Michel Foucault on polemics

In light of the use of polemics in the debates over philanthrocapitalism that I’ve written about in the last few days, I thought some snippets from Michel Foucault’s interview, “The Masked Philosopher” and this interview with Paul Rabinow might be interesting in light of the above debate but also in relationship to the many “debates” we’re seeing these days on the market, blame, politics, etc. These interviews were from nearly a quarter century ago but have not lost their relevance:

The Masked Philosopher:
“C.D. Do you think intellectuals today talk too much? That they encumber what they say with a lot of stuff, much of it irrelevant to what they really have to say? FOUCAULT The word intellectual strikes me as odd. Personally, I’ve never met any intellectuals. I’ve met people who write novels, others who treat the sick. People who work in economics and others who write electronic music. I’ve met people who teach, people who paint, and people of whom I have never really understood what they do. But intellectuals, never. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of people who talk about “the intellectual.” And, listening to them, I’ve got some idea of what such an animal could be. It’s not difficult – he’s quite personified. He’s guilty about pretty well everything: about speaking out and about keeping silent, about doing nothing and about getting involved in everything . . . In short, the intellectual is raw material for a verdict, a sentence, a condemnation, an exclusion . . . I don’t find that intellectuals talk too much, since for me they don’t exist. But I do find that more and more is being said about intellectuals, and I don’t find it very reassuring. I have an unfortunate habit. When people speak about this or that, I try to imagine what the result would be if translated into reality. When they “criticize” someone, when they “denounce” his ideas, when they “condemn” what he writes, I imagine them in the ideal situation in which they would have complete power over him. I take the words they use – demolish, destroy, reduce to silence, bury – and see what the effect would be if they were taken literally. And I catch a glimpse of the radiant city in which the intellectual would be in prison or, if he were also a theoretician, hanged, of course. We don’t, it’s true, live under a regime in which intellectuals are sent to the ricefields. But have you heard of a certain Toni Negri? [1] Isn’t he in prison simply for being an intellectual?”

“What we are suffering from is not a void, but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. There is an overabundance of things to be known: fundamental, terrible, wonderful, funny, insignificant, and crucial at the same time. And there is an enormous curiosity, a need, a desire to know. People are always complaining that the mass media stuff one’s head with people. There is a certain misanthropy in this idea. On the contrary, I believe that people react; the more one convinces them, the more they question things. The mind isn’t made of soft wax. It’s a reactive substance. And the desire to know more, and to know it more deeply and to know other things increases as one tries to stuff peoples’ heads. If you accept that and if you add that there’s a whole host of people being trained in the universities and elsewhere who could act as intermediaries between this mass of things and this thirst for knowledge, you will soon come to the conclusion that student unemployment is the most absurd thing imaginable. The problem is to multiply the channels, the bridges, the means of information, the radio and television networks, the newspapers. Curiousity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes “care”; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental. I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means; the desire is there; there is an infinity of things to know; the people capable of doing such work exist. So what is our problem? Too little: channels of communication that are too narrow, almost monopolistic, inadequate. We mustn’t adopt a protectionist attitude, to stop “bad” information from invading and stifling the “good.” We must rather increase the possibility for movement backwards and forwards.”

“What is philosophy if not a way of reflecting, not so much on what is true and what is false, as on our relationship to truth? People sometimes complain that there is no dominant philosophy in France. So much the better for that! There is no sovereign philosophy, it’s true, but a philosophy or rather philosophy in activity. The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusions, one detaches oneself from whatis accepted as true and seeks other rules — that is philosophy. The displacement and transformation of frameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work that has been done to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than what one is — that, too, is philosophy. From this point of view, the last thirty years or so have been a period of intense philosophical activity. The interaction between analysis, research, “learned” or “theoretical” criticism, and changes in behavior, in people’sreal conduct, their way of being, their relation to themselves and to others has been constant and considerable. I was saying just now that philosophy was a way of reflecting on our relationship to truth. It should also be added that it is a way of interrogating ourselves: if this is the relationship that we have with truth, how must we behave? I believe that a considerable and varied amount of work has been done and is still being done that alters both our relation to truth and our way of behaving.”

From “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations:

“Paul Rabinow: Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics ?

Michel Foucault: I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”


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