Foucault’s Fault


I had a conversation recently with a sociology professor who doesn’t like Foucault. “Clearly”, claimed the professor, “Foucault was reusing Weber’s theories, to name just one evident theft, never mentioning Weber as a source, pretending to be original”.

This is a well-known accusation against Foucault: “C’est un simulateur qui ne peut s’appuyer sur aucun texte sacré, et qui ne cite guère les grands philosophes”, is among a long list of “Against Foucault” with which Deleuze opens his book “Foucault”.

Michel Foucault

Forget Foucault; let’s deal with the underlying question: does an Author have the right to keep his sources private?

Journalists, who see themselves obliged to reveal and tell the truth, fight for their right to keep their sources private. And philosophers – can they reveal the truth without disclosing their sources?

Since the Author is Dead (or rather, has been dead since the very beginning (or rather, has existed only as a fiction, as a function)), then why bother quoting at all? No one is the Author of an idea.

What about using known concepts – is that as good as quoting? In “Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?” Deleuze & Guattari describe philosophy as the art of creating concepts (“la philosophie est l’art de former, d’inventer, de fabriquer des concepts”), and that a philosopher is recognized by the concepts she has created. Indeed, philosophical concepts are easily exchangeable with the philosophers who coined them: Idea, Cogito, Monad, Noumenon, Dasein, and Rhizome easily resurrect their dead authors.

But don’t get confused by this romantic description of the philosophical work: if someone is recognized as a philosopher only by the new concepts that he has introduced into the philosophical discourse [D&G], and if new and original are nothing but an illusion [Barthes], then philosophy is not the art of creating concepts but rather the art of rebranding preexisting concepts. The philosopher doesn’t have much choice but to refurbish and rebrand old concepts and present them as original ones.

This is a tough situation: if you don’t quote you are accused of plagiarism and of the hubris of being original; if you quote (explicitly – by referring to philosophers; implicitly – by reusing known concepts) you’re accused of not being original, hence – not a philosopher. The game is, therefore, to quote all along your thesis until that point where you bring up your own rebranded (yet necessarily preexisting) concept – that which you present and pretend to be your own.

Foucault, probably, refused to play this political Homo Academicus game. After all, it is not the concept that matters, but rather how it is told, to whom, and when. Nevertheless, Foucault acknowledged the rules of the game by tagging his work Fiction. He embraced the position of an outsider, accepting being labeled as a non-philosopher, non-historian, non-sociologist. A Fiction writer is free from disclosing his sources; moreover, he is free to refer to any known figure while asserting a clear disconnect between the signifier and the signified, between the Kant in his story and the Kant we all know.

4 Responses to “Foucault’s Fault”

  1. Philosophy as fraud « Foucault blog Says:

    […] 27th, 2007 by Jeremy This article discusses whether you have to cite your sources: But don’t get confused by this romantic description of the […]

  2. ecko4inc Says:

    I remember reading, eons ago, an article (not by Foucault but about him) in which Foucault talks about Spinoza as a “hidden” philosopher he enters into “dialogue” with, an unacknowledged tradition he owes a lot of his work to. I can’t remember the source and if you know of this article, I’d appreciate it because its been bugging me for a while and I’ve upturned all my old boxes of notes trying to find the damn thing.

    Anyway, Foucault was basically of the opinion that every writer needs an “unspoken” tradition or interlocutor. And, of course, there is much resemblance between Spinoza’s Ethics and Foucault’s conception of power as immanent, diffuse, etc. probably in much the same way as his work resembles Weber’s social theory on values and beliefs shaping individual choices in a rational framework – and what constitutes the rational and true in the exercise of human freedom, the processes of subjectification, is the proper object of a political philosophy – such as Foucault’s.

    Maybe Weber “stole” from Spinoza too…

  3. Foucault’s Fault « Remixing Cinema Says:

    […] clipped from […]

  4. Discoking Says:

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

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