From: James McFarland <rmutt@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 25 May 1995 00:07:18 -0400 (EDT)
> I don't know if this is really relavent - please ignore it if its not.
> Having read most of what you recommended to me regarding Foucault and
> truth I have come to an understanding of his thesis. Now I'm only a
> second year undergrad. and I've had trouble trying to fit together the
> pieces so I was hoping that if anyone is interested you would comment
> on my understanding.
> I have tried to tie together all the bits and pieces to make a coherent
> theory. Unfortunately I have been forced to use analytic and structuralist
> vocabulary as these are what I am familiar with.
> MY lectures led me to believe that Foucualt had a "relativist" theory of
> truth. I am however coming to the opinion that his is more like the
> pragmatist theory - in so far as he is interested in "empirical truth"
> truth as something "in the world" - a practical thing, as distinguished from
> absolute or metaphysical truth (or Truth).
> He stated that he is interested in the "regime of truth" - the mechecanisms
> for deciding what is true, the status of those who utter true statements, and
> so on.To say this is dependent on power or anything else is not contradictary.
> This is not a relativist view at all. In fact it is not even a theory of truth
> in the traditional sense as he does not deal with truth per say.
> The specific intellectual seems to work on the regime of truth clarifying
> it and trying to understand it. This is Foucault's task, I think. As
> oppossed to the universal intellectual who reveals Truth and enlightens
> others. This seems parallel to Kuhn's distinction between ordinary and
> revolutionary science, except with the regime of truth taking the place
> of Kuhn's scientific paradigms.
> So, if Foucault is interested in the mechanisms of truth rather than the
> epistemological concept, his thesis in no way suffers from the paradoxes
> of relativism. Furthermore, his disowning of philosophy makes more sense.
> His is a social/political/historical interest.
> Well thats my rather crude version of Foucault's theory and if anyone has
> any comment please mail me as I'm struggling to make sense of this. Feel
> free to be critical to the point of insult if required.
Without wanting to sound condescending, I have to say that I'm pretty
impressed by your attempt to pull Foucault together here, considering
that I'm 33 years old, have been reading this stuff for years, and still
don't understand it. So I don't feel any need to insult.
What I would suggest, though, as a way to continue and pursue your
understanding of this particularly challenging thinker, is to start
relinquishing the premise that Foucault had a theory. It isn't that what
you say is wrong; the ability to restate accurately the major contours of
a philosophical position is a sine qua non of engaging a philosopher. But
in order to deepen this understanding, particularly with Foucault, it soon
becomes helpful to conceive of him not so much as maintaining a position
in the philosophical debate, but as pursuing a trajectory of
investigation. One of the most attractive (and frustrating) aspects of
Foucault is his continual self-critical stance. Let me try quickly to plot
the trajectory as I now see it: this is quite abbreviated and no doubt in
need of drastic revision even if it is intelligible, but it might at least
suggest what I mean by trajectory vs position. Madness and Civilization
rests on the idea of an originary "experience of madness" that is, on the
one hand, reason's experience of madness, and on the other, madness's
experience of itself. This experience mutates into the medical gaze in
Birth of the Clinic, where the focus shifts from the "content" of an
originary experience to the structures that make it possible. The formal
nature of the medical gaze inaugurates a kind of questioning that in the
Order of Things has been generalized to take in the nature of
representation itself: the authority of pure representation being clouded
into a problematic and unstable subject/object dichotomy that itself is
on the brink of collapse. And yet at this level of formal generality (the
notion of an "experience" has faded considerably by this point, for
instance), such an investigation seems to have lost touch with the very
historicity it was suppposed to make conceivable. History is itself a
result of the epistemological lurch at the end of the eighteenth century,
but from what extra-historical perspective does Foucault determine this?
These questions lead him to resurrect the notions of historical agency
that he had let fade in the first three books: whereas the shift at the
end of the 1700's is pretty much unmotivated and mysterious in the Order
of Things, it is the result of fields of power in Discipline and Punish.
But if power makes us subjects, disciplines and structures us, how deep
do its workings go? The constitution of our sexual natures requires an
investigation of the entire Western cultural history: a paradoxical
pursuit. If we believe that our truth lies in sex, then only by seeing
why it is we would ever come to such a conclusion can we understand
ourselves, so that we need to investigate sex against the grain, so to
speak. Etc. Etc.
Whatever the merits and demerits of this particular sketch may be (and I
can see great problems with it even from here), the point is that nowhere
can we really say that THIS is the real Theory of Foucault. And
even though we often must speak of Foucault as if he had a theory, most
people who have been influenced by his books respond to a style of
thought and questioning that he represents, and a certain integrity that
he embodies. Organizing Foucault's writing as a developing project will,
I think, in the end make any formulations you venture of particular
Foucaultian positions all the more well-anchored. Foucault, more than
most other contemporary thinkers (though Feyerabend is another example)
wrote in response to the weaknesses of his positions, and not the
strengths; he grew and deepened by being constantly aware of the limits
of what he had already said.