Monday, March 7, 2005

Critique and change as ethical imperatives

I vaguely remembered Foucault saying something about how the discursive system of the social sciences is different than that of the humanities or hard sciences, so this morning I went in search of the reference.

In his essay What Is An Author? he describes the historical connections between authorship and authority. For example, until the 17th century, authority in what we would now call scientific texts was vested in the name and reputation of the author. Once science emerged as a formal discipline, authority shifted to the methods of inquiry - or as Rabinow writes: "Truth became more anonymous". The opposite sort of shift occurred in literature. The authority of a story was first associated with its familiarity and longevity; it mattered less who wrote it than if it had been known for a long time. In the 19th century, however, authority became associated with particular authors, according to their fame and standing in the literary community.

Then I found what I was looking for: what Foucault calls "founders of discursivity". In the human or social sciences, Foucault pinpoints an intellectual and cultural tradition involving the repeated return to particular thinkers, despite substantial critique. For example, despite the weaknesses and flaws in the work of Marx or Freud, their work has never been discarded. As Rabinow explains, "one does not declare certain propositions in the work of these founders to be false: instead...one sets aside those statements that are not pertinent". In other words, ideas are never totally right or wrong. They're not thrown out, they simply get moved or modified. They change.

This sort of understanding not only impacts how we understand our own subjects of study - including ourselves - but also how we may understand the subjects of other disciplines. For example, instead of saying that we were wrong to believe the earth was flat because we now know it to be round, we can instead describe the transition from flatness to roundness and allow that it may change again.

And something else struck me. I recalled conversations I have had - with friends, students, colleagues - in which I was accused of being dismissive or destructive. I was sometimes hurt by the accusation, but more often confused. My confusion arose, I believe, because I never saw the critique of one part of an argument to invalidate every other part, or as any sort of indication that one who did find it relevant was wrong. In other words, just because I didn't find any relevance in one aspect or proposition didn't mean that I saw no value in the broader context or in the person who found it useful.

To critique something is not to dismiss or destroy it. To critique something is to see how it changes, or how it can be changed. I take this as an ethical imperative - one connected to my committment to try to see things differently, perhaps even to get free of myself.

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