Dialoguing with Foucault on History: Must We Banish All Suprahistorical Principles ?
from Per Caritatem by Cynthia R. Nielsen
In Foucault’s essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” one of his main points is that history should not be guided by any overriding criteria from outside of history.
Hegel of course is an example of one engaged in the approach to history that Foucault condemns. According to Hegel, history is the unfolding of Spirit in which Spirit becomes increasingly conscious of itself and increasingly more free etc. A person operating under this methodology starts with a certain metaphysical assumption or theory and selects those events that support his/her theory. We see this at work in Hegel’s read of history in which anything that happens to contradict his vision of the telos of history is simply not part of the account. In other words, Hegel, while narrating history simultaneously and selectively erases and deletes history in order to substantiate his thesis.
Hegel isn’t the only one who falls prey to Foucault’s critique. It seems that any philosophical or theological position that advocates a suprahistorical principle which guides history teleologically would likewise be guilty. As Foucault explains, genealogy “rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies” (”Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 242).
In other words, Foucault’s genealogical approach to history rejects any factors or principles that come from outside of history or that are not rooted in history. One the one hand, Foucault’s critique is absolutely valid and makes excellent sense. For example, Hegel’s account of the unfolding of Spirit in history, his ridiculous (not to mention racist) accounts of Africans and other people groups and the ultimate realization of absolute Spirit in modern Prussia fails to do justice to the complexity of history and historical events.
On the other hand, is it not possible to incorporate Foucault’s warnings against contorting history into our theoretical molds while still allowing for a suprahistorical principle, or as Christians claim, a God who transcends the historical process (yet who also entered into that process in the Incarnation) and guides history to end? In other words, perhaps the complexity and contrapuntal nature of our in-time, historical existence can be acknowledged without having to deny God’s involvement in and providential guidance over the course of history. Why must the two be mutually exclusive?
Perhaps this is what biblical theology attempts to do by distinguishing between first (diachronic) and second (synchronic or synthesizing) readings of Scripture. That is, Christian exegetes have to be careful not to allow second reading synthetic conclusions to flatten unduly the terrain of the first reading material. In other words, we shouldn’t be too quick to harmonize the tensions in Scripture, as the diachronic dissonances might themselves be revelatory and instructive.