Foucault’s Slalom

David Hoy

French philosophers become notorious when, deviating from Anglo-American ‘common sense’, they appear to cast aside respect for truth, tradition, reality and reason. Michel Foucault is a case in point, for his books typify the manoeuverings that result. There is a growing body of secondary literature explaining his vagarious development, and the best study so far is a joint effort by two Berkeley scholars, Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher, and Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist. Foucault himself lends credence to the Dreyfus/Rabinow interpretation by allowing them to include some of his recent unpublished material. There must have been considerable interaction between Paris and California, since the authors frequently indicate points they discussed with him. The reader is given the sense of hearing an ongoing dialogue.

The subtitle, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, suggests that the authors think Foucault is best understood by placing him in a context that is both historical and philosophical. Twentieth-century Continental philosophy is no longer thought of in terms of systematic programmes like phenomenology or cultural formations like existentialism. The desire for a rigorous, philosophical foundation or an uncommon world-view disappears when philosophy itself is seen as simply another interpretation, as in hermeneutics, or else is replaced by structuralist studies of man and language, disappearing into ‘human sciences’ like linguistics or anthropology. While both hermeneutics and structuralism disagree with, and attempt to destroy or deconstruct, the priority and privilege of the Grand Tradition of ‘first philosophy’, they represent contrasting attitudes about its results and aftermath. Their opposition is itself considered a basic division in 20th-century thought. Dreyfus and Rabinow think that Foucault’s work transcends this division, and believe he ‘is and has always been beyond structuralism and hermeneutics’. So they chronicle his writings, giving an exposition that explains how each work is pulled toward one pole or the other, at the same time identifying the features that escape either label.

What, however, is ‘beyond’? About this, Dreyfus and Rabinow are less certain. They remark in their conclusion that ‘Foucault himself has described his tactic as a “slalom” (personal communication) between the traditional philosophy and an abandonment of all seriousness.’ This concluding section is itself unusual for a work of this kind in being a cliff-hanger. After reminding us that ‘the work of Michel Foucault is still very much in progress’, they leave us, and him, with two pages of questions about what he means by, and how one could study empirically, his basic conceptions of truth, resistance and power.

While Foucault’s critics would take the frequent changes of course as vacillations, Dreyfus and Rabinow see Foucault’s self-corrections as a healthy sign of learning from temporary mistakes without deviating from a central direction. Foucault himself says here that the theme of his research was always the subject (and, surprisingly, not power): that is, how human beings constitute themselves as subjects and how they treat one another as objects. The apparently mistaken tacks result not so much from idiosyncratic shifts by Foucault as from intellectual tendencies dominant at the time Foucault was writing his various works. In the fast-changing world of French intellectuals it is not surprising that one person could evolve through several conflicting movements. For Dreyfus and Rabinow, then, the Archaeology of Knowledge is not Foucault’s major methodological treatise, as many suppose, but an aberration. Coinciding with the wave of structuralism in France in the Sixties, Foucault stressed the analysis of discourse rather than social institutions.

By his own admission, Foucault in his structuralist phase tended to think of language as autonomous. Discourse organised not only itself but also social practices and historical epochs. Vestiges of idealism lurk in this belief that language constitutes reality. Foucault, however, never thought of language as a subjective or mental phenomenon. He follows Heidegger and others in avoiding the Cartesian belief in the privilege and privacy of consciousness, or the Kantian belief in the constitutive powers of the ego. Foucault’s attack on the concept of man and on ‘humanism’ is a forceful way of saying that the subject is not given with permanent structures that condition reality, but produced historically from its social world.

Moving away from linguistic idealism, then, Foucault’s later histories of the prison and of the institutionalised conceptions of human sexuality show how technical discourses are themselves affected by underlying social practices. Dreyfus and Rabinow believe that Foucault now recognises that the background of social practices can never be completely articulated. If they are right, there is indeed a shift in Foucault’s approach, for his earlier, archaeological method is committed to the claim that a discourse creates its referents and that each era has its own a priori rules of formation, its ‘historical conditions of possibility’. Dreyfus and Rabinow argue that the shift is not a break, but a move to a new method, different from that proposed in the Archaeology. They label this new method ‘interpretive analytics’ and see it as preserving the best of both structuralism and hermeneutics, without repeating the mistakes of either.

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