3002: A Usable Past

Hey, I mentioned to the 3002 class on 12 Sept. that Foucault was relevant to the idea of finding the historical roots of things we might otherwise think universal or natural or divinely ordained. Here’s some background — in his 1977 introduction to the English translation of Foucault’s very first book, Mental Illness and Psychology, Hubert Dreyfus writes

The best way to see that things might be otherwise is to see that they once
were and in some areas of life still are otherwise, and to see as well how
we developed our present narrow view. Thus, following Nietzsche, Foucault sees his work as a genealogy, written to help us derealize, and so move beyond, the suffocating understanding of reality that has gradually emerged in the history of the West. Foucault does not think, any more than Nietzsche did, that such genealogy will provide an instant cure, enabling the genealogist to step outside himself and his culture. Historical therapy nonetheless loosens the grip of our current understanding of reality by letting us see how we got where we are and the cost of our current understanding. Without stepping out of history or seeking a philosophical grounding for objective truth-claims, genealogy can show us the accidental status of our sense of who we are, and it can sensitize us to practices still alive in our culture that have not been taken up onto the reigning understanding of being.

Foucault’s early interest in the relation of madness and medicine never left
him. Indeed, one can think of later Foucault as practicing genealogical therapy on the madness of modernity. He is trying to historicize, and so help dissolve, the closed, normalized view we have of ourselves as hermeneutic subjects in order to ready us for the possibility of a new interpretation of the human self that could take up currently marginalized practices, thus opening up our world rather than shutting it down.

What I find interesting is how that was Really Radical in U.S. philosophy and history at that time. It was hard to conceive of a philosopher challenging things that “everybody knew” had always been that way — the idea of looking for and undermining commonplace assumptions about cultures was utterly foreign in many academic settings.


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