Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Leiter on Foucault

In a recent post on Leiter's blog, he shares a paper on Foucault he published on SSRN.
I wish to contest a portion of Leiter's text. Rather than specifically arguing for his assertion against Foucault's genealogical method (what I call his socio-historic analyses of various social institutions). On this apparent fatal weakness, Leiter simply asserts:
Yet it is now surely a familiar point in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science that the influence of social and historical factors might be compatible with the epistemically special standing of the sciences as long as we can show that epistemically reliable factors are still central to explaining the claims of those sciences.29 And that possibility is potentially fatal to Foucault's critique. (p. 16)
Mr. Leiter, this is a point you cannot get for free. What I feel you are missing is central to a proper understanding of Foucault, namely, that the sciences are historical activities by human agents. It is not that social and historical factors are alien, and the sciences can be seen as independently from these factors. Instead, science moves in history and culture. It is a human praxis. All that you have done is assert science's independence by philosophical name-dropping, nothing more. Surely, such independence, if won, would be fatal to Foucault's project. On this, there is no doubt. However, the burden of this independence is the very pretension Foucault resists because it is hard to deny the human agency in history and culture.

Moreover, reliability is just a substitute for independent-making feature of science Foucault is analyzing. Let us take an example. Suppose we want to criticize modern day chemistry as implicitly assuming that it is a good thing to master the forces of nature. A historical analysis of the origins of chemistry might tie chemistry to the unlocking of God's secrets in alchemy. Regardless of the reliability of, say, Avogadro's constant for calculating molar masses, the implicit norm of controlling nature is still a feature of the science. The reliability of Avogadro's constant does not negate the cultural and historical norm of controlling nature. Reliability doesn't seem to add anything.

Leiter takes issue with the suspicion Foucault's strategy casts on the special status of the human sciences. For Leiter, suspicion isn't argument, and the lack of substantive proposal is a shortcoming of the genealogical analysis of science through historical and cultural factors.

On the epistemic standing of the current human sciences, all Foucault leaves us with is a suspicion, rather than an argument. Suspicion is, as we have already argued,
epistemically important, but it needs to be supplemented with a critique of the truth of the claims at issue. p. 17
This isn't charitable at all. For Foucault, an interpretation is the argument. It is the whole genealogical aspect of exposing what is implicit through the genealogical method. Perhaps, Foucault is wrong, but meeting Foucault on the grounds of suspicious hermeneutics would, I think, involve showing why Foucault's interpretation is wrong. It seems that Leiter first accepts what Foucault's project is, but fails to meet it head on. Given his editorial supervision of a recent Continental Philosophy anthology, it is reasonable to think Leiter would know what is meant by the hermeneutics of suspicion. He should genuinely show Foucault as committed either to the wrong method completely (challenging this genealogical appropriation of one type of reading of Nietzsche), or committed to offering a different hermeneutics about science (he marginally approaches this with the comments on pedophilia towards the end, but it still remains highly underdeveloped). On the latter, he has nothing to say and on the former he merely asserts a potential fatal shortcoming without really arguing for it, as I have shown above.

Contrary to the tone of this post, I am only aggravated with Leiter. His tone of the essay ends fairly; I only question how he got there in the first place. Certainly, there are features of Foucault that need spelled out by his supporters. However, if we are to take your comments about his work seriously (as demonstrated by a decent exposition on Foucault) than the essential claims of weakness require bolstering of the same type you demand from Foucault's supporters.

1 comment:

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