Sources and historical accuracy

Foucault discusses his use of sources in a number of places, and his comments are worth bearing in mind in this whole discussion of historical accuracy and sources:

1. He says somewhere that with regard to major thinkers such as Heidegger and Marx, he did not feel it necessary to cite them on every page, as their influence was evident.

2. He also has discussed on several occasions his choice of sources which tend to be the people or books that are not necessarily seen as the “mainstream” thinking of those times. This is a different matter than historical accuracy, it is a deliberate philosophical strategy (whether or not we agree with it, it was his choice). This was I think of a piece with his interests in “subjugated knowledges” (discussed in Society Must be Defended).

3. The lecture courses may help us reassess just how deeply Foucault grounded his work in sources, but it seems their influence has not yet risen to the level where they counter-act the common idea of historical inaccuracies.

4. Actual accusations of historical inaccuracy: these might fall into two categories (A) explicit historical factual claims that are inaccurate; (B) matters of interpretation such as the comment below by Ben about over “aestheticization.”

The question is how we react to these issues; it is not enough to just say “historical inaccuracy” as this may or may not be the case. It is obviously a cry all too avidly taken up by those who politically oppose Foucault’s projects.

Foucault wrote frequently about history and historiography, we should first be attentive to those writings before rushing to judgment. For a long list, see the entry on that topic (p. 139) in Clare O’Farrell’s remarkable book on Foucault (the single best introduction to Foucault’s work I have read).

She recommends, among others:

“On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of work in progress” H. Dreyfus and P.
Rabinow, Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 229-252. English original.

DE: 1, 48, 50, 58, 59, 66, 68, 84, 139, 132, 156, 22, 277, 278

HF Part I, chaps IV, V
BC preface
OT foreword, Chap 5
AK Part I
FS chap 2, conclusion


3 Responses

  1. Just on points 1 and 3 of this post. With Marx especially, Foucault’s failure to ‘cite’ was, as he himself explains in interviews, part of a ‘game’ he played with his readers and ties in interestingly to his fraught relationship with Marxism – it is also response to the discipline of intellectual work at the time in France, with its ritualized citation of Marx, etc. On point 3, I fear that the lectures – whilst historically grounded in a sense as you indicate – aren’t likely to do too much to disrupt the notion of Foucault as a cavalier historian. I find the lectures remarkably good reading – especially Society Must be Defended and Security, Territory, Population – but they are somewhat patchy in places (the throwaway comment in STP to the effect that he must pay a ‘minimum of respect to the principles of historical causality’, or something like that) will be more grist to the mill of the ‘historical accuracy’ band! As will some of the more sweeping generalisations we see in the lectures – but then again, they are meant as provisional and tentative (exciting) explorations not ‘finished products’…

  2. […] Prof.) gently but properly chides me for some earlier thoughts on the Scull TLS review. I had pointed out that attacks on Foucault were politically motivated. Yes, in the long run this does not address the […]

  3. Why use history? I have never understood Foucault’s turn towards the historical generalization to prove a larger philosophical point. No political scientist would permit the quantitative ignorance of a historian to serve as an excuse for poor work, if said historian were to attempt to make generalizations on the nature of war causation over a 400 year period without reference to charts, graphs, data sets and numbers in general. No historian permits a political scientist to label any historical international system as anarchic, militarized, etc…without specific reference to and engagement with the known historical facts. As Marx now faces derision in classical circles for his slave mode of production, I shudder to think what Foucault’s fate will be. He had the sources, he could have used them, history formed part of his argument, but he neglected the method. His thoughts are maybe brilliant but his reputation will suffer for this. Does it affect his final conclusions? Yes. He rests his argument on the historical situation of others in order to make broader points about subjectivity and agency in general. If the foundation crumbles, the superstructure remains little more than philosophical generalization. Useful as a thought piece but less influential.

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