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Deconstructing the Deconstructor: Foucault, Ricoeur, and the Violence of History

Published on 8th April 2020

To call French philosopher Michel Foucault pessimistic would be an understatement. 

Foucault, surveying millennia of human history, dismisses the popular contemporary faith in human progress. Humanity, Foucault confidently but somberly informs us, “proceeds from domination to domination.” History is not an arc bending towards justice so much as it is a flat field of perpetual oppression. Violence is inescapable. Sharing Foucault’s apparent historical pessimism is another French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur, writing in his book History and Truth, does not mince words: “history is violence.” Indeed, Ricoeur accepts as veritable historical law the persistence of violence. Yet in spite of appearances to the contrary, Foucault and Ricoeur do not turn out to be particularly intimate philosophical bedfellows. In fact, Ricoeur, in more senses than one, represents something of an antagonist for Foucault, especially on the subject of violence and history. It’s this antagonism, and the insight it provides into questions of historiography, violence, and metaphysics, which serves as the focus of this paper. 

In what follows, my aim is to, in a nutshell, deconstruct Foucault’s genealogical approach to history by viewing it through the theoretical lens of Paul Ricoeur’s own theory of history. I will show that while at first they appear diametrically opposed, Ricoeur and Foucault share important philosophical, epistemological, and methodological assumptions. Yet it is exactly the presence of such similarities that enables Ricoeur to expose the theoretical inadequacies, if not outright contradictions, of Foucault’s “philosophy of history,” if we may call it that. I critique both Foucault’s conception and practice of history (which are of course related). The aim of my critique is two-fold: firstly, to demonstrate the possibility of—and the theoretical need for—genuine freedom in history in the form of suspending violence; and secondly, to show that Foucault’s practice of history, for all that it seeks to expose the violence inherent to various discourses within and about history, is itself a form of violence. The second critique follows from the first: Foucault’s theory of history is violent because it unjustifiably denies (as revealed by a comparison with Ricoeur) the possibility of non-violence.[1]

Before we embark on our critique of Foucault’s approach to historiographical philosophy and methodology, it’s important to understand whom Foucault sought to critique. Foucault situated his deconstructive historiography in opposition to the Enlightenment paradigm of historical progress prevalent in modern academia. As far as Foucault was concerned, too much of modern historiography presumes a linear temporal continuity, one that will eventually culminate in a normatively superior future. All historical events are seen as stepping stones on the path to the present, which subsequently takes on an air of inevitability. Amongst the children of the Enlightenment, Hegel and Marx are perhaps the most famous for expressing such a vision of history. Contemporary liberals, Marxists, and even empiricists share this commitment to a progressive account of history. Their model of history is universal, its temporality continuous. Implicit in conventional historiography is a faith in the linearity of time and the teleological ends of history.[2]

In no uncertain terms does Foucault condemn this optimistic and totalizing view of history. To Foucault, such a history has no function but “to compose the finally reduced diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself. ” Such a history’s “perspective on all that precedes it implies the end of time, a completed development.”[3]

Foucault’s so-called “genealogical” approach to history is explicitly designed to deconstruct such comforting assumptions, demonstrating the empirical, methodological, and philosophical fallacies inherent to traditional historiography as outlined above. Foucault builds his genealogical approach on the base furnished by Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “The Uses and Abuses of History,” which launches a sustained epistemological critique of history as a concept and a practice. Foucault gladly inherits and develops this critique.

At the heart of Foucault’s theory of history is a denial of metaphysics. After all, “traditional history,” as Foucault terms it, suffers from an indefensible “dependence on metaphysics.” Foucault’s genealogical historiography—what he calls “effective history”—avoids this terrible error. “The genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics,” Foucault tells us, for when he listens to “things” in history, he finds “not a timeless and essential secret” but “the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.” There exist no “immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession,” no “primordial truth” waiting to be unmasked. History is not animated by some supra-historical truth, whether the Spirit for the Hegelian or class struggle for the Marxist or humanism for the liberal. In the absence of the metaphysical crutch, traditional history—and its delusions of human destiny and moral progress—must collapse. Traditional history, after all, is totalizing precisely because it “finds its support outside of time and pretends to base its judgments on an apocalyptic objectivity.” Such history “reintroduces (and always assumes) a supra-historical perspective.” Such history, in other words, is non-historical, perhaps even ahistorical. It derives its coherence from such metaphysical fantasies as “belief in eternal truth, the immortality of the soul, and the nature of consciousness.” Only by abandoning a metaphysically-informed historiography, then, can we escape the bondage of the misguided progressive, teleological account of history. Only then can we realize that history does not advance. On this Foucault insists: “Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity instills each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.” History is but a procession of a violent constellation of forces. The blind optimism of traditional historiography blinds us to this essential fact. [4]

How, then, does Foucault propose we problematize and deconstruct traditional history? By refuting “the certainty of absolutes.” This is, at the risk of offending Foucault, the essence of the genealogical approach to history. It reveals everything to be purely contingent. It exposes history as a product of “singular randomness” and little else. “The forces operating in history are not controlled by destiny or regulative mechanisms,” Foucault insists, “but respond to haphazard conflicts.” Whereas “theological or rationalistic” history aims at “dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity—as a teleological moment or a natural process,” effective history “introduces discontinuity into our very being.” It uproots the “traditional foundations” of historiography by “relentlessly disrupt[ing] its pretended continuity.” The more discontinuous, the more “effective” history is. Such disruption must be complete: “the traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and retracing the past as a patient and continuous development must be systematically dismantled.” Foucault seeks to de-familiarize the past, to render it alien and delink it from the present. Genealogy, then, in reconstructing a temporality defined by discontinuity rather than continuity, shatters our comforting belief “that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessities.”[5] It delegitimizes the present by denying its inevitability.

But why go so far? Why is Foucault’s genealogical project so important? Why must the historian adopt a “glance that distinguishes, separates, and disperses,” one that actively dissolves “illusions” of unity in history in favor of dizzying multiplicities?[6] Foucault’s answer, though not formulated in such direct terms, is that the failure to recognize the discontinuous, aimless, and ultimately violent character of history is itself a form of violence. Foucault takes as the object of his critique not just the practice of history but the practitioners themselves. Foucault opposes “history as knowledge,” for such history only serves as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the historian, who is empowered at the expense of his victims.

Indeed, for Foucault, the traditional historian is no better than a demagogue: “nothing is allowed to stand above him; and underlying his desire for total knowledge is his search for the secrets that belittle everything.” The historian hides his “singular malice” under “the cloak of universals.” Just “as the demagogue is obliged to invoke truth, laws of essences, and eternal necessity,” so too must the historian “invoke objectivity, the accuracy of facts, and the permanence of the object.” As Foucault concludes in a line that explains his distaste for metaphysical claims, “once the historical sense is mastered by a supra-historical perspective, metaphysics can bend it to its own purposes [and] impose its own ‘Egyptianism.’”[7] As Mark Poster observes, Foucault effectively “unmasks the epistemological innocence” of the historian by suggesting that “history is a form of power and a form of knowledge at the same time…it is a means of controlling and domesticating the past by knowing it.” The historian pretends to recreate the past “as it was” while in fact creating it. Traditional historiography, far from disinterestedly recounting the past, generates discourses that “erase the difference of the past and justify a certain version of the present.”[8] In other words, history finds itself mobilized in defense of the status quo, however unjustifiable or oppressive it may be. 

Genealogy’s deconstructive approach averts this danger. Only when the historical sense “evade[s] metaphysics” and becomes “a privileged instrument of genealogy” can the demagogy of the traditional historian be mitigated. Genealogy grants us “the kind of dissociating view that is capable of decomposing itself, capable of shattering the unity of man’s being through which it was thought that he could extend his sovereignty to the events of his past.” The aim of genealogy, ultimately, is to liberate the “historical sense” from the despotic and deluded “demands of suprahistorical history” and all of its metaphysical baggage. [9]

Ultimately, for Foucault, history is little more than a series of dominations, and the very act of writing history only reproduces said dominations, for knowledge is power—traditional historiography of the sorts produced by liberals and Marxists abuses the past by putting it in service of the present. Genealogy, in rejecting continuities and refusing the comforts of a total theory of history a la Hegel, avoids reenacting violence in the form of historiography.

At first glance, Paul Ricoeur appears to share Foucault’s basic assumptions regarding history, even if they differ in the particulars. They agree that violence is ubiquitous in history. Indeed, Ricoeur could hardly be any clearer: “violence is always and everywhere.”[10] In this he echoes Foucault when he argues that history is but “an endless repeated play of dominations.”[11] Ricoeur is clearer still: “history is violence.” Indeed, violence is nothing less than the engine of history itself, “the privileged mode in accordance with which the form of history changes.”[12] Yet for all that Ricoeur agrees with Foucault that history is perpetual violence, for all that he shares Foucault’s theoretical reduction of everything to history, he ultimately departs from Foucault in non-trivial ways.

This departure represents more than a simple disagreement over axioms. Ricoeur’s theoretical proximity, yet distance, from Foucault ultimately destabilizes the foundation of his entire theory of history. Recall that Foucault’s conceptualization of history rests upon a series of sharp binaries between traditional and effective history: the metaphysical versus the material, the teleological versus the random, the universal versus the particular. This is to be expected, because, as mentioned earlier, Foucault formulated much of his historical vision in reaction to the predominant historiographical trends he observed in academia. Yet Ricoeur presents a profound theoretical quandary to Foucault by simultaneously embracing and rejecting his core assumptions. It is precisely the realization of such a paradox that enables Ricoeur to resolve the tensions, to dissolve the dichotomies, from which Foucault’s historiography derives its coherence. The paradoxical character of Ricoeur’s thinking undermines Foucault’s by demonstrating that the dichotomies upon which his theory of history is built are resolvable. To be sure, Foucault’s historical theses does not collapse simply because Ricoeur outlines slightly different ones. However, Ricoeur does supply a conceptual toolkit for thinking more critically about Foucault’s historical assumptions, especially as they relate to the ubiquity of violence.

Ricoeur first undermines Foucault by demonstrating the compatibility of the historical and the metaphysical. As we have seen, the rejection of the metaphysical constitutes a core element of Foucault’s historical vision. In his view, ejecting the metaphysical from history necessarily demolishes the teleological and universal assumptions that obfuscate at best and enable abuse at worst. Foucault sets up a necessary conflict between the supra-historical (the metaphysical) and the historical (material). For Foucault, the traditional historian is a liar—he ventures beyond the cage of history while pretending he never left, returning with ahistorical goods whose existence he denies. The traditional historian, in other words, refuses to accept his historical captivity. He attempts to write history with an ahistorical pen.

Foucault’s firm distinction between the historical and non-historical—or rather the historical and metaphysical—can find no home within Ricoeur’s worldview. To be clear, this is not immediately evident. When Ricoeur, after deeming history intrinsically violent, introduces the possibility of non-violence, he appears to be committing the same crime for which Foucault condemned his opponents: smuggling metaphysical contraband through a theoretical backdoor. Yet Ricoeur is an unusually bold criminal, for he does not even attempt to conceal his alleged crime. No, Ricoeur boldly broadcasts his sins. Non-violence “has history against it,” he proclaims, so it “can only come from elsewhere.” The pacifistic consciousness “summons history to something other than what is naturally intended by history.”[13] Remarkably, then, Ricoeur does not attempt to illegitimately marry metaphysics and history under a cover of deception. He rather explicitly poses non-violence as a stranger to history. If Ricoeur were Foucault, one would expect him to simply conclude that non-violence is therefore a historical impossibility. Yet Ricoeur presses onwards, and in the process transcends a binary that Foucault accepts as immutable.

Ricoeur’s intentions become apparent as soon as he asks, directly, how non-violence, if it comes from elsewhere, “shall be present in history?” Ricoeur at first gives a classic historicist answer, one with which Foucault could not have disagreed: “non-violence can be a valid attitude only if one can expect from it some influence—perhaps quite concealed—upon the course of history.” Non-violence, in other words, must be historical. But did not Ricoeur just claim that non-violence is necessarily opposed to history? Yes, and he sees no tension between the two aforementioned claims. Non-violence exists within and without history. He perhaps formulates this paradox most clearly when he writes: “If non-violence is to have meaning, it must fulfill it within the history that it at first transcends.” The non-violent man is “untimely,” but he is also “not on the fringe of time.” He realizes an ethical possibility—non-violence, “the recognition of man by man”—that by definition can only exist at the end of history (for history is always violent), but he can only realize such possibility by arising from and manifesting within history itself. [14]

Ultimately, then, Ricoeur manages to transcend history without transcending it. He locates the supra-historical within the historical. The idea of non-violence is non-historical, yet it can only ever appear within history. It exists outside of history and yet can only find fulfillment within it. The historian leaves the cage of history by locking himself within it. Ricoeur thus deconstructs the dichotomy that Foucault erects between metaphysical and non-metaphysical history. He somehow harmonizes theology and historicism. In doing so, he demonstrates that so-called supra-historical ideas need not contradict a historical outlook—an idea for which Foucault’s historical framework is unprepared.

A teleological account of history therefore not need be dismissed out-of-hand as baseless, regardless of what Foucault claims. And indeed, at first glance Ricoeur appears to present exactly the sort of linear historical narrative rejected by Foucault’s thesis of historical discontinuity. Ricoeur does, after all, speak of an “end of history,” even of a “stream of history,” all of which implies a view of history as teleological, as directional. Yet to characterize Ricoeur’s historical model as strictly linear or strictly teleological is to do it injustice. In truth, it is both continuous and discontinuous—another paradox that reveals the conceptual inadequacies of Foucault’s simpler historical formulations.[15]

For Ricoeur, historical progress—historical continuity—comes in the form of historical discontinuity. That is, for Ricoeur, historical progress occurs by interrupting history. Continuity can only come through change. Non-violent resistance effects exactly this interruption—not by entering history from outside, but by arising from history itself. Only this interruption of history—the suspension of violence by non-violence—bring us closer to the “end of history,” where “man recognizes man.” As Ricoeur puts it, “the non-violent believes that freedom can penetrate the resistance of fate.” Put differently, the non-violent’s resistance to history “prevents history from letting up only to fall back again.” The non-violent man “invests capital in a history which remains to be made.”[16] Such a history need not be violent. Such a history holds unimaginable possibilities. That history may unfold differently—that is the meaning of historical contingency. It is within this historical contingency, this “non-guaranteed history,” that we might locate our freedom and with it genuine historical progress. Of course, what should be noted here is that such interruption is not "pure,” for there is no purity in history. Non-violence suspends violence and recalls it, but in a different form, one which might assume an emancipatory function. Thus history remains violent, but it is a violence pregnant with liberating potential. History at once changes and doesn’t change. Non-violence at once constitutes a continuation and disruption of historical processes.

In a sense, Ricoeur locates human freedom in a historical discontinuity that is itself continuous. The interruption of history—the disruption of violence—ensures its progress. History progresses via interruption. Continuity is driven by discontinuity. Ricoeur’s formulation of discontinuity thus inverts Foucault’s, where discontinuity necessarily contradicts notions of linear temporality and historical progress.

Ricouer’s inversion of Foucault’s thinking is not merely an intellectual curiosity. Between its union of history and metaphysics and its reconceptualization of continuity, Ricoeur’s historical thinking casually kicks out the legs from beneath Foucault’s. Indeed, in light of Ricoeur’s writings, we can see that Foucault’s understanding of historical contingency—his conception of discontinuity—suffers from potentially fatal theoretical shortcomings. As we noted above, Foucault emphasizes historical discontinuity against trans-historical narratives (and supra-historical perspectives). Effective history, in shedding the totalizing explanatory frameworks furnished by “the meta-historical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies,” must settle for local-particular analyses rather than universal ones. No generalizations can be made about any given historical “event,” which is why each must be analyzed on its own terms. As Foucault explains, effective history “deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations.”[17]

Yet Foucault has not been honest with us (or himself). Even as he stresses the veracity of the discontinuity thesis—even as he boasts that the genealogist, unlike the historian, locates the “exceptional” and the alien in history rather than the familiar—he insists that history is but an “endlessly repeated play of domination.” Foucault does not appear to recognize the tension, if not contradiction, between calling for the excavation of history’s dizzying plurality even while arguing that history comprises little more than repeated iterations of, in Foucault’s words, “a single drama.” History does not progress, Foucault confidently declares; it merely moves in place “from domination to domination.”[18]

Yet it is precisely the eternal presence of such domination in all circumstances that indicates the fundamentally continuous character of Foucault’s history. In failing to even gesture at the possibility of non-domination—much as Ricoeur indicated the possibility of non-violence—Foucault robs the very notion of “discontinuity” of all meaning. Discontinuity necessarily implies continuity. We cannot shred a shredded page—it must first exist as a complete whole. Foucault, by not granting the possibility, as Ricoeur does, that historical violence may be suspended, flattens history. Foucault is eager to fragment “what was thought unified,” to show “the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself,” to demonstrate that our past is a broken mirror of temporal shards arranged without rhyme or reason—the “accidents, the minute deviations…the errors, the false appraisals.”[19] Yet if all such discontinuity, all such plurality, invariably evidences the persistence of oppressive discourses of power, then said discontinuity is necessarily continuous. 

Foucault’s conceptualization of historical multiplicities might be compared to the water droplets of a rainstorm: infinite but indistinguishable. Thousands splatter against the windowsill, yet the effect is the same monotonous drumming. Ironically, then, for all that Ricoeur successfully synthesizes ideas Foucault deems contradictory, it’s his presentation of opposites—violence and non-violence—that renders such synthesis coherent. It’s Ricoeur’s dialectical approach, more so, that exposes the theoretical bankruptcy of a historiography rooted in discontinuity but devoid of the oppositions inherent to any concept of discontinuity.

Foucault’s theory of history, then, turns out to be predicated on constants—in this case, the continuity of historical discontinuities; the omnipresent reality of violent structures and discourses. Yet Foucault’s entire theory of history—his rejection of Hegelian totalization—ostensibly rests on the denial of such constants, on such certainties: “genealogy…refuses the certainty of absolutes.” Ricoeur’s discussion of contingency throws into sharp relief the totalizing character of Foucault’s historiography: Ricoeur understands contingency as “non-guaranteed” history, as the radical possibilities that arise in the absence of the violence so fundamental to traditional history. Ricoeur, then, can imagine genuinely pluralistic possibilities arising from the discontinuity wrought by non-violence. 

Foucault, though, has no theoretical space for “non-guaranteed” history because he has no space for non-violent history. Thus for Foucault all history is by definition “guaranteed.” The past, present, and future all labor in the shadow of an undefeatable oppression. In that sense, Foucault’s historiography is just as deterministic as that of the Marxists he criticizes. Just as for the Marxist class conflict and economic metamorphosis will always drive history, so too for Foucault are oppressive discourses, power structures, and generalized violence necessary features of all human societies, no matter how diverse their character or unique their origins. Thus, despite his best efforts, Foucault cannot escape speaking of the particular in terms of the universal, the plural in terms of the singular.

The continuity inherent to Foucault’s theory of history—the universality of oppressive power structures—demonstrates its dependence on essential, timeless truths. In other words, Foucault’s historiography has been “poisoned” by metaphysics. This is not a trivial problem. Recall that at the very heart of Foucault’s genealogical approach to history is a denial of metaphysics. Since Foucault was—in theory, of course—so uncompromising in his opposition to any supra-historical perspectives, he never endeavored to reconcile history and metaphysics in the manner of Ricoeur. Foucault thus finds himself defenseless against the exposure of his own hypocrisy. For all his critical posturing, Foucault turns out to be the most “traditional” of historians, smuggling in metaphysics even while pointing his finger at his (not necessarily innocent) peers.

To catch Foucault red-handed in the act of smuggling metaphysics is, by the standards he himself established, to find him performing an act of violence. Foucault, after all, dismissed metaphysically-informed history as ahistorical and therefore violent. Why? Again, because metaphysics allows the historian to bend history to his own purpose and thereby generate tyrannical discourses: “knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.”[20] Ricoeur, of course, showed that metaphysically-informed history need not be ahistorical. But Foucault has not privileged himself with any such theoretical safety net. Like the targets of his criticisms, He too has bent history to his will, wielding it for his own purposes, his discourse implicated in structures of power and domination.

We find, then, that Foucault, the champion of history, is ahistorical. Not only is he an ahistorical historian, but he is a violent actor. He too has bent history to his will, wielding it for his own purposes, his discourse implicated in structures of power and domination. Indeed, Foucault’s repurposing of history appears particularly nefarious. History, Foucault tells us, is fundamentally hopeless. The present is and will always be irredeemable. Ironically, for all that Foucault sought to delegitimize the present by highlighting the discontinuities of the past, he ultimately presents the status quo as inevitable. No matter its divergences from other societies, no matter its exceptional and unique qualities, our present is ultimately condemned to the same fate as all others pasts, presents, and futures. Thus with Foucault we arrive at a sort of twisted universal solidarity—one accepting of the wretched destiny of humanity.

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[1] An important clarification, in the interests of fairness: Foucault did later revise his conception of the possibilities of freedom, emancipation, etc. His essays on the Iranian revolution present particularly notable examples of this theoretical evolution. For more, see Jenet Afary and Kevin B, Anderson's Foucault and the Iranian Revolution (Chicago, 2005

[2] Poster, Mark. "Foucault and History." Social Research 49, no. 1 (1982): 116-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970855

[3] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 152

[4] Foucault’s scorn for what he sees as the poisoning of historiography by metaphysics knows no bounds. At one point he compares the traditional historian’s claim to objectivity to the metaphysician’s claim that the hereafter exists.

[5] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 146

[6] Ibid, p. 146

[7] Foucault, drawing upon Nietzsche, defines “Egyptianism” as “the obstinate placing of conclusions at the beginning, of making last things first.” See Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 156

[8] Poster, Mark. "Foucault and History." Social Research 49, no. 1 (1982): 116-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970855.

[9] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 153, 160

[10] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 225

[11] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 153, 160

[12] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 228

[13] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 228-229

[14] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 228-229

[15] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 229

[16] Ricoeur, Paul trans. Charles A. Kelbley. History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965, p. 229

[17] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 154

[18] Ibid, p. 150-151

[19] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 146

[20] Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Nietzsche. Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 154



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