16 May 2013

Thesis Defense Presentation

My interest in Michel Foucault goes back to a seminar I took in 2009 at Yale College. There we focused on three of the main figures of French Post-Structuralist theory: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. To my surprise, the Foucault I had expected to find in the course, based on the rumors which circulated with his name and the stigma associated with his “postmodern” label, seemed not to exist. Instead, I found Foucault a delight to read, and I gladly received from him his cynicism about the politics of sexual liberation, his insistence on treating medieval sources with respect, and his thoroughgoing rejection of Enlightenment philosophical pretensions. Nevertheless, Foucault and Derrida seemed to be sounding the death knell for western philosophy, and I knew that they had no answers to my deeper questions, and no future to offer me if I lingered with them.

Still, as I proceeded to more fruitful studies and became interested in Aquinas, Foucault lingered as a convenient point of contact with the theoretical background of the cultural left. Unlike many of his intellectual progeny and their disciples, Foucault tends to be careful and methodical in his criticism of historical knowledge structures, and does not mince his genealogical deconstructions with poorly thought out appeals to the liberal ideals of justice and equality. He is deeply anti-progressive, and ordinarily as critical of his allies as of his enemies. In short, I have always seen Foucault as the sort of nihilist I could trust to write clearly and frankly, without throwing around phantom ontologies or ethical principles, or deferring comprehension by cloaking himself in a haze of poeticisms. This has led me to return to him periodically when I feel a longing for a good antagonist. It was just such a desire for an intelligent antagonist that led me to write this thesis.

When I first began work on the thesis, the problem which interested me was very clear: between the writings of Michel Foucault and Thomas Aquinas there is a clean inversion of the functions by which order is generated and recognized. For Thomas, the root of all created order is the eternal Wisdom of the Godhead, which grasps all things perfectly in their beginning and end, and which governs them inwardly according to their nature and perfection. Just as Divine Wisdom generates the providential order of the universe, even so the perfection of the habit by which creatures come to know that order is a kind of Wisdom, though infinitely inferior and imperfect. Human wisdom, natural or supernatural, recovers from things the traces of Divinity left in them and, by observation and analogy, broadens its gaze to see the inescapable ordering of the world as it flows from and terminates in God. 

The Thomistic picture of intelligible order clashes cleanly with the portrait drawn by Foucault. Where in Aquinas the root of the actual order of things is the simplicity and perfection of divine providence, Foucault sees order as emerging through an utterly contingent series of brute facts — Facts without permanence or determinate meaning --facts which themselves emerge contingently as the result of the arrangement and production of shared symbols, modes of speaking, social structures, forms of experience, and power relations. And, instead of tending toward some ultimate union with the Eternal, Foucault sees the order of the world as in constant flux, without any direction or guiding intention. The one who grasps most this profusion of things and their order is not “Wise” for Foucault, but is on the contrary most likely to be duped into believing that order is a natural and intrinsic feature of things, and that any particular contingency of history actually hides an eternal truth. “Wisdom”, instead of being a divine gift, is an instrument of power by which existing modes of order and dominance are reinforced through the sacralization of basic presuppositions about the world. In opposition to this attitude, Foucault sets up an alternative ideal, modeled off of his great hero Friedrich Nietzsche. If Wisdom is duped by finding in historical accidents reason to speculate about eternity, then Foucault chooses to embrace a kind of Madness which insists on the irreducibility of historical contingencies and employs them constantly to thwart dominant modes of understanding and ordering.

This fairly straightforward set of contrasts formed the foundation for my project: Foucault’s heroization of madness terminates in a kind of Heraclitean nihilism, and Aquinas’s devotion to Wisdom terminates in the beatific vision of the Divine Essence. A contrast of this variety would be best done in a theological context, because only the full vision of St. Thomas’s theological ordering of the world would allow for Madness and Wisdom to reveal their perfect antagonism.

However, I wanted the thesis to be a dialectical exercise and not simply the exposition of a neat contrast. If my treatment of Foucault and Aquinas on the basis and consummation of intelligibility was to have a dialectical character, it would need to involve the engagement of the two thinkers with each other. At this point the real difficulties emerge. Foucault and Aquinas both have convenient “trap door” mechanisms by which each can dispose of the other without deep engagement. For Foucault, there are two easy options: first, to historicize Aquinas and treat his thought as an object to be genealogized and deconstructed; second, to neuter the attacks of the Thomist by showing how they emerge from various power structures and work as regulative functions for the exclusion of alien forms of speech and thought. For Aquinas, it is easy to see Foucault’s errors as flowing from an excessively pessimistic view of human nature, or from the blindness of the intellect which follows from moral depravity so extreme as to lead him to reject first principles and to attempt to transform the natural aptitude of the mind to truth into a necessary and universal expression of malice. 

Though these responses are interesting and revealing they do not amount to any sort of real dialogue. So the primary methodological question for this project becomes: Is it possible for Aquinas and Foucault to speak to each other? How would such a dialogue proceed? Can any common ground be found between them? Can they learn from each other? Since these questions are closely tied to the original problem about the basis and consummation of intelligibility in human acts of knowing, I was able to use them to provide a dialectical structure for the thesis. Instead of merely comparing Foucault and Aquinas, the goal became to perform the groundwork for a positive intellectual engagement between the two, and to orient them so as to respond adequately to each other. Since Foucault is already historically conscious and writes at several points about late medieval thought, the brunt of the work lay in preparing a Thomistic response to Foucault, a response which managed to show how a Thomist might meet Foucault’s objections at their level without falling victim to them. To this end it was necessary to present Foucault and his background in great detail, and then provide an opposed account of things which navigated all his legitimate concerns and targeted his key errors, while indicating how the strong points of Foucault’s critique of Thomistic ontology can be integrated into an account of philosophical praxis and the mechanics of tradition without destabilizing or delegitimizing the synthesis of Christian truth provided by Aquinas. 

In order to understand Foucault’s work, it is important to see his roots in the development of western thought since Descartes. The Cartesian reorientation of European philosophy introduced two thematic trends in early modern thought: first, a preference for skeptical methodologies that attempt do away with prejudice and reduce knowledge to a skeleton of absolutes. Second, the prioritization of the evidence of reflective self-consciousness over the evidence of experience, custom, and tradition. 

Together, these trends culminate in the critical synthesis of Immanuel Kant. Cartesian philosophical methodology creates a problem: how is the knowing subject to regain access to knowledge of the external world when the content of experience is capable of being doubted? Given the Cartesian prioritization of the evidence of mental states, or "clear and distinct ideas", as he calls them, Kant's solution to the problem of our knowledge of the external world is quite clever. He performs a grand metaphysical shift, choosing to locate the basis of the order, unity, and existence of the world in universal synthetic functions of the mind. By locating the basis of our knowledge in the mind instead of in transcendental, mind-independent objects, Kant circumvents the Cartesian problem: our knowledge of reality is certain because reality as known by the mind is constituted by our act of knowing it. 

In his early work, Friedrich Nietzsche (who wrote about a century after Kant) seizes upon the Kantian account of the genesis of universal judgments about the world and takes it a step further, claiming that these mind-imposed syntheses of sensory particulars come at the cost of the erasure of the particularity and reality of things. In other words, the philosophical ideal of an eternal, universal truth, identified with God since at least the time of Plato, is a delusion by which man strips away the vitality and fecundity of the sensory world and replaces it with an empty, perspective-less, sterile concept of the "Good". The more settled we are in our idea of truth, the more immune we become to the Dionysian chaos of reality. Later on in his career, Nietzsche develops his critique of Truth into a historical reconstruction of the genesis of Christian ethics, which he calls a Genealogy of Morality. The history of Christianity, he says, is the history of a struggle between the weak and the strong, in which the weak have learned to dominate by a clever trick. Christianity makes weakness out to be morally superior, and blames the naturally strong for their excellence. This transvaluation of values leads the west deeper and deeper into nihilism, as the positive expression of power and dominance becomes more carefully denied and negated by the morality of the weak. 

Many of Nietzsche's themes and attitudes are taken up in the early 20th century by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger provides a phenomenological response to the old Cartesian problem, suggesting that Descartes's way of describing reality and ordering philosophical inquiry is fundamentally incorrect. Instead, he proposes an ontology based on the average everyday experience of things: interested, bound up in environments, occupied by particular concerns, and ordered through the general care we have for things, others, and ourselves. Instead of attempting to undo the natural circularity of human understanding, whereby we project prejudicial expectations onto reality and then recover them in experience, Heidegger suggests that the task of the Philosopher is to come to terms with the finitude and contingency of Human Being, to face our anxiety about the indeterminacy and meaninglessness of existence, and settle upon the an authentic recognition of our responsibility for determining by choice the meaning of reality. Becoming thoroughly open to the contingency and finitude of our prejudices amounts, according to Heidegger, to undoing of the tradition of western metaphysics, which has always attempted to cover up the fundamental Question of the Meaning of Being by establishing arbitrary philosophical principles as limits to thought, and hiding behind them. (For example, the principle of non-contradiction, or the principle of sufficient reason.)

Now we turn to Foucault. Foucault's career can be divided into two or three periods, depending on one's scrupulosity, but given the shortness of time, I will focus instead on some aspects of his work on Madness. Foucault's first and longest work, published in 1961, was a History of Madness from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. 

Foucault uses his book to show that various forms of behavior, identities, and ways of experiencing the world classed as "Madness" or "Unreason" during the period covered are in fact wildly divergent. "Madness" is the product of a series of historical exclusions by which a limit is placed on the acceptable moral or intellectual behavior of individuals in society. It develops spontaneously out of ethical and theological theories, political choices, and philosophical ideas, to the extent that the essence of Madness can be seen to have been produced by the mores and convictions of each period, as a kind of anti-norm encircling society and collecting everyone who diverged too far from what was seen as proper. 

Foucault's method for analyzing the production of madness is primarily documentary, covering the various periods of his research as independent and self-contained epistemic worlds, attempting to tease the core ideas of each period out of the testimony of diagnostic manuals, legal codes, medical theories, and theological works, rather than subjecting them to a progressive narrative or imposing modern psychological categories upon supposedly "undeveloped" or "primitive" descriptions.

Given the function of Madness as a limit-experience of social and intellectual order, Foucault is interested in the possibility of the irruption of that limiting population into the ordered universe which they enclose. Throughout the modern period madness is silenced and concealed, but what if the mad were given a new voice? What if rather than being morally stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned, a new possibility for madness arose, in which insanity itself stigmatized, diagnosed and condemned sanity, in which the ordered rationality of civil society were brought before the judgment seat of chaos? Such a possibility, Foucault believes, is revealed in the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, the Marquis de Sade, and Francisco Goya. These four heroes transcend the limits of rationality and return to preach the gospel of chaos which they have heard whispered in the outer darkness.

But what is this gospel of chaos? It is certainly not mere nihilism. Rather, it is the disclosure of the arbitrariness and contingency of dominant modes of rationality--the revelation of the possibility of a new truth, a different reality--an invitation to consider the functions by which this order is produced and sustained, to see things for what they are without attempting to reduce them to a hidden eternity.

Foucault's lyrical description of these new madmen (at the end of the History of Madness) forms, in a way, the cornerstone of much of his life's work, and a key to his authorial self-understanding. Foucault is a genealogist in the mode of Nietzsche: a writer of histories which show the dirty roots of our "eternal" truths and the contingency of our absolute principles, which invite us to ask again what the value of this or that intellectual structure is, what interests produce and perpetuate the various "obvious" features of our everyday reality. But his contact with the groundlessness of our everyday attitude toward the world does not serve an ethical function as it might in Sartre or Heidegger: it does not pave the way for some new and more authentic choice of self: Foucault prefers in his analyses to perpetually defer all reduction to a transcendental value, all determination of absolute meaning. This makes him, in a way, considerably more satisfying than any of the so-called Existentialist philosophers, who pretend that one can conjure up meaning for one's life by mere fiat in the face of moral nihilism and absurdity.

Instead of putting his genealogical activity to an ethical use, Foucault embraces the creative play of possibilities, always seeking out new limit-experiences and fringe possibilities in the prevailing rational norms of his time and place. He is a gleeful rebel in every company, always thwarting, overturning, and smashing conceptual idols and then vanishing. One can never quite track down his own position, never quite find his philosophical abode so as to challenge him on his own turf. He is something like Rumplestiltskin, a mythical sprite who appears and vanishes at random, and whose power cannot be broken so long as his true name is unknown.

So much for Foucault and his predecessors. Having come to terms, roughly at least, with the basic attitude and idea of Foucauldian genealogy, you will recall that our main task was to orient St. Thomas's account of intelligible order toward Foucault so as to provide the basis of a viable reply to him. There are three central issues to be addressed: first, the matter of intellectual foundations and the principles of human knowledge; second, the development of knowledge structures in the individual; third, the problem of history and the role of contingency and power in the transmission of ideas.

On the face of things, any Thomistic response to Foucault seems to fall victim to the following dilemma: the Thomist must either base his ontology on some self-evident first principle in the Cartesian fashion, and be accused of setting up arbitrary limits to thought, or he must present his ontology as a ready whole and be accused of simple dogmatism. There seems to be no good option.

In order to resolve the dilemma, we need to provide a non-foundationalist defense of intellectual first principles. The key principle we will reference is the law of non-contradiction, taken as a metaphysical rule: two contradictory states of affairs cannot exist in the same respect at the same time. Our question, then, is this: how does the mind know this principle (with what certainty, on what evidence)? And in what way does it form the basis of our knowledge of the world? 

Were we foundationalists, we would approach the principle of non-contradiction as a self-evident proposition, the clarity and distinctness of which so guaranteed its truth that it was incapable of doubt. This is an inadequate defense, however, because it fundamentally misses the relevance and basis of the principle of non-contradiction in the intellectual life of the human being. No one, as an infant, encounters non-contradiction as an intellectual primitive from which they build up a progressively more complex system of thought. Rather, the rule serves as a habitual, unexamined guarantor of the possibility of experiencing things determinately and referencing them in thought and speech. Thus Thomas speaks of the habit of first principles, a habit which we become aware of only late in our studies when we have reached a high level of abstraction. 

Still, the habitual and ordinarily unexamined character of the principle of non-contradiction (or its allies, the belief in essences stability of individual substances) does not simply make it a blind prejudice. When examined, the prejudice proves to be indispensable. Why? Suppose for a moment that the principle of non-contradiction were invalid as a metaphysically -- in other words, that an apple could be both all red and all green at the same time in the same respect. What would follow? Well, if the PNC were invalid, then it would be impossible to specify any determinate thing. Any mental reference, word, or idea we might have, however clear, could not be said to fix on something in reality. This apple, being both red and green, would not have a specifiable color. It needn't stop there, either. The apple need not only be an apple. It would also be Julius Caesar, and a sack of flour, and the sensation you get when you look down from a great height. Very quickly, our apple has vanished under the weight of its plurality of incompatible attributes. The apple becomes all things, and ceases to exist.

Whatever may happen to our apple in this case, it is clear that we can no longer meaningfully speak about it or think about it. It eludes us, being everything and nothing, and ceases to be a possible object of thought. Were we to apply this rejection of non-contradiction to everything, and not just the apple, speech itself would become impossible, and knowledge would fail. There would be nothing.

And so, we find that this metaphysical first principle is practically necessary, because it undergirds and makes possible the rational and discursive activities at the basis of human life, but also upon examination, that its basis lies not in the absolute self-certainty of the intellect, grasping an eternal truth, but in the aptitude of the human person as an intellectual substance to know and speak about things. It is by virtue of that aptitude that the law of non-contradiction is available to us. And its emergence as an explicit rule at the basis of speculative philosophy comes through experience and observation and engagement with the world, not a shuttered, skeptical self-examination. 

The second issue of difficulty to the Thomist is the problem of the contingent roots of knowledge structures in human learning. In other words, given the prejudicial influence of one's historical and cultural situation and the resulting slant on one's thought, does it not inevitably follow that every individual is a slave to historical contingencies, and that any claim to ahistorical knowledge merely involves the illegitimate elevation of some contingent fact to the status of a necessity? Given our earlier denial of the usefulness of intellectual first principles in grounding a system of knowledge, this does indeed seem to be a grave difficulty. The key to eliminating it is to return to the question of what knowledge is and the mechanics of knowledge acquisition. It is true that cultural conditions prejudicially dispose us to investigate certain objects and to look at them under certain aspects, but prejudice does not create knowledge. It merely guides the process of knowledge acquisition. Knowledge is caused by the apprehension of the essences of things, and the reception of those essences by the mind. Consequently whatever one's prejudices, the actuality of things is a natural corrective for prejudicial errors. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between two different orders of intelligibility. On one hand there is an accidentally subordinated series of mental states: imperfect conceptions of a thing give way to better ones as experience fills out one's notion of it. In this order, which St. Thomas calls the order of discovery, an early error need not have any bearing on the later state of one's knowledge. However, there is another way of describing knowledge: according to an essentially subordinated series of events or mental states, such that the invalidity of any one causes the corruption of the rest. For example, a faulty inference in a syllogism corrupts the validity of its conclusions, or a bad metaphysical principle will corrupt the rest of one's subsequent analysis. It is in light of this order, called the order of judgment, that St. Thomas says at the beginning of the De Ente et Essentia, that a small error in the beginning is a great one in the end.

The third and final difficulty for the Thomist (with which I will conclude this presentation) is the problem of history and contingency in the transmission of ideas. Here we might pose a dilemma similar to the one proposed in our discussion of first principles: on one hand, the Thomist can concede to Foucault that the emergence and transmission of knowledge is governed by contingent power dynamics which are frequently impersonal and can be traced to practical political and social interests. In this case, it seems impossible to trust tradition, and the Thomistic synthesis collapses. Or, on the other hand, one could suggest that either the whole world or at least the Church is a kind of pure vessel, preserved from all worldliness and corruption so that the transmission of philosophical and theological doctrine is never motivated by anything other than a graced love of God and desire for the salvation of souls. This option has the disadvantage of being historically false on an epic scale.

The difficulty vanishes when we consider the mode by which knowledge is transmitted, according to St. Thomas. He describes pedagogy among humans not as the implantation of ideas in new minds by learned ones, but as a practice by which we direct each other toward the essences of things and guide each other in the choice of aspects under which to perceive reality. If genuine knowledge had to be transmitted by a kind of direct implantation from one person to another, then the individual corruption of participants in any tradition of knowledge would post a serious problem for the reliability of the knowledge conveyed in that tradition. But since pedagogy is not directly the cause of our knowledge of things, but merely an instrument by which we are directed toward them, the imperfection of the instruments of tradition is of little concern. This is even clearer in the transmission of the faith, since the light of faith is given directly by God to enable the individual to receive the truth preached to him, and the faith of the minister is not necessary for the efficacy of the gospel.

To conclude: what is the value of Foucault for the Thomist? Where should this conversation go next? I believe that, aside from being an essential guide to the development of the cultural left in America, Foucault is most useful as a purveyor of critical methodology. His genealogical analyses show us how best to deflate the pretensions of our opponents, especially in a naively progressivist society like our own. Furthermore, he is an intelligent interlocutor against which to hone one's thought. But perhaps best of all, an engagement with Foucault forces the Thomist to turn his tools toward the resolution of historical difficulties, and in a way that tends to neutralize the threat of Hegelian dialectics from rival theological schools.