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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