By evading normative theory, he attempted to draw attention to the problem of judgment. His cryptonormativism was thus not an evasion of the interrogation of his normative stance, but an answer to it. Instead of accounting for where he stood by allying himself with a theory, he turned the question back on his interrogators. ’My position,’ Foucault seemed to argue, ’is to be found in the philosophical life that I lead, in the deep commitments and integrating style that gives my work and judgment their sense and coherence, in the manner in which I have harmonized my bios with my logos.’--Niko Kolodny "The ethics of cryptonormativism: A defense of Foucault’s evasions.' p. 72
I sometimes joke that moving from philosophy into a political science department introduced me to really existing positivists and applied continental philosophy. By ‘applied continental philosophy’ I mean using and extending the concepts of French philosophers (primarily Foucault and Deleuze) or critical theory (Habermas) to make social and political phenomena visible and available for analysis and political response. A version of applied continental philosophy goes by ‘critical X studies’ (as in ‘critical security studies’ or ‘critical middle east studies’). In these fields, philosophy, discourse analysis, social science, and ethnography can be mixed. Like all hybrid practices some of it is rather messy and caught up in specialized jargon* that’s hard to understand to outsiders. But make no mistake, ‘critical X studies’ can also be quite heroic: some of my direct colleagues work with torture victims (see Vivienne Matthies-Boon) in the middle east or document (see Polly Pallister-Wilkins) the plight of refugees in the winter waters of the Mediterranean (etc.) at considerable risk to themselves. The point of these projects isn’t Indiana Jones style heroism, of course, but to describe and explain the cruelties inflicted on people with the misfortune of being born in the wrong region (with the wrong religion, skin-color, and/or gender, etc.)
These misfortunes are not natural disasters—they are man-made and often can be traced, at least in part, to the heavily moralized practices of European and North American statecraft (with ‘humanitarian interventions’ gone awry; with ‘collateral damage’ of bombing campaigns of 'militants’ and, of course, the endless arms deliveries to friendly (‘allied’) dictators (and once allied ‘babarians’), environmentally damaging oil extraction, and rising food prices due to global warming primarily caused by Western consumption.) In often dire, even dangerous circumstances, my colleagues trace individual human suffering to large(r) social causes and political decisions. And they do so with an ethic of responsible research and speech; that is, they theorize the fact that they benefit (publications, careers, etc.) from other people’s misery and they incorporate this fact into their research practices which often generates considerable moral duties on the researcher. In some (but not all) cases these duties shade into ‘activism’ or ‘mobilization’ or ‘charity’ etc. And, all too often, our very own governments are in a tacit, even explicit collusion, with the dictators and ‘barbarians’ to marginalize their attempts at making visible and offering explanations of the suffering.
For Joseph Heath, this is all ‘old-fashioned bafflegab.’ He said so in a blog-post widely and approvingly shared among my friends (both folks with a classically liberal bent and analytic philosophers) on social media. What’s notable about Heath’s post is that he completely misdiagnoses the works he criticizes. He thinks that the folk in ‘critical X studies’ do not know how to make moral arguments and are in the grip of poorly worked out Nietzschean moral perspectivism or even skepticism indebted to Foucault. (“The authors feel a passionate moral commitment to the improvement of society – this is what animates their entire project, compels them to write a book – but they have no idea how to defend these commitments intellectually, and they have also read a great deal of once-fashionable theory that is essentially skeptical about the foundations of these moral commitments (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu). As a result, they are basically moral noncognitivists, and perhaps even skeptics.”)
Now, before I continue, it’s important to be clear about what Heath gets right: first, ‘critical X studies’ is often informed by a moral indignation (if not despair) and really does try, at least sometimes, to call us to action. And, second, it is also true – about which more below – that there is a mistrust of normative theory (and normative argument) that runs through this literature. Heath is right to remind us that Habermas coined a term, ‘cryptonormativity,’ for this phenomenon. Third, it’s not impossible, of course, that some of the authors of the books he read are really are confused neo-Nietzscheans without adequate grounding in argumentative skills and maybe (fourth) a few of them are really using ‘rhetoric and techniques of social control, such as audience limitation, as a way of securing agreement on their [un-argued for] normative agenda.’ But it is remarkable that Heath basically claims bad faith in ‘critical X studies’ and manages to be obtuse about the very reasons for the existence of cryptonormativity.
Heath overlooks the more likely explanations for the cryptonormativity he has encountered. In a seminal, but overlooked, (1996) paper, Niko Kolodny has put the essential insight succinctly: for the mature Foucault* normative “theory is risky because its practical effects are uncertain.” (67; I use Kolodny here, of course, because his analytic credentials are beyond reproach.) That is, at the heart of Foucault’s stance is a recognition of the reality of and ethical concern over inductive risk and responsible speech. For, anybody familiar with the history of the last few centuries knows (recall) that the specialized, theoretical language of moral expertise is also a fertile tool for social oppression in the hands of the powerful.
As an aside, many analytic philosophers – my people -- insulate themselves from such uncomfortable facts by both allowing themselves to be ignorant of history, sociology, and political science, or by suggesting – ‘it’s not guns that kill people but people that kill people’ -- that the use (or 'abuse') of a theory should have no bearing at all on our evaluation of the theory. This is peculiar because if normative theory and argument are meant to get us to change the status quo, or guide behavior (reform institutions, etc.), how these do so, in practice, is no accidental feature, but (shall we say) it’s core mission. (This is not to deny the beauty and uses for normative theory that is really meant to be ignored in practice.) That is, Foucault’s stance is not an expression of moral skepticism, but an expression of care for others.
The previous two paragraphs are not an argument for the rejection of normative argument or normative theory. It is also not a justification for Foucault’s approach. But the mature Foucault, took responsibility for his words and reflected on the need to address the central problem of all normative theory and that has no easy solution (so far). As Kolodny notes, the challenge of safe-guarding against the all-too-predictable abuses of political and normative theory – and I have blogged a bit about contemporary examples (recall) – led Foucault to reflect not just on the role of good judgment and character of the theorist, but also on the ethos of theorizing and what I call the philosophical integrity of the theorist (the match between words and actions).
Now, Foucault inspired some bad academic practices. I have railed against the ‘cult of contingency’ that infects some areas of history of science (and history) and historical epistemology. And I have also found myself irritated at the lazy use of ‘neoliberalism’ to describe all of our age’s ills. But Heath’s suggestion that Foucault’s work on Chicago economics and ordno-liberalism is just so much “talk about economic ideas that he didn’t really understand,” is just bluff. Foucault’s work in the area – primarily lectures -- is pioneering and interesting. They are also wonderfully clear: I say so as (ahh) an expert on the history of Chicago economics (go read my papers!) But don’t trust me, take it from one of Foucault’s subjects of study, the Chicago Economist, the late Gary Becker’s evaluation of Foucault (see the note below).*** Of course there are details in Foucault I disagree with, even some of his major interpretations. But that’s to be expected.
Before I close let me insert an autobiographical note (you can skip the next two paragraphs). Like many analytically trained philosophers of my generation, I was thoroughly convinced that continental philosophy was bullshit (which was reinforced by some assertive opinion-makers and some irresponsible academic behavior among continental luminaries I encountered along the way). When I moved to Leiden (2006), I was baffled to discover terrific logicians who were continental philosophers (not just born in Europe, but doing, say, phenomenology); how could this be? I decided I needed to educate myself, and with the help of my colleagues started reading Husserl and Derrida (etc.).
Then one day, I was asked to be an external examiner on a dissertation by Maarten Van Dyck on Galileo and the scientific revolution in Ghent. I knew some of Maarten’s previous work on Galileo and Huygens (who I have been studying on and off since my undergrad days with the world’s leading scholars of the history and philosophy of physics). Ghent is a provincial university; its academic staff is largely drawn from its own graduates who often spent their whole academic lives there. The philosophy department is a quirky mix of para-consistent logicians, pragmatist philosophers of science, bioethicists, and Lacanians. (Full disclosure: I was later a proud member of the department.) I started reading the dissertation, which offered a wholly fresh interpretation of Galileo drawing on the work of my teachers and, much to my puzzlement, Foucault (and other French theorists). After I finished the first chapter, I was shaken; I could not read on: there was nothing wrong with my learning, but I came to see my mediocrity: in my analysis, I had not uttered a single genuine thought. When I finally picked up Foucault – Lets mots et les choses – I was flabbergasted to discover a historiography with an awe-inspiring and necessary ambition (and grounded in insane amount of academic labor). I do not think of myself as a follower of Foucault (and warmly recommend Spivak’s criticism of less mature Foucault), but I recoil at the venom directed at him emanating from Lilliput analysts.
Okay, let me close. Heath quotes a (rather long and jargon-filled) sentence from “Métis” by Chris Andersen. (It’s the sentence that inspires Heath’s ‘bafflegab.’) I sincerely think the sentence is (while ugly) fully intelligible if you have spent some time with the relevant literature. But I am not going to waste our time by offering an interpretation of a sentence quoted out of context. Rather, Heath goes on to ask in neo-Popperian fashion, ‘can you think of an event that could happen, in the world, that would cause you to lose confidence in this claim?’ This is a fair question to ask of a social scientist (even a ‘critical X studies’ person); oddly Heath offers no argument or evidence to think that Andersen couldn’t meet the challenge. And this gets me to the nub: Heath completely misses that his own rhetoric (e.g., ‘vituperativeness and rhetorical overkill,’ ‘character assassination;’ ‘incredibly dogmatic’ etc.) is a window – no, no, not into his soul or character [I wouldn’t stoop so low!] – into a form of academic disparagement that counts as perfectly acceptable in our circles and yet simultaneously seems a perfectly apt description of itself.
*A field’s specialized jargon is, while lamentable, completely predictable sociological fact about modern academy because that jargon is part of the (contingent, potentially un-enduring) identity conditions of that field as a field of inquiry.
**I have suggested that Derrida’s gem of little book on Condillac encouraged Foucault to rethink his stance.
***Becker is quoted as:
“My beliefs about modern French philosophers were that they were opaque, impossible to understand. So I read Foucault, these two essays—they are lectures in translations, obviously not the best from the point of view of giving clarity—and yet they were clear. I mean, I understood what he was saying, and generally agreed with most of what he said, which I’ll come to in a little while. But I thought they were perceptive, clearly written, not hiding behind a lot of complicated phraseology that didn’t amount to anything. So to me, it said that I should be reading more of him. He’s a very good thinker.”
Of course, there is also strategic politeness here. You don’t win a Nobel in economics by not being savvy about such matters.