Foucault On ‘Blackmail Serving To Limit The Exercise Of Criticism’

In ‘Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault‘ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114), Foucault responds to the question of whether his writings in Discipline and Punish had an ‘anaesthetizing effect’ on ‘social workers in prisons’:

Paralysis isn’t the same thing as anaesthesis…It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole  series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt….’what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show they are looking, and hence not anaesthetized or sterilized at all….And it’s because of the need not to tie them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me trying to tell them, “what is to be done.” If the questions posed by the social workers you spoke of are going to assume their full amplitude, the most important thing is not to bury them under the weight of prescriptive, prophetic discourse. The necessity of reform musn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell you, “Don’t criticize, since you are not capable of carrying out reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to the premises of a deduction that concludes: This then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in the processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

In the long and dishonorable list of Cliched Reactions to Political Protest and Critique, the kneejerk “but where is your positive theory?” must rank as among the worst. This form of ‘keep talking while I stick my fingers in my ears’ political theater serves several vital functions: most importantly, it instantiates and facilitates political paralysis even as it renders that accusation at the critic. As a piece of political ju-jitsu, despite being so bald-faced about its deceptions and disingenuousness, it has proved remarkably effective over the years: very little radical political critique can escape the charge of being ‘destructive’ in its formulations. But as Foucault points out, the ‘awakening’ it brings in its wake has to have its future direction determined, not on the basis of self-serving assessments of the critique, but by the opportunities it presents for further ‘conflict and confrontation,’ a process that has to be pitched at that level for long enough before anything will give. To cease and desist the critique in the face of the imperative to offer ‘positive theory,’ to smoothen its harsh edges, is to play the game of reaction, to succumb to ‘blackmail serving to limit…the exercise of criticism.’

 

Philosophy, ‘Pseudo-Philosophy’, And Claiming To Be Philosophy

In his foreword to Jacques Bouveresse‘s Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious (Princeton University Press, 1996, New French Thought Series), Vincent Descombes writes:

[S]cience alone is opposed by a counterfeit called ‘pseudo-science.’ ‘Pseudo-philosophy’ does not seem to be a term we can use, much as we might be tempted to when dealing with what we think is bad philosophy. But philosophical speculation is such that everything that claims to be philosophy is philosophy. The price of this unlimited tolerance is that bad philosophy is as philosophical as good philosophy.

Descombes might be right that the term ‘pseudo-philosophy’ is not bandied about as much as ‘pseudo-science’ is, but there is certainly no shortage of attempts to characterize ‘what’ philosophy is, so that pretenders to the throne may be disabused of their pretensions. The pejorative description ‘that’s not really philosophy’, or ‘you aren’t doing philosophy’, and the skeptical question, ‘how is this philosophy’ are not unheard of; there is, supposedly, like science, a particular valorized method, a distinct ‘philosophical style’ of writing, analysis, and communication. The anxieties visible here are, I think, quite as acute as those visible in science’s defense of its domain.

But what is the nature of ‘philosophical speculation’? We know one part of the answer that is provided to us by those who man the ramparts: a concern with ‘getting things right’, ‘seeing how things hang together in the right way’, ‘seeking the truth’, ‘framing good arguments that bring us closer to the truth’, ‘asking the right questions’, and so on. But if Descombes is right, these are all too restrictive, for all claimants are granted access to this privileged space; the correct distinctions to be made are about the quality and nature of the philosophizing on display, and not about whether an act of thinking qualifies as philosophical in the first place.

Descombes’ catholic attitude is grounded in an acknowledgment of the inability of philosophizing to limit itself, for these boundary policing acts are grounded in philosophical maneuvers and that which requires such an engagement must be philosophical in some shape or form. The act of claiming to be–or not–philosophy is a philosophical claim, and must be dealt with as such. This is why philosophy remains indispensable to science, for instance, even when its practitioners reject philosophical influence or provenance.

More broadly, it would be surprising indeed if philosophy could so limit itself, if it could so easily set constraints on its ambitions and so clearly know what its possibilities are that it would ever possess the means to reject putative entrants to its domain. Such an activity would not be philosophy but some other, more specialized, and restricted activity, one which has, from the outset, set its sights much lower.

Note: Descombes goes on to say:

Wittgenstein might say that bad philosophy is even more philosophical than good: not more philosophical in the sense of more profound or more solid, but rather in the sense of of more representative of of the characteristic temptations of philosophy, such as wrongly generalizing from a privileged example, or confusing the particularities of a mode of expression with the higher laws of being.