Epistemic status: exploratory

Student: Rah, it’s so frustrating!

Master: What is?

Student: I keep stumbling back into Foucault, and I’m never able to decide if I should discard him or if there’s something in there.

Master: I see. Why do you think that he might be irrelevant?

Student: A bunch of reasons: people keep telling me that he’s either wrong or outright dangerous, he apparently made a specialty of historical mistakes and biased evidence, and post-modernism seems to always end in denying reality.

Master: Pretty damning. And yet you still think that he could teach you something?

Student: That’s the frustrating part! I have this intuition that Foucault built — or tried to build — some great epistemic tools, and that these could be an important part of the toolkit I’m building.

Master: Just try reading him then, and see where that leads you.

Student: I did.

Master: Oh. And it didn’t go well, given your look.

Student:might have thrown the book in frustration.

Master: I see.

Student: And stomped on it. And insulted its ancestry. And burned it.

Master: Not reading him directly, then. Or at least not without some preparation. And maybe some anger counseling.

Student: That’s why I looked for a secondary source after that.

Master: Good call.

Student: And I found this book: “How to read Foucault”, by Johanna Oksala.

Master: How should you read him, then?

Student: Well, she does make a case for Foucault as breaking certainties. For example, she writes

While science and much of philosophy aim to decipher from among the confusion of events and experiences that which is necessary and can be articulated as universal law, Foucault's thought moves in exactly the opposite direction. He attempted to find among the necessities that which upon closer philosophical scrutiny turned out to be contingent, fleeting and arbitrary. For Foucault, the aim of philosophy is to question the ways in which we think, live and relate to other people and to ourselves in order to show how that-which-is could be otherwise.

Master: But you already knew Foucault’s aim was critical, didn’t you? That’s one of the issue with hardcore postmodernism: overcriticizing to the point of intellectual suicide.

Student: Yes, but I wasn’t sure that this was a fair reading. The fact that a Foucault scholar and overall defender says it has more weight than from critics.

Master: Fair enough. That still doesn’t tell you much about his tools though.

Student: That’s the other thing I learned about: that Foucault’s main tool was history. He used to reveal where the concepts and necessities came from, and in doing so take away from them their sacred nature of “natural” background assumptions.

Master: Hum, so history for finding out where our concepts and values come from, in order to question them?

Student: Exactly! And the historical path plays a big role in the criticism, especially if they’re here for the wrong reasons.

Master: Interesting. Reminds me somewhat of Inadequate Equilibria.

Student: That’s what I thought! Except the focus is more concrete — when you can beat the consensus — and Yudkowsky depends far more on game theory and evolutionary psychology than history.

Master: And I guess there’s also similarities with works like signaling theory and The Categories were made from Man, not Man for the Categories?

Student: That’s my guess.

Master: Yet all these approaches work well; why do we need Foucault?

Student: I don’t know! I mean, okay, maybe it’s that Foucault is more… epistemic?

Master: In what sense?

Student: Something like “Foucault wants to understand the underlying epistemic changes and breaks”.

Master: Wait a minute: that’s something completely different.

Student: Oh. You’re right. So there’s two things:

  • The historical contingency critique
  • The paradigm and epistemic changes

Master: Now, is Foucault’s work the content you’re looking for, or merely a pointer.

Student: What… does that mean?

Master: Do you think that you think that the value of Foucault for you comes from the specific ideas he had, or in using him to even consider these two topics? For example, your historical contingency category is related to signaling and inadequate equilibria, but also cultural history. And the epistemic changes that Foucault discusses are part of a more general frame around paradigm, maybe a pointer to Bachelard for example.

Said differently: now that you have the categories, is Foucault a central part of studying these categories, or is he at best a minor source in them?

Student: Ah! I do feel less drawn to Foucault in particular now that I have these categories; he definitely doesn’t seem the most important source in either, even if he’s relevant. But…

Master: But what? Don’t let your confusion hide — draw it into the light.

Student: There’s still something about Foucault himself, his intellectual work, that seems important for epistemic purposes. What is it? It’s not about his tools anymore, or the content of his work. It’s… that he made so many mistakes?

Master: So you want to learn to not make the same mistakes?

Student: No, no, they don’t seem that interesting, as mistakes go. But that’s close. He made mistakes, but… he seems to have found some relevant ideas while making mistakes? Like, it sounds like he’s often factually wrong, but in ways that are not detrimental to his very large scale points?

Yeah, he’s one of a few thinkers I can think like that

Master: Interesting. Who else?

Student: Gould’s the only one that comes to mind.

Master: That’s definitely a can of worms. But I see what you mean: it does seem that there was some productive direction despite the mistakes — and being a pain in the ass, in Gould’s case.

Student: Exactly!

Master: Still, that’s not something you can do now, can you?

Student: Why?

Master: Because for that to work, you need to find what Foucault and Gould got right. Which means digging into cultural history and paradigms for Foucault, and levels of selection for Gould. 

Student: Did I just put more work on myself?

Master: Yes! I’m proud of you.

Student: I should get started then.

Master: Sure, when you finish your study on Dennett’s intuition pumps. You remembered to work on that, right?

Student: Well… I was kind of bothered by this Foucault thing…

Master: Good that we solved it then! Now, let’s talk intuition pumps!

Student: Yes master…

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What do you think of the below quote from Epicteus' Enchiridion?


49. When a man shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, " Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this man would have nothing to be proud of. 

But what do I desire? To understand the world and follow her. 

I ask then - Who interprets the world? Finding Chrysippus does, I come to him. I don't understand his writings. 

I seek, therefore, one to interpret them. So far there is nothing to be proud of. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. 

This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? It is just the case that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. 

However, when anyone desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot point to acttion which are in harmony with his teaching.


Overall, should things even be this difficult to interpret? Are we valuing the simple ability to interpret these things, or are we actually valuing specific way of conduct that can be clearly gained from reading the text?

Funnily, I've read that quote not that long ago during my morning stoic routine. ^^

My interpretation with regard to the post is that the value is not in being able to interpret but in getting something that makes you more virtuous from it. Which is exactly what this short dialogue tries to capture: me trying to find what to extract from this whole mess without spending an enormous amount of time for the sheer thrill of interpretation.

From my reading, he's much more scout than postmodern soldier in his lectures https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/ -- and as a bonus, a much easier read. 

Thanks! Also I think I shot myself in the foot by trying to read "The Order of Things" first, which is apparently one of his densest and hardest book (even if it is definitely on epistemology directly)

Master: Now, is Foucault’s work the content you’re looking for, or merely a pointer.

Student: What… does that mean?

Master: Do you think that you think that the value of Foucault for you comes from the specific ideas he had, or in using him to even consider these two topics?

This put words to a feeling I've had a lot. Often I have some ideas, and use thinkers as a kind of handle to point to the ideas in my head (especially when I haven't actually read the thinkers yet). The problem is that this fools me into thinking that the ideas are developed, either by me or by the thinkers. I like this idea of using the thinkers to notice topics, but then developing on the topics yourself, at least if the thinkers don't take those topics in the direction you had in mind to take them.

On a different note, if you're interested in Foucault's methodology, some search terms would be "genealogy" and "conceptual engineering." Here is a LW post on conceptual engineering, and here is a review of a recent book on the topic (which I believe engages with Foucault as well as Nietzsche, Hume, Bernard Williams, and maybe others; I haven't actually read the full book yet, just this review). The book seems to be pretty directly about what you're looking for: "history for finding out where our concepts and values come from, in order to question them."

Glad that I managed to capture this feeling then!

And thanks for the reference! I know of conceptual engineering and genealogy, but didn't know about the book. :)