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Some Realities More Constructed Than Others, Apparently

March 22nd, 2007 · 5 Comments

Via A&L Daily, an article in the Times Literary Supplement digs into the scholarship behind Foucault’s breakthrough work Madness and Civilization. It’s not a pretty sight.

Tags: General Philosophy



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steven Maloney // Mar 23, 2007 at 3:54 am

    yawn… another paint-by-numbers slam piece on a dead academic by a less interesting, yet currently alive and ambitious academic.

    why don’t we just link to pieces called something like “Hayek smelled funny and his mom was fat too” and be done with it? I mean, “famed author doesn’t have optimal sources for straight historical account” has a pretty boring ring to it, since, over time, it encapsulates everyone who talks about history… something which I read somewhere confirms this… oh would it be Foucault? Certainly not… I mean, from what I’ve heard form others, and this is quite scandalous, he’s “f-r-e-n-c-h”

    in all seriousness, we ought to give some credit for the increased respect by continental philosophy showed here by virtue of its not going to the the tired “x is a Nazi/Communist” playbook. That’s sooo Richard Wolin. no, instead we get a criticism of Foucault without ever raising the question “what is it that Foucault is doing?” This might be important because Foucault’s phenomenological commitments might lead us to think he is doing a lousy job when we judge his work as a straight reading of history since that’s, well, not what he’s doing…. but no, good job with the link here… Maybe next week we can claim that Mozart sucks because he can’t paint, or that Lakers are overrated because they’re bad at water polo… don’t worry, we can pull it off… I mean, as long as no one asks why we wouldn’t present such a cogent academic article to a peer-reviewed academic journal to be presented to people who take our topic quite seriously when we instead choose to shoot our mouths of in some magazine.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Mar 23, 2007 at 7:26 am

    Is the idea here that if the sarcasm is layered thick enough, we won’t notice you’re saying it’s irrelevant whether the factual claims underlying his analysis are, like, true?

  • 3 Steven Maloney // Mar 23, 2007 at 11:24 am

    While I apologize for the unnecessary sass, I am saying something quite different. I am saying that Foucault is of the opinion that histories cannot be perceived as causal relationships, because historical currents are comprised of many different things whose coming together or not coming together is, to some extent, contingent. To steal from Arendt for a minute, the history leading up to the event cannot be understood completely until after the event has illuminated what it all has meant. Foucault’s work is to mine through history to find such currents of history and the currents of how various things have been perceived in history.

    While it is certainly noteworthy to raise mistakes in scholarship, there is no real attempt in this piece to understand the implications of the mistakes in the context of Foucault’s work, except to point out that Foucault was a: Anti-Enlightenment and b: a Fraud. The case for both is overstated, inasmuch as they are suggested but not actually what the author sets out directly to prove. Instead, he sets out to prove that Foucault’s account of Madness is inaccurate in spots and to hope that by showing you he can prove that, that you will join him in presuming that this means Foucault is discredited as a thinker, and even more egregious that all Anti-Enlightenment thought is discredited.

    I think the case on this front is far from clear… especially since this type of analysis on the accuracy of Foucault’s claims is hardly new, for example, see Alford, C. Fred. “What Would it Matter if Everything Foucault Said about Prisons Were Wrong? Discipline and Punish after Twenty Years.” in theory and Society (February 2000).

    Hatchet job pieces can always point to something that they say in their piece that is true… but a hatchet job piece always has the same tried and true characteristics: it creates some sort of us/them relationship and it goes out of its way to avoid trying to be charitable to its subject matter. I see both of these characteristics in this piece, and I find it to be once again a very disappointing way to go about writing on someone who I think one can gain a great deal through the experience of reading.

    I find the objections here as reason to put down Foucault and not engage his work no more compelling than I would accept the argument that one ought to through out Nozick if they do not agree with his “simply posited” first line “All men have rights.” Even if someone could demonstrate to me the empirical shakiness of this claim, and therefore concluded to read “Anarchy State and Utopia” is thus pointless would be making a mistake. The same way it would be a mistake to not read Locke if anthropologists could discredit his posited state of nature, the same way it would be a mistake to not read Hobbes if we found a couple of his descriptions of man in “Of Man” to be inaccurate. The same way it would be a mistake not to read Aristotle because he got his model of the universe, or his model of the soul even, wayyyyy wrong by today’s standards.

    Again, sorry about the sass, it was late, and I had to hear an analytic philosopher’s juvenile screed in a graduate seminar about why no one should read “French” thinkers. That doesn’t excuse losing it in the post above, but it was a “frustration foul” on these sorts of articles that get published. I’m sick of the continental-analytic “gotcha” games… there’s a way to engage in scholarly debate and critique about these matters and not simply carry over departmental wars in political science and philosophy onto the pages of news magazines… too many of us have become to worried about keeping our jobs for people “like us” that we’re not doing our jobs anymore, which is real, thoughtful scholarly work on questions that matter. And yes, there is a way to do that on Foucault that questions the veracity of important claims that his arguments rest on (as there is for everyone), but such work does not have the tenor of breezy critique.

  • 4 Glenn // Mar 23, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    I haven’t read Madness, but I have read several of his other works. I don’t think anyone who has read Focuault with a critical eye wasn’t at least a little dubious about his use of factual source material. That doesn’t mean he should be dismissed wholesale.

  • 5 Wade // Mar 24, 2007 at 2:22 am

    Odd that the author cites Gauchet and Swain as refuting Madness; they were as hostile as Foucault was to the sort of Whig interpretation he’s implicitly defending here.