Cowen on Foucault

Tyler Cowen, a loyal reader of my e-mails, responds to my question on Michel Foucault. In the process, he recommends The Archeology of Knowledge twice, and notes that Foucault

…goes astray by assuming, implicitly, explicitly or otherwise, that structural categories somehow interact with each other in the world of ideas.  It’s much more micro and disaggregated than he lets on….

That’s a very important insight: at least since Nietzsche, philologists have been warning philosophers of the excesses of pattern recognition and confirmation bias built into the philosophically-informed history of ideas. (We philosophers, of course, prefer the texts when Nietzsche plays along.)

Cowen also points us to Foucault’s praise of Hayek and libertarianism:

Foucault, always focused on the exercise of power and repression, tells his students to read Hayek and crew “with special care.” He found much to commend in their work. First and foremost, true liberalism is “imbued with the principle: ‘One always governs too much.’” As important, it asks (and answers) the question, “Why, after all, is it necessary to govern?”

In my view, the humanities are a bit schizophrenic in our love of Foucault and hatred of libertarianism. Should we blame Ayn Rand for ruining a perfectly good term for resistance to domination?

Cowen concludes:

It is better to simply work on the topics he cared about, using his books as a reminder to consider some different angles.

That seems right. For Cowen, this means that we ought to work on prisons and sexuality and hospitals, but I recommend Ian Hacking, whose work on induction and statistics pulls from Foucault to take issue with the way the state currently derives much of its legitimacy from an equivocation over the kinds of risk and chance that individuals are asked to endure or the state is allowed to manage.

The Post-Austistic Economics movement uses Foucault more often than orthodox economists do, perhaps because it originated in France.

2 thoughts on “Cowen on Foucault”

  1. Ha! I wondered whether that was you. Worlds collide.

    I highly recommend reading Birth of Biopolitics. I’m not really convinced that the Reason blog post really paints the correct picture of Foucault’s reasons for suggesting to read Hayek and co., but I can’t say that I understood everything in that book. He also discusses Becker’s visions of rational human actors. Interesting stuff. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, b/c I can’t even come close to giving it the treatment it needs.

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