Foucault’s Formalism

4 October 2010


Many people decry the over-use or casual use of “isms” in intellectual discourse, and I certainly can sympathize with this, since to reduce the detailed and specific views of any individual to a generic and schematic position usually involves a gross over-simplification. Also, any truly first-class thinker is going to defy tidy schemes of classification and will not fit comfortably under familiar labels. Nevertheless, these schematic views, whatever their shortcomings, do give us an initial orientation and a basis upon which to build our later knowledge. And so it is that we often employ imperfect, inaccurate, and even plainly incorrect systems of classification just to give ourselves a point of departure.

Notice the resemblance? Clifford Geertz did.

Michel Foucault, despite or perhaps because of the influence he has had, has proved notoriously difficult to categorize. He has most often been called a structuralist, and with come justification, though like Heidegger denying that he was an existentialist, Foucault denied that he was a structuralist. And this with some justification also. In his review of the English translation of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz summed up many of the perceived contradictions in Foucault’s work:

“Michel Foucault erupted onto the intellectual scene at the beginning of the Sixties with his Folie et deraison, an unconventional but still reasonably recognizable history of the Western experience of madness. He has become, in the years since, a kind of impossible object: a nonhistorical historian, an anti-humanistic human scientist, and a counter-structuralist structuralist. If we add to this his tense, impacted prose style, which manages to seem imperious and doubt-ridden at the same time, and a method which supports sweeping summary with eccentric detail, the resemblance of his work to an Escher drawing — stairs rising to platforms lower than themselves, doors leading outside that bring you back inside — is complete.”

Clifford Geertz, originally published as “Stir Crazy” in the New York Review of Books in January 1978, now collected in Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays, “On Foucault,” p. 29

In the vast body of commentary that has already grown up around Foucault’s work, no one seems to have noticed Foucault’s formalism. I think this is partly because his formalism is not a logical or mathematical formalism, and therefore not recognizable as such to the analytical philosophers, whereas despite the concerns that he shares with continental philosophers, he is a world apart from their studied indifference to any systematic or methodological approach to knowledge.

Clifford Geertz

In the Geertz review quoted above, Geertz cites Foucault’s “sweeping summary with eccentric detail” (a line that has been picked up and quoted elsewhere) and this is exactly what we would expect from a formal methodology. In so far as Foucault’s formalism is abstract and theoretical, it engages with sweeping summaries, and in so far as it stays closely focused upon the actual details of the formalism — as all formalism must do, or surrender its legitimacy — it appears to be concerned with eccentric detail.

Compare how both of these elements are present in Foucault with the presence of either one or the other characteristic (but not both) in the work of others. Take, for example, the all-too-familiar distinction between analytical and continental philosophy as invoked above. Analytical philosophers are accused of losing sight of traditional humanistic concerns of philosophy by their minute and single-minded pursuit of logical formalisms. On the other hand, continental philosophers are happy to engage in sweeping summaries of the western intellectual tradition without being too terribly concerned with the details and making sure that the facts bear our their sweeping summaries. Analytical philosophers, at their most rigorous and eccentric, focus on formalism to the exclusion of sweeping summaries, while continental philosophers eschew all formalism, all system, all so-called “linear logic” and embrace sweeping summaries.

Avoiding the horns of this dilemma is one of the sources of Foucault’s greatness as a thinker. And there is no question that Foucault was a first class thinker, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. In the Geertz review quoted above, after the quoted passage Geertz went on to write, “…the difficulty of his work arises not from self-regard and the desire to found an intellectual cult only the instructed can join, but from a powerful and genuine originality of thought.” (Op. cit.)

The difficulty of identifying Foucault’s formalism is also a function of the fact that his investigations take the form of “genealogies.” That is to say, he is writing history, and we think of history as the antithesis of any of the formal sciences like logic or mathematics. Not only is Foucault himself an “impossible object” according to Geertz, but his thought is an impossible object as well. The idea of a formal history is an impossible object, and indeed deeply foreign, deeply alien. I don’t think that many people have yet come to an appreciation of what Foucault has done in this respect.

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the recent focus on narrative in the human sciences, and cited Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm that contends that, “People are essentially storytellers.” We all know that journalists and lawyers and salesmen seek to engage us by relating a human interest story to us. People are interested in narratives, and especially in narratives of the lives of other people. One can immediately identify with a narrative drawn from real life. This is a kind of confirmation bias of our intrinsic and inherent anthropocentricism. It is true that human beings are storytellers, and our anthropocentricism comes naturally to us. But we must overcome it if we are to achieve any rigor of thought. This is an instance of what I called “thinking against the grain” in The Mind’s Ear.

Yesterday in Beyond Anthropomorphization I suggested that identifying anthropomorphism as a fallacy is itself a fallacy. Perhaps it is unhelpful to call anthropocentricism and anthropomorphism either a fallacy or the negation of either a fallacy. Anthropocentricism is a way of approaching ideas. The narrative paradigm is highly anthropocentric, and is intended to be. This anthropocentricism can be turned to account. But it is not our only option. If we can cultivate the ability to think against the grain, if we have the intellectual hardihood for counter-intuitive thought, we can approach ideas non-anthropocentrically, and this is one component of formalism.

A friend of mine once summed up Nietzsche in a single sentence, and it was so beautiful that I have never forgotten it: the Übermensch is the man who has overcome the human-all-too-human. Note that “Übermensch” has been awkwardly translated as “overman,” but this admittedly awkward translation captures the etymological sense of Nietzsche’s term, and in so far as the Übermensch is an overman, it naturally follows that the overman would overcome, and given Nietsche’s critique of the human-all-too-human (one of the features of his thought that has won him the title as being a “master of suspicion”), the overman must of course overcome the human-all-too-human if he is going to overcome any possible suspicion. To place one’s thought beyond the possibility of suspicion is one definition of rigor, Nietzsche’s rigor, and it is a definition of rigor that applies to Foucault.

Foucault, too, like Nietzsche, overcomes the human-all-too-human and seeks a non-anthropocentric formulation of the human sciences. This is Foucault’s formalism.

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One Response to “Foucault’s Formalism”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hollman Lozano, Khephra Maley. Khephra Maley said: Foucault's Formalism – [ #philosophy #Foucault ] […]

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