This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

I must congratulate David Potts on finding an intelligible meaning in a reading which I found extremely difficult to understand. I certainly shared William Dale’s experience , of seeing words I recognized but being unable to connect them to the concepts I know they refer to. I now realize this is mostly because Foucault takes for granted a totally alien epistemological framework; by explaining that framework, from his reading of other writings by Foucault, David makes The History of Sexuality much easier to understand.

I think the two issues that David raises in his conclusion are the key to understanding how to approach Foucault. On the question of “how accurate is Foucault as history,” David suggests that Foucault does not distort the historical facts; I agree. But David’s alternative--“an accurate historian with a bizarre interpretive overlay”--is not a good characterization of these readings, either. I have not read anything by Foucault, or any other parts of “History of Sexuality,” other than the assigned readings; but judging only from these readings, I was unable to find in them *any* specific assertions of historical fact at all, only generalizations that were impossible to relate to any historical facts I know about. Judging from these readings, I think a better characterization of Foucault is “a bizarre interpretation of history, to which historical fact is irrelevant.” It is not that Foucault distorts facts; it is not that his generalizations don’t follow from the facts he cites; it is that he cites no facts at all.
So to David’s second question--does Foucault offer any argument to support his theories, and do arguments matter to him?--we should add another question: does Foucault offer any historical facts to support his theories, and do facts matter to him? I think the answer to both questions is no.
And that is what makes reading Foucault--as well as other postmodernist writers--so frustrating. When I read a book titled The History of X, my expectation is that there will be some discussion of historical facts about X; that the author has some interest in the facts about X, and, to the extent that he has theories, will try to present facts to support them. Well, that is not what Foucault does. For Foucault, writing about “the history of X” simply means stating, without support, his assertions about how X, like everything else, is socially constructed. Had he titled his book The History of Food, or The History of God, the assigned chapters could have still been in the book, with very minor changes; this is because any specific historical facts about sexuality are of no relevance to Foucault’s purpose (though I understand that there exist some followers of Foucault, like Halperin, who at least do cite some facts and make some connection, however stretched, between the facts and their theories).
That is why, if we try to relate Foucault’s theoretical statement, and the concepts he uses, to our knowledge of historical facts about sexuality, the result is the frustrating experience William describes--words which seem familiar, but designating totally alien concepts. Approaching The History of Sexuality as you would normally approach a history book, trying to judge factual accuracy and connection of facts cited to theory, is a similar mistake to the one David Potts identified in his earlier posting about Heidegger , of approaching “What Is Metaphysics?” as you would normally approach a philosophy paper, trying to judge the validity of arguments. To understand either of them, we need to understand that given their framework, neither logical argument nor historical fact is of any importance to them.


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