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Thoughts On Michael Foucault

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GWDS
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Hi, just wondering if anyone here has read Michael Foucault and what they thought of his veiws.

What would you say is his most important work, philosophically?

What did you think of his philosophy, compared to your own philosophy?

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I don't really think of him as a philosopher, hence why this is ion the History thread. I first got into Foucault looking for someone who gave concrete definitions to the idea of 'worldveiws' in history.

So, for example, I find his ideas of the evolution of 'madness', 'the self', etc. interesting - he was, to my knowledge, the first person to try this sort of thing. You could say I like him because he frees history from 'absolutes' and tries to let us see a culture on its own terms.

For example, psychology loves to say that the definition of madness is based on empiracle research and its history is just told as a positivist hymn of advances by like minded psychologists in centuries past. This History, however, completly ignores the fact that the distinction between sanity and insanity is in many respects little more than a value judgement. In "Madness and Civilisation" Foucault tries to sketch a history of these value judgements and how psyvhology was related to Christianity, economics, and the whole range of culture.

Now, I do have a LOT of issues with Foucault, first and foremost his ideas of power. While tracing the changes in say the nature of sexuality, Foucault seems obseesed with showing how its all one big powerplay - Victorians did not talk about sex because they were intersted in 'loving', but becuse they were part of the giant puriatnical anti-sex conspiracy.

Also, I have not any read any criticisms of his histories, so I'm not sure how well each of his theories holds up in the mainstream. Where I come from its hard enough to get a copy of the 'Madness and Civilisation', let alone a scholar's reply.

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The only thing I know about him is that he championed Khomeini’s Revolution in 1979, that alone makes him an enemy in my eyes.

And Gary Hull quoted him in an article about Post Modernism in The Intellectual Activist.

“My work,” says Michel Foucault, a famous post-Modern philosopher, “irritates people because my objective isn’t to propose a global principle for analyzing anything.”

http://web.archive.org/web/20030802031130/.../blackhole.html

Frotpage magazine has a funny article about this "intellectual" in case anyone wants to know more about him.

Among the forms of knowledge dismissed by them, especially in the case of the Deconstructionist philosopher Michel Foucault, is medicine, because medical science is merely an elite knowledge system that confers power on rich doctors. I have long believed that one of the funniest things in life must be a Deconstructionist professor of comparative literature in need of an emergency root canal, being treated by a deconstructionist dentist. ("Your pain is not real, it is subjective, let me narrate about it to you, there is no pain in reality, Novocain will just interfere with your narrative.")

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadA...le.asp?ID=15466

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I know of Foucault only because all the Marxists at my school worshipped him. My indirect understanding of his views can be summarized thus: the history of sexual mores is a symptom of the power plays of various ideologies. According to this philosophy, western philosophy, Marxism, and the ravings of a lunatic are merely competing worldviews, and the dominance of one or the other is due solely to one group or another being in power. Accordingly, the advocacy of ideas as such amounts to a power grab.

“All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”

“It is meaningless of to speak of –or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.

Ultimately, this ideology amounts to one thing: pure nihilism.

To quote Stephen Hicks: “The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.”

Edited by GreedyCapitalist
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Hi, thanks for your comments.

The only thing I know about him is that he championed Khomeini’s Revolution in 1979, that alone makes him an enemy in my eyes.
Like many on the 'New Left' Foucault was predispsed to see only the post-colonial types of narrative, subonciously dismissing the more corrupt (to say the least) elements of the 'Liberators', at least that has been my interpretation. However, one's political veiws and one's philosophical veiws are two seperate things. Wait, why am I telling you guys this, you know that already. Moving on....

“My work,” says Michel Foucault, a famous post-Modern philosopher, “irritates people because my objective isn’t to propose a global principle for analyzing anything.”

True, as I said Foucault's big appeal (in my eyes) is he does not read History through one monolithic system - Marxism, Social Darwinism, etc. He tries to deal with cultural systems in thier own terms. This would be an annoyance to many who want to reduce history to a single formula.

medical science is merely an elite knowledge system that confers power on rich doctors.
I have not studied in any great detail Foucault's work in biology, but I see where this is coming from. To me the valuable parts of his study of medicine are his ideas of how the 'body', 'desease', and the role of the physician evolved over time. As well are his ideas of bio-power, how medicince has the ability to exert control over the individual in society.

Now I have not read Foucault directly attacking Doctors - but I would not put it past him.

I have long believed that one of the funniest things in life must be a Deconstructionist professor of comparative literature in need of an emergency root canal, being treated by a deconstructionist dentist. ("Your pain is not real, it is subjective, let me narrate about it to you, there is no pain in reality, Novocain will just interfere with your narrative.")

Nice joke, and a good eample of why postmodernism is only good in history, not in any situation where one is at risk.

I know of Foucault only because all the Marxists at my school worshipped him.
Worshipping a philosopher is generally a bad idea, unless you're dumb and you have to. Especially one with as many mistakes at times larger than his contributions.

the dominance of one or the other is due solely to one group or another being in power.

When I read Foucault his tendency to wrap conspiracies around almost everything makes me feel like I'm drinking fine wine mixed with mold. You really have to keep him at arm's length.

Ultimately, this ideology amounts to one thing: pure nihilism.
If you were to apply his principals of historical analysis to everyday life, yes, you would be an utter nihilist; although a starnge one, being convinced desire is a social construction and all. If you looked at how Foucault actually lived his life you would see this - constant drug abuse, rampant unsafe sex and occasional bursts of murderous fury.

To quote Stephen Hicks: “The failure of espitemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.”

I don't suppose you would have a link or any other information on that qoute would you?

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If I remember correctly, Keith Windschuttle has a masterly evisceration of Foucault in his book The Killing of History. I had so much Foucault shoved down my throat in grad school that Windschuttle's chapter really was a lifesaver.

Barry Wood

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If I remember correctly, Keith Windschuttle has a masterly evisceration of Foucault in his book The Killing of History.

Ch. 5 is "The Discourses of Michael Foucault," and the rest of the book contains many references to Foucault. The Killing of History: How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists is well documented, for those who want to further investigate the pathology of post-modernist philosophy of history.

Not only is the content of The Killing of History encouraging to students of history suffering from the miasma of post-modernism, but Keith Windschuttle's own story -- his struggle against the Australian, multiculturalist academic establishment -- is inspiring.

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Thanks for pointing me to Keith Windschuttle, I'm doing some digging and what I've found is shocking and unsettling.

You see, this is why I'm here, to get another angle. Thanks for helping me in this.

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  • 3 weeks later...

My two cents. I had to read Foucault six years ago, specifically I had to read his essay "The Order of the Discourse" (my translation from memory). I began reading the piece and just could not understand what he was talking about. At all. He just seemed to be rambling on incoherently and I couldn't grasp what he was trying to get at. His whole manner of writing was a physically painful assault on my psycho-epistemology and crow. So I threw the essay away in disgust.

Later on I picked it up after I'd had one to beer too many, and then it all made sense(!). The whole essay was one big moaning about how his little mind felt alienated from the world, how words always seemed to escape him, how he couldn't express himself without being misunderstood, how everything at root really is incomprehensible etc etc ad nauseam.

Anyway, W.T. Jones, in his History of Philosophy, has an interesting comparison between Nietzsche and Foucault. He says that both N. and F. had discovered the great metaphysical "hole" of the universe. Nietzsche delights in his discovery and considers it liberating; he dances around the hole, the metaphysical abyss, in joyous laughter. F. on his side stands transfixed and stares down the abyss of meaninglessness, trembling, crying and whining.

Edited by Harald
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He is a terrible, terrible writer (form, not content). I've never read any of his major works but I had an interest in him not so long ago, and hence read a few of his shorter essays. I found him incredibly difficult to understand, and had to read many passages multiple times in order to make sense of them, even when the ideas being expressed weren't themselves particularly or profound. Although I thought "What is Enlightenment" was quite interesting in places, most of his ideas reminded me of a second-rate version of Nietzsche. As I said though, I havent read any of his major works (and dont intend to; I refuse to read 500 pages of awful writing unless I have reason to believe the author actually has something interesting to say) so take this with a grain of salt.

Edited by Hal
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  • 2 months later...

When I was in high school debate, the most popular philosopher by far was Ayn Rand....just kidding, it was Michel Foucault. I personally helped make the files on "Bio-Power ", read extensively the file we bought on his theory of "Disciplinary Power", and helped make a file on a Foucaultian look on "Technocracy and Patriarchy via the Hospitals". I have also read part of "The History of Sexuality - Part I" and "Discipline & Punish : The Birth of the Prison". I can try to explain each of three ideas I mentioned, but keep in mind the amount of varying interpretations are endless.

"Bio-Power", as I understand it, talks about the role of government. According to the theory, we, the governed, have given the government the power of life - via our support of public services (hospitals, police, fire depts, etc.) Inadvertently (and necessarily), we have also given the government the power of death (via the military and weaponry, which is used to go and kill people abroad, to (according to F) "protect us at home"). The answer to this problem? Decentralization (as is most postmodernists answer to everything.)

"Disciplinary Power" is a much simpler idea. "Disciplinary Power" simply states that within our society, power is not decentralized as we would hope (via checks and balances, state level bueracracy), but rather it is highly centralized. The solution? Anarchy for a while, then a reevaluation of government and its purpose. In essence, following a policy of Decentralization.

The phrase I coined, "Technocracy and Patriarchy via the Hospitals", is a strange idea. According to "Foucaultian" theory, we live in a highly technocratic society, with technology permeating and controlling every aspect of our lives. The hospital, the alleged benefactor of mankind, is simply an extension of this. When we are wheeled into a hospital (as the theory goes), we are not treated as a human being, but rather as a collection of interchangable parts (organs and tissue). Some machine tells us what is "wrong with us", and that part is operated on; irrespective to the rest of the body. The solution? Decentralization.

The last idea I want to discuss is his theory on Sexuality. Foucault, in his book, studies the history of sexuality, from the Victorian Age and before up until now. His thesis is simply that, sexuality has ceased to become simply about sex, it is (you guessed it) about power. For example, he states that while sex has not to be discussed in public in the Victorian Age, now a days it is socially fine to. He later draws a link between this power struggle and Bio-power. The solution? Decentralization.

Edited by ASelameab
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Here is a link to a site with a bunch of articles by or inspired by Foucault. I also forgot to mention I read his essay "What is Enlightenment?", which is a critique of Kant's essay (same name), and also the fact that Foucault doesn't believe in mental illness qua mental illness. He believes that MI is simply a means of control; an attempt to "normalize people".

Edited by ASelameab
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  • 2 months later...
Not only is the content of The Killing of History encouraging to students of history suffering from the miasma of post-modernism, but Keith Windschuttle's own story -- his struggle against the Australian, multiculturalist academic establishment -- is inspiring.

I skimmed the first part of the book a few months ago and liked what I read against the postmodernist historians; however, his chapter on the debate in anthropology between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere was thoroughly misguided and in at least a couple of places simply wrong. I was very disappointed. (This review has a good summary of Windschuttle's conclusions; you should read it if you're not familiar with the chapter.) In short, Sahlins has published a number of anthropological and historiographical articles and books about Captain Cook's death in the Hawaiian Islands in which he relates it to Hawaiian religious beliefs, as nearly as they can be determined from contemporary European accounts and later Hawaiian beliefs. How well he succeeds in this is a matter of debate, but as it's standard structuralist anthropology it's not postmodern--postmoderns like Derrida and Foucault attack structuralism as the starting point for their relativistic pronouncements since it claims that outsiders can understand a different culture.

Obeyesekere attacks Sahlins on somewhat the same grounds: He claims that since he himself is from the third world (Sri Lanka), he has a special natural understanding of nonwestern cultures that westerners like Captain Cook and his sailors, and worst of all Sahlins, simply don't have. Methodologically Obeyesekere arbitrarily picks and chooses whatever he likes from Sahlins' evidence, dismissing anything that doesn't fit his scheme precisely because it was recorded by Englishmen or later missionaries (who recorded Hawaiian religious beliefs starting about 1820), a method he defends by claiming that there is a common "practical reason" that Sri Lankans, Hawaiians, and all other non-Europeans possess, but which the European observers Sahlins relied on are not privy to because they were westerners. In the book Windschuttle discussed, How Natives Think, Sahlins made mincemeat of Obeyesekere's arguments, and rightly so--they would disallow the possibility of scientific anthropology by westerners (and on general historiographical grounds Obeyesekere's arguments are a mess). In particular, Sahlins criticized Obeyesekere's conception of this "practical reason," which consisted essentially of judging prechristian Hawaiian society as if it were Sri Lankan society, and methodologically it is much the same as claiming that all cultures share the tacit (broadly Newtonian, mechanistic, nonmagical) physical worldview of modern Americans and Europeans.

That is the point at which Windschuttle begins arguing against Sahlins, who without this context sounds sort of like a typical academic relativist, but in fact Sahlins was arguing for a scientific approach to anthropology against a relativist (more precisely, anti-European) approach. Sahlins argues that Obeyesekere's idea of "practical reason" tries to understand a given culture in terms of another rather than teasing out how the people in that culture actually classify the parts of the world and conceive of how they interact. A prominent example he gives is one that Windschuttle seems to have misunderstood entirely: The classification of foodstuffs in (if I remember correctly) a New Guinean language into six basic categories (corresponding to their social roles) that cut across western categories of meat, vegetables, fruit, and so on. Even on the most basic level, therefore, this culture does not "cut up the world" the same way a typical American (or Sri Lankan) would, so relying on "practical reason" would obscure basic facts about the culture. Windschuttle took this as claiming that a classification of foodstuffs based on a scientific understanding of the world is impossible, but that's not what Sahlins argued. Windschuttle further argued that Sahlins therefore was forced to conclude that it is impossible for an outsider to understand another culture, and thus was a deep-dyed relativist. Of course, it would be contradictory for an anthropologist to claim that since the whole point of anthropology is a scientific, objective understanding of culture, but it's not what Sahlins claimed. (If I remember correctly, Sahlins said that that just means it's difficult for an outsider to learn how another culture fits together, but that's no news.)

And I'll add that the review approvingly repeats one of Windschuttle's more spectacular errors:

To prove his point, Sahlins invokes a famous passage from Foucault's "The Order of Things," frequently cited by academics, that described a strange taxonomy to be found in "a certain Chinese encyclopedia," in which animals are described as "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (:) embalmed, © tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens," and on and on...In fact, Foucault's "Chinese encyclopedia" does not exist -- it was invented as a playful thought experiment by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. "There is no evidence," Windschuttle writes, "that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way." Amazingly, Foucault himself admitted this, openly citing Borges as his source. But Sahlins, like most academics who deploy Foucault's Chinese encyclopedia, does not mention Borges; he is using it as evidence about the supposed mental world of non-Western cultures.

This last claim is simply false: Sahlins explicitly attributes the passage to Borges and not Foucault in the sentence introducing the quote (I know because the quote automatically triggers my most critical mood, so I paid close attention to how Sahlins used it); and while it wasn't entirely clear to me what Sahlins intended by it, it seemed to have been intended simply as an example of how outsiders are likely to feel when trying to understand another culture.

Well, that was a lot longer than I intended to write when I started, but it's worth the detail. Mind, you shouldn't conclude that Sahlins is a prince among thinkers; his discussion of western worldviews and philosophies in How Natives Think is pretty damn poor, for example (though I'd have to reread that section to be able to comment further), but it's irrelevant to Windschuttle's claims.

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