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Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Volume Two: A Poststructuralist Mapping of History

Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Volume Two: A Poststructuralist Mapping of History

by Thomas R. Flynn

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Sartre and Foucault were two of the most prominent and at times mutually antagonistic philosophical figures of the twentieth century. And nowhere are the antithetical natures of their existentialist and poststructuralist philosophies more apparent than in their disparate approaches to historical understanding. In Volume One of this authoritative two-volume study,


Sartre and Foucault were two of the most prominent and at times mutually antagonistic philosophical figures of the twentieth century. And nowhere are the antithetical natures of their existentialist and poststructuralist philosophies more apparent than in their disparate approaches to historical understanding. In Volume One of this authoritative two-volume study, Thomas R. Flynn conducted a pivotal and comprehensive reconstruction of Sartrean historical theory. This long-awaited second volume offers a comprehensive and critical reading of the Foucauldian counterpoint.

A history, theorized Foucault, should be a kind of map, a comprehensive charting of structural transformations and displacements over time. Contrary to other Foucault scholars, Flynn proposes an "axial" rather than a developmental reading of Foucault's work. This allows aspects of Foucault's famous triad of knowledge, power, and the subject to emerge in each of his major works. Flynn maps existentialist categories across Foucault's "quadrilateral," the model that Foucault proposes as defining modernist conceptions of knowledge. At stake is the degree to which Sartre's thought is fully captured by this mapping, whether he was, as Foucault claimed, "a man of the nineteenth century trying to think in the twentieth."

Editorial Reviews

Review of Metaphysics - Edward McGushin
"This is a magnificent book, an invaluable study of Foucault and a penetrating comparative analysis of two of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century."
Review of Metaphysics
This is a magnificent book, an invaluable study of Foucault and a penetrating comparative analysis of two of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.

— Edward McGushin

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Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason

By Thomas R. Flynn
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-25471-5

Chapter One
Foucault and the Historians

We are doomed historically to history. -Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic

The studies that follow, like the others I have done previously, are studies of "history" by reason of the domain they deal with and the references they appeal to; but they are not the work of a "historian." -Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure

All of Foucault's books are histories of a sort, which makes Foucault a historian of a sort. The challenge is to determine what sort of historian he is, the better to understand what these diverse and complex texts are about. This is not simply a matter of professional identity. As he famously put it, he defers to the bureaucrats and police to determine whether his papers are in order. The issue concerns what these texts and their various methods can tell us about what Sartre would call our present "condition" and perhaps about the nature of historiography itself. For the distinguished French historian Paul Veyne claims that Foucault has revolutionized historical study in our day.

Trained as a philosopher and psychologist, his first published works were in the history and philosophy of science. Significantly, they exhibited what he would later dismiss as a youthful dalliance with existentialism. Reflecting toward the end of his life on his first published book, Mental Illness and Psychology, he gives an overview, one of many, of his life's work that is worth quoting at length, for it offers the guiding thread for our investigation in this volume.

To study the forms of experience ...-in their history [as he was about to do in the last two published volumes of The History of Sexuality]-is an idea that occurred with an earlier project, in which I made use of methods of existential analysis in the field of psychiatry and in the domain of "mental illness." For two reasons, not unrelated to each other, this project left me unsatisfied: its theoretical weakness in elaborating the notion of experience, and its ambiguous link with a psychiatric practice which it simultaneously ignored and took for granted. One could deal with the first problem by referring to a general theory of the human being, and treat the second altogether differently by turning, as is so often done, to the "economic and social context"; one could choose, by doing so, to accept the resulting dilemma of a philosophical anthropology and a social history. But I wondered whether, rather than playing on this alternative, it would not be possible to consider the very historicity of forms of experience. This entailed two negative tasks: first, a "nominalist" reduction of philosophical anthropology and the notions which it serves to promote, and second, a shift of domain to the concepts and methods of the history of societies. On the positive side, the task was to bring to light the domain where the formation, development, and transformation of forms of experience can situate themselves: that is, a history of thought.

In this retrospective view of his career, Foucault was facing a dilemma similar to that which confronted Sartre with regard to historical intelligibility, namely, choosing between phenomenology and historical materialism (anthropology and social history). But where Sartre sought a synthesis of these two in his progressive-regressive method, Foucault opts for a tertium, the domain of "thought" where the formation, transformation, and displacement of "forms of experience" can be charted and compared. In preparation for this conversion of interest, Foucault will subject humanist discourse to a nominalist cleansing and the social sciences to "historical" analyses that problematize their basic assumptions and invert their claims to legitimacy. Many of the key concepts of our investigation occur in this dense programmatic paragraph. Because the following chapters serve as a kind of gloss on these remarks, we shall repeat them in our concluding chapter where their full import will be manifest. These observations shall serve to bookend the Foucauldian material in this volume and to focus the contrast we wish to draw with the Sartrean approach to reason in history, exhibited in volume 1.

Although "historicity" (our essentially time-bound character) was a central term in existentialist parlance, the historicity of "forms" of experience was not. In effect, as the quotation indicates, Foucault was introducing a quasi-structuralist concept into his quest for historical intelligibility. This move had doubtless been prepared by Maurice Merleau-Ponty's initiation of Foucault's class at the Ecole Normale into Saussurian structural linguistics. And it was certainly reinforced by Foucault's study with the Marxist structuralist, Louis Althusser, and his friendship with the protostructuralist, Georges Dumézil. Further, Foucault's search for a "domain" in which to "situate" the "formation, development and transformation" of these forms of experience delineates the realm inhabited by a family of concepts that he employed in an uncommon manner such as statement, archive, historical a priori, and discursive practice that his archaeology would analyze as an alternative to traditional "history." These are matters to be considered in due course. But at the outset we should note his concentration on the matter of experience: both Foucault's perception of the theoretical weakness of the method of existential analysis to elaborate its notion and his alternative project of examining the historicity of its "forms" in their proper domain. For, despite Pierre Macherey's insistence that the concept of experience stands "at the center of all of Foucault's thought," the notion of experience in his work has not been studied in the detail it deserves. Yet any examination that would compare his thought with that of Jean-Paul Sartre cannot fail to mine this field for promising similarities and contrasts since Sartre in his own way was doubtless a philosopher of experience.

Delaying a discussion of Foucault's nominalism for my next chapter and an analysis of "experience" for chapter 9, at this point, I wish to emphasize his entrance into the "history of thought." Note, he does not say "history of ideas." The distinction is crucial. A much broader term than "ideas," "thought," Foucault explains, "is ... the very form of action." It comes to denote that realm of human activity which deals with knowledge in the basic sense of the true and the false as well as the relations that obtain between knowledge and the knowing subject. The term gradually embraces the entire realm of what we shall call discursive and nondiscursive practices (the sayable and the seeable, as Deleuze would put it), including practices of self-constitution. He baptized his post at the Collège de France, "Chair in the History of the Systems of Thought." It is the "history" of these "systems" of "thought" that begins to concern him as he distances himself from the philosophical anthropology of his predecessors and the Marxist economism of his contemporaries.

The History of Ideas

Making me out to be someone who denies history is really ludicrous. I don't do anything but history. -Michel Foucault, Essential Works

What does Foucault dislike about the history of ideas as it has been practiced in his day? As Mark Poster observes, "Foucault is an anti-historical historian, one who in writing history, threatens every canon of the craft. One can ask, therefore, if there is a theory of history in Foucault's texts. Can one discover, against the grain of Foucault's anti-systematic writing, a set of concepts or categories that reveals the basis of his powerful and shocking accomplishments?" In fact, one can ascertain a dozen charges in his case against the history of ideas, each of them indicative of the counterposition he is in the process of formulating at the time. Were one to reread these critical remarks in light of the following chapters, one would discover a certain negative image of the positions that Foucault would adopt across the various phases of his career. Whether they constitute a "theory" of history in any totalizing sense is doubtful for reasons that will become clear as our study progresses. But they do afford us several lines of investigation that contribute to the intelligibility of history even as they reveal its complexity. As an introduction to his "histories of the systems of thought," let us briefly trace twelve lines that sketch the negative outline of his approach like the contrasting field of a silhouette. What does he wish to "correct" in the history of ideas as it was traditionally practiced?

Continuity. At the head of his list of objections stands "the postulate of continuity." This entails a set of loosely defined but functionally clear concepts such as "tradition," "influence," "development," "evolution toward a normative stage," "mentality," and "spirit of the age" that are familiar to anyone working in the field. The allure of such notions for intellectual historians is their ready-made ordering of a set of events prior to their close examination. It is common for the history of ideas to appeal to such concepts as explanations when, Foucault believes, they are too vague to explain anything in particular. Instead, he counsels an intellectual asceticism that would set such a priori notions aside and begin with a population of dispersed events (see EW 2:302). What we shall be calling Foucault's "positivism" and "nominalism" clearly inspire this objection.

Teleology. Historians traditionally are great storytellers. But links between continuity, narrativity, and teleology seem particularly irksome to Foucault. François Furet expresses the traditional view when he remarks that "narrative history is ... a history of events. And all history of events is a teological history: only the 'ending' of the history makes it possible to choose and understand the events that compose it." In our first volume we have observed Sartre's commitment to a "dialectical" approach to historical understanding that is event-centered, narrativist, and telic. Sartre characterized dialectical reasoning in terms of "the action of the future as such." The purpose or end gives unity, meaning, and direction to an action. But Foucault is intent on fragmenting these unities and reintroducing chance into history. Though the chance motif is equally Sartrean (who speaks of a historical "dialectic with holes in it" [Vol. 1:48]), Foucault will have nothing to do with the "totalizing" praxis that renders history intelligible for Sartre in terms of the (ideal) ending it projects and the narrative it thereby engenders. As we shall see in chapter 3, Foucault too is a philosopher of "events." But, pace Furet, his "histories" of such events are decidedly nonteleological.

Collective Consciousness. It is the tacit appeal to a collective consciousness of some sort that bothers Foucault about the postulate of consciousness in the history of ideas. In his response to a set of questions submitted by a distinguished group of French intellectuals apropos his major archaeological writings, he observes:

Continuous history is the correlate of consciousness: the guarantee that what escapes from it can be restored to it; the promise that it will some day be able to appropriate outright all those things which surround it and weigh down on it, to restore its mastery over them, and to find in them what really must be called-leaving the word all its overloads of meaning-its home. The desire to make historical analysis the discourse of continuity, and make human consciousness the originating subject of all knowledge and all practice, are two faces of one and the same system of thought. Time is conceived in terms of totalization, and revolution never as anything but a coming to consciousness.

All this, Foucault insists, occurs in oblivion of what the actual practice of historians has been for some time: "We must be prepared to understand what has become history in the real work of the historians: a certain controlled use of discontinuity for the analysis of temporal series" (EW 2:300, Circle).

Neglect of the Nonstandard. Corresponding to its conceptual strictures, Foucault finds that the history of ideas as commonly practiced is intolerant of phenomena that do not fit its preestablished categories: anomalies, marginalities, exceptions, and the like. Already in 1964 he displays an interest in the irregular and the abnormal that will characterize his work for the rest of his career. As he writes in a footnote to a review essay published that year, notably in Annales:

One encounters a similar problem in the domain of what is called the history of ideas. The conservation of documents brings to light a mass of texts from sciences, philosophies and literatures that are erroneously treated as false sciences, quasi-philosophies or poorly expressed opinions, or else as the initial sketch and the subsequent reflection of what is going to be and what was formerly literature, philosophy or science. In fact, here too it is a matter of a new cultural object that awaits its definition and its method and that refuses to be treated in the analogical mode of the "quasi."

Again we see the nominalist's sense of the singular and the positivist's distrust of the a priori. As his alternative study of history will reveal, Foucault is sensitive to those fractures and breaks in historical continuity through which the new, the irregular, and the unexpected can emerge. He would later devote his entire course of 1974-1975 at the Collège to the question of the abnormal, "Les Anormaux."

His concern with the "quasi" in history, whether it be the "soft" sciences, the ambiguous social category, or the "minor" literature, is a form of genealogical critique of the power of social norms as much as it is the expression of his interest in the marginal and the excluded. Like Sartre, Foucault evinces a keen sense of the exploitation and oppression institutionalized in our social practices, though he may be less justified than his compatriot in opposing them-a frequently raised objection and a matter we shall reserve for later reflection.

Suppression of Discontinuity. In his introduction to the English translation of his mentor Georges Canguilhem's The Normal and the Pathological, Foucault observes that this distinguished historian "brought the history of science down from the heights (mathematics, astronomy, Galilean mechanics, Newtonian physics, relativity theory) toward the middle regions where knowledge is much less deductive, much more dependent on external processes (economic stimulations or institutional supports) and where it has remained tied much longer to the marvels of the imagination." Rather than the story of the cumulative progress toward the Truth (Hegel's "The truth is the whole"), Canguilhem's analyses are praised for being "discontinuist" and in search of "normativity within different scientific activities such as they have effectively been brought into play" (Normal, xv). Speaking of traditional history with its implicit postulate of continuity, Foucault remarks: "Discontinuity was the stigma of temporal dispersion which it was the historian's duty to suppress from history" (EW 2:299; DE 1:698, Circle). Although he resisted the appellation, as he did all attempts to categorize his thought, Foucault came to be known as the "philosopher of discontinuity."

Dialectic. It is his opposition to the continuity postulate as well as to its implicit commitment to a transhistorical subject that sets him against the Hegelian dialectic in its various avatars from Marx to Sartre. Speaking of the "neurosis of dialectics," for example, Foucault observes that, despite its apparent commitment to the play of differences in its unfolding, Hegelian dialectics "does not liberate differences; it guarantees, on the contrary, that they can always be recaptured. The dialectical sovereignty of similarity," he explains, "consists in permitting differences to exist, but always under the rule of the negative, as an instance of non-being. They may appear as the successful subversion of the Other, but contradiction secretly assists in the salvation of identities" (EW 2:358, Theatrum).

Primacy of the Philosophical. Another objection to the history of ideas, in Foucault's assessment, and one to which he finds both Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Cassirer vulnerable, is that it accords a primacy to philosophy and to reflection that it never bothers to question, "as if the thought of an epoch had its preferred place ... more in a theory of the world than in a positive science, more in aesthetics than in the work of art, more in a philosophy than in an institution." Whereas the task of the new history of thought, which he calls "archaeology," is "to learn how to recognize thought in its anonymous constraints, to trace it in all the things or speechless gestures that give it a positive figure, to let it unfold in that dimension of the 'one' where each individual and every discourse forms nothing more than the episodes of a reflection" (DE 1:548). In other words, archaeology resists the humanist urge behind traditional history.


Excerpted from Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason by Thomas R. Flynn Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Thomas R. Flynn is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. Among his many publications are Sartre and Marxist Existentialism and Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Volume One, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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