Taylor on Foucault and the ethics of reading and writing

I was skeptical that Charles Taylor had produced the abysmal argument
attributed too him. <The argument was that 1) Foucault attempts to disrupt
or destabilize "heterosexuality." 2) That requires him to affirm universal
"homosexuality." 3) This is not possible because affirming universal
homosexuality would signal the end of the human race -- an ethically
unacceptable result. This quasi-Kantian argument is so bad on so many levels
about all you can do with it is enjoy your laughter.> My skepticism led me
to reread Taylor's long piece on Foucault ("Foucault on Freedom and Truth"
Philosophical Papers Volume 2, 151-184.) The piece is thoughtful and
appreciative. Taylor well-states his aim at the end of the essay -- to raise
fundamental questions "raised by the admirable work of Michel Foucault."

Taylors arguments are careful, clear and based on a close reading of
Foucault. He argues that Foucault is "one sided" in his discussion of power
stressing the normatively loaded aspect of domination at the expense of
considering power (especially modern power) as productive of worthy
identities, especially civic identities. This line of argumet is a natural
for an author like Taylor who is eager to defend a variety of civic

Taylor wonders if Foucault's stress on "poer without subjects" is not also
one-sided. He argues that a successful explanatory strategy can rely
exclusively on non-subjective modes of power and if any strategy of
explanation can be satisfactory if we fail to realize that while "it is not
the case that not all patterns issue from conscious action, but all patterns
must be made intelligible inrelation to conscious action" (p. 171). This is
a line of argument one would expect from a leading defender of interpretive
social science.

Taylor also argues that Foucault's ""monistic relativsim" limits his ability
to offer moral and political criticisms of any regime including a modern
carcereal regime. Taylor's doubts are not so much a those of Christian
defender of some Thomistic "nature" (there is little if any of tat in
Taylor), but rather grow from a hermeneutic approach to political ethics.tat
stresses the grounding of political ethics in specific traditions where "we
struggle over interpretations and weightings, but we cannot shrug them off.
They define humanity, politics for us" (p. 181)

Of course, the arguments I have adumbrated are open to contestation, but
they are careful and respectful responses to what Foucault wrote. How
differnt they are from the paralogical "argument" that led me to reread
Taylor is indicated by footnote 51 where Taylor writes: "The idea of
political resistance without a positive new vision is parallel to the notion
of resistance to the dominant sexuality based on the essentially
unarticulated 'bodies and pleasures' . In both cases the question very much
arises:whether Foucault can have it both ways. Is there a plebian resistance
which does not at least point to an alternative model, even if it may for
some resons be unrealizable in practice? Or if there is, if we can really
find mindless insurrections in history, do they really offer us models of
political action?" Now one can doubt that these are good questions, I
supose, but that is not what interests me. What I want to stress is how
distant these reflections are from the strained "argument" that sent me back
to Taylor.

Let me be charitable and assume that somewhere Taylor slipped and made te
dimwitted argument attributed to him. What are we to conclude? Well, smart
people make dumb statements seems the most lobvious conclusion. And that has
a distinct beraing on the ethics of reading and writing as practiced on this

In recent months I have seen idiocy attributed to some people who I think
are pretty smart: -- Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum most memorably.
Surely there is room in list discussions for personal attacks. Have at
Hitler or Bush or whomever (including me). If the attacks are not careful,
however, they become tedious. Three excruciatingly boring styles of attack
appear too frequently on this list.

First, there is the style of willful ignorance. "I have not read Rorty" the
poster avers "but I know he is an idiot." Even if this were not idiotic, it
reminds me too much of some Christians picketing "the Last Temptation of
Christ" saying they will never watch it because they "know" how bad it is.

Second, there is the move from a well-grounded criticism to a global
criticism. "Matha Nussbaum wrote a weak criticsim of Judith Butler;
therefore, Nussbaum is an idiot." I do not think the piece in "The New
Republic" was as bad as some on the list, but it was unneccessarily cruel
and mischarecterized Butler's work. However much one hates the piece on
Butler, it does not warrant the categorical imperative "Don't Read
Nussbaum." "The Fragility of Goodness" is an important work that can
scarcely be ignored by people in my field (political philosophy).
Furthermore, nobody concerned with exploring comtemporary debates on sexual
ethics can bypass Nussbaum.

Third, there are scattershot assults on an author consisting of of a string
of epithets and insults. Sometimes there are little phrases that are burring
in the pile of insults that might be explored, but they get lost. For
instance, I would like to have heard an explanation (from Nate? I forget who
posted it.) explaining how Rorty's public/private distintion "marginalizes
him" but I hesitated to add to the endless stream of free-form insults.

I would like to see mor thoughtful insults in any case. Choosing "idiot" as
an insult is inteesting, but the execution of the insult is thoughtless.
Heraclitus (and other ancient Greeks) criticized "idiots" for being
concerned with private affairs ratjher than what is truly publlic -- the
polis for politicians, that which we have in common for philosohers like
Heraclitus. I do not think that "idiot" is the word that our onlone critics
were looking for (then again maybe Rorty is an idiot -- would need to hear
more). I think the word the critics were looking for is "stupid."

What can we say about stupid people? We should distinguish them from people
who are simply ignorant (sweet Socrates). Stupidity marks an incapacity to
understand, rather than a mere failure to understand. Stupidity can be
either congenital or willed. It bars conversation in either case.

I have no beef against stupidity. Stupid people abound, bless them. Most
people are stupid about something. A blanket ethical/polirtical condemnation
of stupidity would be stupid. Stupid people have to live too, and stupid
comments can make valuable material for convesation. (C. Wright Mills, in
"The Sociological Imagination" remarked that bad books are often more
valuable than good books because they force you to think through your own
views more carefully.) Consequently, I am with those on the list who resist
the "list police" who want to set rules for discourse. (There are other good
reasons to resist this, good Foucauldian reasons, as others on teh list have

When does stupidity become an ethical/political concern That is a much
larger question than an already absurdly long post could possibly warrant.
For now an adumbration will have to suffice -- aggressive stupidity that
causes "harm" warrants resistance. I have seen none of that on this list.

Partial thread listing: