Foucault and Wittgenstein




I’m dusting off my wordpress site and will begin turning to this as a place where I’ll sketch ideas as I begin to work on my next project. I’m not sure what the final form of this project will be but at the moment I’m beginning with some ideas related to Foucault and Wittgenstein (the picture in this post is from where Wittgenstein’s Norway cabin stood). I’ve been teaching an existentialism class this term, along with a political theory class, and as a result I’ve been immersed in Wittgenstein and Foucault. I also recently gave a talk at Memphis on Wittgenstein and subsequent work has begun to crystallize around some of the ideas I introduced in that talk. In particular, as strange as it may sound, I’m working on a Wittgensteinian political theory. In many ways this is not faithful to the Wittgenstein who insisted on leaving everything as it is, calling upon philosophy to simply describe our grammatical practices in order to remove the confusions that come from wrongly applying rules of grammar where they do not naturally fit. The key concept here, however, is grammar, and this concept can be repurposed in a way I find harmonious with Wittgenstein and with the work of Foucault and Deleuze. It is this concept of grammar that will be central to the political theory I’ll be working on. Among many other sources, recently I’ve found inspiration in Stuart Elden’s book, The Birth of Territory, and from Geoffrey Ingham’s Nature of Money. I believe there should be some fruitful work to be done in applying my Humean insights (from this book) to this project. This blog will become a depository for rough, partially formed ideas and concepts, but as Hume and his colleagues of the polite culture of eighteenth century Scotland might have said, these rough thoughts may become more refined and polished through their encounters with others.

Becoming-dangerous: a philosophical agenda

In reading through Steven Nadler’s nice introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics I was reminded of how dangerous Spinoza’s thought was taken to be at the time. Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment also drives this point home. Spinoza himself was excommunicated from his church before he had even published a word, an unprecedented and extreme measure even in Spinoza’s time. Spinoza also survived an attempt on his life when the attacker’s knife tore through his cloak but missed him, and yet Spinoza’s case is not an isolated one in the history of philosophy. Descartes fled France; Locke fled England for a time; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake; Marx fled Germany; Aristotle fled Athens so he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as Socrates; and of course there was Socrates. But when was the last time a philosopher’s ideas were seen as truly dangerous, and where might one look today for the possibility of a dangerous philosophy? One will certainly not find any dangers among the analytic philosophers, and if one accepts John McCumber’s thesis that analytic philosophers turned away from any philosophy that smacked of Marxism during the red scare of the 1950s, then this absence of danger is no accident. Continental philosophers are no better it seems, and the failure of May ’68 seems only to highlight the impotence of philosophical discourse. But if philosophy as Foucault argued in his late work is integrally involved with parrhesia – free, frank, and truthful speaking to power – then it will necessarily involve risk and inevitably become a danger to those in power. This risk and danger, in fact, is an essential component of parrhesia according to Foucault but it is precisely what seems to be lacking in the contemporary scene. Can philosophy become dangerous again, and if so how might it do so in a way that is not already anticipated and hence neutralized by a media that thrives on marketing outrage and scandal (think Glenn Beck)? If philosophy cannot regain its traditional status as a danger to established power then it will most likely become increasingly irrelevant.