The death of reason

“In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 111

I can remember arguing with my cousin right after Michael Brown was shot. “It’s still unclear what happened,” I said, “based soley on testimony” — at that point, we were still waiting on the federal autopsy report by the Department of Justice. He said that in the video, you can clearly see Brown, back to the officer and with his hands up, as he is shot up to eight times.

My cousin doesn’t like police. I’m more ambivalent, but I’ve studied criminal justice for a few years now, and I thought that if both of us watched this video (no such video actually existed), it was probably I who would have the more nuanced grasp of what happened. So I said: “Well, I will look up this video, try and get a less biased take and get back to you.” He replied, sarcastically, “You can’t watch it without bias. We all have biases.”

And that seems to be the sentiment of the times: bias encompasses the human experience, it subsumes all judgments and perceptions. Biases are so rampant, in fact, that no objective analysis is possible. These biases may be cognitive, like confirmation bias, emotional fallacies or that phenomenon of constructive memory; or inductive, like selectivity or ignoring base probability; or, as has been common to think, ingrained into experience itself.

The thing about biases is that they are open to psychological evaluation. There are precedents for eliminating them. For instance, one common explanation of racism is that familiarity breeds acceptance, and infamiliarity breeds intolerance (as Reason points out, people further from fracking sites have more negative opinions on the practice than people closer). So to curb racism (a sort of bias), children should interact with people outside of their singular ethnic group. More clinical methodology seeks to transform mental functions that are automatic to controlled, and thereby enter reflective measures into perception, reducing bias. Apart from these, there is that ancient Greek practice of reasoning, wherein patterns and evidence are used to generate logical conclusions.

If it were true that human bias is all-encompassing, and essentially insurmountable, the whole concept of critical thinking goes out the window. Not only do we lose the critical-rationalist, Popperian mode of discovery, but also Socratic dialectic, as essentially “higher truths” disappear from human lexicon.

The belief that biases are intrinsic to human judgment ignores psychological or philosophical methods to counter prejudice because it posits that objectivity itself is impossible. This viewpoint has been associated with “postmodern” schools of philosophy, such as those Dr. Rosi commented on (e.g., Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Butler), although it’s worth pointing out that the analytic tradition, with its origins in Frege, Russell and Moore represents a far greater break from the previous, modern tradition of Descartes and Kant, and often reached similar conclusions as the Continentals.

Although theorists of the “postmodern” clique produced diverse claims about knowledge, society, and politics, the most famous figures are nearly almost always associated or incorporated into the political left. To make a useful simplification of viewpoints: it would seem that progressives have generally accepted Butlerian non-essentialism about gender and Foucauldian terminology (discourse and institutions). Derrida’s poststructuralist critique noted dichotomies and also claimed that the philosophical search for Logos has been patriarchal, almost neoreactionary.  (The month before Donald Trump’s victory, the word patriarchy had an all-time high at Google search.) It is not just a far right conspiracy that European philosophers with strange theories have influenced and sought to influence American society; it is patent in the new political language.

Some people think of the postmodernists as all social constructivists, holding the theory that many of the categories and identifications we use in the world are social constructs without a human-independent nature (e.g., not natural kinds). Disciplines like anthropology and sociology have long since dipped their toes, and the broader academic community, too, relates that things like gender and race are social constructs. But the ideas can and do go further: “facts” themselves are open to interpretation on this view: to even assert a “fact” is just to affirm power of some sort. This worldview subsequently degrades the status of science into an extended apparatus for confirmation-bias, filling out the details of a committed ideology rather than providing us with new facts about the world. There can be no objectivity outside of a worldview.

Even though philosophy took a naturalistic turn with the philosopher W. V. O. Quine, seeing itself as integrating with and working alongside science, the criticisms of science as an establishment that emerged in the 1950s and 60s (and earlier) often disturbed its unique epistemic privilege in society: ideas that theory is underdetermined by evidence, that scientific progress is nonrational, that unproven auxiliary hypotheses are required to conduct experiments and form theories, and that social norms play a large role in the process of justification all damaged the mythos of science as an exemplar of human rationality.

But once we have dismantled Science, what do we do next? Some critics have held up Nazi German eugenics and phrenology as examples of the damage that science can do to society (nevermind that we now consider them pseudoscience). Yet Lysenkoism and the history of astronomy and cosmology indicate that suppressing scientific discovery can too be deleterious. Austrian physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend instead wanted a free society — one where science had equal power as older, more spiritual forms of knowledge. He thought the model of rational science exemplified in Sir Karl Popper was inapplicable to the real machinery of scientific discovery, and the only methodological rule we could impose on science was: “anything goes.”

Feyerabend’s views are almost a caricature of postmodernism, although he denied the label “relativist,” opting instead for philosophical Dadaist. In his pluralism, there is no hierarchy of knowledge, and state power can even be introduced when necessary to break up scientific monopoly. Feyerabend, contra scientists like Richard Dawkins, thought that science was like an organized religion and therefore supported a separation of church and state as well as a separation of state and science. Here is a move forward for a society that has started distrusting the scientific method… but if this is what we should do post-science, it’s still unclear how to proceed. There are still queries for anyone who loathes the hegemony of science in the Western world.

For example, how does the investigation of crimes proceed without strict adherence to the latest scientific protocol? Presumably, Feyerabend didn’t want to privatize law enforcement, but science and the state are very intricately connected. In 2005, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to form a committee and conduct a comprehensive study on contemporary legal science to identify community needs, evaluating laboratory executives, medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, entomologists, ontologists, and various legal experts. Forensic science — scientific procedure applied to the field of law — exists for two practical goals: exoneration and prosecution. However, the Forensic Science Committee revealed that severe issues riddle forensics (e.g., bite mark analysis), and in their list of recommendations the top priority is establishing an independent federal entity to devise consistent standards and enforce regular practice.

For top scientists, this sort of centralized authority seems necessary to produce reliable work, and it entirely disagrees with Feyerabend’s emphasis on methodological pluralism. Barack Obama formed the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 to further investigate problems in the field, and only recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will not renew the committee. It’s unclear now what forensic science will do to resolve its ongoing problems, but what is clear is that the American court system would fall apart without the possibility of appealing to scientific consensus (especially forensics), and that the only foreseeable way to solve the existing issues is through stricter methodology. (Just like with McDonalds, there are enforced standards so that the product is consistent wherever one orders.) More on this later.

So it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of things like due process to abandon science or completely separate it from state power. (It does, however, make sense to move forensic laboratories out from under direct administrative control, as the NAS report notes in Recommendation 4. This is, however, specifically to reduce bias.) In a culture where science is viewed as irrational, Eurocentric, ad hoc, and polluted with ideological motivations — or where Reason itself is seen as a particular hegemonic, imperial device to suppress different cultures — not only do we not know what to do, when we try to do things we lose elements of our civilization that everyone agrees are valuable.

Although Aristotle separated pathos, ethos and logos (adding that all informed each other), later philosophers like Feyerabend thought of reason as a sort of “practice,” with history and connotations like any other human activity, falling far short of sublime. One could no more justify reason outside of its European cosmology than the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs outside of theirs. To communicate across paradigms (Kuhn’s terminology), participants have to understand each other on a deep level, even becoming entirely new persons. When debates happen, they must happen on a principle of mutual respect and curiosity.

From this one can detect a bold argument for tolerance. Indeed, Feyerabend was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Maybe, in a world disillusioned with scientism and objective standards, the next cultural move is multilateral acceptance and tolerance for each others’ ideas.

This has not been the result of postmodern revelations, though. The 2016 election featured the victory of one psychopath over another, from two camps utterly consumed with vitriol for each other. Between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Americans drifted toward radicalization as the only establishment candidate seemed to offer the same noxious, warmongering mess of the previous few decades of administration. Politics has only polarized further since the inauguration. The alt-right, a nearly perfect symbol of cultural intolerance, is regular news for mainstream media. Trump acoltyes physically brawl with black bloc Antifa in the same city of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. It seems to be the worst at universities. Analytic feminist philosophers asked for the retraction of a controversial paper, seemingly without reading it. Professors even get involved in student disputes, at Berkeley and more recently Evergreen. The names each side uses to attack each other (“fascist,” most prominently) — sometimes accurate, usually not — display a political divide with groups that increasingly refuse to argue their own side and prefer silencing their opposition.

There is not a tolerant left or tolerant right any longer, in the mainstream. We are witnessing only shades of authoritarianism, eager to destroy each other. And what is obvious is that the theories and tools of the postmodernists (post-structuralism, social constructivism, deconstruction, critical theory, relativism) are as useful for reactionary praxis as their usual role in left-wing circles. Says Casey Williams in the New York Times: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.” The idea of the “post-truth” world originated in postmodern academia. It is the monster turning against Doctor Frankenstein.

Moral (cultural) relativism in particular only promises rejecting our shared humanity. It paralyzes our judgment on female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, human and animal sacrifice, honor killing, Caste, underground sex trade. The afterbirth of Protagoras, cruelly resurrected once again, does not promise trials at Nuremburg, where the Allied powers appealed to something above and beyond written law to exact judgment on mass murderers. It does not promise justice for the ethnic cleansers in Srebrenica, as the United Nations is helpless to impose a tribunal from outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, this moral pessimism laughs at the phrase “humanitarian crisis,” and Western efforts to change the material conditions of fleeing Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Venezuelans, North Koreans…

In the absence of universal morality, and the introduction of subjective reality, the vacuum will be filled with something much more awful. And we should be afraid of this because tolerance has not emerged as a replacement. When Harry Potter first encounters Voldemort face-to-scalp, the Dark Lord tells the boy “There is no good and evil. There is only power… and those too weak to seek it.” With the breakdown of concrete moral categories, Feyerabend’s motto — anything goes — is perverted. Voldemort has been compared to Plato’s archetype of the tyrant from the Republic: “It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” … “he is purged of self-discipline and is filled with self-imposed madness.”

Voldemort is the Platonic appetite in the same way he is the psychoanalytic id. Freud’s das Es is able to admit of contradictions, to violate Aristotle’s fundamental laws of logic. It is so base, and removed from the ordinary world of reason, that it follows its own rules we would find utterly abhorrent or impossible. But it is not difficult to imagine that the murder of evidence-based reasoning will result in Death Eater politics. The ego is our rational faculty, adapted to deal with reality; with the death of reason, all that exists is vicious criticism and unfettered libertinism.

Plato predicts Voldemort with the image of the tyrant, and also with one of his primary interlocuters, Thrasymachus, when the sophist opens with “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” The one thing Voldemort admires about The Boy Who Lived is his bravery, the trait they share in common. This trait is missing in his Death Eaters. In the fourth novel the Dark Lord is cruel to his reunited followers for abandoning him and losing faith; their cowardice reveals the fundamental logic of his power: his disciples are not true devotees, but opportunists, weak on their own merit and drawn like moths to every Avada Kedavra. Likewise students flock to postmodern relativism to justify their own beliefs when the evidence is an obstacle.

Relativism gives us moral paralysis, allowing in darkness. Another possible move after relativism is supremacy. One look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter demonstrates the incorrigible tenet of the alt-right: the alleged incompatibility of cultures, ethnicities, races: that different groups of humans simply can not get along together. Die Endlösung, the Final Solution, is not about extermination anymore, but segregated nationalism. Spencer’s audience is almost entirely men who loathe the current state of things, who share far-reaching conspiracy theories, and despise globalism.

The left, too, creates conspiracies, imagining a bourgeois corporate conglomerate that enlists economists and brainwashes through history books to normalize capitalism; for this reason they despise globalism as well, saying it impoverishes other countries or destroys cultural autonomy. For the alt-right, it is the Jews, and George Soros, who control us; for the burgeoning socialist left, it is the elites, the one-percent. Our minds are not free; fortunately, they will happily supply Übermenschen, in the form of statesmen or critical theorists, to save us from our degeneracy or our false consciousness.

Without the commitment to reasoned debate, tribalism has continued the polarization and inhumility. Each side also accepts science selectively, if they do not question its very justification. The privileged status that the “scientific method” maintains in polite society is denied when convenient; whether it’s climate science, evolutionary psychology, sociology, genetics, biology, anatomy or, especially, economics: one side is outright rejecting it, without studying the material enough to immerse oneself in what could be promising knowledge (as Feyerabend urged, and the breakdown of rationality could have encouraged). And ultimately, equal protection, one tenet of individualist thought that allows for multiplicity, is entirely rejected by both: we should be treated differently as humans, often because of the color of our skin.

Relativism and carelessness for standards and communication has given us supremacy and tribalism. It has divided rather than united. Voldemort’s chaotic violence is one possible outcome of rejecting reason as an institution, and it beckons to either political alliance. Are there any examples in Harry Potter of the alternative, Feyerabendian tolerance? Not quite. However, Hermoine Granger serves as the Dark Lord’s foil, and gives us a model of reason that is not as archaic as the enemies of rationality would like to suggest. In Against Method (1975), Feyerabend compares different ways rationality has been interpreted alongside practice: in an idealist way, in which reason “completely governs” research, or a naturalist way, in which reason is “completely determined by” research. Taking elements of each, he arrives at an intersection in which one can change the other, both “parts of a single dialectical process.”

“The suggestion can be illustrated by the relation between a map and the adventures of a person using it or by the relation between an artisan and his instruments. Originally maps were constructed as images of and guides to reality and so, presumably, was reason. But maps, like reason, contain idealizations (Hecataeus of Miletus, for examples, imposed the general outlines of Anaximander’s cosmology on his account of the occupied world and represented continents by geometrical figures). The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds, removing old idealizations and introducing new ones. Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them. In the same way, the example says, reason without the guidance of a practice will lead us astray while a practice is vastly improved by the addition of reason.” p. 233

Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Granger sounds like Bertrand Russell at times, like this quote about the Resurrection Stone: “You can claim that anything is real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody has proven it doesn’t exist.” Granger is often the embodiment of anemic analytic philosophy, the institution of order, a disciple for the Ministry of Magic. However, though initially law-abiding, she quickly learns with Potter and Weasley the pleasures of rule-breaking. From the first book onward, she is constantly at odds with the de facto norms of the university, becoming more rebellious as time goes on. It is her levelheaded foundation, but ability to transgress rules, that gives her an astute semi-deontological, semi-utilitarian calculus capable of saving the lives of her friends from the dark arts, and helping to defeat the tyranny of Voldemort foretold by Socrates.

Granger presents a model of reason like Feyerabend’s map analogy. Although pure reason gives us an outline of how to think about things, it is not a static or complete blueprint, and it must be fleshed out with experience, risk-taking, discovery, failure, loss, trauma, pleasure, offense, criticism, and occasional transgressions past the foreseeable limits. Adding these addenda to our heuristics means that we explore a more diverse account of thinking about things and moving around in the world.

When reason is increasingly seen as patriarchal, Western, and imperialist, the only thing consistently offered as a replacement is something like lived experience. Some form of this idea is at least a century old, with Husserl, still modest by reason’s Greco-Roman standards. Yet lived experience has always been pivotal to reason; we only need adjust our popular model. And we can see that we need not reject one or the other entirely. Another critique of reason says it is fool-hardy, limiting, antiquated; this is a perversion of its abilities, and plays to justify the first criticism. We can see that there is room within reason for other pursuits and virtues, picked up along the way.

The emphasis on lived experience, which predominantly comes from the political left, is also antithetical for the cause of “social progress.” Those sympathetic to social theory, particularly the cultural leakage of the strong programme, are constantly torn between claiming (a) science is irrational, and can thus be countered by lived experience (or whatnot) or (b) science may be rational but reason itself is a tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and cannot be universal. (If you haven’t seen either of these claims very frequently, and think them a strawman, you have not been following university protests and editorials. Or radical Twitter: ex., ex., ex., ex.) Of course, as in Freud, this is an example of kettle-logic: the signal of a very strong resistance. We see, though, that we need not accept nor deny these claims and lose anything. Reason need not be stagnant nor all-pervasive, and indeed we’ve been critiquing its limits since 1781.

Outright denying the process of science — whether the model is conjectures and refutations or something less stale — ignores that there is no single uniform body of science. Denial also dismisses the most powerful tool for making difficult empirical decisions. Michael Brown’s death was instantly a political affair, with implications for broader social life. The event has completely changed the face of American social issues. The first autopsy report, from St. Louis County, indicated that Brown was shot at close range in the hand, during an encounter with Officer Darren Wilson. The second independent report commissioned by the family concluded the first shot had not in fact been at close range. After the disagreement with my cousin, the Department of Justice released the final investigation report, and determined that material in the hand wound was consistent with gun residue from an up-close encounter.

Prior to the report, the best evidence available as to what happened in Missouri on August 9, 2014, was the ground footage after the shooting and testimonies from the officer and Ferguson residents at the scene. There are two ways to approach the incident: reason or lived experience. The latter route will lead to ambiguities. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson and another witness reported that Officer Wilson fired his weapon first at range, under no threat, then pursued Brown out of his vehicle, until Brown turned with his hands in the air to surrender. However, in the St. Louis grand jury half a dozen (African-American) eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account: that Brown did not have his hands raised and was moving toward Wilson. In which direction does “lived experience” tell us to go, then? A new moral maxim — the duty to believe people — will lead to no non-arbitrary conclusion. (And a duty to “always believe x,” where x is a closed group, e.g. victims, will put the cart before the horse.) It appears that, in a case like this, treating evidence as objective is the only solution.

Introducing ad hoc hypotheses, e.g., the Justice Department and the county examiner are corrupt, shifts the approach into one that uses induction, and leaves behind lived experience (and also ignores how forensic anthropology is actually done). This is the introduction of, indeed, scientific standards. (By looking at incentives for lying it might also employ findings from public choice theory, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.) So the personal experience method creates unresolvable ambiguities, and presumably will eventually grant some allowance to scientific procedure.

If we don’t posit a baseline-rationality — Hermoine Granger pre-Hogwarts — our ability to critique things at all disappears. Utterly rejecting science and reason, denying objective analysis in the presumption of overriding biases, breaking down naïve universalism into naïve relativism — these are paths to paralysis on their own. More than that, they are hysterical symptoms, because they often create problems out of thin air. Recently, a philosopher and mathematician submitted a hoax paper, Sokal-style, to a peer-reviewed gender studies journal in an attempt to demonstrate what they see as a problem “at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.” The idea was to write a nonsensical, postmodernish essay, and if the journal accepted it, that would indicate the field is intellectually bankrupt. Andrew Smart at Psychology Today instead wrote of the prank: “In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.” And although Smart makes some informed points about problems in scientific rigor as a whole, he doesn’t hint at what the validation of postmodernism entails: should we abandon standards in journalism and scholarly integrity? Is the whole process of peer-review functionally untenable? Should we start embracing papers written without any intention of making sense, to look at knowledge concealed below the surface of jargon? The paper, “The conceptual penis,” doesn’t necessarily condemn the whole of gender studies; but, against Smart’s reasoning, we do in fact know that counterintuitive or highly heterodox theory is considered perfectly average.

There were other attacks on the hoax, from SlateSalon and elsewhere. Criticisms, often valid for the particular essay, typically didn’t move the conversation far enough. There is much more for this discussion. A 2006 paper from the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences,” called the use of scientific evidence “fascist.” In the abstract the authors state their allegiance to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Real Peer Review, a Twitter account that collects abstracts from scholarly articles, regulary features essays from the departments of women and gender studies, including a recent one from a Ph. D student wherein the author identifies as a hippopotamus. Sure, the recent hoax paper doesn’t really say anything. but it intensifies this much-needed debate. It brings out these two currents — reason and the rejection of reason — and demands a solution. And we know that lived experience is going to be often inconclusive.

Opening up lines of communication is a solution. One valid complaint is that gender studies seems too insulated, in a way in which chemistry, for instance, is not. Critiquing a whole field does ask us to genuinely immerse ourselves first, and this is a step toward tolerance: it is a step past the death of reason and the denial of science. It is a step that requires opening the bubble.

The modern infatuation with human biases as well as Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism upset our faith in prevailing theories, and the idea that our policies and opinions should be guided by the latest discoveries from an anonymous laboratory. Putting politics first and assuming subjectivity is all-encompassing, we move past objective measures to compare belief systems and theories. However, isn’t the whole operation of modern science designed to work within our means? The system by Kant set limits on humanity rationality, and most science is aligned with an acceptance of fallibility. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “to understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.”

Pinker goes for far as to advocate for scientism. Others need not; but we must understand an academic field before utterly rejecting it. We must think we can understand each other, and live with each other. We must think there is a baseline framework that allows permanent cross-cultural correspondence — a shared form of life which means a Ukrainian can interpret a Russian and a Cuban an American. The rejection of Homo Sapiens commensurability, championed by people like Richard Spencer and those in identity politics, is a path to segregation and supremacy. We must reject Gorgian nihilism about communication, and the Presocratic relativism that camps our moral judgments in inert subjectivity. From one Weltanschauung to the next, our common humanity — which endures class, ethnicity, sex, gender — allows open debate across paradigms.

In the face of relativism, there is room for a nuanced middleground between Pinker’s scientism and the rising anti-science, anti-reason philosophy; Paul Feyerabend has sketched out a basic blueprint. Rather than condemning reason as a Hellenic germ of Western cultural supremacy, we need only adjust the theoretical model to incorporate the “new America of knowledge” into our critical faculty. It is the raison d’être of philosophers to present complicated things in a more digestible form; to “put everything before us,” so says Wittgenstein. Hopefully, people can reach their own conclusions, and embrace the communal human spirit as they do.

However, this may not be so convincing. It might be true that we have a competition of cosmologies: one that believes in reason and objectivity, one that thinks reason is callow and all things are subjective.These two perspectives may well be incommensurable. If I try to defend reason, I invariably must appeal to reasons, and thus argue circularly. If I try to claim “everything is subjective,” I make a universal statement, and simultaneously contradict myself. Between begging the question and contradicting oneself, there is not much indication of where to go. Perhaps we just have to look at history and note the results of either course when it has been applied, and take it as a rhetorical move for which path this points us toward.

Main postmodern theorists and their main concepts

Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.

One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.

Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.

In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.

From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

Foucault’s biopolitics seems like it’s just a subtle form of nationalism

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, largely on the strength of Barry’s recommendation (see also this fiery debate between Barry and Jacques), and a couple of things have already stood out to me. 1) Foucault, lecturing in 1978-79, is about 20 years behind Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty in terms of formulating interesting, relevant political theory and roughly 35 years behind his The Road to Serfdom (1944) in terms of expressing doubts over the expanding role of the state into the lives of citizens.

2) The whole series of lectures seems like a clever plea for French nationalism. Foucault is very ardent about identifying “neo-liberalism” in two different models, a German one and an American one, and continually makes references about the importation or lack thereof of these models into other societies.

Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into his words.

Or maybe Foucault isn’t trying to make a clever case for French nationalism, and is instead trying to undercut the case for a more liberal world order but – because nothing else has worked as well as liberalism, or even come close – he cannot help but rely upon nationalist sentiments to make his anti-liberal case and he just doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

These two thoughts are just my raw reactions to what is an excellent book if you’re into political theory and Cold War scholarship. I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the book in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Some notes I wrote that I’ll never finish

Here you go. Make of them what you will – BC.

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I would argue that it can matter, and often does, from a certain vantage point.

The West is not open-minded when it comes to recognizing centrifugal forces in a post-colonial state, though. The argument is that smaller states will have less power than the single, unified state currently in place. (when Democrat Joe Biden borrowed my arguments by suggesting Iraq be carved up into three states.) This doesn’t refute your musings, at all, but complements them in a way.

So size does matter, from a certain point of view.

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zero-sum game is not real; logic is sharp mostly in socialists and libertarians, so then we move on to facts to get at the truth of the matter.

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I tend to see the West as Europe, the Anglo-Saxon world, and Latin America. Korea, Japan, and India are also Western in my mind, but I am an open-minded son-of-a-bitch and realize that some folks just can’t see the connection. They see brown and yellow people, and they see the struggle between conservatism and liberalism being played out there, and they think to themselves “those aren’t Western societies!”

Russia is somewhere in-between the West and the other West. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, the entire Levant, North Africa, hell, the entire Arab world save for Saudi Arabia and Yemen were Western until the Cold War ramped up.

Why do Europeans and Latin Americans tend to be much more hawkish than North Americans? (I can’t say much about Indians and East Asians, though I suspect they are somewhere in between North Americans and Europeans.Latin Americans because their choices are very different from the traditional West’s; Pakistan and China are very different from Russia and the Arab world, and the US plays different roles in Asia as well.)

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Fuddy-duddy conservatives and large swathes of the Left are not advancing the conversation. Jacques complains that Foucault is full of shit. Leftists – far from being offended or threatened, simply roll their eyes (if he’s lucky), or – more often – simply ignore him.

Irfan’s link to Reason Papers shows this well. I think it’s absolutely true that postmodernism is dead. I think it was invented to replace socialism. The paper is correct in all of these things. What do conservatives do in response to this simple fact? Throw poo-poo at Leftists and stay stubbornly in their ideological cage.

This is why Barry’s posts are so impressive. They advance knowledge and understanding. The reactions – from both the monkeys in the cage on the Left and the monkeys in the cage on the Right – to Barry’s pieces range from vitriolic to rudely skeptical. This signals, to me at least, that Barry is on the right track. He is much closer to the Truth than the poo-poo flingers.

Unfortunately in the post-colonial world, those fuddy-duddy conservatives and murderous Leftists dominate the conversation.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_princely_states_of_India

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“If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident. (111)” – Eric Hoffer, True Believer 1951 (1989 reprint)

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I wonder if Falk includes supporting bad laws in this maxim?

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Is ISIS Islamic? Yes and no. Obviously, it is in some respects, but it’s a new kind of Islam. It’s political and has designated its ideological others as ‘the West’, while operating against the notion of the nation-state. I think it’s postmodernism carried to its logical end, with a regional twist of course. (Think of the destruction, real and imagined, of all those ancient artifacts. That’s post-modernism at work, not the strains of Islam we’ve been accustomed to for the last 1,500 years.

From the Comments: Foucault, Obscurity, and Liberty

Jacques and Barry had an excellent back-and-forth on Barry’s post about Foucault’s contributions to liberty. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response to Dr Delacroix’s questions:

Well Jacques, my last comment was not supposed to be the full reply to your preceding comment, as I tried to make clear. As I said I needed time to think before posting anything from Foucault. I was just preparing the way with comments on the background to Foucault’s style. On Montaigne, how easy is Montaigne? Maybe he seems clear to you and other French people who read him in the Lycée. I teach a lot of Montaigne in Istanbul and students don’t find him easy. Maybe his style at a sentence by sentence level is clearer than Foucault, but I would say only Foucault at his most supposedly obscure. Montaigne can seem clear because he writes in a conversational way, appearing to just comment informally on something in his mind. However, his essays are endlessly digressive and shifting in viewpoint and claim within just one essay, some of which are very long and very detached from the starting point. He mixes quotations from classics, historical illustrations, unreliable anecdotes, and personal memories, in ways which could be often said to obscure as much as clarify any underlying claim, though sometimes a relatively simple maxim seems to be the point. Even there, one really has to think about the relation between the apparent maxim and Montaigne’s shifting point of view to get the underlying point/points. The way that the style interacts with Montaigne’s mind and the uncertainties of his point of view, and the persistent anxieties about saving his world of experience from extinction in death, all have some echoes in Foucault and in various ways it seems to be me that Foucault works on a basis in Montaigne, even if adding the kind of abstract language, vocabulary and sentence construction coming from a mixture of German philosophy since Kant, and poetic-literary language since the Romantics.

Now for a couple of quotations. The first is a random selection from the book that first made him famous, History of Madness. The second is a less random selection from his late essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

History of Madness, page 29 (2006 Routledge edition translated by Murphy and Khalfa)

Rising up in spirit towards God and sounding the bottomless depths into which we find ourselves plunged are one and the same, and in Calvin’s experience madness is the measure of man when he is compared to the boundless reason of God.

In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself—he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ (as published in Michel Foucault Essential Works vol 1, ed. Rabinow, 2000), p 315

We must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, and through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterised as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question must was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.

In the first passage above, Foucault uses a language recognisable to anyone who has read much Heidegger to discuss the thought of the 16th century religious reformer Calvin. Since Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time has some roots in Reformation theology this maybe a particularly intriguing way of using Heidegger. The finitude of man compared to God is something that alludes to Heidegger’s understanding of the essential mortality, finitude, temporality of humanity. It also brings out how for Calvin, madness is an aspect of the limitation of human consciousness compared with that of God. In this passage Foucault is bringing together 16th century religious thought, the way that some 20th century philosophy approaches the themes of earlier philosophy and religion when concerned with questions of the limit of experience, how the question of defining ‘madness’ relates to the questions of defining consciousness, experience and limits from the viewpoints of the dominant ways of thinking and organising experience at the time, the ideology operating in the institutions and laws which are applied to the ‘mad’. What Foucault also brings out is that madness’ was closely related to a positive idea of transcending human bounds, so that the stigmatisation of madness then as now is intimately associated with altered states of consciousness that are given value. The use of a ‘mad’ perspective in 20th century Surrealism is one of the aspects that Foucault is alluding to here, an the ways that such aestheticised encounters with the limits of consciousness and rationality relate to earlier religious ideas of exalted spiritual states.

In the second passage above, Foucault is still concerned with the limit and while individual passages in Foucault may seem obscure, he had a very persistent interest in limits of experience, and related questions over some decades, so it is possible to build up an accumulating familiarity with Foucault’s treatment of the issue. The ‘message’ in that passage is the value of moving from Enlightenment of a Kantian kind, which places limits on the claims of universality, to a a kind of Enlightenment based on exploration of the non-necessity of limits, the exploration of the plurality of individual instances unlimited by rationalistic limitations. This is a very Montaigne-like thought, even if the language is more ‘obscure’. There is a commitment to a ‘historical ontology’, that is the understanding of ourselves as individuals and of the ‘human’ in general as the product of contingency and circumstances rather than a deep self or deep humanity detached from experience and history. This is both a proposal for the study of human institutions and discourses as Foucault already had been doing for decades and a proposal for an ethics which values subjectivity in its variability and different contexts. There is no clear limit to knowledge or consciousness, just as there is no clear limit between different areas of knowledge or experience. Foucault’s idea of Enlightenment knowledge and ethics is to keep exploring and pushing at the limits that have been assumed, which is a way of showing their continent constructed nature as well as the way that consciousness is always dealing with a sense of inside and outside that is open to transformation.

In both passages above, I would argue, Foucault uses allusion and compression of multiple allusions, to show connections and differences, and to make us think about those connections and differences. Calvin’s thought about theology has implications for defining ‘madness’, Enlightenment scientific inquiry is related to assumptions about limits of reason and experience. The ‘obscurity’ arises from the way that the syntheses, allusions, and challenges to a priori boundaries are put in a language which shows these things at work rather than just saying that they exist and makes us aware that the language we constantly use is structured and energised by the unions and tensions contained within these thoughts.

If one simply wants the ideas about institutions, history, discourse and so on in Foucault, without the ‘obscure’ language, then to some degree these can be found in Foucault’s lectures, and then maybe more so in those commentators committed to a clarification of Foucault for those not immersed in the use of philosophical language to convey meaning beyond the most literal transmission of messages, commentators including Gary Gutting, Ian Hacking, and Hans Sluga. I recommend them to anyone who finds Foucault’s style to be a chore but wants to find out about ideas which have certainly influenced a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences.

The whole dialogue between the two starts here, if you’re interested.