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504: Objects, Concepts and Experience: Foucault and the Human Sciences

Two credits

This course will explore, largely through Foucault’s posthumously published volumes of lectures at the College de France, questions involved in conceptualizing a history of objects, practices, knowledges and problematizations. What Foucault undertakes historically is not what history as a discipline is equipped to deal with. Foucault is using history or historical material genealogically to come to terms with problems that are philosophical. He often characterizes his genealogical investigations as an attempt to arrive at a “history of truth” or as an attempt “to define the conditions in which human beings ‘problematize’ what they are, what they do, and the world in which they live.” We will study Foucault’s project as providing us with a “conceptual story” of the West, a story that will transform our understanding of the role of history, philosophy and, more generally, the human sciences in the constitution of the West as a culture. We will seek theoretical and methodological clarity about this project by focusing on three themes.

1) genealogy and history: how does Foucault distinguish genealogy from history, since the material and often the method Foucault uses are historical? How does genealogy decide what objects or domains require genealogical analysis?

2) problematization and normativization: what is “problematization” and what is its relationship to “truth” and “norm”? What is the relationship between, on the one hand, practices and knowledge of practices and, on the other hand, truth and norm?

3) intellectual knowledge and spiritual knowledge. How does Foucault distinguish one from the other? How is Foucault’s study of them different from how a historian of ideas or a philosopher would study them? What is the status of Foucault’s own genealogy, in relation to the human sciences that are the objects of his investigation and in relation to the types of knowledges he is trying to understand?

We will also indirectly be asking how Foucault’s project could be of help in telling a “conceptual story” of India.

We will mainly be using The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Society Must be Defended, and Abnormal along with some books and articles that draw from these lectures. The decision to use the lectures as the main material is based on the fact that each of these lecture volumes is far richer in insight and cover more ground methodologically and theoretically than the corresponding book. Also, since these lectures are as it were intermediate between “raw” research and the “finished” product, they give us a lively sense of an acute thinker conveying the excitement of research to his audience (there is also the hope that this might make my pedagogical task a little easier). We will, however, be looking closely at some of his books and essays too. Ultimately, of course, it is my interpretation of Foucault’s intellectual trajectory that provides the justification for my choice of texts and problems; my contribution to the course itself can be seen, explicitly when needed but most often implicitly, as providing the justification for my interpretation. How much material we cover and how deeply we will explore the issues will depend almost entirely on the interest and commitment you bring to the class.

Course requirements: written notes for each class is recommended; one presentation; one paper (3000-5000 words) that addresses the themes or problems discussed in the course.

(The Lecture Volume followed by the corresponding books/essays)

The Hermeneutics of the Self (HS)
The Uses of Pleasure (UP)

Fearless Speech (FS)

“About the Beginning of The Hermeneutics of the Self”

Society Must be Defended (SMD)
“On Governmentality”

“Politics and Reason”

“What is Enlightenment”

“Politics and Method”

History of Sexuality vol I

Week 1

General introduction: Map of the issues and arguments to be covered.

The importance of Foucault—The trajectory of his work— “The permanent anthropologism of the West—“The historical ontology” of the West. If you have the time, I recommend that you read “What is Enlightenment?” and “About the Beginning of The Hermeneutics of the Self” (in Michel Foucault, Religion and Culture) for the first session itself.

Weeks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The next five weeks we will work through the first group of readings with HS as our major focus. Although the text is rather long (about 500 pages), it’s eminently accessible. However, you may omit lectures 3, 4, 22, 23, 24. Begin reading UP and FS concurrently.

Intellectual knowledge and spiritual knowledge—Care of the self in antiquity—Christian transformation of the Greek-Roman problematics—Dietetics, economics, erotics, wisdom—Truthtelling and Subjectity, Ethics and Morality---Normativization.

Short student presentations in weeks 5, 6.

Weeks 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

(If the course has picked up momentum, we might be able to finish this group of reading in 4 weeks).

The central text for this phase, SMD, is a bit tough-going. The other texts, however, are relatively straightforward and short.

Secularization of Western Culture?—History and Politics—Race and Class—Characterizing governmentalization—Genealogy and history.

Presentations in week 10, 11.

Weeks 12, 13.

Both the texts are relatively easy.

Secularization at work—bodies and in-depth Christianization—Body and Flesh—Scientia Sexualis—Self, Truth and Confession—Scientism of human sciences.

Presentations in week 13.

Week 14

Experience, Truth and Norm: Reconstrction of the road traversed. Theoretical and methodological implications of Foucault’s characterization of Western experience.

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