Thursday, April 16, 2015

José Guilherme Merquior’s Verdict on Foucault’s Thought

The following observations are from José Guilherme Merquior’s book Foucault (London; 2nd edn. 1991). Despite the fact that Merquior was a neoliberal, I highly recommend this book as a critical overview of Foucault’s work.

There are lots of things that can be said, but let us start with politics. What can be said of Foucault’s politics? There is no doubt that Foucault thought of himself as a radical leftist, and that his early Marxism (which he later repudiated) left its mark on him, such as in a certain type of Marxist class analysis and his use of the word “bourgeois” as a term of abuse for everything he hated (to see this, one need only read Foucault’s debate with Chomsky in which Foucault’s comments are shot through with what I regard as vulgar Marxist class analysis). As to Foucault’s mature political views, Merquior (1991: 154) regards Foucault as a libertarian or left anarchist who distrusted all institutions, and who was in some respects a trailblazing advocate of identity politics and minority cultures (Merquior 1991: 155), and so had something in common with Frankfurt school cultural Marxism. Yet Foucault was no utopian, and was firmly anti-utopian in his thinking (Merquior 1991: 155). As a neo-anarchist, Foucault distrusted all power but went to ludicrous extremes in thinking that all dominant culture or even truth is just a product of power systems – and it was this that crippled his own critique of power (Merquior 1991: 156). Anyone on the Left who defends objective truth and is suspicious of Marxism (I am one of them) can readily agree with Merquior’s assessment here.

Foucault’s view of “justice” was nothing but a sick joke: in 1972 in a debate with Maoists (on which, see Miller 2000: 203–206) he suggested that the murderous 1792 September massacres and mob lynchings (often of innocent people) of the French revolution were an instance of authentic popular justice (Foucault 1980), and rejected courts (even socialist ones) as “bourgeois” institutions and a “deformation” of popular justice (Foucault 1980: 2; Merquior 1991: 155). Once again, any reasonable person (and not just on the Left) should rightly shun any notion of justice that adores random mob violence and the murder of innocent people. Foucault’s ideas on justice are just a perversion of that very concept.

To return to an earlier point, Merquior (1991: 143) saw Foucault as the outstanding representative of neo-Nietzschean thought in the late 20th century, albeit in rather original ways. Nietzschean irrationalism was a central element of Foucault’s thought, as was his denial of objective truth. In contrast to Nietzsche, however, Foucault had contempt for the Enlightenment (Merquior 1991: 145). Now French Structuralism had already attacked the Enlightenment, and Foucault continued this onslaught (Merquior 1991: 157).

The central element of Foucault’s attack on the Enlightenment was his rejection of objective truth, and the claim that all truths are created by power systems. This is the most damning part of Foucault’s philosophy. Foucault refused to accept objective truths, but claimed he wrote historical works.

But there is a deep contradiction here. One cannot deny objective truth – as Foucault did – and claim to be doing history that aims at true statements about the past and in which one invokes and cites – again as Foucault did! – historical documents and evidence as if they support one’s statements and theories. Objective truth is presupposed in the very essence of Foucault’s historical works, in the attempt to assert true propositions about the past and Western civilisation, whether about epistemes, archives, madness, prisons, power or sexuality. When you consider this paradox, Foucault’s whole project and works explode before your very eyes.

And, even if you want to treat Foucault as a serious historian who aimed at truth, as it happens, judged by the standards of evidence and objective truth that non-Postmodernist historians demand, most of Foucault’s historical work cannot be taken seriously anyway and fails on many levels (Merquior 1991: 143), even if you put aside the terrible contradiction arising from his denial of objective truth.

Roger Scruton’s cutting judgement on Postmodernist truth relativism and Derrida’s deconstruction can apply just as well to Foucault’s pretentious and ridiculous “genealogical” philosophy and historical writing:
“A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” (Scruton 1996: 6).

“[sc. given its espousal of truth relativism, Derrida’s] Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.” (Scruton 1996: 478–479).
Again, I think any reasonable person on the Left who thinks seriously about the consequences of denying objective truth can strongly agree with his assessment – and it applies not just to Foucault but to the whole Postmodernist movement Foucault helped to create.

In the next post, I want to look at Foucault’s famous 1971 debate on Dutch television with Noam Chomsky. So I will leave you with the video of this debate below (you will probably have to turn on the English subtitles).

Gutting, Gary. 2003 (rev. 2013). “Michel Foucault,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Human Nature: Justice versus Power. Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault,” 1971

Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia

Foucault, Michel. 1980. “On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists,” in C. Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Random House, New York. 1–36.

Merquior, José Guilherme. 1991. Foucault (2nd edn.). Fontana, London.

Miller, James. 2000. The Passion of Michel Foucault. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Scruton, R. 1996. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. Penguin Books, London.


  1. For those in a hurry:

    Anyone on the Left who defends objective truth and is suspicious of Marxism...

    For what it's worth, that largely describes Marxists. ;)

    Foucault was kind of doing his own thing, though. A recent Jacobin article has some pertinent bits and bobs, quoting Foucault's friend Paul Veyne's famous remark that he didn't believe in Marx, or revolution, "in private he snickered at fine progressive sentiments," etc.

    In particular, it suggests that his association with Marx had more to do with opening doors than anything:

    It should never be forgotten that joining a “school,” or associating oneself with a certain theoretical perspective, means associating oneself to an intellectual field, where there is an important struggle for access to the dominant positions. Ultimately, calling oneself a Marxist in the France of the 1960s — when the academic field was in part dominated by self-identified Marxists — did not have the same meaning as it does to be a Marxist today.

    Concepts and canonical authors are obviously intellectual instruments, but they also correspond to various strategies for becoming part of the field and the struggles over it. Intellectual developments are then partly determined by relations of power within the field itself.

  2. Enlighted post... Lamentablemente, estas ideas están incardinadas en muchos grupos y partidos. Este post me ha recordado un historiador francés, marxista arrepentido, que me me pareció muy bueno: Jean François Furet. Le conoce? qué opina de su libro "le passer d' une Illusion?

  3. I guess Foucault wanted to be just an iconoclast, he really didn't know what happened next. So much that I was at Latin America ESHET meeting and I heard from a presentation on Foucault and economics that the French are having enough of him - I guess people are starting to moving away from him.

    Also, it surprised me that you cited Merquior. He is a great but relatively ignored Brazilian thinker - given the putrid condition of current Brazilian conservative thinking (serious, there is nothing but demagogues), he is a breath of fresh air (also, I'd qualify him as a classical liberal conservative rather than a neoliberal - closer to Röpke than Friedman). He did wrote a good history of liberalism that I'd recommend, even if he messed up on Keynes (you'll understand why if you read it, though he still recognized him as an important liberal author).

  4. Thanks for the article. If you read French, you might want to read Jean-Marc Mandosio's "Longévité d'une imposture : Michel Foucault" who expands on Merchior's critique while adding many delightful anecdotes. Foucault also fiercely defended the Iranian revolution of the 1970s...