. We understand better by broadening our awareness of the scope of human thought, not by narrowing it. And it seems to me that Foucault's point about human nature is a valid one: we like to consider it "absolute," but we define it in terms of those things we either wish to accept, or wish to challenge. And if we think those arguments gets us closer to the Truth, we are deluding ourselves.

But still, Foucault makes a valid point, one relevant to this discussion, and one that explains why Wieseltier's review should generate so much energy:

For Foucault, knowledge of all sorts is thoroughly enmeshed in the clash of petty dominations, as well as in the larger battles which constitute our world. Knowledge is not external to these fights; it does not constitute a way out of, or above, the fray in the way Chomsky views it. Rather, for Foucault, the "will to knowledge" in our culture is simultaneously part of the danger and a tool to combat that danger. Following Nietzsche, Foucault asserts that knowledge did not "slowly detach itself from its empirical roots, the initial needs from which it arose, to become pure speculation subject only to the demands of reason. . . .Where religions once demanded the sacrifice of bodies, knowledge now calls for experimentation on ourselves, calls us to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge." Foucault confronts this challenge, this threat, by refusing to separate off knowledge from power.
"Follow the money," William Goldman had "Deep Throat" say. What he meant was: "Follow the power."

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