The Nature of “Natural”: Foucault & Wittgenstein

In my last two posts (The “Sin” of Sodomy and “Natural Moral Law“), I have been considering the naturalness of sexual physiologies and preferences.  By serendipitous accident, yesterday I read Bob Plant’s (2006) article, “The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein,” in which he observes that these famous philosophers are connected by their shared suspicion of things that are characterized as “natural.”

For Foucault, those who use the term “natural” usually do so in the service or interest of something that is non-natural.  Such people are not always conscious of this, which is hardly surprising given that few are interested in tracing the historical roots of the ideas they hold dear, either as matters of intuition or dogma.  Genealogy is not for the credulous or comfortable.

On these issues, Plant observes:

[F]or Foucault, the “natural” is a constantly shifting notion that has served specific epistemological-political ends during different historical periods.  And this is why he ultimately “mistrust[s] the notion of human nature.”

Clearly, the concept of the “natural” possesses a history and thereby exposes itself to the possibilities of genealogical analysis.

What I found most interesting, however, was that Foucault does not reject the notion of “human nature” — he simply thinks this is a matter for the natural sciences:

Expressing his reluctance to trespass into the realms of natural science (specifically naturalistic approaches to sexuality) Foucault thus insists: “On this question I have absolutely nothing to say.  No comment.  I just don’t believe in talking about things that go beyond my expertise.  On this question I have only an opinion; since it is only an opinion, it is without interest.”

This admission is both astonishing and refreshing.  It is astonishing because so much of Foucault’s work depends on “the body,” which is a natural thing with an evolutionary history.  The body (which always includes a brain) is not therefore simply a political object or social construct.  It is refreshing because Foucault acknowledges that his extensive analysis of “the body” is limited; it does not touch upon the natural science of the body (which always includes a brain).

Perhaps even more refreshing is Foucault’s statement that opinions not based on expertise are without interest.  There are too many people in the world who mistake their opinions for expertise.  As Nietzsche often noted, certain opinions are more interesting — and valuable — than others; assessing the value of opinions is for both Foucault and Nietzsche a matter of expertise.  Such expertise can arise from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Thus, if someone wants to give me their opinion on the “naturalness” of something — such as sexuality — I will be interested only if their statements are informed by interdisciplinary knowledge.  Nature is neither diktat nor decree.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply