Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Foucault’s View of Truth

This is not easy to understand, since, like many Poststructuralists, Foucault’s writings are not always easy to interpret.

C. G. Prado has studied this question (Prado 2005 and 2010), and he concludes that (1) Foucault’s mature position was a rejection of ontological linguistic idealism, but that (2) he also accepted epistemological linguistic idealism (Prado 2010: 101–102). This is further clarified: Foucault thought objects can exist without language, but he did think that objects can only be objects of thought when there is a language in which objects are named and referred to (Prado 2010: 102).

Importantly, when Foucault was under the influence of structuralism and was engaged in his “archaeological” work he did accept the ontological linguistic idealist position, and he only repudiated irrealism when he became a Poststructuralist (Prado 2010: 102).

Frankly, this strongly implies that when Foucault wrote his major work on madness Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age] (1961) he was an adherent of ontological linguistic idealism.

Nevertheless, although he accepted a non-linguistic world when he became a Poststructuralist, Foucault thought that truth is not determined by an objective reality, but by the operation of power and power relations (Prado 2010: 103). It appears that, for Foucault, not even the natural sciences could have their propositions or theories made true by reality, so that he thought that all truth statements are merely linguistic and produced by power (Prado 2010: 103).

This is further analysed by Prado, who argues that Foucault actually had four views of truth, as follows:
(1) criterial truth, or how and why something is made true in a culture or within some field or discipline;

(2) constructivist truth, or how power produces truth: that is, how power makes sentences true by discourses and the promotion and sanctioning of these truths;

(3) the idea of perspectivist truth deriving from Nietzsche, although Foucault does not deny the existence of an objective reality. Instead, Foucault means that we cannot have descriptive completeness (Prado 2005: 87; Prado 2010: 104);

(3) experiential truth, which is supposed to be the difference involved in truth by investigation and truth by experience (Prado 2010: 104), and how some unusual or challenging experience can produce truth.
Foucault’s Poststructuralist view of truth, then, is that “truths” are the products of language as produced by power and power discourses, not by an objective reality independent of human power relations. Not even natural sciences produce truth statements determined by an objective reality. More than that we should not even aim at one true perspective determined by an objective reality (Prado 2005: 89).

Contrast Foucault’s views with Yanis Varoufakis’:
“First, postmodernists allow economics to parade as equally scientific as the natural sciences (albeit on the grounds that no discipline is truly scientific). They are right of course to think that all theory resembles religion, since it also seeks to give meaning to the practices and expectations of whole communities. However some theories are capable of transcending religion and approaching objectivity better than others. Nature’s habit of working independently of our beliefs about it means that the natural scientist can devise experiments which have the power disinterestedly to discard falsity and thus forge knowledge and progress.”
Varoufakis, Yanis. 2002. “Postmodernism: Conspiring with the Orthodoxy,” 10 June
http://evatt.org.au/news/postmodernism-conspiring-orthodoxy.html
Here are the crucial ideas:
(1) there is a real objective reality;

(2) some theories can approach objectivity about reality;

(3) the objective reality of nature allows us to test theories and “forge knowledge and progress.”
This view entails that objective reality can and does allow us to falsify some beliefs and theories and verify others and in the process move towards objective truth.

That is a view opposed to the views of Foucault on truth. I find it very difficult to see how Varoufakis could have endorsed Foucault’s ideas on truth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Prado, C. G. 2005. Searle and Foucault on Truth. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Prado, C. G. 2010. “Foucault, Davidson, and Interpretation,” in Timothy O’Leary and Christopher Falzon (eds.), Foucault and Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK and Malden, MA. 99–117.

Varoufakis, Yanis. 2002. “Postmodernism: Conspiring with the Orthodoxy,” 10 June
http://evatt.org.au/news/postmodernism-conspiring-orthodoxy.html

8 comments:

  1. First of all, what you have laid out is one opinion of many on Faoucault's views on truth. My own opinion is entirely different in this regard. I don't think that Foucault cared about objective truth. I think he was more than happy to leave this question to others. Rather he focused his work where he knew that he would find a Truth-Power nexus. My evidence for this? Very simple: Foucault simply never wrote on the natural sciences. He focused his theories firmly on the humanities.

    An outlier here medicine. But medicine is not really a natural science. Some of its discourse is firmly grounded in the natural sciences; some of it is not. It was the latter that Foucault focused on in his discussions of psychiatry, the medical 'gaze' and the use of medicine to organise society (a facet of biopower/biopolitics).

    The reason your source cannot locate Foucault's statements on this are not because he is "difficult to read" but because they do not exist. You might as well try to locate Foucault's statements on, say, solar flares.

    The real question is: why do people want to read into Foucault that he was contesting natural sciences? Simple. As I said, much discourse today uses natural science metaphors to solidify their Truth-Power (from neoclassical economics to evolutionary psychology [Mary Midgeley does a nice job on the latter]). Adherents of these ideologies/power-discourses are made very uncomfortable by Foucault because he puts their statements in historical context. They genuinely see themselves as applying natural scientific principles to Man -- they cannot see the power-relations underlying their discourses -- and so they think that an attack on their discourses is synonymous with an attack on natural science.

    Of course, it is highly unlikely that you can actually convince a person that adheres to one or more of these power discourses that they are embracing a power discourse. But that is the nature of the game.

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    Replies
    1. Regarding the natural sciences, C. G. Prado (2010: 103-104) does in fact say that Foucault never bothered to show how power produces truth in the physical sciences because he felt it was very difficult.

      Nevertheless, Foucault still did think that "truth" in the natural sciences is produced by power, not by objective reality (p. 104).

      Now consider what happens if you deny this: if you are saying that, "Foucault, never said that all truth in the physical sciences is just power play! Of course, there is reason to think that physical sciences do get to truths about an objective reality" -- you just conceded a major point: that we have good reason to think that in some human sciences knowledge and theories are tested against objective reality and we have good reason to think that many of the best theories there are objectively true.

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    2. Stop citing an interpretation of Foucault as a statement of Foucault's actual position. It's a bastardisation of historical method and you know it.

      "Foucault, never said that all truth in the physical sciences is just power play! Of course, there is reason to think that physical sciences do get to truths about an objective reality"

      I never said that. I simply said that Foucault was uninterested in the question surrounding truths in the natural sciences. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

      "...you just conceded a major point: that we have good reason to think that in some human sciences knowledge and theories are tested against objective reality and we have good reason to think that many of the best theories there are objectively true."

      Even if I spoke the words you just forced down my throat -- which I didn't -- this would not follow. It would only follow if it is true that we assume that the material dealt with in social sciences is in some way fundamentally analogous to the material dealt with in the natural sciences. Foucault does not think this. Nor did Keynes for that matter. Most Post-Keynesians did not think this either. Some Marxists do; as do neoclassicals. But no Post-Keynesians that I know of. And CERTAINLY not Foucault or myself.

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    3. ""Foucault, never said that all truth in the physical sciences is just power play! Of course, there is reason to think that physical sciences do get to truths about an objective reality""

      OK. So this is not your position. My mistake. And I am willing to happily withdraw the comment and apologise for my error.

      "I simply said that Foucault was uninterested in the question surrounding truths in the natural sciences."

      But how could he not be seriously interested in this question? The physical sciences are the most successful of all human sciences: the issue of whether they obtain truth about an objective reality is one of the most serious questions for epistemology.

      So what is Foucault's position, according to you?

      (1) that we do not know whether the physical sciences obtain truth about an objective reality? That we should remain agnostic?

      (2) or is it as Prado says: Foucault thought "truth" in the natural sciences is produced by power, not by objective reality?

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    4. (1) That Foucault didn't care. It wasn't his field. Just as you likely don't care about the nuances of metallurgy.

      (2) There is simply no evidence for this and I see no reason to assume it. And even if there were evidence it would be a largely uninteresting question.

      Foucault's work must be judged on its own terms as should all work in ANY field.

      Is biopower an important contextual category?

      Was there a shift from sovereignty to biopower around the 18th century with the emergence of Enlightenment?

      Are certain truths in the human sciences and in medicine driven by power relations? If so, what is the best approach to the study of humans that we can take or should we be 'studying' humans at all?

      These are just some of the fascinating questions -- ethical, epistemological, historical -- that Foucault's work raises. And they are not the silly distractions that detractors paint him into a corner with.

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    5. "Foucault's work must be judged on its own terms"

      Ooh! Dibs on setting the terms by which my own work is judged, too!

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  2. FYI. From Wiki.

    "Foucault insists social institutions such as governments, laws, religion, politics, social administration, monetary institutions, military institutions cannot have the same rigorous practices and procedure with claims to independent knowledge like those of the human sciences;such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, physics, genetics and the biological sciences."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biopower

    Not saying that this is Foucault's view. But interesting to note that the Foucauldians on Wikipedia are taking this view.

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  3. "I don't think that Foucault cared about objective truth."

    Wow.

    Is that an objective true statement? How do I know it isn't just an objective falsehood?

    And, how about you? Do you care about objective truths?

    Never mind to answer. How can I believe any answer you could give?

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