« On Compelling philosophers to rule and the tacit contract between state and citizens (and ought implies can) | Main | On Plato's Noble Lies (and a bit on Spinoza and Hobbes) »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I have worries similar to those of Heath. Perhaps I’m just in error about the bulk of critical “x” practice, but maybe my biggest gripe is one you seem to share:

“And I have also found myself irritated at the lazy use of ‘neoliberalism’ to describe all of our age’s ills.”

It just seems so uninteresting, in that the villain is always the same – some version of white racism/neo-liberalism/colonialism/capitalism (these appear to be treated as co-extensional). And you know this before you read the actual argument. It’s all a clever game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (Hollow Man, Kevin Bacon – not Footloose, Kevin Bacon).

To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to laid, but these causes suck all the air out of the room – to the exclusion of other distal and proximate causes. This isn’t to deny that the evidence supports some counterfactuals of the sort, “If it weren’t for x’s colonial past, y would not be the case”. But you’d think these do all, if not most of the work, in nearly every case. So, the plight of migrants in the Med is primarily (solely?) a consequence of Europe’s colonial past. What of the poor governance of African nations? That, of course, has the same cause. Venezuela’s descent into economic hell? – the result of an economic war originating in the U.S. What of the over-reliance on oil exports? That’s just the rentier model hangover from capitalist hegemony. Is the economic inequality and opportunity faced by African-Americans the result of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era? Of course. Does poor decision-making by Blacks play a role? That’s not just false, the mere suggestion is evidence of one’s own racism. And anyway, the logic of white racism is so pervasive that even the oppressed take it on subconsciously. And so it goes (or seems to, anyway). Further, the critiques are taken to be so decisive that a wholesale indictment of the prevailing structure is mere truism.

No doubt, many of these claims are falsifiable by social science, but some don’t seem to be – at least not to the extent of the significance of the causal claims involved. But admittedly, this all may just be caricature of the fields in question.

(None of the above should be taken as a critique of Foucault or continental philosophy more generally.)


Two quick point, while agreeing that there was a lot that was less than wonderful in that post by Heath. (*) First, in law, an area full of "Critical X studies", and one of my own areas of work, Heath's description fits all too well much of what's published. Not all of it, but lots of it. It's...not good. Second, the post seems to suggest that Heath is an "analytic philosopher", but that's odd, given that he's a Northwestern PhD (from when Northwestern was often seen as a "continental" school) who worked under Thomas McCarthy. So, I expect he's familiar with the stuff he's criticizing, not just doing old-school "analytic" dismissals of continental theory.

(*) the claim about neo-liberalism was odd, for example. It's a term I'd like to ban, because I think it's often a substitute for thought, but it was used by lots and lots of people other than and before Foucault, even by many who applied it to themselves.

Aaron Lercher

It is risky to make normative claims. So how does an author respond to this risk? There are three strategies of risk management: risk reduction, risk shifting, and risk spreading. (David Moss, When All Else Fails, Harvard UP 2004)

It’s not clear whether it is really possible to reduce the risk of normativity in total. Being governed by norms seems to be part of being human. It’s not likely that Foucault meant to teach that it's okay to make bad normative arguments, because all normative arguments are bad arguments. Heath’s complaint is (roughly) that this is how the authors he’s reading interpret Foucault, as far as he can tell.

Another response to avoid normative claims in one's writing, which is perhaps impossible. But maybe if there's sufficient detail about how different people act, this can leave normative conclusions mostly up to the reader. This shifts more normative risk to the reader. This seems to be Foucault's argumentative strategy (Marx’s too, I think). Foucault seems (to me) to have a strong personal and methodological norm against making normative claims. It’s a bit vague, but the reader ends up making decisions anyway in the end.

Yet another response, preferred by Heath, is to provide good arguments for normative claims, since that helps identify assumptions and reasoning patterns. If the reader shares these assumptions and reasoning patterns, this spreads the risk of normative claims, but only when this is done well, yet another normative risk.

Bruno Verbeek

Three quick remarks: 1. Heath is well-trained in critical philosophy. He is one of the first to try and combine Habermasian ideas about rationality with tradition rational choice theory and criticize the latter. He really *knows* this stuff. And the man reads voraciously. It is not out of ignorance that he wrote that piece. His overall complaint about most "critical X studies" is that it has ceased to be that: critical. Instead it has become cryptonormative.
2. It seems to me that the correct response to Foucaultian cryptonormativity is to make explicit one's normative starting points and commitments. Refusal to do so because doing this would lead one to make the same failures as those damn normativists is -- pace Kolodny -- throwing away the child with the bathwater. Instead, one should make explicit what it is about 'normative thinking' that is dangerous/objectionable/devastating. Many "continental" philosophers that I know (indeed some of my colleagues) can do that and explain their position in a perfectly intelligible way.
3. And now a tu quoque: I don't see Schliesser owning up to his cryptonormativity and trying to explain what it is about moral argument that is reprehensible/impoverished/bad. And he could not of course, as he engages in moral argument regularly in these pages. In other words, Schliesser, what do you propose we do?

[Full disclosure: I am a (alas!) former colleague of Schliesser though not one of the "continental logicians" that he talks about.]

Eric Schliesser

Dear Bruno,
1. You seem to conflate critical philosophy/theory with critical X studies. To be competent in the former says nothing about one's competence in the latter. [Also, it is peculiar that one's competence in rational choice theory is relevant here. I am not dissing Heath's competence at what he does!]
2. Of course one can be a continental philosopher and be explicit about one's commitments. It's only when you buy into the analytic rhetoric about continental philosophy that's a surprise. In fact, Foucault explains explicitly why he does what he does. (Kolodny's reading is not based guesswork.) It is notable that what "seems correct" to you is offered without empirical evidence or analysis of the risks/dangers of the approach.
3.Maybe you responded too quickly, Bruno. I remind you that I wrote, "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." So, there is no reason to think Schliesser is being inconsistent about his own use(s) of normative theory. Having said that, since you explicitly appeal to my past blogging persona, you may wish to read some of my past posts (a few are linked in the post) on examples of when sincere normative theory ends up (somewhat predictably) justifying colonial/imperial rule, bombing campaigns with lots of innocent victims, technocrats proposing solutions where downsside risk is entirely born by the less powerful (wrong gender, wrong skin color, etc.) and so on.
Finally, it's true that in this post I offered no response to the problem that Foucault diagnosed and Heath wishes away. I think it is a difficult one to resolve; I try to learn from others (like Heather Douglas, Serene Khader) and my inclination is to deal with it on a case by case basis after careful modeling and empirical study of the downside risks/upside rewards.

Eric Schliesser

Aaron, I like the diagnostic approach you offer. And I think that's a nice way to advance the discussion. But (a) you ignore the evidence in the post that there is a lot more to Foucault's approach than shifting the normative risk to the reader. (That's the stuff about ethos, good judgment, etc.) I am not suggesting I spelled it out for the reader. But I did give some suggestions where to look. That is, (b) you forget both that lots of normative theorists prefer to pretend they don't have to engage in risk management and/or assume (charitably) that by being transparent it iss addressed, as well as that if one takes ethical risk management seriously the response may involve complex strategies.


"you ignore the evidence in the post that there is a lot more to Foucault's approach than shifting the normative risk to the reader. (That's the stuff about ethos, good judgment, etc."

The worry here, to my mind, is that without an argument, we have no very good reason to accept the "ethos, good judgement, etc." of the other person. Why think they have this, and that it will lead the right way, even if they do? If we are given an argument, we can evaluate it. This is perhaps especially important because one's own evaluation of his or her "ethos" or "good judgement" often goes very wrong, perhaps especially in cases where one is strongly committed. Here, self-deception seems especially likely to me. Taking the time to work out an argument can be a way of checking one's self, as well as letting others do so. (This might well have been a good idea for Foucault, too, who sadly didn't always display "good judgement" about his actions - see his rather pathetic support for the Iranian revolution, and some of his dubious thoughts on AIDS early on. I have learned a lot from Foucault and respect him, but his "judgement" is decidedly mixed.) To this extent, I think that Heath and Habermas have the right conclusion.

Eric Schliesser

Matt, before you play the *without argument* card, may I remind you that I was responding to a (widely shared) post by Heath, who (in the post) simply ridicules alternative ways of doing philosophy and does not acknowledge any of the reasons I call attention to for doing things differently from the way you (and he?) advocate. There are arguments for the alternative ways of doing this (beyond the ones I note in the post); in the post I call attention to a very nice paper by Kolodny who presents them carefully. As I point out in the post, to note that, is not to claim that the case is settled.

Peter griffiths

I find a couple of your points puzzling.

1 I don’t think Heath’s post gives any reason to allege that he is claiming ‘bad faith’ in ‘critical X studies.’ He is simply stating that he has seen a good deal of work that takes strong moral stances but does not make any coherent moral arguments to clearly set out the positions, let alone justify them. Rather such positions are simply taken for granted and then become a platform from which to criticize others and social practices. I am sure that there are circumstances where it is fair to take such positions for granted - I doubt it is necessary to provide a moral argument for why genocide is undesirable - but perhaps other cases are more tricky.

2. The idea that the failure of work he criticizes to explain its moral stance is due to the sophisticated moral stance of the later Foucault that the very act of such explanation is hideously risky and potentially a ‘fertile tool for social oppression in the hands of the powerful’ I find unconvincing. Less generously, I find it absurd to interpret the lack of argument Heath points out to be an ‘expression of care for others.’

Stuart Chambers, Ph.D.

Heath found that 16/20 books he reviewed were (and I quote) "bad." So if 80% of the books he reviewed in critical studies fall under the category of terrible, perhaps those in critical studies should be more skeptical about the grounds for their arguments and less critical of Heath for pointing out their obvious flaws.

Eric Schliesser

That's one option; there are at least two other options (i) Prof. Heath applies the wrong standards to work that is, perhaps, outside his main area of expertise; (ii) Prof. Heath is being ungenerous because there is a known context over scarce resources (jobs, prestige, etc.) between different schools. Your contribution here has not even started to help us figure out what's going on.

Stuart Chambers, Ph.D.

Sorry Eric, but you are sidestepping the main issue, which is this: Were the books Heath reviewed in critical studies (16/20) loaded with jargon, lacking in evidence, and guilty of confirmation bias? If the answer is yes, then some areas within critical studies have a problem when it comes to epistemology. It does not matter what field you are in, you cannot ignore evidence by substituting normative judgements. I see this in the prostitution issue here is Canada and in women's studies departments. Radical feminists ignore scientific evidence that counters their oppression paradigm. Instead, they blame all of life's ills on the "patriarchy." That's not critical thinking: it's dogma. And that is Heath's main point. I think it's worth investigating how often this happens within critical studies and elsewhere. Admitting there is a potential problem in terms of evidentiary standards is the first step in finding out what's going on.

Eric Schliesser

Actually, you offer no serious evidence for your claims. I am no fan of the motivated reasoning and Ex cathedra culture wars you are engaged in. So, unless you do better than this, I am going to ask you to take your stuff elsewhere--plenty of outlets that cater to your taste.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


Blog powered by Typepad