These are "discussion notes" I prepared for a seminar recently; perhaps they will be of interest to others. Bear in mind: they are merely discussion notes, not a draft of a scholarly paper! (One side note: I take up, below, the topic of Foucault, Weber, and the "iron cage of modernity" alluded to in an earlier posting, which prompted some reader queries.)
"NOM" is a reference to my Nietzsche on Morality, FR to Rabinow's The Foucault Reader collection.
I. Nietzsche and Foucault: Why read them together?
A. Nietzsche is one of Foucault’s most frequent, and positive, reference points (see NOM, p. 2 for an example from The Order of Things). Foucault suggests (sometimes only implies) that he is developing Nietzschean themes, continuing Nietzschean lines of inquiry, etc.. I would like to understand both (1) why Foucault thinks this, and (2) whether he is right.
B. I begin from a position of some skepticism about whether Foucault is right. Here is an outline of the skeptical case:
1. Nietzsche is a philosophical naturalist: he thinks there are facts about human beings (type-facts, I call them, i.e., facts about the physiology and unconscious psychology of human beings) that explain much of their conscious life, in particular, their moral and philosophical beliefs. Nietzsche proffers a somewhat speculative account of how these type-facts figure in the explanation of beliefs, and embeds this naturalistic account in the context of a critique of morality (how an account of the genesis of the beliefs figures in a critique of the beliefs is a topic to which we’ll return at length).
2. This is not Foucault’s kind of project: Foucault takes “facts about human nature” to be artifacts of particular discursive regimes, i.e., structured discourses conceptualizing human selfhood that are propounded by the various human sciences. If “human nature” is a “construct” (a key notion, to which we’ll have to return), then there would be no special interest, beyond an historical or sociological one, in understanding how those facts about human nature figure in the explanation of, e.g., moral beliefs. We wouldn’t, in other words, understand anything about the real cause of moral beliefs, only about how a certain discursive regime—itself without any special epistemic standing—conceptualizes those causes.
3. The problem, in short, is that Nietzsche, on this rendering, is interested in first-order theory, i.e., an account of what human beings are really like, an explanation of our moral beliefs, and so on. By contrast, Foucault is interested in meta-theory, i.e., some account of the status or nature of our first-order theories. Here is a typical Foucault formulation (from “Truth and Power” in FR, 60): he describes his project as “”seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false.”
(a) “Effects of truth” are, I take it, the various first-order discourses or practices in which people make claims of the form, “It is true that X,” or “It is false that Y,” e.g., “It is true that our morality has its origin, in part, in the slave revolt in morals described in GM I.”
(b) An “historical” understanding of these “effects” aims to understand both (i) when these discourses or practices came about, i.e., when did it develop that, at a particular moment, under particular socio-economic conditions, people started talking about “the unconscious,” “the insane,” “the deviant,” etc; and (ii) how these discourses are structured (i.e., what are the “rules” for making “true” claims in these various discourses—this is the legacy of structuralism, which becomes less important in Foucault’s work after the 1960s).
(c) The claim that the “discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false” suggests that the first-order theories, whose historical origins are to be traced, are themselves non-cognitive, i.e., non-truth-evaluable. That is, to ask whether, e.g., the psycho-analytic theory of the mind is true or false is--syntactic appearances notwithstanding—on a par with asking is the yumminess of chocolate true or false? One can ask, of course, within the rules of psychoanalysis, whether it is true or false that homophobia is a kind of defense mechanism, i.e., a reaction formation (it is true); but it makes no sense to ask whether the psychoanalytic theory as a whole is true or false. (There is a curious resonance here with Rudolf Carnap’s old distinction between “internal” and “external” questions in “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology”—one of the distinctions Quine purported to repudiate in “Two Dogmas” and subsequent work. An “internal” question, per Carnap, is internal to a “linguistic framework,” which is a conventional practice in which the criteria for truth or falsity of particular ontological claims are set [it is true that “there is a table in the seminar room” within the framework of things and the “thing-language”]. By contrast, an “external question” would be a question about the truth or reality of the framework itself [is the “thing-language” true, is it genuinely and successfully referential?]; this question can’t be answered; whether to adopt a framework is settled on pragmatic grounds. [Carnap thinks this because he thinks that “to be real in the scientific sense means to be an element of the framework” and therefore we can’t ask the question about reality or truth of the framework itself])
C. Is the skepticism too hasty? Here’s some reasons why it might be:
1. We need to be more cautious about what is meant by naturalism. (I owe this point to Huw Price from a number of years ago.) A methodological naturalist thinks that philosophical theories should be “continuous with” empirical science, i.e., with the ontological and explanatory standards of the empirical sciences.
2. Perhaps Foucault is just a methodological naturalist who thinks that human nature (or type-facts) don’t do any explanatory work? Foucault doesn’t deny, e.g., that people have moral and philosophical beliefs, that these beliefs have certain characteristic features (e.g., per Nietzsche, they exemplify the ascetic ideal); he just denies that something called “human nature” is a warranted explanatory posit. This would still mean that Nietzsche and Foucault are engaged in different kinds of projects, but the dispute wouldn’t be about naturalism, understood as a methodological postulate.
3. The Nietzsche-as-naturalist vs. Foucault-as-constructionist story (B, above) ignores the central role of genealogy in the later Foucault’s work. Here is how Dreyfus & Rabinow put it (p. xxv): “After the Archaeology, he [Foucault]…uses Nietzsche’s genealogy as a starting point for developing a method that would allow him to thematize the relationship between truth, theory, and values and the social institutions and practices in which they emerge. This leads him to pay increased attention to power and the body in their relation to the human sciences.”
(a) I confess to being unsure what it means to “thematize” relationships: is it to explain them? To understand their causal/conceptual connections? I assume it is some mix of all this, but it’s a question to bear in mind in reading Foucault: what kinds of “explanations” or “thematizations” is he providing?
(b) We will spend a good deal of time on “genealogy” as illustrated by GM, and as explained by Nietzsche in GM II: 12-15 in the context of a genealogy of “punishment.” One source of difficulty here is that Foucault contrasts “genealogy” with the “search for ‘origins’” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”) whereas Nietzsche is clear that genealogie and historie are interchangeable, and that genealogy is just a more responsible form of historical tracing of origins that dispenses with the false assumptions of (i) linear progress, and (ii) stable meaning over time. The aim of “genealogy” in Nietzsche is also, plainly I would think, not to “thematize the relationship between truth, theory, and values and the social institutions and practices in which they emerge” but rather to contribute to a critique—in Nietzsche’s case, a critique of morality. Does genealogy for Foucault make a contribution to critique? That’s another important question, to which we’ll return.
(c ) Is Foucault’s interest in “power” the same as Nietzsche’s? My view (defended in NOM) is that “power” for Nietzsche functions as a psychological hypothesis, i.e., certain phenomena (e.g., the triumph of the ascetic ideal, as explained in GM III) are explained by appeal to an instinctive drive on the part of creatures like us to produce maximal feelings of power (GM III:7). “Power,” in short, is part of a descriptive, explanatory hypothesis in psychology (it is, again, part of a first-order theory). Foucault, I think, also has a first-order theoretical (rather than meta-theoretical) interest in the phenomenon of “power,” but not as party of a psychological explanation. Foucault’s interest is more sociological: what are the different ways in which power (domination) is exercised over human beings in the modern era. He is particularly interested in (i) new ways of regulating individual behavior and, especially, bodies that mark the modern era, (ii) the ways in which individuals themselves are implicated in self-regulation (through their having internalized conceptions of what it is to be a “normal” person, i.e., sane, sexually normal, a normal husband, healthy, etc.), and (iii) the role of the human sciences in (i) and (ii).
All this puts Foucault much closer to Weber than Nietzsche, it would seem. Weber’s “iron cage of modernity” draws attention to the extent to which the ascetic rationalism of the capitalist world—with its emphasis on professional callings, technical specialization, and material acquisition--and the bureaucratic structures of regulation which are its essential instrument create an “iron cage” in which ordinary life is routinized, its spiritual dimension eviscerated, etc. Foucault expands the story of the “iron cage,” calling attention to another way in which ordinary life is routinized, namely, through the human sciences (and their conceptions of the “normal”) and the expansion of the interests of the state to include the most intimate aspects of ordinary life.
(d) Something similar may be said about Foucault’s interest in the “body”: Nietzsche the naturalist thinks physiological facts (facts about the body) explain psychological facts about persons. Is this Foucault’s interest in the body? Or is he more interested in how “power” is exercised over the body, both by individuals who have internalized conceptions of the “normal” and by governments who collect information on bodies and devise new ways of regulating, disciplining, and routinizing them? It again seems that Foucault’s concern is closer to Weber’s: the distinctive ways in which the modern era controls human beings, and circumscribes their identities, their actions, and their aspirations.
4. The preceding doesn’t quite cover all of Foucault’s interests, and it may be that when we look at his late work on the self and what he calls “ethics,” we will discover some other rich point of contact between Foucault’s work and Nietzsche’s.