Foucault as a Kind of Realist: Genealogical Critique and the Debunking of the Human Sciences
Forthcoming in a special issue of INQUIRY on "Genealogy and Political Philospohy"
26 Pages Posted: 30 May 2019
Date Written: May 7, 2019
Foucault’s corpus is animated by an ethical or political impulse, namely, to liberate individuals from a kind of oppression from which they suffer. This oppression, however, does not involve the familiar tyranny of the Leviathan or the totalitarian state; it exploits instead values that the victim of oppression herself accepts, and which then leads the oppressed agent to be complicit in her own subjugation. Foucault’s critque also depends, crucially, on a skeptical thesis about the epistemological authority of the social sciences that is supposed to be supported by his genealogies of those sciences. It is this conjunction of claims — that individuals oppress themselves in virtue of certain normative claims they accept because of their supposed epistemic merits — that marks Foucault’s uniquely disturbing contribution to the literature whose diagnostic aim is, with Max Weber, to understand the oppressive character of modernity, and whose moral aim is, with the Frankfurt School, human liberation and human flourishing.
Foucault is also a kind of “realist” in his approach to the project of emancipation: he does not offer moral arguments to persuade people that they ought to behave differently than they do, but instead shows people the actual history of the institutions and norms to which they subjugate themselves. Some realists ground their diagnosis in claims about human nature (think of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Freud); Foucault is closer to Marx on this score, eschewing explanatory invocations of human nature, in favor of broadly-speaking “material” considerations (although not simply economic ones) to diagnose our institutions and norms.
This essay explains Foucault’s critical and realist project, and concludes with some critical reflections on its plausibility.
Keywords: Foucault, political realism, genealogy, human sciences, Marx
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