Foucault…Overcoming Contingencies, & History

“Foucault…provided detailed accounts of the lineages of both Western institutions and subjectivity. These genealogical accounts are carried out in a language and set of concepts that recognize themselves to be within the lineage that they describe;  the descriptive accounts have a decentering effect on the values and  forms of knowledge that give the lineage its authority.  As his genealogical studies make questionable these previous axiomatic values, his studies themselves become questionable in their place in the lineage that they describe and suggest in the performance of their own concepts the need for movement beyond the truths and values that establish their own intelligibility and import.” (Columbia History of Western Philosophy, Edited by Richard H. Popkin, 1999, 750, my emphasis)

Foucault made many contributions in many fields.  In reading the materials for our discussion of Foucault, I came across several ideas that were somewhat familiar to me by way of philosophy courses.  My intention as I read and continue to think about Foucault for our upcoming class is to reconsider some of Foucault’s ideas in relation to history and historical methods.

Again, I found the Columbia History of Western Philosophy helpful in unpacking some of the moves within Foucault’s works.  For instance, consider Foucault’s introduction of the historico-critical attitude in “What is Enlightenment?”  There he suggests that one develop an experimental method blending ‘historical inquiry’ and ‘contemporary reality’ in an open(-ended) manner in order to understand ourselves as subjects.  He then suggests that specific instances, or ‘transformations’, within history be considered.

As Franz Peter Hugdahl states (in the Columbia History), Foucault’s interest was in investigating “a variety of social and political practices and institutions as manifestations of power in order to expose the particular understanding of those concepts concerning culture, society, and the individual that the systems require to function under those conditions” (Popkin 1999, 742).  What is important to historical methods in considerations of the historico-critical attitude is the use of specific instances and understandings of historical moments, as well as cultural terms in order to more fully acknowledge the contingency of concepts that are likely to be considered “enduring empirical facts” (742-43).

These historico-critical attitudes seem to conform to Foucault’s ‘poststructural skepticism’, which “operate[s] a decentering that leaves no privilege to any center (Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge [1982], p. 205)” (744).  Foucault still strives for knowledge, but in realizing that it is imperfect, and will always be, he seeks to utilize genealogical inquiry to find ruptures in accepted histories and discourses.  It is a sort of hermeneutic, continually developing understanding that there is and will always be contingent and limited understanding that is the hallmark of Foucauldian inquiry.

One thought on “Foucault…Overcoming Contingencies, & History”

  1. I agree that Foucault does still strive for knowledge recognizing that it will always be imperfect. I think by realizing this he and other historians always leave the door open to future reevaluations, or rethinking, of their work. Perhaps by doing so we get closer to the version of what really happened. I am sure this is not always the case but I think that would be the ultimate goal, a continuing understanding of events.

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