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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Warden Will See You Now, Mr. Foucault

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/03/07 at 10:25 PM

Andrew Scull’s review of the new translation of Madness and Civilization is on more than a few people’s minds, and why not?  Its relentless criticism of Foucault’s shoddy historiography is meant to provoke:

[History], consequently, requires patience and a knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material.  Its “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, [history] demands relentless erudition.

Sorry, wrong window—that there is Foucault extolling the virtues of a rigorous genealogy, not Scull criticizing him for his “isolation from the world of facts and scholarship.” I quote it now to dispel the notion that minor historical inaccuracies in Foucault’s work are of little consequence.  Put bluntly, they matter; a little more argumentatively, they matter more than their counterparts in conventional histories, because the “effective history” Foucault champions in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” approaches “events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations.”

Foucauldian genealogy sweats the small stuff, as it’s in the minutiae that metahistory reveals the limits of its teleology.  To say—as some have and others surely will—that the questionable citations and historical inaccuracies in Madness and Civilization in no way challenge the larger theory built upon them is powerfully stupid.  Of course they do. Anyone who employs the Foucauldian theory of madness (however defined) must now seriously reconsider whether their work remains structurally sound.  Perhaps the evidence they cited meets evidentiary standards; they are not only safe, their work helps validate the utility of the Foucauldian account.  Even there, the problem of whether researchers found what they were looking for persists, i.e. had Foucault not coined his theory, they wouldn’t have found what they weren’t looking for.

Still, the most dire of Scull’s critiques is that

much of [Foucault’s] account of the internal workings and logic of the institutions of confinement, an account on which he lavishes attention, is drawn from their printed rules and regulations. But it would be deeply naive to assume that such documents bear close relationship to the realities of life in these places, or provide a reliable guide to their quotidian logic.

As anyone who’s read a blurb of Discipline & Punish knows, the difference between formal, institutional strictures and lived experience is of central importance to his thought.  As he writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,”

Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose.

Exactly right, Michel, which is why basing your first book on an idealization instead of the who and how of its enforcement is so problematic.  You know how a warden wanted his asylum run—or, perhaps more importantly, how he wanted other people to believe he wanted his asylum run—but that in no way reflects how it actually was.  This situation is similar to the one Simon Goldhill anatomizes in Foucault’s Virginity; namely, that for all his debasing of teleology, Foucault often runs roughshod over archival material in order to prove his world-historical point.  (Goldhill accuses him of being of an unsophisticated reader, perhaps unattuned to the subtleties of classical prosody, perhaps unwilling to listen, too eager is he to draw a “purposeful trajectory from Plato to the Church.")

I understand this is a cheap shot, uncleverly performed, but the lady-doth-protest-too-much feel of Foucault’s anti-teleology complaints seems ever more important.  Moreover, a shot across the bow is a terrible way to close a post, yet here I am ...


Foucault proposed a program that nobody, certainly no individual, could live up to. He recognized, as I suppose lots of folks have, that intellectual and social history as normally practiced is hopelessly schematic and teleological; and yet he was no more able than anybody else to speak both with authority and as one of the scribes. In this respect he resembles Edward Gibbon, another guy who wanted to be both an erudite and a philosopher, except that Gibbon’s ambitions were quite a bit more realistic.

Foucault’s failings were as obvious in ‘67 as they are now. I remember a grad student of that era who shook his head at Madness and Civilization and remarked, “This guy hasn’t done his homework.” On the other hand, I find myself giving Foucault some credit precisely for his hubris as if his failure were, if not edifying, at least illuminating.

By Jim Harrison on 04/04/07 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim, I’m actually in much the same endlessly-deliberative boat as you: illumination on the one hand, unforgivable methodological sloppiness on the other.  Honestly, I’m not sure where I fall on this one, especially as I’m not qualified to check his sources.  Ideally, I’d quantify his claims before building on his assumptions, but as a graduate student, I can’t do that; more to the point, I’m forced to do the opposite: accept and build upon it, for tomorrow I may die.

(More seriously, it’s not like anyone currently in graduate school’s ever going to attempt a Mimesis, as such works are out of the question so long as we must publish books before we turn 30.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/04/07 at 04:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It might be nice to get more specific here rather than just repeat Scull’s “talking points.” Funnily enough I just obtained History of Madness yesterday, and perusing it I’m struck by the variety of the book which tends to be reduced in the TLS debate.

Why aren’t people talking about the exact accusations of historical mistakes in the book? Scull takes issue with the lack of 20th C. citations in the book, for example, which raises an interesting issue, and points to how Foucault’s approach is not a typical history. Whether or not one agrees with that attempt it seems a bit childish of Scull to complain that he’s not doing what he never set out to do.

Colin Gordon has a comment here:

“There is now a burgeoning academic sub-literature of complaint about the things which Foucault left undone, as though he had neglected his duty to write his readers’ books as well as his own. We are not, however, forbidden from attempting some of those uncompleted tasks ourselves. In any event, it is fitting, even from our latter-day vantage, to appreciate to what extent this was a book in which new, and still pertinent, forms of historical interrogation were being invented—a work which, at the cost to the reader of a modest effort, may still offer possibilities of access to ‘another figure of truth’.”

Scull is also not without praise for the book, crediting it with “rescuing the history of psychiatry.” It’s interesting that these more nuanced comments are never selected for quotation!

By Jeremy on 04/04/07 at 08:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I fully agree with you and the other Foucault skeptics that the footnotes do matter.

But I have to say I found reading Andrew Scull’s piece a bit of a drag. If Foucault was wrong, that’s fine, but do we have to go over the whole metahistory of French theory in the U.S. academy again? (Perhaps, since ‘Theory’s Empire’, I’ve been exposed to too much of this stuff.) I started to get more interested in it once he actually started talking specifics about Bedlam, and provided some specifics on sources he prefers over and against Foucault.

I also thought the point made at Foucaultblog, which you linked to, was worth considering. Foucault’s critique of the enlightenment may not take us anywhere near as far as Foucault wanted to go. But it is still important to remind oneself that “reason” and “madness” (especially *that* second word—which is very different from “mental illness") are rhetorics, subject to abuse. 

What did you think of the post on this at Foucaultblog?

By Amardeep on 04/04/07 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott is exactly right to recall Foucault’s own remarks about erudition, detail, research, and specifics in any large historical claims. And, too, Foucault holds a special place in literary studies, appearing on every single theory syllabus, in every anthology, in countless dissertations as an unquestioned authority, a cult figure. All the more reason, then, to point out his shoddy historiography.

By on 04/04/07 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Talking points,” Jeremy?  I’m not following anyone’s lead here but my own; thus, the decision to discuss this in the broader terms of his entire career.  As I noted elsewhere, the problem with the lack of citations is that there’s a reason they’re not there: the Annales school.  To have engaged with then-contemporary French historical scholarship would’ve required him to take Bloch and Febvre seriously, something he was notoriously unwilling to do.  Thing is, it’s something he should’ve done, and his work would’ve been the better for it.  (I suspect he didn’t because of the regnant suis generis model of French genius as much as anything else.)

As for why I didn’t cite specific examples of his inaccuracy, (1) it’s well-established, (2) I linked to Goldhill and (3) I was more interested in countering the rhetoric that the inaccuracies don’t have any bearing on his larger thought.  Since I can’t assume you’re familiar with my work—I am not, in the end, the center of anybody’s universe save one—I should note that I find a lot of value in Foucault’s work, and of all the major theorists, he’s the one I’ve read the most and draw on most often.  Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t find parts of his work highly problematic.  More and more, I’m thinking he falls in the “do as I say, not as I do” category.

Also, for those interested, here’s the Gordon review.

Amardeep, I appreciate Jeremy’s point, but it does play into the logic Mark describes: forgive Foucault his sins, because despite them, he was still on to something.  That’s not a winning strategy.  I still think Foucault has value—I haven’t changed my own methodology based on this revelation—but I don’t think this is the best defense of it.  I’m leaning towards something like “those who can do, do; those who can’t, teach” as a motto for my relationship to him, because I find the idea of the genealogy/archeology extremely useful, even if the execution leaves much to be desired.  Should we, as Mark suggests, disappear him from theory syllabi because he failed to live up to his own standards?  I don’t think so, because the standards remain quality stuff, even if he never met them.

(Perhaps I’m being too harsh because I feel more than a little like I’ve been duped.  Not sure.  But it is indicative of something or other that it took me a good week or so to write this post, and that there were three or four intemperate attempts.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/04/07 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t get much out of “Madness and Civilization” when I read it, but in his other books what I liked was the way he brought my attention to authors and agents I wouldn’t have read otherwise and put them into a larger context. An example would be Maurice of Nassau and St. Francis de Sales on physical discipline, and their relationship to absolutism, modern science, and the rise of the individual.

The question of whether Maurice and St. Francis (or Bentham, or Buffon, or Condorcet) had the significance Foucault found is somewhat independent of whether there are mistakes in his work or whether his scholarship is out of date. If the specific criticisms don’t damage the specific point he is making, then they are NOT important.

Sometimes this sounds like the dog-in-the-manger approach, when the expert who’s been studying something for years without noticing much of anything interesting about it gets annoyed at a poacher who does find something interesting there.  I’ve read a considerable number of factually accurate accounts of this or that which failed to find anything interesting to say; it’s a fairly common deficiency of fail-safe scholarship.

Haven’t read the critique, and haven’t really read M&C, but I’ve seen this kind of atack on Foucault before.

By John Emerson on 04/04/07 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with John. So what?

By Bill Benzon on 04/04/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I wrote a post about it, ‘bout three clicks of the scroll-bar up.

On another note entirely, Craig is very, very, very, very smart.  Everyone should pay homage to his blinding brilliance and intimidating erudition, like, immediately.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/04/07 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m baffled by the comments here.  I think Scott’s made a good post.

Foucauldians play a frustrating double game.  When the historical record seems to support Foucault’s generalizations, they’re happy to point to the facts.  If the facts don’t support Foucault’s narrative, Foucauldians denounce the very enterprise of fact-gathering, marshaling data to convince other specialists, etc., as “pedantry” and/or a positivist plot to repress human diversity.  (I had a professor call this the “Who you gonna believe?  Me or your own lyin’ eyes?” historical method.) Stanley Fish is exactly right in his essay “The Young and the Restless"--you can’t combine a meta-critique of history as a discipline with your own empirical historical narrative. 

As Scull observes, Foucault often fudges things or simply gets them wrong.  Bill Benzon and John Emerson want to know why this matters.  I think it’s because
Foucault-influenced critics are fond of writing sentences like “Western reason is based upon a marginalization of madness,” or “Western culture involves the increasing stigmatization and oppression of the mentally ill.” Now, obviously in Madness and Civilization Foucault isn’t arguing that madmen gleefully romped through the flowers in medieval times.  But he most certainly did argue that medieval and Renaissance culture
valorized madness, as a kind of secret wisdom.  (Read his original 1961 preface, reproduced in full in the Khalfa translation.) And a general sense of the “tragic” informed specific cultural practices like putting madmen to sea aboard Narrenschiff.  If I’m reading Jeremy’s post correctly, he thinks Scull is quibbling that Foucault didn’t cite enough 20c scholars.  But that’s not all Scull does.  Scull says that many of Foucault’s historical claims are simply wrong.  If Foucault has overestimated the significance of a few paintings or random passages from exemplary authors, and if the Narrenschiff did not exist, and if the “great confinement” never happened (!!!), then his broad historical narrative (as Scott says, a teleology) doesn’t hold up.  (This narrative being the story of a transition from a
Renaissance “dialogue between reason and madness” to the silencing and objectification of madness within asylums.) And you can no longer write charged statements about madness’s greater liberty in the premodern era, or how we’ve gone from the sacred rite of the Narrenschiff to the
repressive asylum, or whatever. 

That is what Scull’s trying to say.  I think it matters, and with all due respect, I find some of the responses to Scott confusing.  For example, John Emerson begs the question:  is it a good thing to distort the historical record for the sake of being interesting?  Moreover--and not to be a confrontational jerk here, but I am curious--what specific books have you read recently about madness that were factually accurate but totally uninteresting?

By on 04/04/07 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve had quite nasty disagreements with Craig (about Schmitt), but I agree with his major point: Madness and Civilization made Foucault famous, but his best work was later. The reason I didn’t say so in so many words is that, since I didn’t like M&C much, I didn’t read it very carefully.

What Foucault wrote about the history of the subject, or the formation of the subject, drew on 2500 years of Western thought. Isocrates, Bentham, Descartes, etc., etc., but all aimed at the Freudians/Lacanians and the Heideggerians. It’s not surprising that period specialists find a lot to disagree with.

Comparable but not at all related figures are Jared Diamond And William O’Neill in world history. I have no trouble finding errors and weak spots in their work, but I still find it valuable.

The American disciplinary message to Foucault, Diamond, and McNeill is just “Don’t try to work on that scale; choose more easily-manageable prolems”. But work on that scale is valuable.

By John Emerson on 04/05/07 at 12:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment


By John Emerson on 04/05/07 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Foucault ultimately critiqued a way of producing knowledge that took its truth-claims and sources for granted. We are indebted to Foucault for this as Scull’s mortifications so clearly elucidate.

By Laz on 04/05/07 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Forgive me for not wanting to read through all the links on the controversy and see if this point is addressed elsewhere, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Scull’s tone of high dudgeon is recognizably the house style at the TLS.  So I took the bluster in the article with a grain of salt—there’s some of that in every issue, really, although it’s usually about considerably less renowned people.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that Scull either set out to write, or was encouraged to write, a standard TLS-style takedown.  Robert Irwin’s book on Said (Dangerous Knowledge) is very, very similar rhetorically.  These pieces almost write themselves; the question is what specific facts and criticisms are brought forward within the ready-made editorial package.  This is not to say that one shouldn’t criticize (or praise) Scull’s tactics, but only that it’s hard for me to see much spontaneity in them.

His work actually seems quite interesting: http://sociology.ucsd.edu/faculty/Scull.htm

John: does he specifically criticize Foucault for the scale of his project?  Is that a common criticism?

By pica on 04/05/07 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Any project of large scope will have many errors of detail. If the enumeration of errors counts as refutation, all such projects are pre-refuted.

In this case, Foucault is already established, but I’ve seen two other reviews of this style which, to the extent taken seriously, would have the effect of convincing readers not to read the very interesting books reviewed at all. (The reiviews were Morgan on Ronay’s “The Tartar Khan’s Englishman” and someone or another on Sagan’s “At the Dawn of Tyranny”, both of which books introduced the reader to interesting material they were unlikely to find elsewhere).

By John Emerson on 04/05/07 at 01:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, for the record, that’s pretty much the position I’m espousing.  I feel like a couple of idiots are raking me over the coals for having the gumption to challenge The Master on valid grounds ... but I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing about anything.  When I say “do as [Foucault] say[s], not as [he] do[es],” I think that the forgiveness is pretty clear.

Unless, of course, you’re an unthinking acolyte, and so defensive that you can’t help but lash out irrationally at anyone who dares insult your Lord and Savior.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/05/07 at 01:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The classic way to destroy a historian is to check the accuracy of his footnotes before he gets a chance to check the accuracy of yours. That was how the Yale historian Henry Turner destroyed David Abraham back in the 80s, for example, as detailed in Peter Novick’s book That Noble Dream. Inaccurate footnotes are not the basic problem with Foucault, however. The man simply presumed too much on his powers of divination or sheer luck to think that his brief forays into the archive would always came back with just the right texts to define the transcendental armature of a discipline or an age.

I’m not interested in any of this because I care either to defend or attack Foucault’s reputation. I find his ambition tragic because it is exemplary. Unlike the hard sciences, where the combined efforts of many individuals can, as it were, allow certain results to achieve escape velocity and hold up on their own, the philosopher and the historian operate pretty much as individuals and their rockets fall back to earth with seeming inevitability. What grips me about Foucault and a few others is the suspicion that the magnitude of their insights may represent a kind of human maximum, that they are explorers who will never be followed by colonists because people can’t live for very long in the territories they visit.

By Jim Harrison on 04/05/07 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting letter in today’s TLS [April 6 2007] about the Scull review from Colin Gordon.  He notes that Histoire de la Folie was reviewed in Annales in 1961 by two of their most famous historians who called it ‘ce livre magnifique’ and praised it to the skies.  He lists various historians you wouldn’t think of as Foucauldian (Werner Leibbrand, Roy Porter) and quotes the very flattering things they said about it.  Then he goes on:

Scull was already engaged in the 1980s ... in blackening F.’s reputation by manipulatiive misquotation,and this review unfortunately shows he hasn’t changed his tactics.  Scull tries to present F. as saying, implausibly, that English psychiatric asylums were established in former monasteries.  A reader who tracks down this citation (page 56 in the translation) will find that F. is in fact referring to foundations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses of correction in England and Germany.

There’s more of this ("Foucault nowhere asserts, as Scull implies, that ..."), and then a shot at the “florid symptomatology of ressentiment“ embodied in the review.

What interests me about this is that the idea of Foucault’s ‘shoddy scholarship’ has become so thoroughly established as a given of contemporary thought (the question then being whether it matters or not) that it’s quite startling to consider the possibility that his scholarship wasn’t that shoddy after all.

By Adam Roberts on 04/05/07 at 04:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"is it a good thing to distort the historical record for the sake of being interesting?”

Yes, if you’re as interesting in what you say as Foucault. Not many are, so I don’t think History as a discipline is in much danger from Foucault wannabes. They’ll be discredited, but Foucault won’t be. He’s too interesting.

Although when someone does say “‘Western reason is based upon a marginalization of madness’ or ‘Western culture involves the increasing stigmatization and oppression of the mentally ill,’” such claims are not so outlandish that they must be dismissed. Clearly they’re intepretive arguments that can be disputed or not.

By Dan Green on 04/05/07 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a crummy review, which is slightly amazing. A man who has spent an apparently successful career studying the history of madness is assigned to examine Foucault’s near-juvenilia, and what does he do? Drag out the rogue’s gallery of “anti-psychiatry”: Goffman, Laing, Szasz. Foucault had zilch to do with these people; the movement he had been actually been attached to at one point (Ludwig Binswanger’s “existential psychology") goes unmentioned.

It is powerfully stupid to think that (amidst the Marxist terminology afloat in postwar France) saying something “had a real existence” would be equivalent to saying it was real *tout court*, and griping about empty protocols is an echo of Edmund Wilson’s dilettantish complaint about Marx and the blue-books. Finally, it concludes with a sobering observation: critical historians are not only wrong, they are cynical meanies exploiting well-meaning tenderfeet.

If proper historical practice means coating interesting historical research contradicting major works with a layer of Up With People crud, so much the worse for the facts and so much the worse for us.

By on 04/05/07 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I wrote elsewhere, the claim that all these mean people are attacking Foucault’s “dissertation” or “near-juvenalia” is disingenuous, because the book’s still taught and cited regularly as authoritative, no matter what you call it. A much better tact would be to point out the numerous interviews in which Foucault distanced himself from the positions and methodology he espoused in Madness and Civilization; or talk about the multiple prefaces he wrote for it; or discuss its place in the once-longstanding feud between Foucault and Derrida.

I bring up later “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” precisely because it makes a case for Foucault, inasmuch as what he said points to a sound practice. That he failed to live up to his own standards is an issue apart from whether those standards are worth defending.

Adam, that’s interesting background on Scull, esp. as it concerns Annales (since that’s the node I hang around myself).  Still, a positive review isn’t a ringing historiographical endorsement; also, I’d imagine the benefit of the doubt is given more often than not.  (And as a reader of many reviews—many of which are positive reviews of flawed books—I’ll aver that it is.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/05/07 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I really like John Emerson’s point about pre-refutedness and large projects. Scull’s review implies a stronger point, though, with his comments on Foucault’s use of dated secondary sources. That is: any work of history is pre-refuted to some extent, or at least waiting to be surpassed, because later historical scholarship will render it outmoded. That is I think a fair assumption, provided ownly weakly held to. And I think Scull’s points in his review - for instance “F says the ship of fools existed, but it didn’t” - convincing. What I don’t get is the stakes of the argument, in the review and the ensuing discussion. (This is in part because I’ve only read 3 works by Foucault, starting from Discipline and Punish, and the occasional interview, and I’ve not read secondary works on him.)

Is the point that Madness and Civilization is problematic in a way which people who like Foucault won’t cop to? Or that all of Foucault’s work is problematic and not copped to in that way? Or is it something about a certain type of academic work, which Foucault (and/or reception of his work) is emblematic of? Samuel Tuke suggests the last, with his “Western reason is based on...” sentences. In this last case, it seems like the issue is less Foucault than something Foucault is used for, a use which could probably continue with other figures than Foucault (say, Heidegger and talk of “Western metaphysics").

By Nate on 04/06/07 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um… what’s kinda missed here is that F&D (or M&C) was not an exhaustive empirical historigraghical work on “madness” and the practices and discourses associated with it, but rather a state doctoral thesis submitted in philosophy. It wasn’t quite an intellectual history, nor a history of ideas, nor quite a history of “mentalities”. It was rather something like a meta-epistemological critique of knowledge, which took a panoramic/retrospective view of the historico-cultural conditions by which both the object-phenomenon and its “knowledge” were generated. Certainly, Foucault, through his subsequent work and reflection, from his “epistemes” to his “archeology of knowledge” to the “micro-physics of power” and on to the “technologies/practices of the self”, would develop and clarify his thinking throughout its transformations. But the initial choice of his subject matter was deliberate, precisely because of the dubiousness of both its “object” and its discourse of “knowledge”, and the inherently “underdeveloped” state of both. The work, far from being mere “juvenalia”, was intended as a critique of the “human sciences”, which we Anglo-Saxons would identify with “social sciences and humanities” and which, in the received old-fashioned 19th century tradition, would have been called the “moral sciences”. Chances are that his choices of material were guided by the purpose of the work and were not intended to be “representative”, let alone empirically exhaustive, but rather illustrative of philosophical points, with largely parodic-critical intentions. He would later clarify his intentions as a “history of the present”, meaning both an attempt to account for how we had arrived at our present conceptions/practices and an effort to render those same “history”, to reach beyond them. Hence, both the scatter-shot and deliberately “archaic” nature of his sources, and his refusal to cite 20th century sources that might rationalize the present state-of-affairs.

The upshot here is not that empirical data and source criticism don’t count, but that they don’t really tell unless one has grasped the “point"/stance/tenor of the work and how they should be brought to bear in relation to the claims that it would make. That Foucualt was a tricky fellow was never really in doubt, and whether one regards him as a sheer sophist, as possessing an inadequate conception of “reason”, or as a sly parodic ironist, it should be grasped that he was posing questions to be answered rather than pretending to answer questions.

By on 04/07/07 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I’m coming in a few days after the storm here, but a couple of thoughts.
It’s always interesting to see how these discussions happen in other disciplines.  My sense is that for many years historians tended to reject Foucault out of hand as someone who said he was a historian but really wasn’t.  This is not simply because his methodology was sloppy, but because he did not present an argument based on evidence in a way that was/is recognizable to a historian.  (I once had a conversation with a Philosophy grad student acquaintance, who explained this to me saying that he thought Foucault operated by way of “examples.” I said something like, “Yeah, in History we call that cherry-picking.") Foucault came back into history through his wider theoretical influence.  These days, most historians, including those who are profoundly critical of him, would admit that he—or the larger epistemological whatzit of which he was a part—has changed the way we do history.

This brings me to the larger point I wanted to make.  Folks here are right to point out that there are things to criticize in any work of history and that historiography inevitably moves on.  If these were the objection to Foucault’s work or conclusions, then, yes, it would be a cheap shot.  Even with the much stronger version of this that Scull puts forward—not just that we now know better, but that there are systemic problems with Foucault’s use of evidence—this would still be primarily of historiographic interest.  The points that Scott makes related to this, that a) a theory’s historical validity does matter if the theory is historically grounded (that is, is based upon a historical narrative), and b) that we ought to separate method from application, are important and useful ones, and sometimes get lost in the scuffle, even among historians.  There is, however, something important, both for the importance of Foucault and the problems with him, in that other argument that Scott has criticized (Elsewhere? Here? It’s hard to remember.), that Foucault’s work, even if flawed in theory/application gets at some important truths.

If we can agree one thing about Foucault, I would think that it is that he doesn’t have a single methodology or theoretical approach; that, by his own account, and I buy it, his work is a series of engagements with different disciplinary structures.  The thing that runs through them generally is his search for epistemeic shifts.  These are what are generally convincing about his work: the fact that the way we think about and try and interact with the various elements of the world really has changed, and he gets to a substantial if not complete truth about the way that it has.  Where historians tend to disagree with him is more on the when and how (as the result of which processes) it changed part.  It is primarily, but in entirely a non-trivial way, a question of periodization.  It doesn’t come out very strongly in the Scull piece, but while he says very loudly that there was no great confinement in the way that Foucault describes it, it comes out that his larger position is: There was no great confinement in the 17th century.  It happened in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Colleagues of mine who study Early Modern Europe tend to make the corollary argument that the growth of disciplinary institutions actually happened a lot earlier that Foucault thinks it did in D &P. 

I think this is a non-trivial point, or one of not just historical but theoretical relevance, because it changes the way we understand how these changes fit together and what they might help to explain.  Thus, we may still want to consider how modern understandings of personhood differ from earlier formulations, even if we can’t simply say, “Stupid enlightenment.  Ruins everything!”

By the way, re Jeff’s comment, at first blush, I thought that Scull’s bringing in of Goffman, et al., seemed like an attempt to tar Foucault by association.  Now, I think he’s not doing that and that this is the most interesting an impressive part of the review.  Scull’s making a convincing argument about the various intellectual currents at the time that helped ensure that M & C would receive a wide and (overly) sympathetic reading when it was first published.

By on 04/11/07 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is a very interesting comment by Foucault in Threepenny Review, which can be found, I think, in Foucault Live. Foucault says, in response to a question:

“I am not merely a historian, nor a novelist. What I do is a kind of historical fiction. I know, in a sense, that what I say is not true. Take madness: I know very well that what I have done from a historical point of view is single-minded, exaggerated. But the book had an effect on the perception of madness. So the book and my thesis have a truth in the nowadays of reality.

“What I want is to provoke an interference between our reality and the knowledge of our past history. If I succeed, this will have real effects in our present history. My hope is my books will become true after they have been written--not before.”

By on 04/12/07 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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