The epistemic status of the human sciences: Critical reflections on Foucault

Abstract

Any reader of Foucault's corpus recognizes fairly quickly that it is animated by an ethical impulse, namely, to liberate individuals from a kind of oppression from which they suffer. This oppression, however, does not involve the familiar tyranny of the Leviathan or the totalitarian state; it exploits instead values that the victim of oppression herself accepts, and which then leads the oppressed agent to be complicit in her subjugation. It also depends, crucially, on a skeptical thesis about the epistemology of the social sciences. It is this conjunction of claims-that individuals oppress themselves in virtue of certain moral and epistemic norms they accept-that marks Foucault's uniquely disturbing contribution to the literature whose diagnostic aim is, with Max Weber, to understand the oppressive character of modernity, and whose moral aim is, with the Frankfurt School, human liberation and human flourishing. I offer here both a reconstruction of Foucault's project - focusing on the role that ethical and epistemic norms play in how agents subjugate themselves - and some modestly critical reflections on his project, especially the weaknesses in his critique of the epistemic standing of the human sciences.

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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago

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