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I’m finally getting around to reading Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits, seven years after its publication and a couple years after it became the topic du jour for young analytic philosophers. (I read Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit seven years after it came out, too: perhaps it is my intellectual destiny to be, uhh, fashionably late). Reading the early chapters of the book, I noticed an aspect of Williamson’s strategy which follows a certain strand in analytic philosophy, a tendency which I believe is worthy of a cocktail-napkin examination as to its significance for intellectual life generally. Now, everybody literate is familiar with Descartes’ procedure for establishing certainty in general from the certainties of the mind, and everybody philosophical is familiar with some arguments that this is the wrong way to go about understanding knowledge and the mind. What exactly is wrong about it is usually established indirectly: from acceptance of realism about perception, or externalism about mental content, we reason to the necessity of dispensing with Cartesian subjectivism.
Less often the case is made that a proper understanding of subjectivity requires a reconsideration of the Cartesian view of the mind. However, to my mind, this is the more central position and the one that truly weds the insights of idealism to a sane view of objectivity. “Ever since Descartes”, we have viewed the mind as the best known thing; but ever since Kant, some have been analyzing “psychological” states as logically articulated: the critical thing is not that the thought goes on “in my mind”, but that it bonds together elements of the world in a way which makes that world thinkable. On this view, belief and other “intentional idioms” are not a partially occluded window into the external world;they are mechanisms of explication that structure that world conceptually, independent of the vicissitudes of the individual observer. The eliminative materialist chooses science over the mind; but to do science is already to employ mental categories, and a vocabulary purified of mental states would make logical relations incoherent. We can be correct or incorrect in reasoning about the world, only because the relations between worldly things are rational relations: and skepticism would do away with the mind as well as knowledge, for the reason that all our mental concepts cannot properly be divorced from objective realities.
At The Valve, John Holbo has been going on for a while about the ways that Foucault fails to live up to Kant’s argument in “What Is Enlightenment?” Foucault compresses two centuries worth of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment into Kant’s Prussian special pleading, failing to touch the nerve of Kant’s program, says he. Well, could be: but on re-reading The Order of Things, I am struck by the many passages describing Classical mentalités that read like a somewhat workmanlike exposition of the first Critique. Of course, if one is inclined to find Foucault “dangerous” one is likely to downplay any similarity here and play up Foucault’s links to other prophets of alterity. But given Foucault’s less countercultural forebears, the historians of science that tracked the adoption of theoretical paradigms, I think it is not too much to ask: is there a perhaps a properly Kantian dimension to Foucault?
Firstly, as the American editors of Foucault’s shorter writings acknowledge, there is a tripartite division in Foucault paralleling Kant’s theoretical philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics: the “archeological” histories of knowledge, the “genealogical” histories of power, and the “hermeneutic” works on art and sexuality. These “periods” of Foucault’s writing could be viewed as a linear development. But what if they instead represent competing claims on the minds of a contemporaneous public? We would then have a set of principles for adjudicating all the various claims that come before the mind. But even more than architectonic similarities, we see in Foucault’s methods the traces of Kantian argumentation, transposed into the realm of history. Foucault, no less than Kant, operates with categories: the origins of a phenomenon are no more distant and no more recent than the adoption of organizing principles structuring discourse about a particular topic, like the categories structure perception. The categories are not deduced from the transcendental unity of the subject, but neither are they relativistically used for “constructing” the transcendental subject of theoretical knowledge: the whole trick of the episteme is turned by construing the transcendental element several times larger than a person’s consciousness, without jettisoning the features that Kant introduced to give objective discourse heft.
To be sure, in considering Foucault’s later works we have Nietzsche to contend with, the Nietzsche who proposes historical genealogies that are compatible with the same institution serving opposite purposes at its birth and at maturity. But I think Foucault’s analyses are really too fine to be wholly inspired by the man who suggests that the other races don’t really feel pain as much. Foucault’s method in the later works is to find systems of thought which are flexible enough to support “charitable” interpretations as well as the machinery of power: but are we, in considering these blueprints for concerted action, really all that far from the Kantian idea? Again, many features of the Kantian program are adapted, but at a properly post-Hegelian, post-Marxist distance from the consciousness of the individual: you can, because we must.
Finally, although Foucault’s prescriptions in his political works are very different from Kant’s, the intention to actually and effectively influence the powers that be is the same in both. I find it odd that people who write about both Foucault and contemporary politics rarely publically entertain the idea that Foucault consciously wished to be a guru to the New Left in his country and in the US: surprisingly or unsurprisingly, his efforts in this direction have a conscious affinity with others that wanted to be done with Marxism but not with social problems, even the early neoconservatives (at one point Foucault grumbles about the rising expenditures on healthcare, suggesting that people would eventually have to be reined in). How successful he was is perhaps hard to judge, given the ubiquity of Foucauldian concepts in the academy and hostility to them in public affairs: but in a way, it’s not too much to say Foucault had an Enlightenment project of his own.