Further reflections on historical sources

Mary Beard, the classics editor at the TLS (and Cambridge 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 issue (so what? as long as their points are valid).

A little less properly she implies that I take the inverse view of letting political friends get away with historical murder.
I don’t think I’ve done that because I have been consciously careful not to argue that Foucault got his facts right (in this book). Since I have not studied the history of madness I have refrained from commenting (I would have commented if it had been some of his later work.) Here I would like to defer to Foucault scholar Colin Gordon, who is also Director of an NHS Trust.

What I have been interested in is what “getting facts right” means, and which facts one should pay attention to. I think a key to understanding Foucault as historian (and why he is often misunderstood) is that he doesn’t necessarily perform the usual disciplinary obligations and rituals. For example he often looks at “minor” literatures not in an attempt to say they represent something more general, but to investigate how certain forms of thinking arise and can occur.

Part of this is his interest in counter-knowledges and resistance to power. Part of it is his aversion to the idea of the “total” or universal intellectual and making totalizing statements. Part of it I think is just in his character, the way some people always support the underdog. It means looking beyond the usual, which is being sufficiently covered and discussed already.

If as a historian one doesn’t like this strategy that’s fine. But don’t impute something he wasn’t doing. Foucault says over and over in his lectures that he’s looking at knowledge locally and in their historical particularities. He even invents a deliberately provocative idea: the “historical a priori” (playing on Kant’s notion of the a priori).

Foucault does make general statements about history (as most historians do?). The episteme and the dispositif come to mind, and in his later work governmentality and political rationalities. These terms are important for people using Foucault’s work to draw out political conclusions (eg., how governmentality required the increased use of surveillance in order for the state to know about itself and its problems). For Foucault though the point of all this wasn’t to do a history of approaches or historical solutions that we may use today, but a history of problems.

We know that Foucault spent a lot of time in the archives and acquired a good understanding of Ancient Greek. Paul Veyne at least thought so. Foucault read his Plutarch and the Stoics in the original at least. That doesn’t make him good scholar. But it deflects the common criticism that he philosophized from thin air. Actually any perusal of the critical apparatus of Discipline and Punish, or the lectures published over the last ten years should dispel that.

Gordon’s closing remarks are worth repeating:

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.

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