Well, I’ve finally struggled through Michel Foucault’s The Order of things, much in the manner of someone destroying his health trying to cross the Sahara on foot, but too stubborn to give up. The enterprise started well – his preface laid out the bones of a thesis that there have been fundamental changes in the very patterns of thought, especially scientific thought, of which he proposes three since the sixteenth century. These changes are far deeper than the changing science itself, and he describes them as being at an “archaeological” level, and the result of rather mysterious forces rather than any new discoveries or increase in rationality.
That seems to mesh with similar themes explored here, from Michael Polanyi’s contention that “personal knowledge” is brought to bear on all science (an idea that prefigures the work of Kuhn on paradigm shifts, and related concepts) to Arthur Lovejoy’s exploration of the developlent and decline of one major concept, the Great Chain of Being and Owen Barfield’s much grander thesis about the history of “participation” in thought from prehistory to today. And I’ve mentioned more, including the whole matter of John Walton’s (and others’) uncovering of the very different (but not inferior) understanding of reality of the biblical authors from that of modern science.
The first of these authors brings his ideas as a physical scientist, the second as a historian of ideas, the third as a philosopher and the fourth as a theologian. So getting a sociologist on the case seemed a good idea. But reading through the 400 pages or so of the book I found I ended up understanding very little of it. Part of this was owing to its very dense style, littered with references to fairly obscure writers (whose ideas one was expected to know) and metaphors that seemed to make things more, rather than less, obscure.
The net result was to give me the impression that the total amount of meat on the thesis was rather scanty, and that the obscurity seemed to be hiding rather less-than-convincing arguments: the preface seemed to say almost as much as the rest. For example, the examplar sciences he tracks through the centuries are biology, economics and grammar; but it gradually becomes clear that these are presented not as cogent examples, but as the fundamental sciences on which all others are founded. Can that really be so? Can it be true that the core sciences of humanity in the modern era are psychoanalysis and, of all disciplines, ethnology? And can it really be true that one of the pivotal philosophical figures inaugurating the modern age is the Marquis de Sade? I found it hard to avoid the impression, to use a less than erudite English idiom, that “‘E’s ‘aving a laugh, isn’t ‘e?” That vied with the more worrying thought that the problem was actually my lack of intelligence.
Then, reading another, far more engaging book, I came upon an extract from the amusing postmodern nonsense essays generated by the algorithm on this website. It read:
“If one examines capitalist discourse, one is faced with a choice: either reject nihilism or conclude that the goal of the writer is social comment, given that the premise of Foucaultist power relations is valid.”
Not only did this meaningless sentence mention Foucault – it was identical with his style. A bit of research turned up an essay citing anti-deconstructionist philosopher John Searle:
Searle begins by reciting Paul Grice’s four Maxims of Manner: be clear, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity of expression. These are systematically violated in France, Searle says, partly due to the influence of German philosophy. Searle translates Foucault’s admission to him this way: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”
As one Amazon reviewer says, if you don’t understand something in Foucault, he probably doesn’t intend you to. The essay goes on:
Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago suggests that the abstruseness is calculated to inspire admiration:
Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.
Well, that’s no more than an extension of Foucault’s own admission. If, in fact, it were merely a national stylistic matter it would help explain the eclipsed influence of French (and German) philosophy, but there’s more than that. The Postmodernists’ broad agenda (including Foucault’s own in later books) is to deny the very possibility of finding truthful meaning in written sources. But that would hardly be surprising if one is used to injecting meaningless obscurity even into ones own works.
Oddly enough Foucault (whom John Searle for some reason rates highly) criticises this very thing in others:
John Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”
That term obscurantisme terroriste is actually quite useful. Haven’t you had the experience in internet discussions, with certain people, that whatever conclusion you draw from their words, they always accuse you of misunderstanding or misrepresenting them? After a while, given ones ability to understand and respond to everybody else quite satisfactorily, you begin to realise that you’re not the one with the problem.
Now Foucault, at least in his book, may be obscure, but he doesn’t throw out accusations of stupidity to all and sundry. But maybe he employs a more subtle way of avoiding critical evaluation. Since he owns up to introduucing 10% deliberate obscurity, what does that say about someone who finds him 30 or 40% obscure, or more? The reader is, by implication, missing the point of mountains of stuff that, according to Foucault, wasn’t obscure. Opponents are still quietly damned as stupid.
I found it quite interesting trawling the Amazon reviews of The Order of Things, which I did, I confess, in order to find someone who could give me a key to unlocking the thesis of the book. One or two said they were bears of little brain and could not understand it. Some said they’ve just begun to see the light after the third reading, some just said that as it is a standard text so explaining it would be superfluous. Some said it was life-changing and some that they’d seen through it and it was complete tosh. But nobody actually summarised his argument beyond what I’d got from the preface. So the impression that Postmodernism has a lot to do with emperors and suits of clothes remains strong.
That said, the human origin of knowledge, and its consequent mutability over time, seems to me established in many ways regardless of the Deconstructionists. For whatever reasons, the latter seem to treat this (as Eddie Robinson commented on a recent thread) as a denial that true knowledge can exist, and that all truth claims are entirely subjective and evanescent. But this is to turn a prudent humility into a nihilistic despair.
One ought to be cautious about promoting any knowledge, including philosophy and the latest fads in theology as well as the findings of empirical science, into eternal truths. One ought likewise to be very aware of the fact that all practical knowledge finally comes to us through senses that, it seems, bear a fairly loose and arbitrary relationship to “what is out there”. To me, what that says is that materialism forms a basis for epistemology no stronger, and in some ways weaker, than other sources of truth.
At the same time, it’s significant that our senses form the strongest basis we have for some kind of universality of knowledge. We may see the world very differently from a Babylonian sage, but we could still have a drink with him. We might see a dead aurochs as a species of ungulate, whilst its Aurignacian hunter sees it as his totem, but we could still help him cook it.
So gaining cognizance of the relativity of knowledge does not destroy truth, as the Postmodernists would have us believe. But if we are to go beyond mere sensory experience of the world and claim knowledge of deeper things, it does teach us that faith is a necessary basis for truth ater all.
Stephen C Allen puts it like this:
[P]ostmodernism, as others have attempted to define it, is literally impossible. It is the worldview of self-contradiction. It rejects becoming and replaces it with simply being. Who can have no point of reference and still manage to get anyplace? The goal of postmodernism is to not have a goal. The strongest conviction of postmodernism is not to have a strong conviction about anything. It is open to anything except dogmatism. It is only consistent in being inconsistent.
The one who prides himself on having no prejudice to his thoughts, words, and deeds, is at the same time equally guilty of the deliberate selectivity of his prejudice – he has created an even more malicious and bracketed epistemology in an attempt to arrive at a true one. In a more clear manner, we all have a faith presupposition. This is why deconstruction exists. We all operate from our faith presupposition, even when deconstructionists attempt to bracket it.
His conclusion is one I agree with:
We are all still spiritual beings who require a faith presupposition in something bigger than ourselves, and lying outside of ourselves, in order to function and have meaning. We have created an epistemological agnosticism, however, because we’re too proud to admit the previous.