“A new kind of intellectual”: Pierre Bourdieu’s tribute to Michel Foucault

After Michel Foucault died in 1984 at the age of fifty-seven, Pierre Bourdieu wrote a tribute in Le Monde, reflecting on his life and what could be learned from it. Bourdieu attributed to his former colleague at the Collège de France a great consistency in his intellectual work, much more than is often assumed:

The consistency of an intellectual project, and of a way of living the intellectual life. Starting with the desire to break – which explains and excuses some of his famous apothegms on the death of man – to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual’, often identified with the project of philosophy; but to do so in the sense of escaping the alternative between saying nothing about everything or else everything about nothing.

Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 138

To become what Foucault described as the ‘specific intellectual’ required foregoing the temptation to speak on behalf of others. What Bourdieu admired was his ambition to “substitute for the absolutism of the universal intellectual, specific works drawing on actual sources … without abandoning the broadest ambitions of thought” (p. 138). The point was not to counterpoise a neutral expertise, content only to make claims comprehensively licensed by agreement within the community of inquirers, against the sweeping grandiosity which characterised the pronouncements of a figure like Sartre.

The specific intellectual existed in a new space, beyond this dichotomy between the epistemically timid expert working in obscurity and grandiose celebrity forever on an epistemic rampage in the name of truth and justice. As Bourdieu put it, Foucault “always stubbornly rejected the division between intellectual investment and political commitment that is so common and convenient” (p. 138). In this he represented a new kind of intellectual:

For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

This entailed a remarkable humility, at least relative to the general intellectuals of the previous generation. His political action, “conducted with passion and rigour, sometimes with a kind of rational fury, owed nothing to the sentiment of possessing ultimate truths and values” (p. 138). He embodied the possibility of commitment without dogmatism, action without certainty. Bourdieu described how Foucault not only “rejected the grand airs of the great moral conscience” but also found them a “favourite object of laughter” (p. 138).

This was a repudiation of the universal intellectual in terms of both politics and intellectualism. The specific intellectual rejected lofty rhetoric of truth and justice for the contingent realities of situated struggles. The specific intellectual rejected generality for specificity, forsaking an assumed right to speak for a methodologically grounded sense of what one can bring to the conversation. But crucially this was done while sustaining commitment, pushing against the boundaries of received wisdom. The specific intellectual remains orientated towards the universal, while always remaining embedded within the specific.


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