Thinking about Foucault…
Just when you thought you had started to figure things out along come Foucault and changes everything…again! Where to begin though? I suppose it’s best to start with a quote and go on from there.
“We have to give up hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits”
The above quote comes from “What is Enlightenment?” and at first reading it made the role of a historian seem hopeless. I don’t want to give up hope of finding a view that leads to a definitive knowledge and it is always challenging to accept your limits in any field. But we need to realize our limits and the fact that we will never create a “truth” which is universally accepted and is the definitive word on a subject. Our work will always be limited by our place in time, or “present,” and by our access to sources, and the knowledge gleaned from them, at our disposal. Part of what furthers and defines any discipline is also the healthy discourse that derives from debate and criticism which comes from opposing views on a subject. As Foucault’s definition of foundations informs us, “there is no one principle which explains everything else.” As historians we examine, question, and interpret all of the views and elements at our disposal and then hope to add to the field not define it. For me this is a difficult realization. I want to find the “truth” about a historical event. Accepting that there is no universal truth is troubling. Foucault “argues that truth is an event which takes place in history.” He says “it happens” and is not simply waiting for discovery. I am curious then why can’t we ever find the truth? I think Foucault would say one reason is because we are limited by our present state of time and thinking. Does anyone agree or disagree with this? Or find it as troubling/difficult as I did?
As he said when faced with critics from inside the historical field, “[He] is not a professional historian, but nobody’s perfect.” I agree with several of his critics and peers, however, when they acknowledged Foucault’s, the philosopher, place in the field. Even his strongest of critics like Leonard admitted that Foucault is a voice historians “are interested in listening to.” I found his work made me think more than any of the readings so far this semester. I can see how he had, and continues to have, such an effect, received both positively and negatively, on the historical field. Some of his theories and work are difficult to understand, but the fact he made me think so much about not just what I was reading but how it affected my role as an historian was enlightening. There is so much to take in from Foucault its overwhelming. I look forward to the week’s discussion on Foucault and his theories. I am sure there will be a wide variety of viewpoints on his thinking.