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One of Foucault’s Weaknesses

January 29, 2010

I’m presently reading Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World, which is a brilliant commentary on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. Braver looks at how these thinkers are implicitly addressing a similar set of questions, and draws attention to how they are in conversation with one another.

One of the thing Braver addresses in his section on Foucault is the the fact that since our ways of determining what’s true and false is dependent on already regnant conceptual schemes, there is something wrong with suggesting that contemporary science has progressed and now has a more accurate picture of the world than other groups did in the past. The latter type of claim would imply that we are closer to the truth than others were previously, but Foucault suggests that we can’t say that because we all access the world through a conceptual scheme, which serve as conditions of truth. We can’t say we’re closer to the truth that previous scientists; we can only say we have a different set of concepts and therefore a different way of determining what is true.

Since truth follows rather than precedes the possession of a conceptual scheme, we can’t say that those who have a different conceptual scheme have less truth than us. It is for this reason that Braver says this:

We cannot simply ask diachronic questions like, “Was the Renaissance madman actually a schizophrenic?” since this question illicitly analyzes an object constituted by one set of concepts in terms of a qualitatively different set.

I have a real hard time with this. I think that generally our conceptual schemes overlap in ways that allow for translation of concepts. That is, I would contest the idea that our conceptual schemes are “qualitatively different” all that often.

We can (and do) regularly ask questions like “is a mile actually 1.6 kilometers?” despite the fact that these two concepts (mile and kilometer) are not equivalent.

I’m unconvinced that we couldn’t ask and answer the above question, as long as we rephrased it a bit:

Did some of the people identified as mad by Renaissance standards have what we today call schizophrenia?

Although the question would be exceedingly difficult to answer, since diagnoses of schizophrenia require attention to details that doctors in the Renaissance might have ignored, it might be possible to answer the question in part. Rephrasing the question as I have done makes it clear that we couldn’t draw an equivalence between “madness” and “schizophrenia,” just like we can’t draw an equivalence between “mile” and “kilometer.” However, the fact that we can’t draw an equivalence doesn’t mean that we couldn’t see where the constituted objects overlap.

This is possible because we can often manipulate multiple conceptual schemes at the same time.

UPDATE: Where translation would, of course, be impossible would be when we’re talking about social ordering principles, or subjectivity ordering principles. Separation of religion from the state is a social ordering principle that the ancient Greeks did not have, so that sort of concept would be absolutely incommensurable with the ancient polis and completely anachronistic if applied.

I don’t know the official definition, but if the definition of “schizophrenic” included something like “not a well-adjusted individual,” where “well-adjusted” means “well-adjusted to a work week in a late capitalist system,” then I could understand how “schizophrenic” would incorporate social ordering principles that would be anachronistic to the Renaissance.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Beelzebub permalink
    January 29, 2010 7:21 pm

    I think I agree with you. The existence of nuclear reactors and electricity as a form of harnessed energy that is used by mankind (rather than simply experienced, like lightning and such), I think proves that there has been progress in science. As far as we can tell, anyway. Prior concepts and knowledge (as far as I know) did not provide past peoples with the ability to do many of the things we do now. Or at least its not in the historical record if they could.

    But I think some conceptual schemes allow us to get at certain aspects of the truth better than others, while dismissing other aspects of the truth. The society we live in now, as far as I can tell, privileges science over subjectivity, which is good for some things, not so much others.

  2. fuzzytheory permalink
    January 29, 2010 9:57 pm

    Once you start talking Foucault, you pique my interest. [insert emoticon here] What I get from Foucault is not just the insight that “were there renaissance schizophrenics” should say “Did some of the people identified as mad by Renaissance standards have what we today call schizophrenia?” Yeah sure, we can be more genealogically precise, like the latter question. But, I think Foucault has a more incisive critique for these two questions, though the latter version makes it easier to see. The first response I would give is a throw away Foucauldian standard response (TM): does the category schizophrenia even make sense given the set of discursive and semiological meanings that support a diagnosis of this term. See for example, how mental illness plays out cross-culturally (i.e. the discipline of medical anthropology): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/magazine/10psyche-t.html?ref=magazine. But, let’s just set that aside. I think there is a more incisive critique. Namely, what set of interests make that question possible? Why do we want to ask that question? And, by corollary, since questions presuppose answers, what are we already saying about ourselves by asking that question and how do we want the answer to impact us. Here is where I see Foucault as the most faithful student of Nietzsche I have ever read. It’s not just about terminological exactitude in a hermeneutic sense of contextually dependent. It is about how power and interests shape even the trajectory of our thought and all the hermeneutic digging that goes along with that insight.

  3. fuzzytheory permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:05 pm

    B:
    By what criteria do we judge “progress in science”? Why is this something we aspire to or think is happening? What does this idea of progress in science allow us to do? As someone who examines colonial orientalism and postcolonial descendents of this idea, and is a Religious Studies scholar to boot, it seems to me that “progress in science” is a myth that allows for many things (including microwaves and 747s, for sure) but is still a myth. The consequences of this myth of scientific progress include, aside from a certain kind of explosion of knowledges, but also has been implimented again and again and continues to do so to oppress various kinds of people. Now, of course, I’m actually quite ambivalent about this myth. But my criteria is not technological progress, but rather social justice as progress.

    I do agree with your last sentence, for sure. And I think that should be the starting place of our analysis.

  4. Beelzebub permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:07 am

    If technical application of science doesn’t indicate any progress in science and scientific progress is a myth, then it is just as much a myth as progress in social justice.

  5. fuzzytheory permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:39 am

    B: You are totally right. I like the myth better because it explicitly aims at making people’s lives better. Now, I just wish we could combine the two myths and have robots meet our every need and we wouldn’t need to work anymore. just party. or read. or think. or play sports 24/7. or wev. that’s a utopian dream i can get behind.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 30, 2010 10:47 am

    fuzzytheory: the question you go on to raise, “what set of interests make this question possible,” is a valuable one, but not the only one. However, answering it sheds light on the problem I’m trying to mess with.

    What interests make this question possible? I.e., why would I ask if some conceptual schemes are better than others? Because it has a bearing on social justice!

    If anything said in the past is true because it fit in the local conceptual scheme, then the claim that negroes are naturally inferior to those with Aryan origins would be just as true as our claim today that that’s complete bullshit. I would say that those sorts of racial claims distort the truth—they’re ideological.

    But if Foucault is right about conceptual schemes being incommensurable, he takes away my ability to say that.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    January 30, 2010 11:45 am

    “That is, I would contest the idea that our conceptual schemes are “qualitatively different” all that often.”

    From where I’m standing it seems unlikely, and in need of sustained argumentative support, that there ever have been any such qualitatively different conceptual schemes. Is there such argumentative support in Foucault’s work?

    “Where translation would, of course, be impossible would be when we’re talking about social ordering principles, or subjectivity ordering principles. Separation of religion from the state is a social ordering principle that the ancient Greeks did not have, so that sort of concept would be absolutely incommensurable with the ancient polis and completely anachronistic if applied.”

    Why is translation ‘of course’ impossible? E.g. let’s say the greeks don’t have our conception of religion, or of the state as a neutral arbiter. They have a concept of a judge and of impartiality, concepts of legitimate force and authority, concepts of reason and dialogue. What is our modern conception of the state beyond a certain organic configuration of these concepts (or of their sub-parts)? They may not have had exactly our idea of religion either, but they had ideas of gods, of worship, etc.

    Shouldn’t we distinguish pre-investigatory points (when beginning to investigate, say, the Sumerians, avoid applying modern concepts because they will largely be anachronistic) from post-investigatory points (no matter how much you investigate them, or investigate ourselves, the application of any concept to both modern and ancient societies must always be illegitimate, because they were molluscs/their conceptual scheme is qualitatively different from ours)?

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 30, 2010 11:52 am

    Alderson, when I say translation is impossible I don’t mean that an ancient Greek couldn’t in principle understand what we’re saying, but simply that it would be fundamentally anachronistic to talk about separation of church and state in ancient Greece. Similarly, they didn’t have “homosexuals,” because how we define “homosexuality” is fundamentally linked to social ordering principles they didn’t use.

    This wouldn’t rule out the use of second order concepts altogether—if we narrowly defined, for the purposes of our studies, “religion” as “talk about gods,” it wouldn’t be anachronistic to find “religion” in ancient Greece.

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    January 30, 2010 6:14 pm

    “We can’t say we’re closer to the truth that previous scientists; we can only say we have a different set of concepts and therefore a different way of”

    If I read you right, Foucault is saying this holds for pretty much all topics, and you’re saying it might not but it might hold for social ordering principles. But you agree that by re-phrasing things we can say something very similar, even for social ordering principles.

    I guess I wonder how significant that is. How is it different from just reminding people to be careful and attentive in talking about remote cultures? Are there any claims (e.g. the Ancient Greeks were in general more tolerant of homosexuals) which couldn’t be made respectable by the right qualifications and rephrasings?

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 31, 2010 10:05 am

    I would say—and I bet Foucault would agree—that the latter claim CANNOT be made respectable because the idea that there are homosexuals in ancient Greece implies that homosexuality is some sort of unchanging essence that appears across times and places. It reinforces unhelpful ideas about an unchanging human nature, for instance.

    I’m sure you could qualify the claim so that it got around these objections (although in doing so it might ruin the force of the claim itself), but why not just stop projecting anachronistic language altogether, in order to prevent misunderstandings?

    Also, I think you misread me about the social ordering principles: I’m not saying that they’re transferable, only that someone in another culture might be able to understand them. A king is NOT the same thing as a president—and we would distort our understanding of medieval Europe by using the language of “president,” or “congress,” or “citizen.” Similarly, something weird is going on when we say that the pilgrims came to America: was it America at the time? We imply that it was, which is ideologically problematic for a lot of reasons—just like when we talk about ancient Israel and modern Israel as if they were the same …

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    February 1, 2010 6:13 pm

    “the idea that there are homosexuals in ancient Greece implies that homosexuality is some sort of unchanging essence that appears across times and places”

    Doesn’t what it implies depend on who says it, who hears it, and the context? I mean, it may well imply this when an essentialist says it to someone with little knowledge of ancient Greece. It doesn’t seem like it would imply it when said by one informed person to another.

    “but why not just stop projecting anachronistic language altogether, in order to prevent misunderstandings?”
    And say what instead? Is there an alternative language which is equally widely-understood, clear, and concise?

    “something weird is going on when we say that the pilgrims came to America: was it America at the time? We imply that it was, which is ideologically problematic for a lot of reasons”
    I dunno, it again seems like whether we imply what depends on context. If I start telling someone about ‘the pilgrims’ and saying ‘they arrived in the 18th century and wore hats’ and someone asks ‘wait, which continent did they arrive in?’ then there might be no more concise and informative answer than ‘(North) America’.

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 1, 2010 6:52 pm

    Sure, I won’t deny that context/reception is fundamental to meaning. But I would also say that today, for the most part, people aren’t often aware of how we create the objects we refer to, and I want to draw attention to that when I can.

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