CCTP-748: Seminar Discussion: Week 3

Brittany Coombs

The readings this week had me thinking about language in ways I had never postulated before. More than anything, these readings seem very concerned with connecting language with the concept of truth (or is that Truth?). I really enjoyed Kuhn's take on the restrictions imposed by paradigms in natural science as well as Rorty's discussion on the nature of truth in the world. For a longer time while reading than I expected, I couldn't identify whether Kuhn was a fan of paradigms or not. Then, all of a sudden, he explodes against them. He makes a very important point in distinguishing between the word 'paradigm' as it is commonly used and the way in which it is used scientifically. In common parlance, a paradigm is a pattern that is replicated with understandable and effective results -- his example about verb conjugation in different languages is perfect. But in science, a paradigm is a foundation of research that "is an object for further articulation". The problem here, Kuhn says, is that while a paradigm solves some initial puzzle that was pressing at the time it was formulated, normal science assumes future puzzles can be solved using the same paradigm, which causes scientists today to overlook or ignore phenomena that don't fit "the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies". But while I agree with Kuhn's big point that paradigms become antiquated and must be jettisoned or adapted to new desires for discovery, I thought maybe he doesn't give science enough credit for doing just that. The whole point of science is that it is falsifiable, that none of its paradigms are safe. It has its fair share of sacred paradigms, like the law of gravity or force equals mass times acceleration, but overall I'm not sure science "forces nature" to fit its boxes as much as he says.

external image xfiles.jpgKuhn must think that there is some big truth out there to be discovered that blasted scientific paradigms are keeping us from. Rorty, however, makes the compelling argument that truth is not discovered, but made. According to Rorty, the world is not true or false, only descriptions of it are -- and descriptions are only possible with language, which is manmade. I find his argument both confusing and enthralling. His basic idea that things don't intrinsically have values but rather have values placed upon them is one I agree with, and probably most people do. But I take issue with the idea that truth doesn't exist unless we can articulate its existence. I don't mean to resort to reductio ad absurdum, but if the sky is blue, the sky is blue, right? Our ability to understand and express the concept of colors or blueness or to devise the word "blue" seems irrelevant. But then again I don't totally reject Rorty's idea that there is nothing true or false about the sky's blueness until there is a sentence of some sort that declares the sky either is blue or isn't, in which case the sentence is either true or false, not the sky. I feel on the verge of getting Rorty but I'm not 100%. What are other people's thoughts?

To be brutally honest, I found Foucault a bit unreadable. He has so many ideas in one sentence that sometimes reading his words is like reading another language. I wrote a Facebook status that said I was "spending the evening with Foucault, gouda cheese and Blondie" and it ended up being a private party with the cheese and Debbie Harry. But anyway, I returned to him later and was struck by, again, the presence of the concept of truth, which seems to needle at a lot of academic thinkers. In "Discourse on Language", Foucault points out that in no society can people just say whatever they want whenever they want, that there are three rules in place: (1) only certain people have the right to use certain words on certain occasions, (2) if you say something that doesn't make sense or only makes sense to you then you risk being called crazy, and (3) there is a "will to truth". The little I know about Foucault is that he basically thinks knowledge is power, and that therefore those who have power control knowledge -- who gets credit for it, who gets exposed to it, etc. Foucault is pointing to the power imbalance that results from the will to truth in modern societies, because it places emphasis upon empirical science, which is the focal point of libraries, labs, universities and the like. For as dense as Foucault's writing is, the man actually appears to be very anti-ivory tower. This attitude is also on display in "Archaeology of Knowledge", when he rips postmodernism a new one by asking people to stop insisting that every idea has "always already been said", saying "Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs."

Zachary Allard

Upon first glance, it could be very easy to write Foucault off as a thinker who was merely reactionary, someone who simply tore down walls. However, such an assessment would miss the substance in Foucault’s critiques. He does spend a lot of time in his writing abolishing (or at least attempting to abolish) preconceptions of thought, language, discourse, history, and so forth. The best example comes from the discussion of his “Analytic of Finitude” from the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. The author is discussing the problem of man’s limitations which lead to the paradox of humankind being an empirical object of representation and the transcendental source of representations. This is a problem that philosophers have tried to reconcile for decades, and Foucault argued that it was not even possible to do so, and, “the impossibility (historically realized) means the collapse of the modern episteme.” On some level, this is a tremendously “negative” idea in the sense that it completely undermines entire disciplines of knowledge and assumptions about humanity, its history, and its very nature. In many of his writings, he posits similarly “powerfully destructive” arguments. Yet, Foucault is not simply a wrecking ball.

As Socrates said, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Substantial portions of Foucault’s thought and writings undermine classical assumptions about language and power structures because such knowledge needs to be undermined! The ultimate through line in his work is epistemology; Foucault is always concerned with the nature of what (if anything) can be known and how. He questions everything from the nature of language to that of power and politics. In so doing, he destroyed the ancient walls imprisoning knowledge and discourse in unfounded assumptions. Not only was Foucault more than a mere intellectual nihilist, his writings are as transformative as quantum physics and the uncertainty principle. Not only can one not know the momentum and position of an electron, Foucault would question where it was ever even there. Through his writings, he joined the small Pantheon of writers whose work created a paradigm shift akin to that of Copernicus. Some thinkers have been credited with bringing humankind into the light; Foucault showed us how truly in the dark we are.

Ariel Leath

Communication has changed significantly over the past centuries. The English language has developed new methods and patterns, along with new words. Many elements of the Old English vocabulary have been lost due to their archaic nature or complete obsolescence in modern society. As our “modern language” evolved, philosophy surrounding this language was created to explain the massive cloud of cultural stimuli putting pressure on communication. Culture, as used currently, is aptly described by Foucault as “a hierarchical organization of values, accessible to everybody, but at the same time the occasion of a mechanism of selection and exclusion.” This brings to light a couple of his most interesting points when it comes to discourse; exclusion and accessibility.

The exclusivity of discourse is something to be further investigated, because it suggests that, though one may understand the language one speaks, there are greater influences at work that a) exist to be absorbed rather than dissected and understood, and b) exclude certain understandings. He describes culture as accessible, with which I agree, and associates it with organized values, which are also essential in absorbing discourse. Those who seek these ends live in the “art of existence,” as Foucault calls it. The aesthetic and stylistic criteria in which he believes are to be sought by the author, the originator.

Rorty alludes to these cultural signifiers when discussing an ever-contingent “vocabulary.” His theory of Ironism is fascinating insomuch as it discusses “finished” languages of others and how that can make one doubt the finality of her own vocabulary. This description was appealing to me, I like to think of myself in this way - but I can't decide if I am complimenting or insulting myself. I believe, to be a successful communicator, one requires a strong sense of identity when presenting information to be transmitted.The cultural exigencies that seem to be such a hot topic among philosophers, in my opinion, can be decided on by a well-informed communicator. (By saying this I may be waving a bit of philosophy-ignorance flag, I'm aware, but I'm a hopeless optimist...)

Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts as progressions of science is interesting and connects to the other philosophers’ views by exposing the ways that scientists deal with unexpected and novel conditions affecting their vocabularies. That it is nearly impossible, in Kuhn’s opinion, to express perspective objectively could parallel Foucault’s definition of culture, which I think I understand, but could be adding my own cultural pressure and interpretations to my understandings.

After all... "we know that a belief can be true without being justified..." -Richard Rorty

Siyang Wu

I should say, this week, Michel Foucault’s theory almost drivse me crazy. It takes me long long time to understand his proposition. Even now, I can’t say I am clear with every thing. This is my first time to view knowledge from the perspective of discourse. From my point of view, the concept of “discourse” is the core of Foucault’s theory, however, there is no unambiguous illumination of “discourse”. I guess discourse here is not equal to either the form of language or the contend of language. “Statement” which I think can help to understand the concept of “discourse” is also blurry. The meaning of “statement” is dynamic and is different in different time period, location and condition. The subject of statement, author, it is not a specific individual, it is more like a position, as Foucault mentioned in Discourse on language, “Not, of course, the author in the sense of the individual who delivered the speech or wrote the text in question, but the author as the unifying principle in a particular group of writings or statements, lying at the origins of their significance, as the seat of their coherence”. I feel Foucault valued the social relationship and social structure which the author involved in more than who the author is. It was his intention to reveal the truth behind appearance.

Compared with Foucault, Kuhn’s theory is a little more understandable. The parallel he incited between social revolution and scientific revolution is impressive. Scientific revolution is a process in which old paradigm is substitute by a new one. In my view, every paradigm works like a transition. existent paradigm can explain many phenomenons well and thus it help people to shape their cognition of the world. Along with the development of people’s exploring of the world, novel phenomenons come out and spurs the pursuit of new paradigm. I think both Kuhn and Foucault, though from different perspective, made efforts to grab the essence of knowledge. In Kuhn’s theory, what is really new for me is that “scientific revolutions are here taken to be those non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one”. I can understand the concept of paradigm, but I always think that scientific development is an continuous process, maybe since I ignore the conflict between the new and old paradigm.

When I was a high school student, I was told in philosophy class that philosophy is prior to other disciplines and is their foundation. Rorty who had broad view on different fields, made his perspective more convincible. However, I am shocked by his point that truth is not discovered, but made. I am wondering if the truth is artificial, what is the foundation of our cognition of the world?

Stephanie Stroud

Foucault's statement regarding language introduces an interesting idea about the function (and limits) of language:

Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. it is this 'more' that we must reveal and describe. (Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge)

Language is somewhat spatially and chronologically defined. For example, frazzled 21st century Italian parents at their wits end can say "basta" to their unruly children to signify "enough of your nonsense". While an emphatic "enough" may suffice for 21st century English speakers, I am unaware of such a word in the English language.

Breaking language down a level further, Japanese and Chinese, do not use phonetic alphabets to build words, but rather they use a pool of characters. The ideas these characters express, the semantics and resulting flow of thoughts collectively offer a different set of abilities and limitations than the English language.

Curiously then, people interpret -- and even try to preserve -- words of historical documents at no trifling cost. The Constitution of the United States of America and religious texts are the first examples that come to mind. I can't help but entertain the thought that the words that were filled with "truth", "correctness", "justice" are not timeless, but rather they are time stamped, and in many cases, lost in translation.

While much of our existence is purely in the present, words have for some time now, left a lasting record of "the now" of the past. If we can read the language, we are perhaps inclined to think there is no translation necessary, but as Foucault suggestions (and I agree), this is far from the case. Translation is necessary, and even so, not entirely possible since we cannot fully remove ourselves from our spatial and chronological vantage point. The ideas expressed by language are only capable of existing in the present, in a certain culture; The "truth" they convey is only capable of evolving.

Two quotes come to mind when I read Foucault:

Truth is eternal. Knowledge is changeable. It is disastrous to confuse them.
-Madeleine L’Engle

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. -Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Suz Shenk

Kuhn and Foucault are both concerned with how history is developed, layered, and understood. Kuhn is focused on paradigms and their subsequent shifts, where one model allows enough light to be shown on a scenario till there are inefficiencies that require a new paradigm to elaborate. New discoveries are found when the parameters of a paradigm no longer illuminate a practice, but since the paradigm itself is not designed to account for seismic changes; other members of practice may not believe them, thereby requiring persuasion techniques.

Therefore, new paradigms do not just replace each other as their new properties are revealed, but there is social movement that must occur, to break the discourse communities from their old paradigms to help them accept a new innovation or discovery, which may also change the shape of the discipline itself. “…[P]aradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the directions essential for map-making,” Kuhn says.


This “map-making” skill is part of the processes of power that influence. But what happens when disciplines and institutions lobby or are lobbied by outside influences-or their symbolic power is subverted through other channels? This made me think of a recent commercial campaign I saw: KFC in China just put together a campaign that uses an Obama look-alike (a powerful visual signifier) and the “Change is good” language that supports a knowledge framework to persuade people to purchase this chicken sandwich as if it is Obama-approved. In a way, Kuhn and Foucault are both concerned with institutions or disciplines that shape and reinforce knowledge structures. Power/persuasion is used by institutions/paradigms to disseminate certain structures that shape how knowledge is acquired and meaning is understood. This campaign is one way that the institutions of change-and the power of persuasion-align to both construct new meaning while building on past signifiers.

Erin Coleman

I found Foucault’s writing, particularly his discussion of the “frontiers of the book” fascinating. His description of an individual book as “a node within a network” is a concept that clashes, at least to some degree, with the contemporary world of intellectual property laws, copyrighting, and our societal exultation of originality. At the same time, structuralist and post-structuralist interpretation, at least in terms of literature, are hard to escape in contemporary criticism. While I agree with his general theory about the mutability and relativity of the book and oeuvre of an author, I’m not sure I agree fully with his representation of the “author function.” While the reader may bring certain assumptions to a literary work based on the name attributed to its production, I don’t believe this fact is inherently wrong or dangerous. While the text may speak for itself, an examination of the author and his/her worldview offers a deeper level of understanding for the reader, especially regarding historical or foreign works.
Last week’s discussion of the melding of oral and literate cultures adds an interesting dimension to an analysis of Foucault. How does McLuhan’s idea of the “global village” and the blending of the opposed cultural norms of orality in the East and literacy in the West mesh with Foucault’s concept of the author function? Do the same rules apply equally to both cultures? Furthermore, in the age of globalization and social media, where anyone and everyone with internet access can write and distribute text, who, or what, is an author?
The other piece of the reading that stuck out to me was Rorty’s discussion of language and its artificiality. While I’m not sure I subscribe to the totality of his (anti) philosophy, his observations on the nature of language were thought-provoking and completely new. His assertion that “The world does not speak. Only we do” is deceptively simple. In just a few short words, he describes a revolutionary idea of language and its function in the construction of truth.
This past weekend I saw a play that addresses head-on some of the themes of Rorty’s linguistic discussion, Brian Friel’s Translations. The Irish playwright explores the relationship between one’s identity, culture, and language through the lens of early 19th century Ireland, during the height of the British occupation of the island. More specifically, the play focuses on the anglicization of the Irish language through the translation and re-naming of geographic places for a new map of the island. In our first exposure to foreign languages, much of what we learn is the art of translation, which is an inherently flawed activity. In switching from one language to another, the meaning, or what Rhorty might call the truth, is inherently changed. Language constructs our view and understanding of the world. To reference McLuhan’s observation about the global village once again, I find the localization/globalization tension within linguistics especially relevant here. Universities in Ireland now require an understanding of the Irish language as a prerequisite for entrance, a fact that represents the efforts of the country to preserve and promote their cultural heritage, even in the face of historical dominance by England, and now the era of globalization. Similar trends abound throughout Europe, even as the unifying structure of the E.U. increases its reach. How would Rorty interpret such a phenomenon?

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Qres Ephraim

Foucault in his formation of objects cements the ideas of rules for discourse, which I totally love! He writes,” It is not the objects that remain constant, nor the domain that they form; it is not even their point of emergence of their mode of characterization; but the relation between the surfaces on which they appear, on which they can be delimited, on which they can be analyzed and specified.”(23) In my remix class, I could have used Foucault’s theories to further explain why Disney movie appropriations of folk tales was so widely accepted, and explain why Disney now “owns” those stories. The plane on which the object is placed makes it available to shift and become an object available for discourse, specifically by the powerful animation the entertainment giant employs.

Continuing in the Disney vein, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution makes note “if this characteristic of science is to be reconciled with what has already been said, then research under a paradigm must be particularly effective way of inducing paradigm change.”(52) While animation may not be seen as scientific, per se, the means of production and animation enabled by science is especially noteworthy. With the advent of digital computation and artistry, Disney has gone from hand-illustrations to computer-generated images, both of which ultimately are used to perpetuate the same tales of morality. I argue that scientific progress that does not work with the cultural discourse is practically doomed to failure.
And lastly, in Rorty’s “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope”, we find “as long as we think of knowledge as representing reality rather than coping with it, mind or language will continue to seem numinous.” (7) Rorty asserts the numinous words force us into a box of morality, which is a perfect explanation for the Disney movies that, while often fantastic, aim to represent human struggles as they truly are. Morality in a movie, if you will.

Joshua Weaver.

In Foucault’s “Discourse of Language”, we’re introduced to discourse as more than a mere act, but an entity -- a personal and societal phenomenon government and controlled far beyond our mere faculties in rhetoric, semantics, etc. The aspect of power dynamics that permeates everything Focauldian is very much present. And, personally, if you’ve taken even the most cursory linguistics or language humanities course, you’d easily spot this exclusionary complex of discourse described by Foucault in the wild. However, my little stroke of curiosity came from the concept of the origination and proprietorship of ideas and discourse.

One aspect of this that stands out in both “Discourse of Language” and “Archaeology of Knowledge” is the seeming departure between the author, creator, originator and/or proprietor of ideas and conceptions (“oeuvre”) from said ideas and conceptions themselves. And, while this collection of work may, indeed, be the author’s, the work takes a soul of its own, perpetuating an unseen machine and regulator of discourse. Per Foucault in “Archaeology...”, literary analysis today concerns itself with the structure of “oeuvre” rather than the ideological basis from which the work was created.

Conversely, Kuhn seems to see a very intricate connection between “oeuvre” and the author, albeit in a more scientific environment. Kuhn’s “Paradigm Shift” seems to purport that by virtue of being in a certain group (of scientists), you have already been exposed to, and are equally affected by, a paradigmatic dynamic shared across this certain group. Thus, unlike Foucault depictions, “ideology” seems to work as the momentum for Kuhn’s communities of normal science because, although one’s interpretations and rules may be incongruous to those of others, there’s a creed or philosophy that permeates each by virtue of community. And, unlike Foucault, this “community” seems to hold propriety over, if not the literal work and accomplishment, the ideology that brought about set works existence.

In implementing Rorty, we fall into this idea of linguistics and how morphology and semantics help develop a world. Thus, while our language reflects our world, it's exactly that reflect of the world in our language that makes everything around us true. However, we can challenge Rorty with any Boas-ian linguistic theory, e.g. eskimo's having 100s of words for "snow". Rorty's concept tends to give persons (or a least a society of persons) a certain faculty of discourse not seen in Foucault or Kuhn.

Lily Hughes

I often wonder what Foucault would think of the way he is taught.

What would he say about the countless applications of the Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon theory to cultural texts and social behaviors that attempt not to reveal truth, but only to reveal. What would he say about the professors who prescribe his theory like a pharmaceutical drug, to be taken twice a day until the infection has healed? What would he say about the summaries of his work, the spark-notes that deliver his arguments in succinct paragraphs outlining the key points? How would he feel being taught alongside Rorty and Kuhn? Or how about Athusser, Said, Butler, Kant, Habermas, Sartre, or Nietzche? What would he think of the aftermath, the lack of Resistance, the apathy of postmodernism, the scapegoating of intertextuality and hybridity so that we no longer possess (or need to possess) that which is true?

What would he think about his Wikipedia page?

I ponder these questions in part because I have spent a great deal of my academic degree being taught to understand Foucault, in the last two weeks alone he will have been taught in three of my four classes. The problem is that what he says and how he says it prove so dense that most of the time scholars see understanding Foucault as a victory and stop. This is all very well, except I always want to ask why? Why should we study Foucault, what use is a deeper understanding of societies structures if we stop at the understanding?

If we are enlightened about discourse and discipline, if repression is inventive, and if power/knowledge can be self destructive, why do we continue to conform? Is this really as good as it gets, are we at our most effective, is this more real or true than anything Marxism, Culturalism, or Modernism had to offer? Or, somewhere down the line, did the academy get Foucault wrong?

Apologies for failing to mention Kuhn or Rorty (other than in passing). I am not overly familiar with Kuhn's work and, while I have a great respect for Rorty's work, I don't enjoy ranting about him quite as much as I do with Foucault.