Search results for "enlightenment "

A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4


Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2006 - 00:53

Last Sunday morning I went to the British Museum's exhibition on the Enlightenment. I found it a quite profound experience, and only partly because I'd had only 3 hours' kip :)

Seeing Linneaus' sketches of different kinds of plants and the way he developed a taxonomy to describe them is just an awesome thing - a whole collection of people, who devoured swathes of their lives in the pursuit of finding ways to organise and explain the world.

Of course, in a fairly reflexive way, the museum draws attention to their part in some of the things we tend to criticise about the Enlightenment - the cultural imperialism, orientalism, the use of Classical Art as a yard-stick by which to measure the cultural achievement of other cultures, the plunder of riches, the subjugation of nations...

But nevertheless, man! what people they were. The orreries are something to see - and imagine trying to build your own astrolabe. I dare anyone to find the maker of an astrolabe and tell them they're misguided imperialists exercising arbitrary discursive power over oppressed peoples.

Pondering this, I came home and reread Foucault's essay, 'What is Enlightenment' (hey it's my job, okay!). Something struck me in a way it hadn't before - Foucault talks of the 'modern' perspective as being transformational, about the way in which the real becomes 'more than real', the beautiful 'more than beautiful', and the changing interplay between the constraints of reality, and the exercise of freedom.

Seeing those fossils, not just the literal fossils displayed there, but the fossilised remains of a era which totally transformed the real world and man's freedom within it, really made me admire them even more.

I recommend it :)

Categories: enlightenment, exhibition, museum, reason, classicism, Foucault, Linnaeus,
Comments: 4