Criticism of structuralism: Michel Foucault

Posted: September 19, 2007 in Continental philosophy, Literary Criticsm, Michel Foucault, Post-structuralism, Structuralism

Michel Foucault (IPA pronunciation: [miˈʃɛl fuˈko]) (October 15, 1926 – June 25, 1984) was a French philosopher, historian and sociologist. He held a chair at the Collège de France, giving it the title “History of Systems of Thought,” and taught at the University of California, Berkeley.

Michel Foucault is best known for his critical studies of various social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Foucault’s work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse, has been widely discussed and applied. Sometimes described as postmodernist or post-structuralist, in the 1960s he was more often associated with the structuralist movement. Foucault later distanced himself from structuralism and always rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels.

Criticisms of Foucault

Many thinkers have criticized Foucault, including Charles Taylor, Noam Chomsky, Ivan Illich, Camille Paglia, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Nancy Fraser, Pierre Bourdieu, Alasdair MacIntyre (1990), Richard Rorty, Slavoj Žižek and historian Hayden White, among others. While each of these thinkers takes issue with different aspects of Foucault’s work, most share the orientation that Foucault rejects the values and philosophy associated with the Enlightenment while simultaneously secretly relying on them.[4] This criticism is developed, for example, in Derrida (1978). It is claimed that this failure either makes him dangerously nihilistic, or that he cannot be taken seriously in his disavowal of normative values because in fact his work ultimately presupposes them.

Foucault has also been criticized for his careless use of historical information with claims that he frequently misrepresented things, got his facts wrong, extrapolated from insufficient data, or simply made them up entirely. For example, some historians argue that what Foucault called the “Great Confinement” in Madness and Civilization did not in fact occur during the 17th century, but rather in the 19th century,[5] which casts doubt on Foucault’s association of the confinement of madmen with the Age of Enlightenment.

Sociologist Andrew Scull argued that thousands of previously untranslated footnotes in Madness and Civilization reveal a very lax standard of scholarship in Foucault’s work, “It is as though nearly a century of scholarly work had produced nothing of interest or value for Foucault’s project. What interested him, or shielded him, was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong.”[6]

Madness and Civilization was also famously criticized by Jacques Derrida who took issue with Foucault’s reading of René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Derrida’s criticism led to a break in their friendship and marked the beginning of a fifteen-year–long feud between the two. (At one point, in a 1983 interview with Paul Rabinow, Foucault seemed to criticize Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus in Of Grammatology, considering the writing/speech distinction unimportant.) They eventually reconciled in the early 1980s.

There are also notable exchanges with Lawrence Stone and George Steiner on the subject of Foucault’s historical accuracy, as well as a discussion with historian Jacques Leonard concerning Discipline and Punish. Sociologist Richard Hamilton also argues against Discipline and Punish, suggesting that large portions of the book are incoherent or invalid. For example, Foucault places great emphasis on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, suggesting it is a model for the modern prison, but Hamilton notes that the panopticon was never built and only one extant prison uses that model. In the book, however, Foucault did not suggest that the Bentham’s panopticon had been constructed, and did not suggest that prisons explicitly modeled themselves after it.

Foucault’s changing viewpoint

The study of Foucault’s thought is complicated because his ideas developed and changed over time. Just how they changed and at what levels is a matter of some dispute amongst scholars of his work. Some scholars argue that underneath the changes of subject matter there are certain themes that run through all of his work. But as David Gauntlett (2002) suggests:

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Foucault changing his approach; in a 1982 interview, he remarked that ‘When people say, “Well, you thought this a few years ago and now you say something else,” my answer is… [laughs] “Well, do you think I have worked [hard] all those years to say the same thing and not to be changed?”‘ (2000: 131). This attitude to his own work fits well with his theoretical approach — that knowledge should transform the self. When asked in another 1982 interview if he was a philosopher, historian, structuralist, or Marxist, Foucault replied ‘I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning’ (Martin, 1988: 9).

– David Gauntlett, Media, Gender and Identity, London: Routledge, 2002)

In a similar vein, Foucault preferred not to claim that he was presenting a coherent and timeless block of knowledge; rather, as he says:

I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.

– Michel Foucault (1974), ‘Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir’ in Dits et Ecrits, t. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523–4). [source: wikipedia]

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