Reading Foucault: Some observations

Reading Foucault is difficult; but one questions how it is that Foucault shall be read: for this question determines the latterly question: how shall Foucault be judged?

It is, despite my confidence about social theory, a whole minefield, of which I admit nothing interesting I can say about Foucault; comparatively however, the observations can be made:

1. It is strangely familiar to read Foucault, not in the writing style, nor even in the context; but in the conclusions made.

2. This is for a few reasons: Foucault’s terminology and work has been dispersed even if not by name unto many subjects: literary studies, social sciences, the humanities, (continental) philosophy..

3. There is a strange parallel to be made between Goffman (of whom I know a little bit more about) and Foucault:

i. Both seem to have interests in control mechanisms
ii. Both have ‘campaigning’ elements to them
iii. Both leer into the more morbid and dark and ‘outside’ (to use Goffmanian terminology) subjects of social relations and social structure; stigma, homosexuality, the ‘total institution’.

4. This parallel isvery unsubtle and there are many complexities to Foucault that I am not acknowledging.Very much, it is to say that Foucault’s work took place in the intellectually isolated environment of France, where little outside of it came through (except, of course, for the real ‘titans’ of the past – Freud, Marx, Hegel etc.)

5. It is interesting to read Foucault as a historian for two reasons:

i. If we understand Foucault as a historian, it sets a prospect for the kind of thing history can be: social commentary of the past to understand the present and future. I hold this wider perspective of our social and natural history to be ‘history par excellance’.
ii. Seeing Foucault as making a statement about our understanding as a result of, or in context of, past social beliefs/attitudes and institutional build makes Foucault look very favourable (much more so, than if we were to consider him a ‘social theorist’, or ‘philosopher’).

Michael

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Utility and ‘paradise’

I’ve been reading a bit of David Lewis recently, one point he makes early on in his work “On the Plurality of Worlds”, is that the utility of a theory is a reason for accepting that it is true. The non-philosophical example he gives is in set theory, construct your sets and ontology however way which you want, and you get out what you want, by determinedly deciding one’s axioms and the conditions in which one may establish a theorem or establish some proof or impossibility by way of reductio.

Lewis quotes a phrase (apparently) from Hilbert, which goes something like “Set theory is a mathematician’s paradise”; likewise, we may also have a metaphysician’s paradise by way of thinking within the jargon of modal realism; of possibilia, logical space, closeness of worlds, while many object to the proposal of modal realism, the very fact that people still talk about it, and use the terminology of worlds, counterparts, and so on; is a testimony to the influence and power of this thesis.

While one has critical thoughts about this thesis (concerning isolation and the knowledge of worlds); there is an underlying appeal which must be taken seriously. Philosophy considered as establishing theories that balances a strength of a theory against its weakness. What are strong aspects to a theory? By theory, I mean not just metaphysical theories, but scientific theories, or even moral or empirical hypotheses as well.

A theory may have strengths in virtue of the following things:

1. Theoretical unity, interconnectedness
2. Parsimony
3. Explanation
4. Confirmable predictions
5. Upgrading past theories
6. Refuting contemporamous competing theories
7. Being formalised, mathematicised

A theory, while emphasising one of these things, may also have a cost:

1. Being empirically false
2. Being non-empirical
3. Being inapplicable to higher genera concepts
4. Invoking weird ontologies
5. Violating parsimony
6. Incommensurability (ie. an incompatibility with other theories, or no address of corollorary issues)
7. Not having any predictive power

The spirit of utility arguments is that they are not so much arguments but appeals to truth. With utility one does not argue that something is or is not the case, as such, as in a formal deductive argument, but one appeals to the truth of something by its utility; to force the in another way: no other theories explain as much as this does; or if it does, then it is a better theory.

If we pursued this kind of line of metaphysics, we would have two implications:

1. Arguments are not so easy to knock down (hopefully); if we establish a thesis by many prongs, taking one prong away does not take away the thesis. This means we can concede to criticisms without complete abandonment and philosophy becomes essentially a concilatory project of theories and different metaphysical topics.
2. Philosophy would truly work in the old way of being systematic; we can show how one discourse relates to another; we may simultaneously be doing philosophy of mind and metaphysics; epistemology and philosophy of science; philosophy of mind and metaethics. Perhaps this issues would be more muddied up, admittedly, but we may find the age of the big systems arriving again. Lewis, in one’s eyes, is a systematic philosopher; but not one par excellence.

Michael

My hypocrisy with baby talk

Some readers may be aware that I have been blessed with a lovely little nephew. A friend of mine from grad school once told me that when his sister-in-law gave birth it changed everything in his family. Not only did he always want to show off his new addition to the family, but also he developed a a different personality and attitude towards those little ones.

I have always found it bizarre to see adults doing baby talk, almost to the end of them talking through their children. One time, I was being ‘interrupted’ by a couple, when I was having coffee with Antisophie. The couple had a child, and they put on this overly emphasised ‘voice’ and this obviously put-on ‘baby’ talk.

I’ve always had an annoyance towards this ‘baby’ talk; why? It seems almost like an excuse for adults to be child-like, and almost to live through their parents, but I have found, myself, that I too am subject to enjoying playing with the little one. I enjoy making him smile, making him lauh, keeping him company and playing with him, and that does, admittedly involve some ‘baby’ talk, despite that, I try to teach him some stuff matter-of-factly, namely, sharing my jaded adult-ness with him. For instance, the weirdness of Cliff Richard and Jon Bon Jovi’s mullet during the 90s’!

Michael