Monday, March 10, 2014


A "discourse" is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, "reason" served a similar function albeit at a more abstract, even "transcendental", level. Reason constitutes the conditions of possibility of the experience of objects. The equal and opposite force of this definition is that a discourse determines the particular difficulty of making a statement. This difficulty is of course positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort. Interestingly, Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon can just as well mean "discursive animal" as the classic "rational animal". Building on this insight, Foucault presented the "historical a priori" of "discursive formations" as a re-interpretation of Kant's a priori of "pure reason" such that the difficulty (as I've put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions.

Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses "are very different from epistemological or 'architectonic' descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory" (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call "theorizing".

Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that "mastery" does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. The presentation of research results within a theory is a not a merely "epistemological" matter, as Foucault note. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair. Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with others. They come to understand that viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most "scientific" of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Finally, they will learn the meaning of "respectful" engagement with their peers.

I'll be writing about discourse this week, paradigms the next. In two weeks, I will begin writing about social epistemology, which is the field in which I got my start.


randwest said...

In the third chapter of Kenneth Burke’s treatise on perspectives and rhetoric, Permanence and Change (1954), we are presented with two interesting views of the consequences of specific training: Veblen’s “trained incapacity” and Dewey’s “occupational psychosis”. The former reflects Veblen’s belief that many (all?) professions create a common framing, common priors, and common methods that render some problems invisible. The latter is Dewey’s “pronounced character of the mind” that results from specialized training. (One wonders if Veblen and Dewey spoke of these alternative descriptions of the same phenomenon during the brief period when they were colleagues at the University of Chicago.) Burke pushes the combined concept further in the realm of rhetoric. He notes on the last page of the chapter, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing”. The remainder of the book is his investigation of how this affects communication. I look forward, Thomas, to how you sort out social epistemology, discourse, rhetoric, and paradigms.

Thomas said...

I guess I'm trying to reverse the emphasis. (Such negative language: "incapacity", "psychosis"!) A way of not seeing is also a way of seeing. (Blindness, if you will, is a way of hearing.) The difficulty of making a statement is the possibility of being precise. Etc.

Theres's been too much focus on the sense in which a discourse is a barrier to the expression of what we think. (Foucault sort of encourages this focus, since we get the impression that "silenced voices" are always unjustly repressed.)

Part of my project this week is a more formal treatment of some earlier thoughts about "how to tell the truth". It isn't easy, but often worth it.

Andrew Shields said...

Echoes of de Man's "Blindness and Insight" here. I haven't looked at de Man in twenty or so years now, but what stuck with me about that collection of essays was the paradox that the authors he discussed were most insightful at moments when they were most blinded (to oversimplify).

(That applies to de Man himself, too, of course.)