Pomo Periscope XIX: Leiter on Foucault

2 November 2009 at 8:40 am 3 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Here is a nice discussion of Foucault by UChicago Law School professor Brian Leiter. It is not a smashing per se, but rather a critical discussion that indicates a central flaw in Foucault’s philosophy. Leiter points to Foucault’s well known discussion of the “pretence” of the “human sciences,” something Foucault seems to explain on the basis of  the “influence of economic, political, and moral considerations on their development” (Leiter, p. 16). As Leiter points out, however,

[I]t is now surely a familiar point in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science that the influence of social and historical factors might be compatible with the epistemically special standing of the sciences as long as we can show that epistemically reliable factors are still central to explaining the claims of those sciences. And that possibility is potentially fatal to Foucault‟s critique. For recall that central to Foucault‟s critique is the role that the epistemic pretensions of the sciences play in a structure of practical reasoning which leads agents concerned with their flourishing to become the agents of their own oppression. And the crucial bit of “pretense” is, as we noted earlier, that the human sciences illuminate the truth about how (normal) human beings flourish in virtue of adhering to the epistemic strictures and methodologies of the natural sciences. Recall also that Foucault, unlike Nietzsche, does not contest the practical authority of truth (i.e., the claim of the truth to determine what ought to be done); he rather denies that the claims in question are true or have the epistemic warrant that we would expect true claims to have. So the entire Foucauldian project of liberation turns on the epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences. And on this central point, Foucault has, surprisingly, almost nothing to say beyond raising “suspicion.”

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Pomo Periscope, Recommended Reading.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dick Langlois  |  2 November 2009 at 10:38 am

    There is a post-modernist twist to this, of course, since, as everyone knows, Leiter works for the CIA.

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  4 November 2009 at 5:23 am

    Leiter in his less dramatic role as an intellectual is a kind of shooting star of avant garde thinking and a prolific generator of leftwing analysis of every issue under the sun, also a ranking system of all the philosophy departments in the world.

    Can someone do a plain English translation of the para that Nicolai quoted?

  • 3. fabiorojas  |  4 November 2009 at 11:17 pm


    The abstract of the paper is actually very clear, if not the body text. Foucault is all about how people internalize values and subjugate themselves. E.g., the student in the class internalized the authority of the teacher, rather than the teacher having to beat the student into submission. The worker internalizes the hierarchy of the firm, etc.

    In his writings, Foucault argues that the social sciences have been a key tool for this self-subjugation. Social sciences generate ideas and knowledge that contribute to people’s subjugation. For example, scholars may generate ideas about low status people, which are then the basis of oppression. Leiter is pointing out in the passage that Foucault’s suspcision of the social sciences is misplaced and that Foucault does nothing to justify his dismissal of the social sciences.

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