ON THE “OBSCURITY” OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: the case of Foucault

In a talk discussing Paul Grice’s four maxims of cooperative conversation (quality, quantity, relation, and manner), analytic philosopher John Searle seeks to illustrate the fourth maxim (maxim of manner) by recounting an amusing anecdote about a conversation he once had with Foucault. Grice’s maxim of manner asserts that in a cooperative conversation one should avoid ambiguity, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity. Searle seems to think that these four conversational maxims (strictly sub-maxims) of manner should apply to philosophical discourse, and he ridicules “certain schools” of philosophy that systematically violate them.

To illustrate this idea Searle quotes from a conversation where he asked Foucault “Why do you write so badly?” and Foucault replied “If I wrote as clearly as you, people in Paris would not take me seriously, they would think it’s childlike, it’s naïve”. Searle is implying that many Continental philosophers violate the maxims for reasons of conformism and social-climbing, but also out of dishonesty, desiring to appear profound and to immunise themselves against critique.

Foucault seems to be agreeing with him, and he even confesses that he deliberately complicated his writing and made it more obscure so as to impress and succeed. Searle is very smug about the whole thing, reassured by Foucault’s confirmation. This anecdote recounted by Searle contains no Deleuzian encounter where dominant stereotypes are dissolved, the ego’s narcissism is undone, and one is open to being enriched or transformed by another point of view. After discussing Continental philosophy’s writing style with Foucault, Searle’s ego is strengthened and his stereotypes about French philosophy are reinforced.

Deleuze was quite adamant that the work of philosophy has nothing to do with “conversations” of this sort, that he called “discussions”:

Discussion is a narcissistic exercise, where each person takes turns showing off: very quickly, no one knows what they are talking about (TWO REGIMES OF MADNESS, p 380, translation modified by me).

The narcissistic discussion both reinforces our prejudices and reproduces ready-made ideas. It is interesting to note that in this anecdote Foucault talks like Searle, confirms his opinions, and “confesses” to having been guilty of deliberate obscurity. He is confined to Searle’s own régime of enunciation, which is quite astonishing given the differences between the two thinkers in style and worldview.

Some technical remarks are relevant here: Grice’s principles are not the principles of good literary style, they are “conversational” maxims. Searle easily slips into assuming that they must apply to writing as well, and not just to conversation. He declares that “in conversation” Foucault was very clear, but that he “wrote badly”. Given the intense intellectual movement in France concerning the practice and theorisation of “écriture”, in which Foucault participated (along with Blanchot, Derrida, Kristeva, Lyotard, and Deleuze), it is not at all obvious that for these thinkers writing and conversation are to be guided by the same maxims.

As we have seen, Deleuze distinguishes between a “discussion”, which obeys the maxims and is to be avoided, as it proceeds by clichés and not by concepts, and a “conversation” which generates new concepts but which does not obey the maxims:

Discussions represent a great deal of time lost over indeterminate problems. Conversations are another matter. We need conversations. But the littlest conversation is a highly schizophrenic exercise that takes place between individuals possessed of a common background and a great taste for ellipsis and short cuts. Conversation is rest cut by long silences. It can produce ideas. But discussion is in no way part of philosophical work” (380).

Note: I have consulted the published English translation, but I have based my own translation principally on the version given here, which contains some very interesting remarks on Deleuze and conversation), and which is closer to the text. I translate “fonds commun” as “common background”, because Searle makes use of this concept, and to highlight that Searle and Foucault were probably talking past each other as they do not have the same background concepts or grids of interpretation.

Grice’s maxims of conversation are in no way prescriptive, and one can usefully violate or flout them to convey non-literal or implicit meanings:

“it is possible to flout a maxim intentionally or unconsciously and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally spoken. Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. One can flout the Maxim of Quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just taken a bad fall that her gracefulness is impressive and obviously intend to mean the complete opposite” (Wikipedia).

Perhaps Foucault was doing just this in his conversation with Searle, ironically congratulating  on his clarity, confessing to his own deliberate obscurity, and in fact trying to hint at quite some other meaning to his “clumsy friend”.

I agree with Deleuze that clarity is a result, an achievement, and that it would kill all new ideas in the bud to require that they be clear from the beginning. Sometimes the clarity of a concept, or of a text, is only to be seen later, when our perceptions have changed.

This is not to advocate blanket approval of wilful obscurity, and there is a lot of it within Continental Philosophy. But we must reject the cliché that French philosophy is deliberately and needlessly obscure. Nor is anglo-american philosophy particularly free of jargon and easy to understand. Sometimes the presupposed background of allusions can get in the way of an outsider’s understanding. But that works in both directions.

Foucault evolved a lot, and he was very self-critical, but this critique was carried out in his own terms. In the phase leading up to and including the ARCHEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE Foucault affirms that he was looking for a way to be both inside and outside philosophy at the same time, and that writing in the sense of “écriture” (in relation to Blanchot, Bataille, and Klossowski) allowed him to do that. But it was at the price of a necessary obscurity. Later it was the relation with political action that served the same purpose, and permitted a simpler style.

Searle emphasises how clear Foucault was in conversation, implying that his more baroque style was just protective camouflage, detachable from the true message. This idea is contrary to Foucault’s own philosophy of language, which is certainly not based on referential transparency.

Note: I can confirm that Foucault’s lectures were very clear, as I attended them from 1980 to 1984. But what was not clear was why he was saying all this, what his problematic was. Even in a lecture situation he could not do as much as he could in a book. So the oral clarity should not necessarily be carried over into his writing, which may be much more ambitious, trying to work on many levels at once.

I think it strange that Foucault told Searle exactly what he wanted to hear, if we are to believe Searle’s account. Searle doesn’t seem to realise the degree of humour present in Foucault’s rather uncharacteristic remark. Foucault was probably gently mocking him, given the equation that he establishes between clarity and childishness.

Far from being the nec plus ultra in clarity and cooperation, Grice’s maxims are quite ambiguous once you take into account exchanges between interlocutors possessing widely divergent ontologies and epistemologies. Clarity is not the same when you have an ontology of multplicity and incommensurabilty and when you don’t.

Perhaps also Foucault was giving in to a sad affect, that of resentment, at this point in his life. Deleuze and Guattari in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? claim that such consensual discussions are animated by ressentiment, and we know that both Searle and Foucault had disparaging remarks to make about Derrida as an example of “terrorist obscurantism”. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that they meant the same thing by this critical epithet. Searle may be hearing only what he wants to hear, projecting his own interpretative grid onto Foucault’s enunciations.

Foucault himself distinguished the act of writing as a form of becoming (self-transforming, disappearing, dissolving egoic subjectivity) from writing as contained in the author-function. In our society these are two faces of the act of writing, and Foucault’s remarks apply to the authorial function that he finds to be dominant in Derrida’s method. The diagnosis of Derrida proposed by Foucault would be a more pluralist one than Searle can imagine.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms Derrida could be considered to be the author of “fascicular” texts, those that embody an “immediate, indefinite multiplicity” (A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, p 6). Foucault’s criticism of Derrida is that this indefinite multiplicity of écriture is not pluralist enough, as it is confined to the levels of the form and the content of the enunciation, but at the level of the subject of the enunciation “an even more comprehensive secret unity” dominates, imposing its obscurantist terrorist dictates: you cannot use my texts in other ways, you cannot use them to criticise me, I alone can understand and explain them.

Foucault wants to weaken or dissolve the author-function: he wants more multiplicity (on every level), more obscurity (conceptual change), more ambiguity (undoing the dominant significations), less brevity (liberating language from its limits), less order (freeing writing from the human form). He thinks that Derrida in fact strengthens the author-function.

When Searle and Foucault seem to agree in their criticism of Derrida, they are doing so on the basis of very different background understandings. In fact, Derrida shares with Foucault a concept of “écriture” that is not conversational but transformative. Foucault’s critique assumes this shared background, but finds that Derrida betrays écriture in favour of the author-function.

Searle however thinks that this Continental concept of “écriture” should be replaced by that of a cooperative conversation conducted according to Gricean maxims – clear, univocal, brief and orderly. For him Derrida already goes too far, whereas for Foucault he does not go far enough.

Searle does not see the double edge to Foucault’s remark: “If I wrote as clearly as you, people in Paris would think it’s childish and naïve.”

Deleuze declares in DIALOGUES that it is of no use to recount Foucault’s words if you cannot convey how they feel both “dangerous” and “tender” at the same time. Semantic clarity may mask affective, and conceptual, complexity.

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4 Responses to ON THE “OBSCURITY” OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: the case of Foucault

  1. Well done. Searle, the Author who enounced the “effability principle”, wasn’t that clair and effable himself. Those kind of triks made by analytic philosopher (even the territorial and linguistic division between anglo and french/german), are stereotypes invented by English philosophers. Saul Kripke or Nelson Goodman are difficult as some french philosopher. Many years ago, in Germany, there was a similar “discussion” between Habermas and Albert. Albert was claimimg that Hegel thought was obscure and unuseful, Habermas answered with an irony like this: for me too was hard and difficult the study of Hegel’s thought (more or less).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: OBSTACLES TO UNDERSTANDING RECENT FRENCH PHILOSOPHY | AGENT SWARM

  3. Pingback: BRUNO LATOUR, IRONY AND IMAGISM | AGENT SWARM

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