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© Avi Sion
All rights reserved
Sundry notes and essays on Logic
© Avi Sion, 1990. All rights reserved.
Part II, Chapter 6: (Chapter 12 in 2008 reprint)
Aspects of Foucault's
This is a critical analysis of Dr. Michel Foucault's methodology, as well
as doctrine, in his celebrated The
Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (387 pages, plus a
forward and preface).
That book is a translation of Les
Mots et les Choses, originally published, in France, in 1966. The author
(1926-1984) was a graduate of the Sorbonne and the Université de Paris, who
lectured in a number of universities in various countries.
Ordinarily, when reviewing a book on philosophy, one would present the
author's doctrines, then make a critical analysis of them and draw conclusions.
However, it is also wise to keep track of methodological issues, both at the
descriptive level and at the level of fitting the thesis into a broader context.
In this particular case, it turns out that Foucault's doctrinal arguments
are not his main theme. At first, they seem to be, as he discusses various
developments in the 'episteme', the epistemological framework, of Western
thinking from the Renaissance to Modern times. But as he proceeds, he makes
clear, that these doctrines are not his main message; for he is willing, at the
end, to deny them, saying 'these are not affirmations; they are at most
questions to which it is not possible to reply' (386).
The main thrust of Foucault's book is on a more subliminal level, at the
level of his rhetoric, his peculiar way of thinking, the artifices he utilizes
in his discourse, his 'logic', if the word may be used. The doctrinal material,
whether on epistemology, on philology, biology or economics, or even on ontology
and metaphysics — these serve both to provide an occasion for application of
his methods, and also, by virtue of the subject-matter of his doctrines, to give
depth to the issues and confuse them.
For these reasons, this here review is forced to begin with an analytical
exposition of Foucault's methods, as well as their applications, and then to
evaluate them. I may thus say, at the outset, that The
Order of Things is a very skillful and elaborate Sophistic work. I do not
use the word in any pejorative sense, but in the strict sense employed by
logical historians, in the sense of an age-old school of Philosophy.
Among Foucault's literary devices are the following. They read like a
list of The Fallacies, so adept and relentless he is at using a multiple of
techniques, which reinforce each other's optical illusions. He disposes of the
full array of sophistic instruments; his is a concert of sophistry.
The reader is fatigued, bedazzled, bewildered, and intimidated, into
submission. You can never pin the author down, because almost as soon as he says
something, he also denies it; he is there, and then he is not there, so that you
cannot argue with him, because he has not asserted anything, yet. It is like in
the manuals on the martial arts, always to elude the opponent, strike and
quickly depart, become invisible and untouchable. The only answer to that
technique, is to find the slippery character, in the midst of all those feints
and velleities. Where he shows himself, you are there.
Foucault's text is filled with ambiguities and equivocations; concepts
and words are left undefined or denied their customary meanings, and freely used
in a variety of ways. Distinctions are imposed on similar things, or denied to
dissimilar things, merely by saying so and repeating it over and over, making it
seem like accepted fact. Certain distinctions are transformed into deep,
unbridgeable divisions between things, which only the most naive would dare to
question. He exaggerates, understates.
Florid sentences, reiterating the same thing in different words, again
and again, are designed to make it seem that the thesis in question is being
repeatedly confirmed, and that it has many profound facets. These flourishes
also make it seem as if Foucault is going through a deductive, interpretative
process, so that the sentences he intersperses here and there without proof seem
Just as affirmation and denial are, in Foucault, arbitrary (he need only
assert something for it to be as he says), so are implication and unimplication
and other logical relations (he need only say that P implies Q or that P does
not imply Q, and we have to believe him). Thus, non-sequiturs
become implications, and obvious inferences are forbidden. Words are played on,
every doubtful area in meaning or truth is used as the playground, an opportune
'space' for sowing confusion.
He does not make nuances, he inverts the sense of words; in becomes out,
out in. Things 'turn in on themselves' or 'over and against themselves'.
Circular arguments are concealed in a dramatic cloud of intriguing phrases,
which however serve to put over a scattered few crucial 'terms' (which tacitly
imply certain propositions), to insert them as accepted fact into the reader's
consciousness. Paradoxical statements and self-contradictions are made
unabashedly, as if their very antinomy is proof of their profundity and
Ultimately, for Foucault, propositions need not be assertoric; they may
be posited, and then negated, both true and false, or considered established and
then as possibly not possible ('it is so… but
it is or may be not so'). It is
sufficient that they convey certain catch words or phrases, which give an
impression of broad knowledge and deep wisdom. His sophism works, precisely
because it seems 'consistent' with itself; it is so pervasive, that he has
actually said nothing, so that one may not argue with him.
The theories of others that he presents, in the course of his
digressions, are never his point. They are not illustrations of a thesis of his
own, but mere vehicles for the transmission of this fuzzy methodology, which is
his real message, as he himself admits. The historical events and ideas that he
describes for us, serve only to draw and keep our attention, because they are in
themselves interesting. But for him, they are only occasions, allowing him to
intersperse his own peculiar outlook and terminologies as alleged explicata.
They serve to give his interpolations a veneer of reflected legitimacy.
By 'archeology', Foucault generally refers to a study of the
methodological assumptions at least tacit in the thinking of different cultures
and ages. On the surface, it seems reasonable enough to suppose that people, in
each place and period of history will display some particular emphases in their
ways of thought, which can be identified as an epistemological framework,
underlying their whole cultural context. But such patterns are of course only
discernible ex-post-facto, they are
For a start, Foucault does not clearly distinguish between the
epistemological practises common to all the people of a defined group, and their
own theories concerning these practises, and our own estimates of what these
practises and theories might be; there is always a vagueness and ambivalence in
that issue, which is rhetorically useful (as already indicated).
But, as it turns out, the method he explicitly proposes allows for such
lapses. He is not appealing to ordinary scientific methods, to common logic, but
to the so-called Critical/Transcendental method, which was inaugurated by
Immanuel Kant (Prussia, 1724-1804). Foucault frankly admits use of this form of
argument, though he also claims to be using it with other contents, other terms.
According to this method, the 'critical philosopher' can somehow 'transcend' the
mind's structural limitations, and make unassailable judgments from above, 'as
Here, let me say that such argument is an 'imposture' from the point of
view of pure logic. It is an attempt to introduce a deus
ex machina into epistemological discussions. The philosopher becomes a
privileged human being, capable in some untold way to become a 'superman', to
use a Nietzschean phrase dear to Foucault. This is not logic — it is
non-logic, even anti-logic. It has never been validated by the norms of logic,
as a form of reasoning.
You cannot at once claim that a Subject is locked into his specificity
and finitude, and at the same time capable of acts of consciousness which rise
above and overcome these given limits. The two theses are strictly
contradictory; there is formally no
room for doubts and speculations about a paradoxical credibility in between them
(Law of the Excluded Middle). We do not have here a dialectic of 'thesis implies
antithesis, therefore the latter is their synthesis', which is the definition of
valid 'self-evidence' arguments in logic. The proposed argument is in no way
proved necessary by dialectic; on the contrary, dialectic proves it impossible.
If the Subject says 'I see (from above, allegedly) that my consciousness
is limited in distortive ways', as do Foucault and Kant, he is automatically
de-legitimizing his very own statement (an assertoric cannot imply its own
negation, nor, even, imply its own negation to be possible). This means, in formal logic,
that the proposition in question is false; a conceptual claim which is logically
self-incapacitating is simply incapacitated, it is alethically impossible
and not worthy of any further consideration. Yet these people continue to try to
evade this absolute law for the resolution of paradox.
Foucault claims that the Kantian 'method' marked a radically new stage in
epistemological history. I agree that arguments of this sort have since Kant
received considerable 'prestige and importance'; but I do not agree that they
are indubitable, quite the contrary, they are entirely spurious. Their
credibility is due to the paradox which negates them, rather than to the
existence of a paradox which posits them; they are not self-evident, or even
possible, they are self-rejecting, logically impossible.
This is not a 'radically different' 'configuration of science' as he
suggests (nor are the findings and theories of Ricardo, Cuvier and Bopp, formal
examples of such an 'other' science); it is illogical and it is therefore not
knowledge (366). Foucault's alleged transcendence of language, is not a sort of
mystical state of silent meditation on the noumenal, but an alienation from even
ordinary reality. Perhaps he is describing his own peculiar relation to words
and things, but it is not a relation I personally recognize in me, and so it
cannot be universal.
This peculiar method is contrasted to the Classical/Scientific method,
which Foucault rejects as naive, half-witted and tiny-minded. He claims the
change 'irreversible'; but, I say, surely,
criticism, too, can be criticized, it is not itself alone above criticism, the
exclusive domain of those who are for it. I agree, however, that the Kantian
method was a radical break from the Classical — in my view, an unfortunate
break. The 'second degree' of language, the language of science, is simply a
clarification of ordinary language, a selection and re-affirmation of its most
intelligent potentials; it is not something essentially different than ordinary
language, and (a-fortiori) nor can the
critical method be so construed.
In any case, it would be untrue, historically, to say, as Foucault does,
that either the Classical method or the Kantian is exclusively representative of
the episteme of its cultural era. Surely, that is hyperbole. Is he
referring to university professors, to the scientific community, to
intellectuals or to the whole population, of all ages and intelligence,
socio-economic milieu, educational level, ethnicity? The indefinition in the
subject of his propositions allows him to turn particular ones into universal
But what is clear throughout, is that Foucault does not properly
understand the scientific episteme (any more than Kant did, incidentally). His knowledge of
logic is limited to actual-categorical propositions and processes, which are
used to construct simple classification 'tables' — drawings which display the
similarities and differences of things. This is only one of the tools of
scientific logic, and not its whole
method (thinkers may use a technique long before they become aware that they
were using it).
Foucault does not know modal logic, conditional logic of various de re
modal bases, causality, or the inductive and deductive capacities of logical
conditioning. Class-logic clearly brings out the perpendicularity between the
space of objects (subsumed by classes) and that of ideas (classes or classes of
classes). When evaluating the content of a thesis, we are duty bound to consider
the methods used in formulating it. He borrows terms like 'validation' from
logic (which are meaningful to us, only because of their value within logic),
and reverses their meanings. He says that certain '…laws of fluctuation and
change… cannot be fitted over natural laws', as if formal logic cannot handle
Our movements of thought always display certain patterns, whether
philosophers and historians are yet aware of them or not; changes in logical
science may effect changes in the frequency and concentration of our use of
these thought processes, but not invent them — their discovery implies that
they were there already, because it is only possible by an act of
self-consciousness. Foucault's use of phrases like 'partial totalities' (he
means 'contexts thought to be total, then found partial', to be exact) or
'thoughts that we cannot think' (when he should say 'things we cannot think of'
— which is less dramatic, but more accurate), prevents him from developing a
Because he lacks this logical training, he imagines that Science consists
only of simple tables, and he is always very surprised to discover, in history,
events or ideas which do not fit this narrow model. For this reason, he sees the
logic of science as flawed, and tries to find some alternative 'logic' which
will somehow (he never asks or says just how) resolve the difficulties of
epistemology. But it is a red herring, this Classical science of his
imagination; it is not a correct image of real science, at any point in time or
His arguments do not therefore concern the human mind as it in fact
functions; they are irrelevant. His so-called 'archeology' is neither omniscient
nor infallible. It is of course conceivable that different people effectively,
if not self-consciously, use different epistemological frameworks; but I
very much doubt that Foucault has correctly identified the uniformities
characteristic of the historical cultures under consideration. He tries to give
the impression that his historical thinking is novel and profound, concerning an
additional dimension of time; but none of the evidence he adduces for such an
in-depth, into-man line of aseity inductively implies such a conclusion.
While Descartes was predominantly a rationalist, Hume was more of an
empiricist, and other people were other things. In every period, there is
perhaps a bell-shaped curve, with a multitude of tendencies, though some are
more probable for a given time and place. There are shifts in emphasis, perhaps
some quick movements or quantum leaps from curve to curve, but there are no
'revolutions' in a strict sense of profound discontinuities. Foucault keeps
insisting on them, but he fails to convince (me, at least).
A distinction cannot be transformed at will into a radical difference.
Logic, scientific epistemology, have always, since Aristotle at least, sought
for timeless generalities about the human means of knowledge. Such a universal
science acknowledges freely that different people, at different times in their
lives, as well as in different societies and epochs, may use an arsenal of
logical techniques which are incomplete or even fallacious.
The logical philosopher has two tasks: to observe the human thought
potential and to validate it. That valid potentials are not in all cases
actualized, or that invalid potentials are all too often actualized, in no way
affects the universality of the logician's findings, for they exist in a modal
framework. It is modality which allows the reconciliation between the finitude
and specificity of the thinker, and his ability to formulate apodictic
statements which are both empirical and rational.
Since logic is able to validate itself very well, thank you, there is no
need for a 'transcendental' non-logic; the 'critique' is a redundancy, it has no
problem to solve (let alone whether it is capable of offering a credible
solution). The Kantian method, and Foucault's applications, are not exempt from
the inductive and deductive conditions set by logic; and it does not matter how
we characterize the meaningfulness of words.
It must be admitted, however (and this is the faint shining of
credibility that the transcendental method has behind it), that there is
in fact a 'movement of thought', which consists in 'going above or under' or
'taking a step back or aside' from the situation at hand. And this ability of
the Subject to withdraw from a context and conceive of a wider context, is of
course perfectly possible and legitimate as a logical act. What Kant achieved,
is to remind philosophers to take this distance repeatedly, so as to ensure an
overall consistency at all levels. The trouble is, Kant wrongly defined the
formal aspect of this movement of thought, as a sort of paradox. It is this
interpretation of the event by Kant, which is at issue.
Hegel and Marx were of course among those who adopted this
interpretation, misunderstanding the psychology of synthesis. One of the more
interesting statements in Foucault's book (which shows that good insight can
sometimes come out of a bad method, though I do not agree with it all), is the
following; I see it as an attempt at poetic description of the consciousness
relation between Subject and Object, which is of course so unique as a universal
that it is undefinable:
It is no longer their identity that beings manifest in representation,
but the external relation they establish with the human being. The latter, with
his own being, with his power to present himself with representations, arises in
a space hollowed out by living beings, objects of exchange, and words, when,
abandoning representation, which had been their natural site hitherto, they
withdraw into the depths of things and roll up upon themselves in accordance
with the laws of life, production and language (313).
At a couple of points, to his credit, Foucault waxes romantic (whether
sincerely or as a pose, I cannot tell) about the Same, thus suggesting that the
ultimate goal of this sophistic self-contradiction dialectic is a Unity. At this
point, he returns right back to Nicholas de Cusa's more theistic idea of the
ultimate One. Indeed, this sort of Return, of which Foucault is conscious
enough, and which makes him human, is also found in his theory of philology. At
first, words were understood as being deeply related to the universals in
objects at some level; then they were conventionalized; but at the end, they
return to a richer content and relation.
It should be noted that not all historians agree with Foucault's
historiology or historiography. The
History of Philosophical Systems,
for instance, characterizes his Classical period as Early Modern, implying that
Kant did not affect developments that radically (how could he? common-sense
persists). Another 'deep chasm' Foucault proposes is that between the Classical
period, and the Renaissance and Late Medieval.
According to him, this period was characterized by a frivolous concern
with irrelevant relations of 'resemblance', regarding
labels of things as real symptoms of them, and all hearsay or text concerning
them as in a sense true and significant. This epistemology, confusing the
sign for something (an accidens), which is a word, and the sign of something, which is a real aspect or effect of the object (an incidens)
— this is claimed by Foucault to be the overriding episteme
of the Pre-Classical period in Europe. Note well Foucault's own confusions in
the logic of 'semiology'.
That proposition might seem conceivable, but further reflection puts it
in doubt. Had people lived only by
that philosophy, would they have been able to function at all? Surely, ordinary
people of all classes were doing some valid observation and reasoning, in their
everyday lives. In that case, the Renaissance would only be less rigorous in
logic than the Classical period, and not wholly different in some big,
earth-shattering way. Formal logic is not affected by such changes; it indeed
requires that we make an clear effort to distinguish between imaginary, intimate
phenomena, noetic projections, and seemingly external, independent and physical
It is true that, as Wittgenstein objected, the relation of indication
(pointing to something, and saying I mean 'this') underlying all verbalization
is itself a vague act; but context-changes gradually sort and purify such
primitive ideas of their possible ambiguities and equivocations, until there can
be no mistaking what one is pointing to. Nothing in this act previews the
strength of signifying relation involved, whether it is the vocalization or
diagram of an insight into real universals, or a merely conventional equation.
Modal logic allows for a range of word-thing relations at our disposal.
Even today we continue to have bumbling 'Don Quixotes' who confuse their
fantasies with reality; nothing has changed much. What of Sartre's distress at
his role-play of models of behavior he himself constructed? What of the power of
today's media (novels, movies, TV, video) to produce role-models? There is
essentially nothing methodologically criticizable with drawing water from the
traditional wells of wisdom. Is Foucault himself not engaging in 'commentary'
and 'exegesis' (though with regard to other, less ancient sources), even as he
writes that very book of his?
The Classical concept of semiology, as 'representation' of one idea
by another idea (according to the Port-Royal
definition Foucault mentions; and equally in the work of Bacon, Locke, Hume,
Berkeley, and Descartes) was of course also flawed, though in a different way
than the Renaissance way. The formal definition of signification is, the
relation between an image or conventional symbol and an apparent object,
whatever that relation (or its object) might happen to be essentially. Foucault
fails to clearly analyze the term 'representation'; now he takes it as neutral,
now as pictorial, now as pure label, oscillating as convenient (to his theories)
between these various senses.
In any case, again, Foucault's presentation of facts is contradicted by
those by other historians. The examples he focuses on in support of his case are
not necessarily, just because he thinks so, the
most illustrious, most typical or most numerous. Hamlyn,
for instance, mentions as among the most significant of that period, Nicholas de
Cusa (1401-64, rather early perhaps), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600, an important
figure, a precursor of Phenomenology, who discussed the aspect of
'intentionality' in consciousness), Galileo (1564-1642, a founding-father of
modern science, mind you), and Francis Bacon (1561-1626, a great logician and
philosopher, who clarified the inductive process of focusing on the elimination
of hypotheses contrary to experience, rather than on the confirmation of
Furthermore, Foucault's method is flawed, because he refers to a very
limited time and place, Europe in the last few centuries. He does not consider
other periods of history or other strata of the societies in question or other
peoples and cultures. His empirical sample is thus very limited, and he makes
hasty particularizations and generalizations, and that is why his research is so
distorting. A sophistic method applied to arbitrarily selective data.
Many epistemic and epistemological threads appearing even today, are
well-known to have roots in deep antiquity. Had Foucault considered them, he
could not claim what he describes to be novel and fundamental. Even the
philologies, biologies, and theories of political economy he (very ably)
describes (and prescribes) for us, have some evident roots. In a sense, we can
say that Astrology and Alchemy are early forms of Astronomy and Chemistry; that
the changes in methodology and subject-matter and doctrine, intended by these
name changes, expressed a difference of degree, however large, rather than a
Just because 'natural historians' were concerned with more concrete,
superficial, and spatial aspects of living beings, whereas later a more
anatomical, functional and abstract science of the phenomena we call 'life' was
reached by 'biologists', does not mean that a basic change of consciousness
occurred. The visible at the surface and the visible below the surface are both
concrete, and all science is to some degree abstract, anyway. Aristotle's work
in this field should have sufficed to make Foucault see that the name change was
not so significant.
The discovery of grammatical inflection as a tool for the comparative
study of languages, in no way logically implies that similarities and
differences in words and meanings are no longer relevant to that study. Foucault
suggests to us that this event somehow changed everything, so that 'general
grammar' was replaced by 'philology'. Just as he implies that 'general grammar'
earlier displaced the Hebraic model of semiology (which admittedly Nicholas de
Cusa subscribed to, indirectly at least).
Rather, I would say, the Enlightenment equivocations in the word
'representation', its ambiguity as 'idea' versus
'object', caused a lot of havoc in philosophy, with Kant as a failed attempt to
redress the duality. The grammatical inflections — declension of nouns and
pronouns, conjugation of verbs, comparatives and superlatives
— are merely, from the point of view of advanced logic, condensed
propositions, abbreviated signals of statable relational forms. Foucault does
not seem to be aware that the modalities of terms and copula are always
proportional, whatever their type or category.
Similarly, nothing in logical science excludes that classifications be
made on the basis of more complex and abstract relations than simple comparison
and contrast of any degree. Nor does logical science make a great formal
distinction between more concrete and more abstract contents. Class-logic allows
of subsumptions on the basis any type of de re or logical relation, actual or
modal, subsumptive or transitive, categorical or conditional in any respect. It
is clear that Foucault does not know these things, he only mentions the
extensional mode (even the logical mode seems beyond him).
For these reasons, the modern interest in functions of organ-systems (a
return, note in passing, to purposive relations) and evolution of species (just
a collection of changes), simply refers to causal or teleological logic. These
processes in no way necessitate a 'new logic', as Foucault claims so vehemently;
they are a formal outgrowth of traditional elementary logic. Likewise, the
concepts of labor and production do not displace traditional concepts of
economics, since nothing in their logics is that different.
I repeat what I argued in my book Future
Logic: none of the developments in philology (using the term in a neutral,
open sense) in the past few centuries of Western thought in fact, formally
speaking, at all undermined the premises and conclusions of Judaic philology.
That is clear to me, and Foucault's arguments to the contrary have not succeeded
in convincing me otherwise; they are mere sophistries. I do not imply that they
are calculated, I simply state a fact from the point of view of pure logic.
My feeling toward Foucault, who is evidently a brilliant writer, is
sadness that such a potentially fine mind could have become so mixed up,
frankly-speaking. Every writer of theories is saying something about himself,
'where he is at', in the way of a subtext. As European society became
secularized (in some cases, atheistic), it sought other unifying principles like
'Nature', and then 'History', to replace the loss of 'Providence'. Foucault is
an end-product of this march into a sort of alienation from reality, or madness,
and his implied cries of despair in the last pages, when the masks of cunning
intelligence are unveiled, and the lame imitations of Friedrich Nietzsche's
jolly iconoclasm peter out, are touching.
Still, such a book as the one we have here reviewed is inexcusable. It is
not philosophy, the serious study of reality and knowledge; it is
'philosophism', an impish love of mischief. If any revolution is needed in
philosophy, it is surely one away from such tendencies (if such a miracle is
possible). The educational system ought to cease giving credence to such
diversions; they waste humanity's time. The philosopher must be more
self-critical and have a stronger commitment to finding a reasonable and
New York: Vintage, 1973.
A History of Philosophical Systems.
Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams; 1961.
A History of Western
London: Penguin, 1988.
The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.
Chicago: English Language Institute of America, 1977.