Foucault On Obscurantism: ‘They Made Me Do It!’

foucault obscurantist

Many scholars attack critical theory as “obscurantist” and nonsensical after their brief forays into the field make them realize, “hey, reading is hard.” To be fair, plenty of critical theory is nonsensical bullshit, that despite being empirically invalidated, seems to cling on to dear life in the dark corners of academia. And as we’ve noted before, Noam Chomsky has called out Lacan for being entirely self-aware of his chicanery and also took a jab at Slavoj Zizek. Interestingly enough, Chomsky differentiates Foucault from these alleged charlatans.

Chomsky noted that Foucault, unlike his colleagues, was actually intelligible if you sat him down in conversation. Chomsky said:

I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English)…

I don’t particularly blame Foucault for it: it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it.

Now, as Open Culture notes, Foucault admitted to his friend John Searle that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience. Searle claims Foucault told him: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.” When Searle later asked Pierre Bourdieu if he thought this was true, Bourdieu insisted it was much worse than ten percent. You can listen to Searle’s full comments below.

Open Culture goes on to note that, in an interview with Reason Magazine, Searle think it’s unfair to lump Foucault in with other theorists such as Jacques Derrida.

With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That’s very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.

[Via Open Culture]

  • Connor Syrewicz

    I think it’s unfortunate how many philosophers are overlooked in the analytic hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon world due to the unfair claim of obscruitanism that is levied against them. Read Richard Rorty’s ‘Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida’ for a very clear, well-considered (if at times over-generalized and outright wrong) explanation of how Derrida and linguistic philosophy are actually complementary rather than opposed and how Derrida’s actual language, difficult as it was, complemented his philosophy rather than obscured it.

    Likewise, Deleuze (who was attacked as obscuritanist by Alan Sokal and Richard Dawkins) was doing something very specific and deliberate with his work. On the one hand, he was deliberately and intentionally using, misusing, and abusing concepts and wanted to leave his own work open for others to use, misuse, and abuse (this is a big part of his theory of repetition, see: Difference and Repition). On the other, he was concerned with “speed of thought” and didn’t want to be slowed down by having to make sure that his theories were perfectly penetrable and accessible to all. (For an extremely accessible intro to Deleuze’s thought, look up Manuel Delanda’s lectures freely available on youtube. Likewise consider reading the essay by Paul Patton “Concept in Deleuze and Derrida.”)

    Let me quote Bourdieu’s Preface to the English Language edition of Distinctions: “Likewise, the style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend–constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in a rigorous perspective–stems partly from the endeavor to mobilize all resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic. Sadly, I would charge Searle of such a simplistic rhetorical polemic! A line of Judith Butler (who I think can be far too obscuritanist!) adequately sums up a lot of these thoughts; simply: “What does transparency obscure?”

    Perhaps Searle is right, that Foucault was subject, in part, to the codifications of French/ German philosophy and academia. But then he cannot escape the fact that he is subject to similar codifications which simply takes something (clarity of expression) as its object and only happens to be opposed to some forms of French/ German expression. If anything, Searle’s theories, as he explains them here, are far more dangerous than any obscuritanism could be insofar as he considers his presuppositions universal and perhaps even morally right. My advice, do not confuse “I do not understand” with “This is too obscure.” “I do not understand” might lead to the conclusion that “This is too obscure” but I promise you, you will pick up a lot of beautiful knowledge along the way.

    • thepineapple

      ?grammer proper what does obscure or punctuation nad pselling oodg question thought write aslkdjaskl;djaskldj aso;iduaosiduoiuoiu asldjsakldjaskldj asdjfadsfjfjsd dfgjdfldgj

  • Someone please name a “school of philosophy” of the latter half of the 20th century that speaks plainly.

    • 1kenthomas

      Those associated with Nazi Germany. Philosophy and the illusions of “plain speaking” are opposed, of course. We’re not here to look at the pretty images on the back of the caves.

      • LOL! Thanks for making my point.

        • 1kenthomas


          • Resorting to name calling are we? Thanks for proving my point twice.

          • 1kenthomas

            My language was specific enough if also technical enough to require *interpretation*. Calling you you a “brownshirt” is more of a historical metaphor (or metanomy) intended to make or illustrate a point.
            Proof, in the logical sense? You seem to have little acquaintance with it.
            Enough of you!

          • DoYouKnowShitFuck?

            Hmmm, ah, yes. I bet you’re the cleverest unemployed retard at the local coffee shop. Mom must be proud.

    • Luke Newberry

      Umm, quite a lot of it? Most Anglo-American stuff written in the 20th century is pretty clearly written and straightforward to understand, in the sense that there’s not much interpretive difficulty. It’s just difficult, which is a question of content – not how that content is put across. I can’t really speak for a lot of continental philosophy, but I found Foucault fairly comprehensible (maybe a lack of subtlety on my part!) and a few others I’ve had to read. A superficial knowledge of Derrida makes the thought of reading him somewhat unattractive… though certain expositions of his work I’ve found clear enough.

      • I’d appreciate an author’s name and title of such a “pretty clearly written and straightforward to understand” work of 20th century Western philosophy.

        • 1kenthomas

          Hannah Arendt. Judith Butler– read the introductions to all her books, then spend a few years trying to understand them.
          Straightforward? Are you kidding? History is not straighforward. I give you — difficulty. Complexity.

        • Luke Newberry

          Er, there’s quite a lot of it . . . Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, AJ Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, WVO Quine’s Word and Object, to name some classics. The onus is on clearly written prose so you don’t have to look far to find it. Whether or not the subject matter is easy to understand is not really what I was referring to, so sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough. I meant it’s typically difficult and requires diligent study to appreciate – but that it supplies you with the resources for doing so right there in the text. You often don’t have to go to a guide on deciphering poststructuralism, etc.

          • Also from the analytical tradition: *everything and anything* by Arthur Coleman Danto – including his original work in art theory and axiology. Nöel Carroll is also very very readable for the non-specialist.

    • Brian Nidever

      Existentialism. Nietzsche.

      • Nietzsche died in 1900 before the 20th century began, so I would not include him on either count of being a plain speaker or a 20th century philosopher. Existentialism in the second half of the 20th century is not plain spoken in my view. Camus and Sartre beat around the bush with the best of them. Some people call Heidegger an existentialist but I see him more as phenomenological. Either way, his earliest seminal work Being and Time is not plain spoken. Heidegger’s best book and most plain spoken is an outlier and one of his last books the Discourse On Thinking which is his most accessible because it’s main section is written as a fictional dialogue. In my view, Western philosophy went off the rails in the 20th century and has not recovered from its intoxication with inventing its own rhetoric.

        • 1kenthomas

          The 20th Century began exactly 1900 years after the first century; and you initial point is not only overly pedantic, but factually incorrect. Please do not continue to waste your time and ours.

          • LOL! Whatever that incoherent rant is supposed to mean demonstrates my point about not being able to speak plainly.

          • 1kenthomas

            If, perhaps, you could calculate when the first century began– not a commonplace capacity– you might get it; or that a difference of a few days or years in a philosophers date of birth or death, has little significance to such a discussion, but is, rather, the quibbling chatter of an undisciplined mind.

          • Troll talk.

          • Brian Nidever

            I suppose Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, and the rest of Analytic Philosophy are “just too damned obscure as well”.

            I’m not sure why phenomenologists strike you as less obscure than either of the above, but compared to Kant rambling about Primitive Thisness, and the This Thisses of Thisness, either of them could be writing for the LA Times.

          • 1. I didn’t say I find phenomenologists as less obscure. I said I consider Heidegger to be a phenomenologist and that his first book was obscure compared to his last book which was very readable.

            2. Kant and Hegel were attempting to reconcile mind and environment. That is to me the true calling of philosophy so I don’t see anything obscure about arguing for an identity of thought and being, even if the orientation is a bit one sided for my tastes.

            3. .As for Analytical Philosophy, that is what I think is obscure because of its premise that the logical clarification of thoughts can only be achieved by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions. That is turning philosophy into a branch of mathematics. In their attempt at precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic they make themselves irrelevant,
            4. I you can share a link to a modern philosophical paper that is plain spoken and not obscured by a plethora of jargon and technical terminology then it would be much appreciated.

          • DoYouKnowShitFuck?

            Isn’t “overly pedantic in a frivolous manner” fairly redundant? What a dumbshit you are. You losers spend so much time trying to sound intelligent that you don’t even notice everyone else (that work in real fields) laughing at you. But by all means, continue your useless, masturbatory “work.” I’m sure it will inspire eye rolling for years to come!

  • 1kenthomas

    Been a while since I listed to John, but this sounds like a fake.

  • eertneerg

    Searle’s point about Foucault’s later work being more clearly written applies also to Bourdieu–compare The Logic of Practice (1980) with Practical Reason (1998). Of course, the essays in the latter were written to be delivered as talks, so maybe Searle’s point about talking vs writing is relevant here too. That said, I find much of Distinction (1979) to be beautifully written, and I generally can’t stand the kind of obscurantism that Searle and Chomsky are complaining about here. Part of the problem with Logic of Practice (and the very feature that made it of interest to Searle as a philosopher) is that it addressed at a very abstract theoretical level ideas that Bourdieu deployed a lot more lucidly in the context of analyzing more concrete empirical data.

  • Terence Blake

    I think it strange that Foucault told Searle precisely what he wanted to hear, if we are to believe Searle. I think that he didn’t realise the degree of humour present in Foucault’s rather uncharacteristic remark. Foucault was probably sending him up, given the equation he establishes between clarity and childishness. Clarity is not the same when you have an ontology of multplicity and incommensurabilty and when you don’t. My reply to Searle is here:

  • Alcis Ades

    Its a very interesting and important topic. (Sorry for my English, which I hope will not be too obscure.)

    In general, one who is not trained in language of a “great”
    philosopher can hardly understand. If we have some knowledge of the concepts and terms used historically in philosophy, we can navigate. But this is often not
    enough (eg Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, to name some of the worst – often German. But It’s maybe cultural:.. I’m French 😉 ).

    Philosophy, before to be normative, is a creative field of research.
    According to this meaning, Its function is to clear of the unknown territories to develop more or less logical thoughts. It poses relatively abstract questions, trying to answer a number of ways according to the philosophers, to finish to, with all the versions that are accumulated, constitute a potential of responses. To achieve this, the individual mind gropes and must make conceptual tools that allow it to progress at the discretion of sensitive and cultural information at its disposal. But the effort of the person who leads would not be provided to make it a memorable philosophy (for its relevance or originality) if he or she was not in exchange with a specific public, or do not expect a substantial reward, even post mortem. So, it is not only logical and imaginative ways that the philosopher must find, but also a way of communication mediating an influence on others. I’m taking about authority we must have on the Other (including yourself) to be followed – to have follow-up. This authority is a kind of cultural “bluff” implied that the burden of capturing the mind, making it rigid, forcing it not to fall into relativism. This problem is clearly reflected in the relation between philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, against philosophers like Heraclitus and the Sophists. The field of thought is a ghost field opposite the evidence of sensitive life. Virtual, immaterial, based only marginally on the concrete, it takes a lot of belief (and religious belief are supported) to make it as a solid body which secure human development.

    So, the philosopher’s mind must together find interesting questions, get familiar with the knowledge already acquired on adjacent topics, find the way of his reasoning through the intricacies of logic and inspired thinking, and promote a relationship of domination to his interlocutors (even imaginary, referred to itself).

    A philosopher’s authority, and indeed, his posterity depend on baroque character (subjective and arbitrary) of his thought. Customizing a philosophy allows its sacred and thus ensuring its conservation through his disciples and followers (this is, in some ways, a Darwinian selection criterion 😉 ).

    The philosophy penetration difficulty guarantees the public’s attachment (whether or not the opponents) in according with invested effort by this public to understand it. Then, its sustainability and expansion often depends of this difficulty. Without this effort made under the influence of this mystification (itself generated by the mixture of logic, enrollment in the tradition and heuristic relevance, and hyperpersonnalisation) a thought would be unlikely to cross ages.

    So yes, the obscurity of language is useful in the context of modern philosophical
    practice: it allows – especially in environments where academic
    tradition is strong – to shelter of shortcuts like “everything already
    been said, “” everything is vain sophistication “or” everything is relative. ”

    But also and above all it allows the creation and reproduction of intellectual
    dominations to which we were showing intelligent to fight, for example by
    recasting conceptuality as a whole to make it more potential, effective and


    NB: I’m talking about philosophy, but in the broad sense that included social
    sciences (sociology, anthropology, psychology …) when developing interpretive
    speech philosophical kind.

  • Francis Ward

    All philosophy, insofar that it is philosophy and not needlessly verbose kulturkritik, is nonsense. Irrespective of whether or not it is Heidegger, Chalmers, the Churchlands, Deleuze, Ayer, Quine, Hegel, Dennett, Badiou, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Plato, Descartes, Hume, Russell, Bradley, self identified continental or analytic, nonsense, plain and simple.

    The only way of actually ‘doing’ philosophy is that way which is in fact most overlooked of all, and is indeed the only way of ‘doing’ philosophy at all compatible with Marx’s exhortations in the ‘German Ideology’. Viz OLP.

    Simply put, if you have an ‘ontology’ you’re gravely, sorrily, confused. Foucault, for all his sins, has at least inspired some decent historical monographs.

    • Luke Newberry

      Any argument for that? Or is the plainness and simplicity of its nonsensical status supposed to be self-evident?

  • Julien Sorel

    Its academic gossip at best. Derrida has left a life time of work behind, and any serious engagement should be responsible enough to analyse a definite text/ argument. In fact, Searle tried that, he had a public academic feud with Derrida, which, I’d say, he conducted really badly, and Derrida replied him wonderfully. And then to take resort to private gossip is not exactly graceful ….
    The real debate which plays backdrop to this pointless gossip is published in a book : “Limited Inc.”,
    PS: I wonder if Foucault said this, and even if he did, meant it to be an academic public comment…

  • DoYouKnowShitFuck?

    Lol, all of this critical social theory stuff is complete and utter masturbatory bullshit written by fucking losers who literally can do nothing but dream their little worthless dreams.

  • Of course Foucault was joking, and in fact Foucault is a master of clear style. Where does Searle find obscurity in Foucault?

  • “Just as clear as you and me” says Searle, presuming that the standards of clarity prevailing in empirical positivist Anglo-Saxon are supreme — gee, Foucault even wanted to move to the USA!

  • Allan Bloom

    Lacan is just difficult, you fail at your first sentence. don’t talk shit because it is difficult to understand. I always think its pathetic when someone tries to talk shit, and they don’t do a shred of real work – where are your quotes, what are you trying to critique? Nothing, just oh well I cant read it and Chomsky said its bullshit so hey, I will waste peoples time. to be fair – only no talent hacks right shit like this and say things like ‘plenty of’ towards an entire paradigm of thought without providing a shred of real academic work.