Ladelle McWhorter

Ladelle McWhorter is the James Thomas Professor in Philosophy and a Professor of Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. Her areas of expertise include 20th Century French and German Philosophy, Queer Theory, and Political Theory. Dr. McWhorter has been a prolific author for over twenty years, writing books, articles, papers, and book chapters. She was interviewed because of her outstanding reputation as a professor, writer, and philosopher and her expertise in ethics, postmodernism, and poststructuralism.

Some Personal Background

Ladelle McWhorter:

I was born in 1960 in Decatur, Alabama, which is in the Tennessee Valley. So it’s about, I believe, 90 miles north of Birmingham. And I guess that was an interesting time to be born in that place. So I grew up with the Civil Rights Movement, eventually the Anti-War Movement, all of those things were going on when I was a child. And because of where I was, in Alabama, it was impossible not to know all those things were going on. I have memories going back to the age of four of knowing about those things, not understanding them necessarily, but knowing and being aware of the intensity of the violence and fear that people felt.

And my family ended up being embroiled in it because of well, because my older brother was a member of a church group. He was a church youth leader, and he advocated for using some youth group literature that was pro-integration, or desegregation as we called it then. And that got the whole family in trouble with the KKK and the John Burr Society. And we had death threats, phone calls late at night, tires slashed in the front driveway. It was really scary, and of course this was when I was four and five years old without a whole lot of understanding what was going on.

My father spent several nights sitting in the carport with a gun on his lap to shoot if he had to, KKK coming to the house. This was just a regular, blue collar family. Parents never expected to be involved in anything like this. And my brother was 17. He didn’t know what he had gotten himself into, and they didn’t try to explain a lot of it to us. I think they just figured that we would catch on, my younger sister and I mean. The older children knew perfectly well what was going on.

And the rest of us, they just would protect. Get to the back of the house when there’s people in the yard and that sort of thing. I remember just being afraid and realizing, I think, internalizing the intense fear that my mother felt, and I think that really shaped my childhood.

I also remember that my parents fully supported my brother’s stand and they never questioned that he had done the right thing, and they never punished him for putting the family in danger. They just rallied around him, at least at best I can remember. I do know that my father told him that since he had initiated this that he had to take the phone calls and not let my mother get a threatening phone call, so my brother had to be the one to answer the phone. Other than that, this was just the way life was for people. You didn’t cross the color line no matter which side you were on. If you did, you got punished, and you got threatened, and some people got killed. Nobody in my family got killed. So that was early life.

Parents’ Influence: No Color Lines

Ladelle McWhorter:

And from that point on, I think all of us were caught up in questions of social justice and questions of ethics. My family was very religious. We were Methodists at that time, and my mother in particular. It wasn’t the kind of Protestant Christianity that has since become belligerent. It was the old kind, I guess, where the emphasis was on social justice and moral life and, being charitable in the broadest sense of that term, generous, but also compassionate. Those were the values that were instilled in us. Not that I, or any of us, have always lived up to that, but those were the things that we were taught to value. Both parents, particularly my mother, because I spent a lot more time with my mother. My father worked a lot at factory and also had a second job.

As I got older and understood more about Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, going into adolescence then, the end of the Vietnam War, Kent State when I was 10, I guess, and then Feminist Movement, which intrigued my mother quite a lot. I was aware of these things, always looking at them through that Liberal Protestant lens, and always aware that my parents believed that you took a stand. And they did. I mean, I saw them over and over take stands, not because they really relished it. They weren’t part of any political movement. It’s just that history forced that on them, and they lived up to what they were called upon to do. I learned to be proud of them for that, and I learned to do it myself, and I think my siblings have done that too. Those are the early influences.

Gender Lines and Values Today

Ladelle McWhorter:

Of course in adolescence, when I began to understand that being, what I later learned to call lesbian or gay, was considered to be antithetical to that community. It was unacceptable. It wasn’t even something that anyone really knew how to talk about in the 70s, where I was. There were no words. I wouldn’t have known how to explain to anyone, if I’d wanted to tell them what to say. I just didn’t know. But I did know that there was another line there and that, just like the color line, there was something I would now call a gender line. There was something I would now call a sexuality line and you didn’t cross that. And if you did, you got punished. And of course my experience of how people got punished for crossing lines was pretty dramatic.

So I was very frightened, and in that aspect of my life, very isolated from the very people that I had learned those values from, and that I had depended on. And that I had seen take courageous stands on behalf of other people who were marginalized or oppressed or discriminated against.

So I went through this long turmoil about my religious background and the values implicit. And I think, now, 45 years later or so, I would say that I still hold on to some of those basic values, but I don’t hold on to them for the reasons that I was taught to. And I’m still proud of my parents and of my siblings, even though it became eventually difficult, and in some cases impossible, to have personal relationships with some of them.

So it’s an interesting kind of thing. I can’t be sorry about any of that. And I can’t be angry about any of that anymore. But there are things that you gain and things that you lose from everybody in your life, I guess.

Becoming a Philosopher in High School: Zeno’s Arrow

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think it made me have to question everything that I believed, and that began very early because I saw my family having to question everything they believed and having to be opened. It’s not like my parents grew up thinking, oh you know, black and white people should be equal and there shouldn’t be discrimination. I think they probably just accepted how things were when they were children. It was only when they were confronted with it as an overt issue, a set of questions that they were open to the possibility that what they had learned as children was wrong. And so I saw that. That was, as we now say in the teaching biz, that was modeled for me. And so when it came time, when my time came, I guess, to have to question a lot of basic things, I was open to doing that. And in fact, in certain respects, I guess I took a sort of delight in it.

I wanted to study philosophy before I went to college, even though I really didn’t know what it was. And what had happened was when I was in high school, there was a, I was inducted into the honor society, as lots of kids in public school are. And one of the teachers had, did a very nice thing that year. They didn’t always do this, but they arranged to have a speaker in the evening and to have the kids who were being in inducted, come to the library with their parents and they had a little ceremony, and it was very nice. And they got this mathematician to come speak, who’s a teacher at the community college across the river. So he came and he told what I now know is the story of Zeno’s Arrow, familiar with this from ancient philosophy. So the question was if Zeno shoots an arrow at a target and it takes, and it can get halfway there, but you can divide that half infinitely. How will it ever traverse the space to the target? How will that happen?

Only the example that the mathematician used was a frog jumping a foot at a time, but you could always subdivide the units of measure. So if it’s an infinite number of units of measure that must be traversed, how did anything ever move? And that’s all I remember from the mathematicians talk, except that he was very lively and interesting and fun, but what I thought was, “Okay, there’s something wrong with the basic way we think about measure and about mathematics.” And I thought that was just fascinating. I had no idea what was wrong or what the right answer might have been, but I loved the question.

Philosopher and Grass Cutter

Ladelle McWhorter:

When I was younger than that, when I was 10, I used to have my chore was to cut the grass with an old push mower and I hated doing it. Of course, it was hot. It was Alabama. It was always hot. The grass was always thick because it was humid, so it grew well, and I was little. So it was a big two, two and a half hour chore and I would always ask my question to myself was, “How long will it take me to get the next step and what is now? By the time I can think the question, what is now, isn’t now gone?” So, I had the same kind of questions in my mind even as a 10 -ear-old. I contend that 10-year-olds are sometimes the best philosophers in the world.

And then, and then to hear this mathematician four or five, six years later, raise that question in a serious academic way, just delighted me. He said something about it was a philosophical question I guess and that made me think, that’s the direction to go and my parents didn’t care what I studied. They hadn’t gone to college. They believed back in the 70s, that anybody who got a college degree could do anything. Your life was going to be better than theirs just because you went to college, so it didn’t matter what you studied. They really had no idea. Never, never tried to direct me at all, so that’s what I did.

Your Professional Educational Background

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, I didn’t get any guidance for going to college. And so what I did was what my brother had done, and then what my younger sister eventually did, which was to go, expect to go, down to the little Methodist College in Birmingham. And I got a scholarship. And so that’s where I went, Birmingham Southern College. It was a good little liberal arts college in that time.

And from there, I wasn’t sure what to do. It was 1982 when I graduated, which was, until the Great Recession, the biggest recession of the 20th century. Well, this period of time, my lifetime, I guess. It didn’t seem like a good time to get a job. I considered law school, took the LSAT. Did okay, but I also took the GRE and I got a fellowship offer to Vanderbilt. I got a couple of other offers to other schools, but Vanderbilt was going to pay my full way.

So I took that and moved up to Nashville at the fall of 1982. And I thought, “Well, doesn’t matter whether I finish or not, I’ll just study some more and it’ll be fun.” And I ended up getting a job after four years. I interviewed because my whole life was kind of like that.

Well, the next step, this looks easiest to do. Not that I was a slacker, but I had no plan. All I did was at each fork in the road, I just thought, oh, that one looks more interesting than the other one. And so I ended up with two job offers or three, I guess I had three job offers when I finished or was nearly finished. That was a period of time when a lot of schools were trying to hire more women. And so I got a lot of interviews. There weren’t that many come coming out of graduate school in philosophy. Not necessarily meaning that those jobs would’ve been very hospitable once a person got there, but they needed to hire a woman. And so I had a bunch of opportunities.

And I chose one. I think I chose well, I chose to go to Truman State. I ended up there in the fall of 1986. At that time, it was called Northeast Missouri State University. It was in nowhere, Missouri… Kirksville, Missouri. And it was a wonderful first job. The school was expanding. It was modeling itself on William & Mary. It wanted to be the public liberal arts institution for the state of Missouri. So, I moved to the Midwest and they were hiring a lot. They were building a new library, had wonderful colleagues. It was three hours from an airport. It was 90 miles from a four-lane highway. It was 60 miles south of Ottumwa, Iowa. It still is, of course. So, it was remote. And for a lot of reasons difficult, it was also, as budget crunches set in through the eighties and into the nineties, it became much more difficult. I was teaching a four, four load, had a lot of students, wonderful students, but a lot.

So when I got approached about this job at the University of Richmond, I applied and I’ve been my very happy here. I’ve been here 25 years.

Book One – Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s a little bit hard for me to say exactly what “Bodies and Pleasures” is about. It’s a book about the philosophical value of the work of Michel Foucault, the philosopher I studied, did my dissertation on, a French philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984. And in the 80s, soon after his death, it was just being, I guess, disseminated in English, and there were just beginning to be American scholars paying attention to that body of work. And there was a lot of political criticism of Foucault, oftentimes from leftist thinkers because more right, rightest thinkers weren’t actually reading it yet. But the criticism, one of the main criticisms, was that the work would lead to political quietism, that it left people feeling that there was no point in doing any kind of social justice work, trying to change anything because we were all basically trapped in power networks and unable to make any difference.

And I didn’t think that was true. And I didn’t think that was true, not just because as a scholar of the material I saw other things there, but mainly I didn’t think it was true because its effect on me had not been to make me believe that there was no point in being politically active or hoping for change in the future in any way or anything like that. Quite the opposite. When I read his works, I felt like I was, for the first time, getting a real description of the world that I had lived in and saw around me. It was so thrilling, really, to see these things worked out in descriptions and analyzed in historical development for the first time in ways that I believed were really right, were true to my own experience, I should say.

So instead of feeling paralyzed by the work, I felt energized, and it was open, he doesn’t present an ethical program, here’s what we all should live, how we should live, or here’s what we should do politically. He never does that. In fact, he speaks against doing that and he says, “That’s not his place, people need to make their own decisions, but here are some tools,” he says, “Here are some tools for thinking about things. Here’s some information that you might want to consider when you try to do your own analysis of this or that situation.” I found it all really useful, and so “Bodies and Pleasures” began with that idea that, and it’s a very simple thesis. The thesis is I’m going to show you why that criticism of Foucault, the criticism that his work leads to political paralysis, is false at least in some cases. That’s an easy, simple thesis.

Of course the book does a whole lot of other things at the same time, and I think that’s why it’s been fairly popular. It talks about dealing with being lesbian. It talks about embodiment. It talks about pleasure. It talks a lot about me, not so much because I’m trying to highlight my own life story or anything, but more because I think, although I grew up believing that I was isolated and unlike anybody else in the whole world, I’ve really come to believe as an adult, that a lot of things I care about and a lot of the ways that I feel are very common. And so the book is intended to appeal to other people who might feel the same way even if they haven’t had the same exact experiences. And I think it has been able to do that pretty effectively.

I get emails even still from people in the middle of reading the book, and it’s usually while they’re in the middle, before they finish. I don’t know what that means, maybe that’s not so good, but oftentimes about two-thirds of the way through, some grad student will email me in the middle of the night and say, “I remember now why I decided I would go to grad school in philosophy.” And that’s always just really nice. You can bring your own life and your own body, your own pleasures and pains into your work in an overt way, and I think it can enrich it. Not to make it into some sort of confessional in a pejorative sense, but to make it more common, to make it more real to people. So that’s “Bodies and Pleasures.”

Line Dancing All the Way to Book Two

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other book, it’s very different to me. I think that there are some big similarities between them obviously, but the second book begins with the first book. There’s a part of “Bodies and Pleasures” near the end, where I talk about learning to dance and specifically, because I was not a good dancer. Never had been a dancer, but I wanted to learn to dance. I took up line dancing because line dancing has set rules. You just learn where to put your feet and you put your feet there, at the right time, and you got it. The upper part of your body doesn’t have to do anything except follow where those shifts of balance go.

So I thought, “Well, I can learn to do that maybe and I took it up and I began to really enjoy it.” And so the section of the book is about the process of becoming able to enjoy something through a kind of discipline, a disciplinary practice, that gave me new insights, new pleasures, and also new physical capacities; changed the way my body worked.

But the side note in that section is about buying a pair of cowboy boots and putting them on because you need slick leather soles to do line dancing and cowboy boots are the typical kind of shoes people wear, although it’s not absolutely necessary.

But anyway, so after I decided I was going to stick with the dancing, I bought this pair of cowboy boots and I talk about putting them on to go dancing and realizing I was doing something that was awfully, awfully white. Not just white, but redneck white and about how much I love those boots and how uneasy I was with the connection that I was making physically with my own rather difficult past, Alabama racism and all those things. I just left it hanging in “Bodies and Pleasures.” I never picked up the racial issue at all, except to just say that I was having those feelings when I was first getting used to the boots.

When I finished “Bodies and Pleasures,” I had my first ever sabbatical after 12 years of teaching and I had gone up to stay in a little farmhouse in Pennsylvania for a semester and do some thinking about what to do next. I had just felt like that I had poured everything I had into that book and I had no idea what to do next, except that I probably needed to follow up on that race thing.

Book Two – Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo America

Ladelle McWhorter:

It took me three years or so to figure out what angle to take on it. But the result was “Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo America.” I read a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. I read a lot about psychological and sociological studies of racism, and it really didn’t help me understand what I lived through and what I saw in the world around me. Didn’t help me understand racism very well. Finally, when I came upon some work of historians on the beginnings of the concept of whiteness as a category of human being, I thought, “Ah, this is useful.” And then I could apply my genealogical tools to it, my Foucault tools, which are about finding not necessarily… When you do a history of something, suppose you do a history of the United States.

If you do a history of the United States, then you assume at the thing they’re doing the history of was there in the whole period of history that you’re covering. So you start the United States, 1776 or 1789, or whatever you want to start it at and to the present, and that’s the history of the United States. But when you do a genealogy, you’re actually doing something that’s more like what people who do family trees do. That is you find places where the thing you’re interested in doesn’t seem to have been present or not present in the same way.

You’re really sort of looking for a time before it was born. And then you’re looking at what came together or what were the conditions that made it possible for that thing to emerge. So if you were doing a genealogy of the United States, then you look at the colonial period. You look at the forces of colonialism. You look at the economic situation that drove people in Europe to do what they did to colonize different parts of the world. You look at all of the factors that led to the colonists declaring independence. So you’re looking at the behind part of the United States, the things that came together, many of which of course are accidental. There’s no teleology in a genealogy. The odds against one of us ever being born are zillions to one, because it really just depends on so many contingencies.

Critical “Random” Events: G-Grandparents Meeting at the Asylum

Ladelle McWhorter:

I like to tell the story to my students of how my great grandparents met. They both got jobs as janitors in the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, and they met and fell in love. Now, how random is that? But had that not happened, I wouldn’t have been born and you can think of thousands and millions of other little things. If this had been different, my parents wouldn’t have met. Or if this had been different, a different child would’ve been born, not this particular person. So genealogists are interested in the things that might be accidental, the things that came together, the configurations that were formed in maybe sometimes random ways. And sometimes pointed ways and sometimes ways that look really intelligible, like almost inevitable, but also the things that weren’t inevitable at all that led to whatever it was that happened.

Racism in America

Ladelle McWhorter:

So to understand race in the United States in my lifetime, what I wanted to be able to do was to understand how it got that way, where it came from and what factors brought it about. It seems to me that in many cases, though there’s no reason to think always, if you can see what forces had to come together to create and sustain something. And if you don’t think that thing that was created and sustained is a good thing, if you know what led to them and what was necessary for that to emerge and to remain, you can begin to chip away. You can… First of all, you can get some hope, even if you don’t see how to do it. You can get some hope that thing could be dismantled, at least altered.

Beyond hope though, I think you can maybe begin to see ways that things could be made to change. That’s always the hope in a genealogical study anyway. But so I found what I thought might be a point before which there was no racism of the sort that I grew up with. And I don’t say in the book that this is a history of all kinds of racism. One of the limitations of the book is that it doesn’t… I don’t read Spanish. So I couldn’t talk at all about how race played out in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. And since the Spanish colonized this part of the world before the English did, some of those factors were already in place. I also didn’t talk at all about what was going on in the West Coast with Chinese immigrants in particular, Ronald Takaki has done some interesting work. He’s a historian. He’s talked some about race and the way that it played out in the West.

So anyway, I took these historians and I stole from them a lot of their work and ideas. A lot of the… They’re bibliographies. And I started reading all this stuff about how whiteness emerged. The colonies, of course, didn’t have white people in them. They had British people and Irish people and Scots and Germans, who didn’t see that they necessarily had anything in common. So whiteness became a unifying force and you’ve of course… The book is pretty explicit about how all this happens. I took some of the Foucault’s work on race as it developed in Europe. I found his work to be less than adequate in understanding race as it developed in North America, because he’s very focused in his work on the development of Nazism from a French perspective. Especially from his perspective, growing up being a child during the Nazi occupation of France.

Of course, what he’s interested in primarily is antisemitism. And that doesn’t quite map on to the U.S. history situation. But I modified some of his ideas and made the book out of that. So that’s racism and sexual oppression. Of course, the other thing I did of was to factor into the development of racism and white supremacy, the ways in which that got biologized in the 19th and 20th centuries and rolled into that was sexual deviation. And then eugenics. The eugenics movement in the United States and elsewhere in the world in the early 20th century and how that played out. The book goes up… I think I have little bit to say about the sixties and maybe early 70s, but the book really goes up into the 50s and that’s about where it stops.

Current Interests: Environmental Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

I tend to not stay within any field of expertise. I’m a perpetual novice. So what I’ve been interested in now for, I would say 12 years or so, I’m very interested in environmental issues. I got interested in that. Well, I’ve always been concerned, again. Hey, I was 10 the first Earth Day, and there was a time in the ’70s when it was very trendy, even in Alabama, to teach children to recycle and that sort of thing. So I grew up with that.

But I became really concerned in the early part of this century, about resource depletion. I started to read a lot of things. And then I was asked to teach environmental ethics, which I had no particular background to teach, but somebody went on sabbatical, and so I agreed to do it and I still do it. I fell in love with it in a way. I’m teaching it right now, changed the course a lot over that 12 years.

But so I’m interested in what we are facing, what our students, what my students are going to face in their lifetimes, with regard to environmental collapse, species extinction on a massive scale, climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, pollution, rates of cancer, all of those things. I’m interested in all of that.

I’m particularly interested in it from an ethical angle. I taught ethics a lot in my first job. I taught ethics two sections every semester for six years. And I said, when I took this job 25 years ago, I was never going to teach ethics again. The reason was that I felt that in teaching that many sections of ethics over that period of time, you see, have it drilled into your head, how many limitations there are in the traditions of ethics in the Western world.

Communal Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

Utilitarianism and deontology, even some of the newer traditions, it seemed to me just couldn’t get past the individualism of those traditions and these are issues that we’re confronting that we can’t confront as individuals. There’s nothing I can do about climate change as an individual. I can talk about reducing my carbon footprint, but frankly, if I killed myself today so I had no more carbon footprint, it would make absolutely no difference.

The only way to address these big environmental issues is communally together. We have to do that together and we really don’t have good ways of talking about ethical responsibility collectively, and that intrigues me.

We also don’t have good ways of talking about the value of non-human things and we don’t have very good ways of understanding, certainly the importance, the value, of systems. All those things were disruptive… This is back to the frog story, I guess. All those things are disruptive of the standard ways that we have inherited to think about how to live a good life, how to do the right thing. So, set that set of issues on one side of the table.

Rage and Excessive Individualism

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other thing that I was interested in was rage, feeling… In my own rage. But also lots of rage around me. I think I’m less enraged than many, many of people in the United States today. But I think a lot of us live with a certain oscillation between rage and despair, and I think it has to do with the feeling that we are so free and we so value freedom and our traditions. We have all kinds of rights. We have free elections. I know sometimes people talk about elections being less free than they should be, but compared to some of the places in the world, we have tremendous freedom and we’re safer than so many millions of people in the world to act on our own values.

And yet, when we go to the store to buy something, or we go to the polling booth to vote for somebody, I think that there’s a lot of frustration a lot of people experience. Because, yeah, I have this range of options and nobody’s telling me what to do. I can make my own decisions. And yet I still feel trapped. I’m not always very happy with the candidates on the ballot, whatever party.

I went to the store to buy toilet paper, and I’ve read about one company cutting down old growth forests to make their paper products, and I’ve also read about an other company that is owned by some very wealthy men who fund terrible anti-democratic, anti-poverty… I mean, not anti-poverty in a good way, but they fund things, political things that hurt lots and lots of people. And their company makes the other brand, and then there’s a third brand, and I’m not sure what I know about that company. And I’m standing in the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store feeling like I’ve got this momentous political decision that I have to make, and I don’t know what to do. And it’s all about toilet paper.

People who want to do the right thing feel frustrated. And good people who want to do the right thing, who are continually frustrated, fall into despair. And one of the things that they do is they give up and they just say, “I can’t. I can’t. What difference does it make what I do? I’ll just do whatever.” Most of the time they don’t feel good about that, so they walk around feeling bad. Sometimes what people do is they get really angry, and they don’t necessarily understand why they’re so angry, but they’re really angry.

And I know that you can’t explain mass shootings and road rage on the basis of this description, but I just see the level of rage increasing in our society over the last few decades. And I think, on the one hand, you have to condemn the things that people do when they’re having road rage episodes, or when they’re pointing a gun at somebody. But on the other hand, I feel kind of sorry. I see some of these things as just the extreme expression of what so many of us live with every day. And I was thinking about this.

So, I’m willing to say, at least for the sake of argument, that we are the freest people on Earth in this country. We certainly are freer than the vast majority of people. We have more options, we have more resources. If we feel that way, something’s really wrong. If I feel that way… I’m better off than most people in this country. What’s wrong? What’s wrong with the way that we’re thinking about what it means to do the right thing that’s making it impossible for us to ever feel that we’re doing the right thing? We’re always choosing the lesser of evils.

So putting those two things side-by-side, we can’t deal with some of the major problems we’re facing as a society unless we deal with it collectively or communally, and we’re experiencing as individuals… I certainly am. I know I can’t speak for others, but I really think that there’s something to this. Feeling enraged and impotent, feeling like we can’t be good people because of how we understand what it is to be good people. It’s my responsibility to make the decision about the toilet paper. It’s my responsibility to make the decision about who’s going to be the next president. My responsibility to take care of all these things, to take care of myself, to do a good job. I’m not supposed to ask for help.

We don’t think, as a society, I’m saying, I think, we don’t have much use for people in need anymore. There’s been a kind of discourse of disparagement of people in poverty for years. Now we see it with people who are fleeing war, famine. We don’t think it’s okay for us to ask for help, we certainly don’t like it when people ask us for help. So it’s a very individualistic society and I think we suffer, as individuals, we have what I would call ethical anguish. That’s a kind of suffering that goes unrecognized, and it adds to the stress of all the other things that we deal with. So I want to write a book about that, and of course that’s a huge, vague blob of a problem. Of course, so is race a huge, vague blob of a problem when I was first starting that.

What is a person?

Ladelle McWhorter:

So the angle that I have found I’m taking on it is the question of what is a person? Because I’m a person, right? And it is as a person that I’m supposed to be ethical, as a person that I’m supposed to be good and do the right thing. I’m responsible for me, this person. Well, what is a person? And so I started to do research, this genealogical thing I was talking about. Have people always been persons? What exactly does that mean? And I’ve found some really interesting stuff about where the notion of personhood came from, when it arose, what it’s connected with, what kinds of investments it has, what props it up, what it props up. And I’m on my way to thinking yeah, maybe the problem, one of the problems that keeps us from being able to work together to deal with big issues, and that keeps us feeling impotent and frustrated and sometimes enraged as individuals in our little private lives that somehow that’s all connected with the notion that we are persons. And if I can dislodge some of the stuff that goes with that, interrupt some of the dynamic that holds that thought in place, maybe we can find another way to think about ethics. So that’s my project.

Does reason exist? What is it?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, I always have to put on my genealogy hat. Yes. My first answer is yes, reason exists, but I also want to say that reason is something that exists differently in different times and places and it can change. And the way I would think of it is this, reasoning, I guess I would say, currently the way I understand reasoning is that it is a set of techniques and principles for how we judge something to count as evidence and how we move from things that we count as evidence to a conclusion.

And I think that in that sense, if you define it that way, reason exists with every group of humans, they all have some way of making judgements based on some kind of evidence. But how that has worked, how that does work, can be very different. It’s very different in different fields, obviously, and it’s very different cross-culturally and it’s been different historically.

I, at one point read a whole bunch of transcripts from European witch trials, from the inquisition trials, and standards of evidence for witch trials of course, have been parodied by Monty Python, but they really are different standards of evidence. And they weren’t made up for the witch trials just so that the inquisition could convict a bunch of people of witchcraft. Those were really the standards of evidence and used in courts, in Canon Courts, at least, pretty much across the board in Europe, then with some alterations.

So what we count as evidence that can lead to a conclusion can vary tremendously. Foucault talks about what he calls regimes of truth or sometimes he calls them regimes of verification. So how we think about what connects to what in order to give us what answer, depends upon that regime, just like grammar. So how the grammar, the way we speak particular language is governed by a whole set of principles, which we learn to speak without being aware of and which many people never really master, and yet they can speak perfectly well, whatever languages it is that they speak. Same is true of reason, I think that we grow up with a particular regime, a grammar of thinking, and that enables us to function.

So on the one hand, if you define reason the way I just did, of course, there’s reason. Of course, there’s always been reason here and there. But reason in the way that the Enlightenment thinkers thought about it, rationality, some faculty of the mind or property of… It’s a timeless, logical functioning. I don’t think there is that.

I don’t like to make statements like that because you can’t prove that. But on the other hand, you can show that what people think reason is, has changed dramatically over time. So I feel more comfortable with that kind of empirical claim than with the categorical claim that there is no trans-historical timeless reason. But I tend to think that there isn’t.

What is the law of noncontradiction? Is it valid?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It does seem to me, I mean I certainly, when I think about this logically, can something both be and not be, is the way that I was taught to state the law of non-contradiction. Can a thing both be and not be at the same time? It seems to me pretty obvious that the answer is no.

On the other hand, I once asked, when I was a freshman in college, my brother came to visit me at college and I said to him, “Can you think of any justification for the law of non-contradiction?” And, he just said, “People who ask questions like that get locked up. That’s just a ridiculous thing to ask.” Well, of course, I’m going to ask a question if that’s the answer I get! You don’t let go of a question if people won’t answer you. So you can’t give a justification, it has to be a self-evident truth. So you can’t ask, can the law of, for what reason should we believe the law of non-contradiction? It is what Wittgenstein calls bedrock.

On the other hand, I have been reading some physics over the last few years. Part of my interest in environmental philosophy is also an interest in science. I’ve always loved science but I’m never very good at math so I couldn’t do much with it. But I read several books by physicist over the last few years. Very interested in that and trying to grapple with quantum physics. It does seem that in some cases they are saying that there are things that can both be and not be. So, my brother was probably just too quick to dismiss that question.

What is a paradox? What’s its role in relation to reason?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t know. When I read this question, I wasn’t quite sure how I would answer the question of what is paradox. It’s a lot like self-contradiction, conceptual self-contradiction, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sometimes a paradox helps you find your way out of something, so paradox can be really useful. It can be a useful part of thinking.

I think that the paradoxes are often used in Buddhist thinking, are they not? To one, is I think it’s an exercise in humility. There are things I just can’t get my mind around. The other is I think it’s a way of breaking into a concept, causing you to want to question a concept.

I think people tend to love paradoxes, whereas people don’t really love self-contradiction. Yeah. So I don’t know if I have a whole lot else to say about it.

What is a self-referential contradiction? Do they bother you?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, that’s an important one in studying Foucault. A lot of criticisms of Foucault have said, “Well, he’s saying that there is… That nothing is transcendental.” There’s no ultimate stability. No ontological stability. Or he’s saying that there is nothing that is absolutely true. It’s another way that criticism gets run. And that would be a very bad thing. If a person says, “I know there is no truth,” they’re making a truth claim and that is clearly self-referentially fallacious. Right? You just can’t say things a like that. And that’s the rules of our regime of truth. And I’m going to abide by them. I think that when somebody makes a claim like that, they’re just out of line. I don’t… I shy away from any sort of absolute claim like that. I don’t know. And I really, and I do mean this, I don’t know if there’s anything that’s absolutely constant. If there’s anything that’s universal, if there’s anything that’s transhistorical, transcendental.

When I approach a problem, my approach takes as an assumption that the thing I’m interested in, the problem, is something that is historically emergent. If it turns out that I can’t find out how, then I’m likely to abandon that quest, that problem. But that doesn’t mean that I have proved or disproved that it is transhistorical or transcendental or universal or any of those things. So I don’t think… I would not want to commit that fallacy of making a claim that there is no such thing as a universal and that’s universally true or whatever. Yeah. I think that’s a sophomoric mistake.

Perspectives Concerning Truth: What is objectivity and subjectivity? Immanuel Kant

Ladelle McWhorter:

The concepts the way they function now really go back to Kant. So they go back to the late 18th century, early 19th century. The idea that the mind is very complex, Kant gives us a very complex account of the human mind and philosophers prior to that, didn’t really worry about that too much. And he talks about how we can’t know how the world absolutely is in itself because we’re perceiving it and we process what we perceive through this very complex mental machinery. The thing is that we all have the same mental machinery, and so we process things in roughly the same ways. And as a result, we get an objective world that everybody recognizes and can talk about and can make truth claims about. And he calls that the phenomenal world or phenomenal realm.

It may or may not be identical with the way things are in themselves, but we can’t ever get outside our own limited mentality or even outside our own physical perceptual systems to be able to compare those two things, but it all works out because we’re all basically the same mentally speaking. So on that model, there is objectivity. Objectivity is a communal production of finite rationality. All of rational minds together will come up with the same basic ideas about what the world looks like.

Then given that there’s objectivity, the subject, the perceiver, the thinker can be unbiased. That is, if you work really hard at it, you’re careful about how you think through things and you follow rules and you make good observations, then you will come to the same basic conclusions that other people doing that will come to. But if you don’t follow the rules, if you let things get in the way, particularly for Kant, those would be passions or bodily desires or things like that. If you let that get in the way of your thinking, then you will come to what we, I think would now call a subjective conclusion. One that’s not quite accurate, that’s biased by your own particular perspective. Not sufficiently rationally processed you might say.

So truth for Kant, truth as it functions in scientific discourse, and he’s very interested in making sure that we can have science. We can all agree on some kind of objective world. We can do experiments. We come up with conclusions that work and all that. So truth for Kant is that there are ultimate truths that may be beyond us. There may be a God, Kant believed in God but Kant never claimed to know that there was a God, no proofs of God with Kant.

So we can’t know whether there’s a God. We can’t know whether there’s free will. We can’t know anything about whether the world had a beginning or an end, those sorts of things. But we can have objectivity and so we can make truth claims, and so we can have science and all of that.

Post-Darwinian Considerations: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Ladelle McWhorter:

I, being a post-Darwinian thinker, have some skepticism about Kant’s claims about the universality of human mentality. I’m not sure that we all operate in the same way, or certainly that we all have always operated in the same way, mentally speaking, and that human beings, should we manage to get through these environmental crises and live for thousands and millions of more years, that in the future, people who are successors will have the same mental apparatus that we have.

So I think that you have to throw in a little bit of Darwinian temporality into Kant’s view. And once you do that, then you can’t quite make the same distinction that he wants to make between objectivity and subjectivity. So that’s the truth question. Truth becomes then relative to the historical development of human mentality. I’m not sure that I want to say that’s all it’s relative to, but you can still say that there is truth because you can still say that there are common markers of what’s going to count as truth. Beauty, Kant had a lot of trouble with beauty, wrote a whole book about it, well, more than one actually, more than one book about it. I’m not really worried about beauty much because people don’t fight over it that much. So it’s okay with me for people to have different standards, and nothing huge usually hangs on it except NEH funding, maybe. NEA funding.

So I wouldn’t say that there’s a capital B Beauty or that we need to worry about whether there is, even though certainly some philosophers have, historically. And the third category was not the American way. What’s the third category?

Doug Monroe:

Probably goodness.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Goodness. Right. Yeah. I don’t think there’s a universal absolute good either. I don’t know what it is if there is, but I do think that, I think that we can make comparisons, and I think that we can come to agreement about things, and I think that we can create, creating together, I think collectively creating goodness. If I have an ethical value that I would put foremost, it would be something like openness to creativity. So yeah, I guess I’m pretty skeptical about capital T Truth, Beauty and Goodness, but I’m not despairing about any of them.

Do all human beings rely on faith?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Insofar as we don’t know very much, sure. David Hume said if you didn’t have faith, then you wouldn’t be able to take the next step. Literally he meant on the floor. You have faith at the floor, it will hold your weight. Yeah, if we take faith in that sense, of course, we have to operate with faith. Knowledge is really incredibly limited, and especially when you think about whether the things that you know are things that you know from your own experimentation and reason, or that you’ve taken it on faith from people you think are credible.

Most of the things we claim to know are the latter things. We have faith in each other, and oftentimes that’s well placed on that sense, but if, by faith you mean faith in some overseeing power, that things are going to be okay, somebody’s taking care of us, I don’t think we have to have that to live good lives. I think a lot of people do have that who live good lives. But I think it’s possible, unlike some of the Enlightenment thinkers, I do think it’s possible for a person to live well, and happily, and communally be good to other people without thinking that some intelligent being is ordering things and taking care of us.

What is the mind, and how does it work?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, it’s fascinating. And there’s so much is unknown. I expect if civilization does not collapse in the next hundred years, I expect that human beings are going to learn so much more about mentality and consciousness in the next few decades. It’s going to be amazing. I believe that, and this is faith, because I certainly don’t know this from experimentation and empirical study, but I believe that neurological systems, whole bodies, but in particular neurological systems, are actually generating the processes of mentality. I don’t think that they are determinant in the way that some people used to think of that we are just caused to think exactly what we think do exactly what we do.

I’ve been reading some systems theory. I’m trying to really get a good understanding of what systems theorists do. And one of… I’ve been reading about self organizing systems, and I’ve also been reading about open systems. Closed systems, basically repeat what they do. Open systems are able to maintain some kind of systemic integrity at the same time, constantly being interrupted, altered by things beyond the systemic functioning. I think mentality must work something like that. Very, very, very complex dynamic neurological system that’s open. It has to be open. There’s no way that we could perceive and interact if that weren’t the case. That means that it’s never a system in equilibrium. It’s always in disequilibrium. And it’s always at the same time, has some kind of resilience, some kind of plasticity, I guess, is the right word.

I often think about this in relation to other sorts of beings. I spent one afternoon trying to imagine what it was like to be a house fly. What sort of mentality that must be. I mean, it must be… I mean, they have a neurological system. They respond much faster than I do to all kinds of stimuli. So there’s mentality there. There’s some kind of processing. The more complex, or at least larger the system is, larger seems to be a real key, and more integrated the system is, the more it seems to be open to possibilities of being affected. And then when affected, there seems to be some kind of gap between. And this… I’m not giving you a very good answer, I’m afraid.

When there is a stimulus and a response, we say there’s an instinct or reflex. So what must be happening with mentality is that there is a stimulus, and then there is a gap, pause, a break, something before the response. Now, how would that be happening in a system that’s constantly in operation. Some way that happens. Some kind of break in the process that enables some other operation of the system to pause and then allow memory, experiences to be brought to bear. So there’s not an immediate response. So thinking, it seems to me, must be something like stuttering.

What is naturalism or atheism? Is the diagram a good representation? Show the Diagram

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

What is naturalism or atheism? Is the diagram below a good representation? I don’t know the answer to that.

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t know either. I would probably be happier if we used some kind of term like materialism than naturalism, just because I think of naturalism as having a certain set of historical references that I would not necessarily want to be connected with. So does materialism, but I think it has a new set of references that are just coming into play that I am interested in connecting with. So could you say the question again?

Doug Monroe:

Just what is naturalism? Or if you were to define, say your personal atheism.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. Okay.

Doug Monroe:

That might be a good way to go.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, that’s a good way to go. Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. How do you think about that?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. Well, one of the-

Doug Monroe:

I can tell you’re thinking way out there and I don’t see the edge limits to your thought.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, well, that’s probably because I don’t either. Not yet.

Please explain your materialism? Do you start with mind or matter?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I mean, this is part of the new era. This is part of trying to think about some of the environmental issues and get a grasp on the science. So, this is not stuff I’m necessarily sure of in the way that I feel sure of some of the things in the books. So, I think that for a long time, people in the West thought of mind and matter as two separate things, since Descartes at least, and we might go further back than that. But certainly with Descartes, we get mentality is something that is immaterial and matter is something that is non-mental and the twain don’t meet very well. And Descartes had a hard time explaining how they ever possibly could in a human life.

I think that a lot of people focus then on explaining what mentality was, but it might be better to try to rethink matter. And I think a lot of philosophers are doing that right now, trying to rethink matter. And they’re doing it partly because they’re taking some cues from physics, 20th century physics just blows apart our conceptions of matter from the enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. I think a lot of people in the humanities and a lot of people on the street still have… We’ve inherited that view of matter from the Scientific Revolution. We still think of it that way. And that’s just not what physicists are up to anymore. That’s not even what biologists are up to anymore. So, if we think about matter differently, how would we think about it?

Well, it’s not inert. It’s not that it requires mentality to move it, which was a basic idea in the early modern philosophy that matter was immobile. It was absolutely unable to do anything itself. But matter does seem to be self-organizing. And I don’t know why. What I read suggests to me that I need to understand a lot more about electricity and magnetism because molecules seem to form because of polarizations and so on. So, if I understood that better, I might be able to give a better account. But so there seems to be something that’s dynamic. Also, some of the ways we understand causality, stemming from Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, that period of time, the point at which Aristotelian categories of causality dropped out definitively from scientific thought. They remained or at least parts of them remained in play into the 17th century.

Leibniz, for example, one of the two inventors of calculus said that he still held on to final causes, as well as material causes. And Aristotle had four causes and Leibniz held two or three of them. But they drop out and the only cause that’s left is what we now think of as cause, that’s a cause. But electricity doesn’t behave in the way that it should. If that causality holds, it does all kinds of things that are really weird. I’ve seen pictures of lightning. Have you seen any of these pictures of lightning? If you haven’t, you should Google it. So, they’ve got photography now of lightning. We think of lightning as coming from a cloud and hitting the ground, but it now seems to be the case that the ground begins to reach up, the polarity shift in the earth and attract the lightning from the cloud.

It happens very fast, of course, but if you could see it, you would know where the lightning was going to strike. So, causality is not linear in the way that we’ve been taught to think and that we just assume. It’s also not temporal in the way that we’ve been taught to think, at least not on a quantum level. Temporality doesn’t work the way… Like there is now and then there is the second after now, and the second, second after now, I don’t understand this very well because this is high-level physics and it requires mathematics, I think, to really understand what’s going on, and I just don’t have that. So, it seems that if we pay attention to the science at that level, at a quantum level, linearity and linear temporality fall-

Can science still talk about causality?

Ladelle McWhorter:

We can’t talk about causality as we used to. So then the question becomes, at what level of systemic complexity do things begin to look like they do to us? How far up the self-organization of matter does it take for things to get big enough and slow enough that they look like they obey the laws that we have thought that they did. Okay. So if we rethink matters dynamic, as self-organizing as not bound by linear causality and linear temporality. Then I think it becomes much easier to think that at some level of complexity, matter can organize itself in ways that have mental effects. So that’s the way I think about what the world must be. Now, that’s all Ontology and I’m skeptical of Ontology because I’m a Genealogist. So I know that these concepts and these set of mathematical and scientific theories is also supercedable. I mean, scientists would tell you that too. Maybe it’s a new kind of regime of truth that’s forming. A new way of understanding evidence and a new way of understanding reason.

It’s very exciting to me. So I would say, if I had to commit to some kind of ontological truth, if I had to say this is the way the world is, I would say it’s probably something like that. But I can’t actually commit to that for two reasons. One is it’s out of my field, so I don’t have any business making a… a definitive statement. And because as a philosopher, I feel committed to the notion that unless there’s definitive proof, otherwise we should treat things as historical. So we treat the way that we think our concepts is historical, so mind must be too.

What is postmodernism?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, the term actually comes out of architecture and I’m not sure exactly… it had to do with architectural style, but it got picked up by a lot of other people. My understanding of it and this could be… I don’t think this is idiosyncratic but this might not be universal. But my understanding of it is that the only way to understand postmodernism is to talk about modernism, and modernism philosophically I think basically means from Kant forward. So I would say that whole description that I gave before of Kant’s notion of mentality and the world is it sets the conditions for what we think of as modernism. So the idea that there are limits to what we can know, but we can have objectivity, we can have science and we can also have… Kant certainly believed in ethical, which was another thing that is basically a result of the way human beings think.

So we get a subject/object dichotomy, but it’s a very complex relationship between the subject and the object. Those are part of modernism. There’s a kind of optimism that goes along with the Scientific Revolution and filters through all of modernism, the optimism of progress we’re getting better, we’re getting more moral, we’re getting technologically obviously better, we’re learning more, science is cumulative, there’re no reversals and I think all of those things came into question in the late 20th century. The notion of progress, moral progress, scientific progress, technological progress, all of those things came into question. Not that people have given up believing that there is, that progress is kind of inevitable. I find that my students believe that, they’re a little worried about it but they tend to believe it. People think we’re better than people were back in the middle ages when they executed witches, those sorts of things.

But I think that bringing into question the notion that progress is inevitable, that civilization is marching on is one of the definitive aspects of postmodernism. Another is bringing into question that subject object dichotomy, both as a dichotomy is two different things, and also as two things that can interact given the conditions of their difference. So there’s a lot of questioning of objectivity, there’s a lot of questioning of subjectivity. And you’ve probably heard some of these things, The Death of the Author for example, some people say Foucault says there’s no such thing as a subjectivity, but actually that’s a misreading. He believes that there is subjectivity, but that subjectivity is historically shaped. Not that it’s not real, but that it’s historically shaped. So I would say that postmodernism is a kind of questioning of modernism, it doesn’t necessarily have any of its own particular views which is one of the reasons people find it harder to find and find it confusing. There’s a lot of interrogation of assumptions.

What about deconstruction?

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other thing is that many postmodernists are aware that if you get really deep in your interrogation of subjectivity or objectivity or anything else, you run into this problem that we were talking about before of the self-referential fallacy. So how can I question you if what I’m questioning is the notion that there is truth, right? How can I do that? Well, of course you can’t do that, given the techniques of analysis and the regimes of truth that have been built up through the last several hundred years. And so a bunch of different, often called reading techniques have been developed. Deconstruction is one, genealogy is actually one, but it’s a bit different. It’s in response to some different things.

So a lot of people see those things as sort of tricks. They’re playing with language and so on, and they do. They play with language. A lot of the best of that work, and there’s a lot of crappy work that gets called post-modernists, I’ll be the first to admit that, but the best of that work is actually trying to invent new techniques of analysis in order not to fall into what they see as the modernist traps, the analytic traps that modernism developed by making the analytic assumptions that it did. So I would say post modernism is simply post in that it is a critique of a set of assumptions, values and intellectual procedures that took shape in the very late 18th century through the 19th century and about half of the 20th century.

You identify as a post-structuralist thinker. Please explain.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Structuralism was a way of thinking that was developed. First of all, I think it was developed in linguistics and in anthropology. When you study language or you study culture, one way to study it is by studying individual people, how they speak or how they relate to each other, what rituals they have, and so on. The structuralists were skeptical of some of those techniques in anthropology and linguistics. They were interested more in looking at language as systems rather than language as a bunch of speakers. And so if you look at a language as a system, how does that system work quite apart from who speaks it? Same about cultures, how does this culture work rather than how do these people act? It was a sort of a radical excision of subjectivity in attempt to look at a system without thinking about it in terms of the subjects who were enacting it.

And that was a very successful movement for around the middle of the 20th century. Claude Levi-Strass, who wrote “Structure of Kinship Systems,” that was a major work of structuralism and anthropology. And he was looking at the incest taboo, assuming it was universal, and that it gave structure to every culture, but it did give different structures to different cultures. In the probably, in the 60s, I guess, there started some new studies that suggest that this way of thinking about structure without thinking about people with seen structures as a sort of self-perpetuating, that there were some problems with that. And in fact, it was ridiculed to some extent, as universalistic, leaving out human play. The way we play with language, the way cultures invent, they don’t stay timeless, they change because of things people do, repetitions are never repetition of the same, all stuff like that.

So anyway, so Foucault and a few other thinkers began to call themselves post-structuralists because they were interested in structures and self-organizing structures, much in the way that I was talking about self-organizing systems of materiality, they were interested in self-organizing structures, but they were also interested in the open-endedness, the play in the systems, the changeability, the points at which systems of languages are systems of culture, systems power, systems of government, whatever it might be, the point at which those can break down and alter, transform dramatically.

Whereas the structuralists just assumed that structures were relatively stable and relatively universal. The post-structuralists began to say, “Yeah, the structures are really interesting, but we also see them falling apart.”

And so Foucault’s early work, not his earliest work, but his pretty early work, the stuff he became famous for in the 60s, was looking at the collapse of… Collapse is too strong a word. The sudden reconfigurations of linguistic structures, economic structures, and natural structures systems.

So he wrote this book called “The Order of Things,’ and it’s really about how orders can, at certain points, just reform themselves. And to his surprise, he thought he was writing a book with very limited appeal, a bit erudite. To his surprise, it was a very big seller in France, and it ended up getting translated into a lot of languages.

How Systems Change – Paradigm Shifts

Ladelle McWhorter:

You might be familiar with or a lot of people might be more familiar with the book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” that came out in 1960 or ’61, which was a work of history in the United States talking about how scientific revolutions often don’t actually build on the past. They’re not natural accumulations that result in a new theory being devised that better fits the data.

And sometimes even the new theory that’s proposed it has less scientific support than what it’s trying to displace, but there’s political activity. And then some people die and, they don’t get to purport their theory anymore. So, that book looks at how science can transform. Not that it has no credibility, because it’s just a free for all with different people vying to promote their own theory, but how it’s development actually isn’t rationally structured at every juncture.

So there’s a difference between what gets called in that book normal science, which is just building on and building on and coming up with better data and so on, and then these ruptures that are revolutions or something close to that anyway. And then we get a different kind of theoretical framework for analyzing some of the same data. And that also gives us some new data.

That is in the same vein as some of Foucault’s early work. So what is it that happens when these systems reconfigure at these junctures? Foucault is very interested in this. Why does it look like that systems reconfigure in different fields… He was just looking at different fields of knowledge at that time. How is it that they seem to reconfigure at about the same time? And he looks particularly at about the year 1800 when we moved from natural history to the science of biology right around that time.

At the same time there was a move from analysis of wealth to political economy and a move from philology. Well, no prior to philology from grammar, I guess, different kinds of grammar to linguistics. Those fields emerged in the 19th century and in a couple of decades, within a couple of decades of each other. Why does so much important knowledge reconfigure at about the same time?

He didn’t answer the question of why he just showed in that book that it had seemed to happen that way. In some of his other works he’s much more interested in the conditions, the possibility of such transformations. So, that’s why it would be called post-structuralist. I use the term for myself just because Foucault did I don’t have a good label because I’m a perpetual novice.

Doug Monroe:

I’m going to try and answer that question.

How did Foucault feel about power?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s hard in a way, because I think to some extent, the word “power” is a kind of placeholder or shorthand, but let me approach it from a different angle… I’m going to talk about it in a way that Foucault didn’t, but he’s now been dead for a long time, so we’re allowed. So when I’m thinking in terms of systems, and I’m thinking in terms of systems as being dynamic, whether we’re talking about conceptual systems or material systems, or more specifically whether economic systems or discourse is in particular fields of study or something…

Anything that’s dynamic of course has to have certain amount of energy. And it’s made up of forces’ in tension with each other. You could say that language is that way, that it’s a system of signs that are in tension with each other, antonyms and synonyms and so on. In relationships, things are held together because of tensions and things are moved around because of forces and energy. I’m speaking in very general terms, but I think of power as being something more like that, that which enables, that which powers, motors things. Not in the sense of authority or I can’t think of another good word for it. But it’s like a bully. Somebody who’s going to make you do things or weaponry or something like that. Power can take those forms too. But when I think of power, I think of it very generally as something more like energy or capacity to do ability, something like that.

And I think that’s the case with Foucault’s work, although I think Foucault also wasn’t sure how to think about power. There’s a lot of exploration and experimentation in some of his work in the late 70s when he was writing about sexuality and the little bit of writing he did about race. He wrote about power a lot during that period, and he was trying to think of it as not… He was trying to rid himself of the Marxist notion of power that he had inherited from his own education in France in the first half of the twentieth century, where power is held by some people and exercised over other people who are relatively, at least powerless. He didn’t want to see power as something that one group held in another group lacked. He thought that was a bad model of power. He called that sovereign power or juridical power sometimes. And he said that just doesn’t explain anything. It’s not a helpful way of thinking about power.

So he experimented with these other ways of thinking about it. He tried to think about it on the model of war. He eventually rejects war of all against all, sort of Hobbesian war. He rejects that eventually. He begins to talk about it as more like I was, forces in tension.

Foucault, “Governmentality,” and Power

Ladelle McWhorter:

Eventually he stops really talking about power and begins to talk about governmentality, which means, attempts to affect people’s conduct. Conduct on conduct. Then you can talk about how parents guide and discipline children as being a form of governmentality. It is a long series of exercises and relationships of power, if you want to use his older language. It doesn’t have to be something bad, and in fact, we can’t really do without it. You can’t imagine a world in which there was no forces intentional with each other. It wouldn’t be possible to live. Power is a placeholder in a sense, in that it is an attempt to inject, just as history is an attempt to inject into that older enlightenment way of thinking. Something that will make things seem less stable and inevitable, and absolute. But it really forces intention.

So things can be reconfigured. Those terms are more like levers to begin to move things that look immobile. So I wouldn’t put a lot of emphasis on the word power. I like to use other words like dynamic or forces or tensions or things like that. Sometimes of course, Foucault did talk about domination and power in the way that we think of it, like the oppression of a minority and a dictatorship or something like that, a regime that under which people are so disempowered that they don’t have any options for living. I mean, he did talk about power in that way too, but he said that was an extreme form, a congealing of a dynamic power that was no longer able to be to be disrupted from within. And he said, those are really rare cases.

How do you think about mortality?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard. And I said earlier that I got very frustrated when I was teaching ethics, so much. In the early part of my career, I got very frustrated with the tradition. It seemed inadequate to me. I was teaching, among other students, I was teaching a lot of nursing students. The nursing program at that university required their students to take an ethics course.

Nursing students deal with real life situations of life and death, and they have to make split second decisions. How was I going to help them? How was the utilitarian calculus going to be of use to a nurse trying to decide whether to revive a baby that’s two months, two minutes old and hasn’t breathed? You know…

The real life situations don’t seem to me to fit very easily into the systems of rational, ethical thought that we’ve inherited. So for a long time, I just didn’t want to talk about ethics, and I just sort of muddled through life. I do have a strong sense of justice, which I inherited from my parents. And for a long time, I had no justification whatsoever for that. I just, I guess, as you would say, acted on faith.

Charles Scott on Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

More in the last couple of decades I guess, I have begun to think about ethics in a different way. And part of this has to do with some work that my dissertation director did in a couple of his books, on a book he wrote called “The Question of Ethics.” His name is Charles Scott. And for a long time it was my very favorite book, but then he wrote another one that I really liked too.

Anyway, one of the things he talks about in that book is the word ethics. It comes from ethos, from Greek. And it used to mean in Greek, it meant something more like a way of life. It didn’t mean something like we think of now, professional ethics, a set of rules that you follow. And it didn’t just mean like not cheating or whatever. It was a deliberate way of life. It was a reflective way of life. And it might be any way of life.

The ancient Stoics or the ancient cynics or the Epicureans. They had different ways of life, but each one was an ethos. It was a way of conducting your life within a set of relationships. Usually those were usually communities, precursors to monasteries and convents I guess, only not as rigid.

So I started thinking about ethics that way. And Foucault talks about that. He took a lot of his ideas about ethics from a colleague of his, a classical scholar named Pierre Haddo. He was a bit younger than Foucault and still teaches at the College de France I believe. He may be retired now, but he’s written a lot about the ancient, the Hellenistic philosophers and their ways of life. He talks about philosophy as a way of life in the ancient world. It wasn’t a set of theories. It wasn’t a set of truth claims or principles. It really was a whole way of being, and I like that.

And I think that helps us get away from thinking about, am I doing the right thing in the toilet paper aisle, but rather what is the nature of my projects, my undertakings, my relationships day to day, but month to month, year to year? How do I want to shape my life? Not just a career, but all of those things. We could talk about it as an art of existence. Can I not make my life a work of art? And he joked about that a little bit, because of course you can get pretty self-absorbed if you do that. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about when I think about… And because of my age. I suppose in the last 10 years or 20 years, first, my friend’s parents were dying. I was going to funerals. Occasionally a person’s child would die.

Begin with the End in Mind

Ladelle McWhorter:

A few people my age died and then as we get older these things happen. I’ve been to a lot of funerals. And one of the ways to think about what kind of a life… What is an art of existence, is to think about what gets said in those contexts. I’ve never been to two funerals that were the same, and I’ve been to many funerals that I left feeling like I wish I had known that person better. But there was really a coherent and beautiful life and it was well done. You walk out of some funerals and you just think that person… It was well done. Not the funeral, the life.

The one way to get a grip on this is to start thinking about it that way, in retrospect. What would I want to be able to be said of me, not that anyone will, I don’t have any idea what circumstances I’ll die and if anybody I know will still be left, but what do I hope will be able to be said about me? Not that anyone’s life can ever be summed up. That is just, I think, absolutely impossible. We’re too complex. And people’s memories tend to create narrative where there really wasn’t a narrative. But what kind of a person do I want to have been?

And there are some answers I have to that. I don’t have very good answers about what to purchase or who to vote for, but I do have some pretty good answers to what kind of life I want to have now. I want to have pleasure. I want to have openness and I don’t think you can be open if you’re arrogant. I want to be remembered as a kind person. I’m not a terribly generous person by nature so I work on that. I think I’m much more generous with time and ideas than I am with material resources, so I work on that.

The other aspect of this that Foucault talks about is he says, it’s the selfs relation with itself, so there has to be this reflection. A person who lives a life that in the end you can make comments about, good or bad, may or may not have lived an ethical life if they never reflected on what they’re… Some people they just go through and they do things and they don’t think about it. And sometimes that turns out great. And sometimes it’s terrible. But it’s not an ethical life unless it’s been reflected on and refined, and to some extent worked on. Not worked on in self sacrificial ways or painful ways. I don’t think that guilty self flagellation is very valuable. Some people do. There are those ways of life too, but not for me.

But I think that you have to ask yourself, “Am I exemplifying the traits that I think are valuable? Am I using the little bit of time we all have to do the things that really matter to me? Am I having enough fun or am I enraged all the time? And if I’m enraged all the time, why?” I think we have to ask ourselves those questions on a pretty regular basis. The result’s got to be creative because I don’t think we’ve got a whole lot of rules. And I think that the world is changing so fast that even if we had a whole lot of rules, we might find that they didn’t work.

Bloopers – What duty/virtues? The Smart Ass Redneck

Doug Monroe:

All right. I want to get a little more Foucault, okay? A little more focused Foucault. Maybe three or four questions, if that’s okay. And then we’ll move into the concluding part.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay?

Doug Monroe:

So for the people who don’t know who Mike, Michel Foucault… I have Michael here, but it’s Michel.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. It’s Michel. It’s Michael in French. Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

I would say… Okay. And I’ve read a fair amount. I’m very well read in secondary reading, but not in primary. So I’m the dangerous type.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Depends on which secondary readings you’ve done.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, really, but I’m all over the map. So, but who was Michael Foucault and what is his importance as a philosopher to the average person?

What duty/virtues calculus? Choose what?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t want to choose, cause there are times when I have to. I was talking with a friend yesterday on Skype about this. We were reading a book together called “Carceral Humanitarianism” by Kelly Oliver and in that book, she talks about you can’t really calculate, you can’t weigh one life against other lives. That one person’s mourning a death is as serious as a nuclear war over here. And my friend Todd was just very upset about that. He said, “Of course you can make these,” and I was talking about this movie, I’d seen about these two young soldiers who were being told to activate a drone, to make a drone strike in a village. And they had people on the ground and they knew what their target was and it was in the right place.

And they were trying to do a whole bunch of things undercover to get other people out of the way. But there was this one child who was still in the blast zone and they were getting the order to make the hit. And they were both sitting there crying and they delayed. I mean, this is just a movie, so the two young soldiers delayed and delayed and they finally did it and the child was injured severely and ended up dying. But so it was terrible, but everybody along the line had to make a decision. And the poor two soldiers, two young kids sitting in this control booth had to, you have to sometimes calculate, you have to, and they didn’t control the whole calculus of course a lot of decisions had been made before they were sitting there.

So I do think that you have to use utilitarian calculus sometimes you just don’t have any other choice. Alasdair MacIntyre was one of my teachers in grad school he was at Vanderbilt when I was. So I’m familiar with his work and the problem with that was, and everybody knows this about it and he knew it too. The problem is that he doesn’t give people ground to stand on to criticize their own community’s values and that doesn’t resonate well with me, as you can imagine. Since I grew up in a community that was in the midst of horrible, horrible self critique, and I see a need for that. So yeah, I can’t come down on any particular side of that, I see value in all of those approaches, but I think we’ve still got to be more creative than that.

Michael Foucault and His Early Life and Works

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, as I said, he was born in 1926 in France and died in 1984, also in France. He started out as a psychologist. In France at that time in the 50s, when he was being educated, psychology was a subfield of philosophy. So it was basically philosophy of mind, but also clinical training, if he wanted to do that. And he did some of that. Went to work in a mental institution for two years as a kind of assistant. He gave Rorschach tests, that was his job. And he got very interested in the power dynamics within the institution, between patients and doctors and the assistants and all kinds of stuff. He said he was there as kind of an observer because he didn’t have any authority. He just administered tests. And so he was able to kind of take a neutral, if you can say that, a neutral position and just kind of watch how the institution functioned.

He got very interested in definitions of mental health and mental illness. Went off, took a government job. He took a lot of government jobs. He was a cultural ambassador. He didn’t really want to be in a university. So his job was cultural ambassador. So he would go to French embassies. He’d be assigned for a year or two to French embassies in other countries. And his job was to bring in French musicians or teach French language to people in the other country. He was in Poland for a while. He was in Tunisia. He was in Germany.

But anyway, his first job was in Sweden and there’s a big medical archive in Sweden. So he spent a lot of time doing research on the history of mental illness. His father had been a doctor and he was supposed to be a doctor himself and he rebelled. But he was interested, always, in medicine. And so he wrote this massive study called “The History of Madness.” He doesn’t really talk about power and he doesn’t really do a lot of the things he did in his later work. There’s no genealogy. But it’s a precursor. It’s the first major work. So the importance of it was, that he was saying what we think of as mental illness today is not necessarily the same thing as what people thought of madness as being before. And these categories that we develop for thinking about mental illness and mental health, evolved out of certain institutional professional and governmental situations. And so really it’s an interesting book. In fact, it’s kind of a fun book. It’s a big book. So that was the first inkling, I guess, of what was going to come.

Foucault on Institutions

Ladelle McWhorter:

And then he started doing these other studies. I already mentioned the order of things, which is a study of three fields of knowledge and transformations that have to do with various institutionalizations and changes in culture and so on.

The major work that I study is from the 70s and the big books are “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” He talks about what he calls a carceral system, the development of imprisonment as the only major means of punishing people who break the law, which as I’m sure most people know, really wasn’t the case for a long time. There were other all kinds of other punishments and there were dungeons, but dungeons weren’t the same thing as prisons. They were mostly where you throw political enemies without particular sentencing or anything.

Also criminals and mad men and other forms of delinquents and deviants, were often just thrown in the same place together. But locking people up for definite periods of time, it was an innovation. And so this is a book that talks about that innovation and talks about it in relation to a bunch of other institutional innovations that occurred in similar ways. The development of factories, factory routines, the ways that factories were first established. Developments of schools, as education and institutional settings became more and more common instead of having tutors for rich kids and apprenticeships for poor kids.

And he looks at how all these different ways of managing time that really is what these institutions do. They manage time. How that comes out of monastery rituals and so, anyway, it’s very interesting book and it also makes it really difficult to look at imprisonment the same way anymore, as a sort of like natural thing to do. So, that’s 1970…

Bloopers – Foucault on Sexuality and Ethics & Scientific Racism (Now Passe)

Doug Monroe:

Let’s, let’s focus in a little bit on the whole notion of being abnormal and normal and the idea of essentialism, let’s say.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. You can talk in general about what he had to say about abnormal versus normal or bio power. Okay. That kind of thing. And I’m not phrasing it in terms of a question. I want to hear what you have to say about that. I do like my question that’s here at the end of… It’s the one where, I don’t mean to create a trap other than a philosophical one, of… If without something to hang your hat on, how do you come to this notion of a statistic normalcy is wrong or right-

Ladelle McWhorter:

Um hmm. (affirmative).

Doug Monroe:

Without any ethics to go along with it. And I’m throwing some questions at you. It’s an opportunity to say what you want to say just as somebody who’s genuinely confused from an intellectual standpoint on this. Is that-

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think I know what you’re getting at.

Doug Monroe:

You know what I’m getting at?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think so. Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. I can walk you through the… My very methodical questions here, which lead you right down the path but I don’t think I have time to read that.

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think I know what you’re getting at. So I think that’s not necessary.

Doug Monroe:

I’m skipping scientific racism and all that. I know that’s way too focused and I think that’s past tense anyway, so…

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, I would say that we’re past scientific racism. That’s not to say racism, but that particular iteration.

Doug Monroe:

Iteration.

Foucault on Sexuality and Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

-1976 was the first volume of the “History of Sexuality”, which is how I first got interested in Foucault. And it says, sexuality was really invented in the 19th century. Terribly counterintuitive claim, but then he talks about it. How the concept of sexuality actually brings together a whole bunch of things that are really considered as different things in previous times. The sinful flesh versus the reproductive, not biology, even reproductive processes and natural history. Other kinds of things that had to do with courtly love, all of that stuff gets rolled into the concept of sexuality and gets medicalized in the late 19th century.

So that’s the stuff that interested me. And then in the 80s, just before his death, he begins the work on ethics, and mostly on ancient Greek ethics. Ethos, as a way of life. His importance was, I think that he just shook a up a lot of people in the post-1968 era in France and in the United States. People really looking around for some other ways to think.

I think there got to be a lot of suspicion of Marxism in Europe. A lot of people had been Marxist or members of communist parties in Europe. Young people were very disaffected. The Russian Gulag system became known, and lots of people really disillusioned with all of that. And at the same time, really skeptical of the kinds of military industrial complexes that we’re developing in the more liberal democratic governments around the world. The beginnings of globalization. What we think of now as globalization, were in the early 70s.

I think during this period, there were just a lot of people saying there’re upheavals all over the place and we don’t understand what’s going on. And we need some new ways to think. Think about power, think about life, think about systems of punishment, systems of discipline. All of those things were just up for grabs. Sexuality, certainly, in the wake of the feminist movement, gay liberation and all those things. It was very timely. It was an alternative to existentialism, which had been sort of the major philosophy of the youth in the 60s, United States, anyway.

And so I think, its importance is a product of 20th century upheavals. And there’ll be a day when it won’t be important anymore.

What is being normal v. abnormal?

Ladelle McWhorter:

So it was not possible to be normal or abnormal before we had statistics because statistics really ushers in this way of thinking that there’s some average that most people are a certain way with regard… And not just people. The statistics of course applies to anything that changes is over time. You can look at the statistical, in terms of development, statistical development of an ecosystem or a tissue growth in a fetus or anything. But you can certainly look at it in terms of sexual development or moral development or intellectual development of a human being. And that’s what, of course, everybody’s familiar with. I think most people nowadays went through school systems after the advent of the standardized test. And the IQ test of course was developed in the early 20th century.

We’ve all been subjected to that. The idea is that you get a whole lot of data. You test a whole lot of people or a whole lot of things, and then you combine all that data and you come out with norms and standard deviations from norms. That was impossible before the development of statistics, which was impossible before the development of calculus. This is all modern period. There is no reason to assume that what is average is also what is good. We tend to think that is true when we think about things like body temperature. If the average body temperature for a human being is 98.6 and your body temperature is 100, that’s a pretty good indication that something’s wrong. But if your body temperature is 98.7, you’re probably just a little bit of deviant or a variation. And nobody worries about that.

These have a place where the norm as average and the norm as the good get conflated. And sometimes that’s perfectly fine in some kinds of medical diagnosis practices and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s not fine. And sometimes we know it’s not fine. For example, the Garrison Keillor joke, all our children are above average. We really don’t want all our children to be average. We like having the one child that’s above average, not the one that’s below. Sometimes we don’t think of statistical norms as being good things, but they always are. They tend to be benchmarks. At least if your child is average, then you think, well, I haven’t done anything horrible yet, or this child’s going to make it, be okay.

How democracy without the idea of normal?

Doug Monroe:

I think that’s what postmodernism has gotten everybody a lot more in touch with. Just what you said, that a statistical… Everything has a standard deviation. There’s nothing… You can’t take statistics and not have a standard deviation, because it’s all math. And the good is not necessarily associated with the bell curve. Okay.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. And sometimes those outliers are really important.

Doug Monroe:

They are really important. And so you’re left with the question that’s really at the end of this fourth section of having said that to make a decision, like you’re talking about the child, and I think I know the movie you were talking about, getting blown up. You have to decide at some point sometimes. You need a standard of the good or utilitarian construct. And to do that if you’re talking about a moral good or a moral bad from the decider’s point of view. How can you not rely on in a democracy what the majority wants to do? You see what I’m going with that? You need a standard of something to make a decision and it needs to be okay or else you need to have a kingship. What do you do there? What do you appeal to coming from your position?

What are some of the bad consequences of the concept of normal or average for human beings?

Ladelle McWhorter:

If I’m pretty much like everybody else, I can feel pretty good about myself. We know that when we talk about having a conformist society, maybe that’s just part of being a human being, wanting to fit in, wanting to belong, wanting to be like others, wanting to be liked by others. When you impose statistics on that though, and when you do it in some kinds of social scientific projects, you end up with results like this.

So little Johnny has not started speaking in full sentences and he is four years old. We need to get him some therapy. And the more you micromanage that, the more you tend to break down people’s lives into stages of development. And the tendency has been historically to label those stages of development as certain if a person is, say stuck in one of those stages of development. Then we consider their development have been arrested and that’s a bad thing.

And that, actually going back to the scientific racism, that’s what scientific racists after Darwin tended to do. They would say a race was stuck at a certain stage of civilized development. So they had arrested development that made them inferior to those Nordics who were the most developed.

So when Foucault talks about normalization in the mid ’70s, he’s talking about that conflation of the average and the good. He’s also talking about the way in which societies, particularly those infused with practices developed out of the social sciences, the way that they develop methods for getting people back on to that track. So your identity is created by your deviations from various norms. So, you’re whatever, right? You have this IQ, you have this level of reading development, you have this level of sexual development and so on and so forth. And however you’re arrested, or however you’re deviated from the norm is who you are.

And Foucault says, so we set up people’s identities, and we make them live those identities, on the basis of these norms. And we also do things therapeutically and educationally to try to enforce norms. So you’re not going to let your child do things, explore aspects of his or her life that don’t conform to the developmental norms. And it becomes very rigid and it becomes very oppressive in some cases.

So the normal, if when it gets solidified into a certain kind of identity or a certain kind of capacity or whatever, certain kind of body type even, the normal becomes a weapon used against people who deviate and they become abnormal. Instead of just saying there is variation, or there are differences, which is what would’ve been said before. Although some of those differences and variations would’ve been considered sins, they don’t necessarily get considered sins anymore.

They get considered abnormalities, unhealthy lifestyles or arrested developments or things like that. Sometimes there’s also retrograde development so that people are throwbacks is one of the terms that was used in the early 20th century, throwbacks in those stages.

So I wouldn’t want to say that given the technologies that we have, the point we are in our history, the uses of statistics, the uses of norms that we would want to do without them, but it is important to recognize that we have this conflation of our moral standards with really what amounts to a mathematical reality. And that can be very dangerous.

Timeless v. Situational Standards

Ladelle McWhorter:

It depends on the context. But I mean, one of the things that you had on the list there was how do I feel about the Constitution? And I feel really good about it. I mean, we do have a standard, that is a standard, and it was a disputed standard when it was instituted. The Founding Fathers did not all agree. And Patrick Henry actually campaigned against the Constitution. I think that gets forgotten that there was a lot of struggle over it, and it is a compromise document as is the Bill of Rights.

But I feel pretty confident that much of the way the government functions or is supposed to function I should say. Much of the way it’s supposed to function is pretty good. And that if we tamper with it too much things will get worse. And so I appeal to kind of situational standards like that, that would be one thing.

And then the other thing is that, when you’re in a situation where you really… All the choices you have are bad ones, and you really do have to choose the lesser of evils. One of the things we were talking about in that discussion yesterday with my friend and I about that book was a line in it. This is from Hannah Arendt actually, “When you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.”

And so there’s two things to say about that. One is, keep that in mind. That it’s unlike what Jeremy Bentham might have said, “To choose the least of the evils is not to choose the good, it’s still to choose the evil.” But the question then is how do you calculate what’s less? And that, you do need some kind of standard external to the situation to do.

I don’t have a good principle for determining that. Was one child’s life worth the objective of that military strike? I don’t know. If I had been the soldier who had to make the call, I don’t know. I mean, you can’t second-guess the person in that horrible situation, nor was he… There was actually a female and a male soldier sitting there. It was the male soldier who had to push the button, but they were both involved in it. And they were just inconsolable after it. And that seems to me to be the proper response, when we have to choose the evil, we do the best we can, and then we are sorry for the damage that we do have to cause. But life is messy, and there’s no way to keep your hands clean.

Bloopers – How is and was Foucault a personal muse?

Doug Monroe:

Is there somebody or some idea or something out there that you rely on? Your go-to in your most tough moments?

Ladelle McWhorter:

You mean for my personal wellbeing?

Doug Monroe:

Personal, personal. Yeah, just personal, you know, is there anything or any person or any way of thinking?

How is and was Foucault important in your writing or to you as a person?

Ladelle McWhorter:

The first book was an attempt really to grapple with his work much more than the second book was. Even though the second book uses Foucault as a frame, I used to say to people, graduate students, picking the topic for their dissertation, “Do what I did, pick someone who’s not very well known, about whom there is not much secondary literature and who dies and stops producing primary literature right when you pick your dissertation topic.” Because the shelf of books in English on Foucault and by Foucault that were available when I wrote my dissertation was about two feet long.

I loved the work, I really did, and it resonated with me in ways that some of the other things that I cared about didn’t as much. I think the ways in which he worked on sexuality were really important to me in dealing with my own. But as I have gotten older and as the time has passed and the world has changed since he did his thinking, I see the need to do other kinds of thinking and to take into account other ideas.

If I were to write “Racism and Sexual Oppression” again, I wouldn’t rely quite so much on the notion of normalization because I don’t think that disciplinary normalization is as important in our society as it was in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, I think it’s become much less so. And I don’t think Foucault had very much to say about environmental issues, so I’m moving away from his work in that way. It’s the techniques that I really hold onto, the genealogical orientation, the looking for the breaks, looking for the points at which systems shift, which terminology emerges. I think I will always use those techniques most likely because they work for me and other things I’m more skeptical of.

Who or what do you look to for personal solace, guidance, or truth?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I used to reread my dissertation director’s books, Charles Scott’s books, sometimes. Particularly when I was having trouble writing, I would reread some of his books. I haven’t done that in a long time either. I think I’m much more apt when I’m faced with real difficulty to sit on my patio. Maybe it’s not quite cultivating my own garden, but it’s similar to that. I can feel so happy. It’s a nice little patio, I have to say. And I’ve been landscaping around it. And it’s just to be grateful again for what I have. At the time at which I have been able to live, there have been so many advantages. And I think just remembering that I’m happy is what gets me through things.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the U.S. in the future?

Ladelle McWhorter:

That is such a hard thing, because we would all like to be optimistic. I mean maybe not everybody in the world. I think there are some people who would not like our future to be good, but I just don’t know. And there’s several reasons why I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull together to deal with things that we’re going to have to deal with. And I really think that one of the first things we’re going to have to deal with in the next decade is migration inland from people whose towns and cities are inundated. And I think it’s going to happen in Norfolk , and we’re going to, and it may happen all at once with a hurricane or it may happen slower, but we’re going to deal with mass migration and disruption of the economy, poverty induced by people’s property values dropping and so on.

Are we going to be able to pull together and be communities and care about each other or not? And we’ve lost over… I think over the course of my lifetime, I think we’ve lost a lot of the ideals that Americans used to have about doing that kind of thing. I know we were never… We were all kinds of ways in which we were terrible at it before, but I think there was more of an impulse that way when I was younger.

So I worry about our future because I worry about what environmental devastation’s going to do to us. I worry about our future because I think the economy is not stable and we didn’t do what we needed to do after the recession to stabilize it. So I think we’re at risk for other collapses. I think that’s true globally, probably. I… Of course I worry day to day if we’re going to go to war with North Korea. I think we all worry about that. I’m hoping that… I don’t have any way of preventing that, so there’s not anything I can do about that. I just have to try to not worry about it and hope things are under more control than sometimes they seem to be.

If we were not facing the possibility of an economic disruption, if we were not facing all of the things that go with climate change, I would still feel fairly optimistic. It’s not the immediate political situation that scares me as much as those things. I do think that given the current administration’s insistence on dismantling some of our environmental regulations and underfunding the agencies that take care of our interior and our parks and so on and so forth. I think that it’s making it worse, but you know, this too shall pass. There’ll be another election. Yeah. I don’t think we’re falling apart politically as much as I think some pundits are telling us and we say in the university, “Presidents come and go. Deans come and go. It’s the faculty stays. The students come and go. It’s us, we’re the ones who stay.” And I think that’s true about us citizens too.

Print

Overview

Ladelle McWhorter

Ladelle McWhorter is the James Thomas Professor in Philosophy and a Professor of Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. Her areas of expertise include 20th Century French and German Philosophy, Queer Theory, and Political Theory. Dr. McWhorter has been a prolific author for over twenty years, writing books, articles, papers, and book chapters. She was interviewed because of her outstanding reputation as a professor, writer, and philosopher and her expertise in ethics, postmodernism, and poststructuralism.
Transcript

Some Personal Background

Ladelle McWhorter:

I was born in 1960 in Decatur, Alabama, which is in the Tennessee Valley. So it’s about, I believe, 90 miles north of Birmingham. And I guess that was an interesting time to be born in that place. So I grew up with the Civil Rights Movement, eventually the Anti-War Movement, all of those things were going on when I was a child. And because of where I was, in Alabama, it was impossible not to know all those things were going on. I have memories going back to the age of four of knowing about those things, not understanding them necessarily, but knowing and being aware of the intensity of the violence and fear that people felt.

And my family ended up being embroiled in it because of well, because my older brother was a member of a church group. He was a church youth leader, and he advocated for using some youth group literature that was pro-integration, or desegregation as we called it then. And that got the whole family in trouble with the KKK and the John Burr Society. And we had death threats, phone calls late at night, tires slashed in the front driveway. It was really scary, and of course this was when I was four and five years old without a whole lot of understanding what was going on.

My father spent several nights sitting in the carport with a gun on his lap to shoot if he had to, KKK coming to the house. This was just a regular, blue collar family. Parents never expected to be involved in anything like this. And my brother was 17. He didn’t know what he had gotten himself into, and they didn’t try to explain a lot of it to us. I think they just figured that we would catch on, my younger sister and I mean. The older children knew perfectly well what was going on.

And the rest of us, they just would protect. Get to the back of the house when there’s people in the yard and that sort of thing. I remember just being afraid and realizing, I think, internalizing the intense fear that my mother felt, and I think that really shaped my childhood.

I also remember that my parents fully supported my brother’s stand and they never questioned that he had done the right thing, and they never punished him for putting the family in danger. They just rallied around him, at least at best I can remember. I do know that my father told him that since he had initiated this that he had to take the phone calls and not let my mother get a threatening phone call, so my brother had to be the one to answer the phone. Other than that, this was just the way life was for people. You didn’t cross the color line no matter which side you were on. If you did, you got punished, and you got threatened, and some people got killed. Nobody in my family got killed. So that was early life.

Parents’ Influence: No Color Lines

Ladelle McWhorter:

And from that point on, I think all of us were caught up in questions of social justice and questions of ethics. My family was very religious. We were Methodists at that time, and my mother in particular. It wasn’t the kind of Protestant Christianity that has since become belligerent. It was the old kind, I guess, where the emphasis was on social justice and moral life and, being charitable in the broadest sense of that term, generous, but also compassionate. Those were the values that were instilled in us. Not that I, or any of us, have always lived up to that, but those were the things that we were taught to value. Both parents, particularly my mother, because I spent a lot more time with my mother. My father worked a lot at factory and also had a second job.

As I got older and understood more about Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, going into adolescence then, the end of the Vietnam War, Kent State when I was 10, I guess, and then Feminist Movement, which intrigued my mother quite a lot. I was aware of these things, always looking at them through that Liberal Protestant lens, and always aware that my parents believed that you took a stand. And they did. I mean, I saw them over and over take stands, not because they really relished it. They weren’t part of any political movement. It’s just that history forced that on them, and they lived up to what they were called upon to do. I learned to be proud of them for that, and I learned to do it myself, and I think my siblings have done that too. Those are the early influences.

Gender Lines and Values Today

Ladelle McWhorter:

Of course in adolescence, when I began to understand that being, what I later learned to call lesbian or gay, was considered to be antithetical to that community. It was unacceptable. It wasn’t even something that anyone really knew how to talk about in the 70s, where I was. There were no words. I wouldn’t have known how to explain to anyone, if I’d wanted to tell them what to say. I just didn’t know. But I did know that there was another line there and that, just like the color line, there was something I would now call a gender line. There was something I would now call a sexuality line and you didn’t cross that. And if you did, you got punished. And of course my experience of how people got punished for crossing lines was pretty dramatic.

So I was very frightened, and in that aspect of my life, very isolated from the very people that I had learned those values from, and that I had depended on. And that I had seen take courageous stands on behalf of other people who were marginalized or oppressed or discriminated against.

So I went through this long turmoil about my religious background and the values implicit. And I think, now, 45 years later or so, I would say that I still hold on to some of those basic values, but I don’t hold on to them for the reasons that I was taught to. And I’m still proud of my parents and of my siblings, even though it became eventually difficult, and in some cases impossible, to have personal relationships with some of them.

So it’s an interesting kind of thing. I can’t be sorry about any of that. And I can’t be angry about any of that anymore. But there are things that you gain and things that you lose from everybody in your life, I guess.

Becoming a Philosopher in High School: Zeno’s Arrow

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think it made me have to question everything that I believed, and that began very early because I saw my family having to question everything they believed and having to be opened. It’s not like my parents grew up thinking, oh you know, black and white people should be equal and there shouldn’t be discrimination. I think they probably just accepted how things were when they were children. It was only when they were confronted with it as an overt issue, a set of questions that they were open to the possibility that what they had learned as children was wrong. And so I saw that. That was, as we now say in the teaching biz, that was modeled for me. And so when it came time, when my time came, I guess, to have to question a lot of basic things, I was open to doing that. And in fact, in certain respects, I guess I took a sort of delight in it.

I wanted to study philosophy before I went to college, even though I really didn’t know what it was. And what had happened was when I was in high school, there was a, I was inducted into the honor society, as lots of kids in public school are. And one of the teachers had, did a very nice thing that year. They didn’t always do this, but they arranged to have a speaker in the evening and to have the kids who were being in inducted, come to the library with their parents and they had a little ceremony, and it was very nice. And they got this mathematician to come speak, who’s a teacher at the community college across the river. So he came and he told what I now know is the story of Zeno’s Arrow, familiar with this from ancient philosophy. So the question was if Zeno shoots an arrow at a target and it takes, and it can get halfway there, but you can divide that half infinitely. How will it ever traverse the space to the target? How will that happen?

Only the example that the mathematician used was a frog jumping a foot at a time, but you could always subdivide the units of measure. So if it’s an infinite number of units of measure that must be traversed, how did anything ever move? And that’s all I remember from the mathematicians talk, except that he was very lively and interesting and fun, but what I thought was, “Okay, there’s something wrong with the basic way we think about measure and about mathematics.” And I thought that was just fascinating. I had no idea what was wrong or what the right answer might have been, but I loved the question.

Philosopher and Grass Cutter

Ladelle McWhorter:

When I was younger than that, when I was 10, I used to have my chore was to cut the grass with an old push mower and I hated doing it. Of course, it was hot. It was Alabama. It was always hot. The grass was always thick because it was humid, so it grew well, and I was little. So it was a big two, two and a half hour chore and I would always ask my question to myself was, “How long will it take me to get the next step and what is now? By the time I can think the question, what is now, isn’t now gone?” So, I had the same kind of questions in my mind even as a 10 -ear-old. I contend that 10-year-olds are sometimes the best philosophers in the world.

And then, and then to hear this mathematician four or five, six years later, raise that question in a serious academic way, just delighted me. He said something about it was a philosophical question I guess and that made me think, that’s the direction to go and my parents didn’t care what I studied. They hadn’t gone to college. They believed back in the 70s, that anybody who got a college degree could do anything. Your life was going to be better than theirs just because you went to college, so it didn’t matter what you studied. They really had no idea. Never, never tried to direct me at all, so that’s what I did.

Your Professional Educational Background

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, I didn’t get any guidance for going to college. And so what I did was what my brother had done, and then what my younger sister eventually did, which was to go, expect to go, down to the little Methodist College in Birmingham. And I got a scholarship. And so that’s where I went, Birmingham Southern College. It was a good little liberal arts college in that time.

And from there, I wasn’t sure what to do. It was 1982 when I graduated, which was, until the Great Recession, the biggest recession of the 20th century. Well, this period of time, my lifetime, I guess. It didn’t seem like a good time to get a job. I considered law school, took the LSAT. Did okay, but I also took the GRE and I got a fellowship offer to Vanderbilt. I got a couple of other offers to other schools, but Vanderbilt was going to pay my full way.

So I took that and moved up to Nashville at the fall of 1982. And I thought, “Well, doesn’t matter whether I finish or not, I’ll just study some more and it’ll be fun.” And I ended up getting a job after four years. I interviewed because my whole life was kind of like that.

Well, the next step, this looks easiest to do. Not that I was a slacker, but I had no plan. All I did was at each fork in the road, I just thought, oh, that one looks more interesting than the other one. And so I ended up with two job offers or three, I guess I had three job offers when I finished or was nearly finished. That was a period of time when a lot of schools were trying to hire more women. And so I got a lot of interviews. There weren’t that many come coming out of graduate school in philosophy. Not necessarily meaning that those jobs would’ve been very hospitable once a person got there, but they needed to hire a woman. And so I had a bunch of opportunities.

And I chose one. I think I chose well, I chose to go to Truman State. I ended up there in the fall of 1986. At that time, it was called Northeast Missouri State University. It was in nowhere, Missouri… Kirksville, Missouri. And it was a wonderful first job. The school was expanding. It was modeling itself on William & Mary. It wanted to be the public liberal arts institution for the state of Missouri. So, I moved to the Midwest and they were hiring a lot. They were building a new library, had wonderful colleagues. It was three hours from an airport. It was 90 miles from a four-lane highway. It was 60 miles south of Ottumwa, Iowa. It still is, of course. So, it was remote. And for a lot of reasons difficult, it was also, as budget crunches set in through the eighties and into the nineties, it became much more difficult. I was teaching a four, four load, had a lot of students, wonderful students, but a lot.

So when I got approached about this job at the University of Richmond, I applied and I’ve been my very happy here. I’ve been here 25 years.

Book One – Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s a little bit hard for me to say exactly what “Bodies and Pleasures” is about. It’s a book about the philosophical value of the work of Michel Foucault, the philosopher I studied, did my dissertation on, a French philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984. And in the 80s, soon after his death, it was just being, I guess, disseminated in English, and there were just beginning to be American scholars paying attention to that body of work. And there was a lot of political criticism of Foucault, oftentimes from leftist thinkers because more right, rightest thinkers weren’t actually reading it yet. But the criticism, one of the main criticisms, was that the work would lead to political quietism, that it left people feeling that there was no point in doing any kind of social justice work, trying to change anything because we were all basically trapped in power networks and unable to make any difference.

And I didn’t think that was true. And I didn’t think that was true, not just because as a scholar of the material I saw other things there, but mainly I didn’t think it was true because its effect on me had not been to make me believe that there was no point in being politically active or hoping for change in the future in any way or anything like that. Quite the opposite. When I read his works, I felt like I was, for the first time, getting a real description of the world that I had lived in and saw around me. It was so thrilling, really, to see these things worked out in descriptions and analyzed in historical development for the first time in ways that I believed were really right, were true to my own experience, I should say.

So instead of feeling paralyzed by the work, I felt energized, and it was open, he doesn’t present an ethical program, here’s what we all should live, how we should live, or here’s what we should do politically. He never does that. In fact, he speaks against doing that and he says, “That’s not his place, people need to make their own decisions, but here are some tools,” he says, “Here are some tools for thinking about things. Here’s some information that you might want to consider when you try to do your own analysis of this or that situation.” I found it all really useful, and so “Bodies and Pleasures” began with that idea that, and it’s a very simple thesis. The thesis is I’m going to show you why that criticism of Foucault, the criticism that his work leads to political paralysis, is false at least in some cases. That’s an easy, simple thesis.

Of course the book does a whole lot of other things at the same time, and I think that’s why it’s been fairly popular. It talks about dealing with being lesbian. It talks about embodiment. It talks about pleasure. It talks a lot about me, not so much because I’m trying to highlight my own life story or anything, but more because I think, although I grew up believing that I was isolated and unlike anybody else in the whole world, I’ve really come to believe as an adult, that a lot of things I care about and a lot of the ways that I feel are very common. And so the book is intended to appeal to other people who might feel the same way even if they haven’t had the same exact experiences. And I think it has been able to do that pretty effectively.

I get emails even still from people in the middle of reading the book, and it’s usually while they’re in the middle, before they finish. I don’t know what that means, maybe that’s not so good, but oftentimes about two-thirds of the way through, some grad student will email me in the middle of the night and say, “I remember now why I decided I would go to grad school in philosophy.” And that’s always just really nice. You can bring your own life and your own body, your own pleasures and pains into your work in an overt way, and I think it can enrich it. Not to make it into some sort of confessional in a pejorative sense, but to make it more common, to make it more real to people. So that’s “Bodies and Pleasures.”

Line Dancing All the Way to Book Two

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other book, it’s very different to me. I think that there are some big similarities between them obviously, but the second book begins with the first book. There’s a part of “Bodies and Pleasures” near the end, where I talk about learning to dance and specifically, because I was not a good dancer. Never had been a dancer, but I wanted to learn to dance. I took up line dancing because line dancing has set rules. You just learn where to put your feet and you put your feet there, at the right time, and you got it. The upper part of your body doesn’t have to do anything except follow where those shifts of balance go.

So I thought, “Well, I can learn to do that maybe and I took it up and I began to really enjoy it.” And so the section of the book is about the process of becoming able to enjoy something through a kind of discipline, a disciplinary practice, that gave me new insights, new pleasures, and also new physical capacities; changed the way my body worked.

But the side note in that section is about buying a pair of cowboy boots and putting them on because you need slick leather soles to do line dancing and cowboy boots are the typical kind of shoes people wear, although it’s not absolutely necessary.

But anyway, so after I decided I was going to stick with the dancing, I bought this pair of cowboy boots and I talk about putting them on to go dancing and realizing I was doing something that was awfully, awfully white. Not just white, but redneck white and about how much I love those boots and how uneasy I was with the connection that I was making physically with my own rather difficult past, Alabama racism and all those things. I just left it hanging in “Bodies and Pleasures.” I never picked up the racial issue at all, except to just say that I was having those feelings when I was first getting used to the boots.

When I finished “Bodies and Pleasures,” I had my first ever sabbatical after 12 years of teaching and I had gone up to stay in a little farmhouse in Pennsylvania for a semester and do some thinking about what to do next. I had just felt like that I had poured everything I had into that book and I had no idea what to do next, except that I probably needed to follow up on that race thing.

Book Two – Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo America

Ladelle McWhorter:

It took me three years or so to figure out what angle to take on it. But the result was “Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo America.” I read a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. I read a lot about psychological and sociological studies of racism, and it really didn’t help me understand what I lived through and what I saw in the world around me. Didn’t help me understand racism very well. Finally, when I came upon some work of historians on the beginnings of the concept of whiteness as a category of human being, I thought, “Ah, this is useful.” And then I could apply my genealogical tools to it, my Foucault tools, which are about finding not necessarily… When you do a history of something, suppose you do a history of the United States.

If you do a history of the United States, then you assume at the thing they’re doing the history of was there in the whole period of history that you’re covering. So you start the United States, 1776 or 1789, or whatever you want to start it at and to the present, and that’s the history of the United States. But when you do a genealogy, you’re actually doing something that’s more like what people who do family trees do. That is you find places where the thing you’re interested in doesn’t seem to have been present or not present in the same way.

You’re really sort of looking for a time before it was born. And then you’re looking at what came together or what were the conditions that made it possible for that thing to emerge. So if you were doing a genealogy of the United States, then you look at the colonial period. You look at the forces of colonialism. You look at the economic situation that drove people in Europe to do what they did to colonize different parts of the world. You look at all of the factors that led to the colonists declaring independence. So you’re looking at the behind part of the United States, the things that came together, many of which of course are accidental. There’s no teleology in a genealogy. The odds against one of us ever being born are zillions to one, because it really just depends on so many contingencies.

Critical “Random” Events: G-Grandparents Meeting at the Asylum

Ladelle McWhorter:

I like to tell the story to my students of how my great grandparents met. They both got jobs as janitors in the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, and they met and fell in love. Now, how random is that? But had that not happened, I wouldn’t have been born and you can think of thousands and millions of other little things. If this had been different, my parents wouldn’t have met. Or if this had been different, a different child would’ve been born, not this particular person. So genealogists are interested in the things that might be accidental, the things that came together, the configurations that were formed in maybe sometimes random ways. And sometimes pointed ways and sometimes ways that look really intelligible, like almost inevitable, but also the things that weren’t inevitable at all that led to whatever it was that happened.

Racism in America

Ladelle McWhorter:

So to understand race in the United States in my lifetime, what I wanted to be able to do was to understand how it got that way, where it came from and what factors brought it about. It seems to me that in many cases, though there’s no reason to think always, if you can see what forces had to come together to create and sustain something. And if you don’t think that thing that was created and sustained is a good thing, if you know what led to them and what was necessary for that to emerge and to remain, you can begin to chip away. You can… First of all, you can get some hope, even if you don’t see how to do it. You can get some hope that thing could be dismantled, at least altered.

Beyond hope though, I think you can maybe begin to see ways that things could be made to change. That’s always the hope in a genealogical study anyway. But so I found what I thought might be a point before which there was no racism of the sort that I grew up with. And I don’t say in the book that this is a history of all kinds of racism. One of the limitations of the book is that it doesn’t… I don’t read Spanish. So I couldn’t talk at all about how race played out in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. And since the Spanish colonized this part of the world before the English did, some of those factors were already in place. I also didn’t talk at all about what was going on in the West Coast with Chinese immigrants in particular, Ronald Takaki has done some interesting work. He’s a historian. He’s talked some about race and the way that it played out in the West.

So anyway, I took these historians and I stole from them a lot of their work and ideas. A lot of the… They’re bibliographies. And I started reading all this stuff about how whiteness emerged. The colonies, of course, didn’t have white people in them. They had British people and Irish people and Scots and Germans, who didn’t see that they necessarily had anything in common. So whiteness became a unifying force and you’ve of course… The book is pretty explicit about how all this happens. I took some of the Foucault’s work on race as it developed in Europe. I found his work to be less than adequate in understanding race as it developed in North America, because he’s very focused in his work on the development of Nazism from a French perspective. Especially from his perspective, growing up being a child during the Nazi occupation of France.

Of course, what he’s interested in primarily is antisemitism. And that doesn’t quite map on to the U.S. history situation. But I modified some of his ideas and made the book out of that. So that’s racism and sexual oppression. Of course, the other thing I did of was to factor into the development of racism and white supremacy, the ways in which that got biologized in the 19th and 20th centuries and rolled into that was sexual deviation. And then eugenics. The eugenics movement in the United States and elsewhere in the world in the early 20th century and how that played out. The book goes up… I think I have little bit to say about the sixties and maybe early 70s, but the book really goes up into the 50s and that’s about where it stops.

Current Interests: Environmental Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

I tend to not stay within any field of expertise. I’m a perpetual novice. So what I’ve been interested in now for, I would say 12 years or so, I’m very interested in environmental issues. I got interested in that. Well, I’ve always been concerned, again. Hey, I was 10 the first Earth Day, and there was a time in the ’70s when it was very trendy, even in Alabama, to teach children to recycle and that sort of thing. So I grew up with that.

But I became really concerned in the early part of this century, about resource depletion. I started to read a lot of things. And then I was asked to teach environmental ethics, which I had no particular background to teach, but somebody went on sabbatical, and so I agreed to do it and I still do it. I fell in love with it in a way. I’m teaching it right now, changed the course a lot over that 12 years.

But so I’m interested in what we are facing, what our students, what my students are going to face in their lifetimes, with regard to environmental collapse, species extinction on a massive scale, climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, pollution, rates of cancer, all of those things. I’m interested in all of that.

I’m particularly interested in it from an ethical angle. I taught ethics a lot in my first job. I taught ethics two sections every semester for six years. And I said, when I took this job 25 years ago, I was never going to teach ethics again. The reason was that I felt that in teaching that many sections of ethics over that period of time, you see, have it drilled into your head, how many limitations there are in the traditions of ethics in the Western world.

Communal Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

Utilitarianism and deontology, even some of the newer traditions, it seemed to me just couldn’t get past the individualism of those traditions and these are issues that we’re confronting that we can’t confront as individuals. There’s nothing I can do about climate change as an individual. I can talk about reducing my carbon footprint, but frankly, if I killed myself today so I had no more carbon footprint, it would make absolutely no difference.

The only way to address these big environmental issues is communally together. We have to do that together and we really don’t have good ways of talking about ethical responsibility collectively, and that intrigues me.

We also don’t have good ways of talking about the value of non-human things and we don’t have very good ways of understanding, certainly the importance, the value, of systems. All those things were disruptive… This is back to the frog story, I guess. All those things are disruptive of the standard ways that we have inherited to think about how to live a good life, how to do the right thing. So, set that set of issues on one side of the table.

Rage and Excessive Individualism

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other thing that I was interested in was rage, feeling… In my own rage. But also lots of rage around me. I think I’m less enraged than many, many of people in the United States today. But I think a lot of us live with a certain oscillation between rage and despair, and I think it has to do with the feeling that we are so free and we so value freedom and our traditions. We have all kinds of rights. We have free elections. I know sometimes people talk about elections being less free than they should be, but compared to some of the places in the world, we have tremendous freedom and we’re safer than so many millions of people in the world to act on our own values.

And yet, when we go to the store to buy something, or we go to the polling booth to vote for somebody, I think that there’s a lot of frustration a lot of people experience. Because, yeah, I have this range of options and nobody’s telling me what to do. I can make my own decisions. And yet I still feel trapped. I’m not always very happy with the candidates on the ballot, whatever party.

I went to the store to buy toilet paper, and I’ve read about one company cutting down old growth forests to make their paper products, and I’ve also read about an other company that is owned by some very wealthy men who fund terrible anti-democratic, anti-poverty… I mean, not anti-poverty in a good way, but they fund things, political things that hurt lots and lots of people. And their company makes the other brand, and then there’s a third brand, and I’m not sure what I know about that company. And I’m standing in the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store feeling like I’ve got this momentous political decision that I have to make, and I don’t know what to do. And it’s all about toilet paper.

People who want to do the right thing feel frustrated. And good people who want to do the right thing, who are continually frustrated, fall into despair. And one of the things that they do is they give up and they just say, “I can’t. I can’t. What difference does it make what I do? I’ll just do whatever.” Most of the time they don’t feel good about that, so they walk around feeling bad. Sometimes what people do is they get really angry, and they don’t necessarily understand why they’re so angry, but they’re really angry.

And I know that you can’t explain mass shootings and road rage on the basis of this description, but I just see the level of rage increasing in our society over the last few decades. And I think, on the one hand, you have to condemn the things that people do when they’re having road rage episodes, or when they’re pointing a gun at somebody. But on the other hand, I feel kind of sorry. I see some of these things as just the extreme expression of what so many of us live with every day. And I was thinking about this.

So, I’m willing to say, at least for the sake of argument, that we are the freest people on Earth in this country. We certainly are freer than the vast majority of people. We have more options, we have more resources. If we feel that way, something’s really wrong. If I feel that way… I’m better off than most people in this country. What’s wrong? What’s wrong with the way that we’re thinking about what it means to do the right thing that’s making it impossible for us to ever feel that we’re doing the right thing? We’re always choosing the lesser of evils.

So putting those two things side-by-side, we can’t deal with some of the major problems we’re facing as a society unless we deal with it collectively or communally, and we’re experiencing as individuals… I certainly am. I know I can’t speak for others, but I really think that there’s something to this. Feeling enraged and impotent, feeling like we can’t be good people because of how we understand what it is to be good people. It’s my responsibility to make the decision about the toilet paper. It’s my responsibility to make the decision about who’s going to be the next president. My responsibility to take care of all these things, to take care of myself, to do a good job. I’m not supposed to ask for help.

We don’t think, as a society, I’m saying, I think, we don’t have much use for people in need anymore. There’s been a kind of discourse of disparagement of people in poverty for years. Now we see it with people who are fleeing war, famine. We don’t think it’s okay for us to ask for help, we certainly don’t like it when people ask us for help. So it’s a very individualistic society and I think we suffer, as individuals, we have what I would call ethical anguish. That’s a kind of suffering that goes unrecognized, and it adds to the stress of all the other things that we deal with. So I want to write a book about that, and of course that’s a huge, vague blob of a problem. Of course, so is race a huge, vague blob of a problem when I was first starting that.

What is a person?

Ladelle McWhorter:

So the angle that I have found I’m taking on it is the question of what is a person? Because I’m a person, right? And it is as a person that I’m supposed to be ethical, as a person that I’m supposed to be good and do the right thing. I’m responsible for me, this person. Well, what is a person? And so I started to do research, this genealogical thing I was talking about. Have people always been persons? What exactly does that mean? And I’ve found some really interesting stuff about where the notion of personhood came from, when it arose, what it’s connected with, what kinds of investments it has, what props it up, what it props up. And I’m on my way to thinking yeah, maybe the problem, one of the problems that keeps us from being able to work together to deal with big issues, and that keeps us feeling impotent and frustrated and sometimes enraged as individuals in our little private lives that somehow that’s all connected with the notion that we are persons. And if I can dislodge some of the stuff that goes with that, interrupt some of the dynamic that holds that thought in place, maybe we can find another way to think about ethics. So that’s my project.

Does reason exist? What is it?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, I always have to put on my genealogy hat. Yes. My first answer is yes, reason exists, but I also want to say that reason is something that exists differently in different times and places and it can change. And the way I would think of it is this, reasoning, I guess I would say, currently the way I understand reasoning is that it is a set of techniques and principles for how we judge something to count as evidence and how we move from things that we count as evidence to a conclusion.

And I think that in that sense, if you define it that way, reason exists with every group of humans, they all have some way of making judgements based on some kind of evidence. But how that has worked, how that does work, can be very different. It’s very different in different fields, obviously, and it’s very different cross-culturally and it’s been different historically.

I, at one point read a whole bunch of transcripts from European witch trials, from the inquisition trials, and standards of evidence for witch trials of course, have been parodied by Monty Python, but they really are different standards of evidence. And they weren’t made up for the witch trials just so that the inquisition could convict a bunch of people of witchcraft. Those were really the standards of evidence and used in courts, in Canon Courts, at least, pretty much across the board in Europe, then with some alterations.

So what we count as evidence that can lead to a conclusion can vary tremendously. Foucault talks about what he calls regimes of truth or sometimes he calls them regimes of verification. So how we think about what connects to what in order to give us what answer, depends upon that regime, just like grammar. So how the grammar, the way we speak particular language is governed by a whole set of principles, which we learn to speak without being aware of and which many people never really master, and yet they can speak perfectly well, whatever languages it is that they speak. Same is true of reason, I think that we grow up with a particular regime, a grammar of thinking, and that enables us to function.

So on the one hand, if you define reason the way I just did, of course, there’s reason. Of course, there’s always been reason here and there. But reason in the way that the Enlightenment thinkers thought about it, rationality, some faculty of the mind or property of… It’s a timeless, logical functioning. I don’t think there is that.

I don’t like to make statements like that because you can’t prove that. But on the other hand, you can show that what people think reason is, has changed dramatically over time. So I feel more comfortable with that kind of empirical claim than with the categorical claim that there is no trans-historical timeless reason. But I tend to think that there isn’t.

What is the law of noncontradiction? Is it valid?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It does seem to me, I mean I certainly, when I think about this logically, can something both be and not be, is the way that I was taught to state the law of non-contradiction. Can a thing both be and not be at the same time? It seems to me pretty obvious that the answer is no.

On the other hand, I once asked, when I was a freshman in college, my brother came to visit me at college and I said to him, “Can you think of any justification for the law of non-contradiction?” And, he just said, “People who ask questions like that get locked up. That’s just a ridiculous thing to ask.” Well, of course, I’m going to ask a question if that’s the answer I get! You don’t let go of a question if people won’t answer you. So you can’t give a justification, it has to be a self-evident truth. So you can’t ask, can the law of, for what reason should we believe the law of non-contradiction? It is what Wittgenstein calls bedrock.

On the other hand, I have been reading some physics over the last few years. Part of my interest in environmental philosophy is also an interest in science. I’ve always loved science but I’m never very good at math so I couldn’t do much with it. But I read several books by physicist over the last few years. Very interested in that and trying to grapple with quantum physics. It does seem that in some cases they are saying that there are things that can both be and not be. So, my brother was probably just too quick to dismiss that question.

What is a paradox? What’s its role in relation to reason?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t know. When I read this question, I wasn’t quite sure how I would answer the question of what is paradox. It’s a lot like self-contradiction, conceptual self-contradiction, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sometimes a paradox helps you find your way out of something, so paradox can be really useful. It can be a useful part of thinking.

I think that the paradoxes are often used in Buddhist thinking, are they not? To one, is I think it’s an exercise in humility. There are things I just can’t get my mind around. The other is I think it’s a way of breaking into a concept, causing you to want to question a concept.

I think people tend to love paradoxes, whereas people don’t really love self-contradiction. Yeah. So I don’t know if I have a whole lot else to say about it.

What is a self-referential contradiction? Do they bother you?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, that’s an important one in studying Foucault. A lot of criticisms of Foucault have said, “Well, he’s saying that there is… That nothing is transcendental.” There’s no ultimate stability. No ontological stability. Or he’s saying that there is nothing that is absolutely true. It’s another way that criticism gets run. And that would be a very bad thing. If a person says, “I know there is no truth,” they’re making a truth claim and that is clearly self-referentially fallacious. Right? You just can’t say things a like that. And that’s the rules of our regime of truth. And I’m going to abide by them. I think that when somebody makes a claim like that, they’re just out of line. I don’t… I shy away from any sort of absolute claim like that. I don’t know. And I really, and I do mean this, I don’t know if there’s anything that’s absolutely constant. If there’s anything that’s universal, if there’s anything that’s transhistorical, transcendental.

When I approach a problem, my approach takes as an assumption that the thing I’m interested in, the problem, is something that is historically emergent. If it turns out that I can’t find out how, then I’m likely to abandon that quest, that problem. But that doesn’t mean that I have proved or disproved that it is transhistorical or transcendental or universal or any of those things. So I don’t think… I would not want to commit that fallacy of making a claim that there is no such thing as a universal and that’s universally true or whatever. Yeah. I think that’s a sophomoric mistake.

Perspectives Concerning Truth: What is objectivity and subjectivity? Immanuel Kant

Ladelle McWhorter:

The concepts the way they function now really go back to Kant. So they go back to the late 18th century, early 19th century. The idea that the mind is very complex, Kant gives us a very complex account of the human mind and philosophers prior to that, didn’t really worry about that too much. And he talks about how we can’t know how the world absolutely is in itself because we’re perceiving it and we process what we perceive through this very complex mental machinery. The thing is that we all have the same mental machinery, and so we process things in roughly the same ways. And as a result, we get an objective world that everybody recognizes and can talk about and can make truth claims about. And he calls that the phenomenal world or phenomenal realm.

It may or may not be identical with the way things are in themselves, but we can’t ever get outside our own limited mentality or even outside our own physical perceptual systems to be able to compare those two things, but it all works out because we’re all basically the same mentally speaking. So on that model, there is objectivity. Objectivity is a communal production of finite rationality. All of rational minds together will come up with the same basic ideas about what the world looks like.

Then given that there’s objectivity, the subject, the perceiver, the thinker can be unbiased. That is, if you work really hard at it, you’re careful about how you think through things and you follow rules and you make good observations, then you will come to the same basic conclusions that other people doing that will come to. But if you don’t follow the rules, if you let things get in the way, particularly for Kant, those would be passions or bodily desires or things like that. If you let that get in the way of your thinking, then you will come to what we, I think would now call a subjective conclusion. One that’s not quite accurate, that’s biased by your own particular perspective. Not sufficiently rationally processed you might say.

So truth for Kant, truth as it functions in scientific discourse, and he’s very interested in making sure that we can have science. We can all agree on some kind of objective world. We can do experiments. We come up with conclusions that work and all that. So truth for Kant is that there are ultimate truths that may be beyond us. There may be a God, Kant believed in God but Kant never claimed to know that there was a God, no proofs of God with Kant.

So we can’t know whether there’s a God. We can’t know whether there’s free will. We can’t know anything about whether the world had a beginning or an end, those sorts of things. But we can have objectivity and so we can make truth claims, and so we can have science and all of that.

Post-Darwinian Considerations: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Ladelle McWhorter:

I, being a post-Darwinian thinker, have some skepticism about Kant’s claims about the universality of human mentality. I’m not sure that we all operate in the same way, or certainly that we all have always operated in the same way, mentally speaking, and that human beings, should we manage to get through these environmental crises and live for thousands and millions of more years, that in the future, people who are successors will have the same mental apparatus that we have.

So I think that you have to throw in a little bit of Darwinian temporality into Kant’s view. And once you do that, then you can’t quite make the same distinction that he wants to make between objectivity and subjectivity. So that’s the truth question. Truth becomes then relative to the historical development of human mentality. I’m not sure that I want to say that’s all it’s relative to, but you can still say that there is truth because you can still say that there are common markers of what’s going to count as truth. Beauty, Kant had a lot of trouble with beauty, wrote a whole book about it, well, more than one actually, more than one book about it. I’m not really worried about beauty much because people don’t fight over it that much. So it’s okay with me for people to have different standards, and nothing huge usually hangs on it except NEH funding, maybe. NEA funding.

So I wouldn’t say that there’s a capital B Beauty or that we need to worry about whether there is, even though certainly some philosophers have, historically. And the third category was not the American way. What’s the third category?

Doug Monroe:

Probably goodness.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Goodness. Right. Yeah. I don’t think there’s a universal absolute good either. I don’t know what it is if there is, but I do think that, I think that we can make comparisons, and I think that we can come to agreement about things, and I think that we can create, creating together, I think collectively creating goodness. If I have an ethical value that I would put foremost, it would be something like openness to creativity. So yeah, I guess I’m pretty skeptical about capital T Truth, Beauty and Goodness, but I’m not despairing about any of them.

Do all human beings rely on faith?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Insofar as we don’t know very much, sure. David Hume said if you didn’t have faith, then you wouldn’t be able to take the next step. Literally he meant on the floor. You have faith at the floor, it will hold your weight. Yeah, if we take faith in that sense, of course, we have to operate with faith. Knowledge is really incredibly limited, and especially when you think about whether the things that you know are things that you know from your own experimentation and reason, or that you’ve taken it on faith from people you think are credible.

Most of the things we claim to know are the latter things. We have faith in each other, and oftentimes that’s well placed on that sense, but if, by faith you mean faith in some overseeing power, that things are going to be okay, somebody’s taking care of us, I don’t think we have to have that to live good lives. I think a lot of people do have that who live good lives. But I think it’s possible, unlike some of the Enlightenment thinkers, I do think it’s possible for a person to live well, and happily, and communally be good to other people without thinking that some intelligent being is ordering things and taking care of us.

What is the mind, and how does it work?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, it’s fascinating. And there’s so much is unknown. I expect if civilization does not collapse in the next hundred years, I expect that human beings are going to learn so much more about mentality and consciousness in the next few decades. It’s going to be amazing. I believe that, and this is faith, because I certainly don’t know this from experimentation and empirical study, but I believe that neurological systems, whole bodies, but in particular neurological systems, are actually generating the processes of mentality. I don’t think that they are determinant in the way that some people used to think of that we are just caused to think exactly what we think do exactly what we do.

I’ve been reading some systems theory. I’m trying to really get a good understanding of what systems theorists do. And one of… I’ve been reading about self organizing systems, and I’ve also been reading about open systems. Closed systems, basically repeat what they do. Open systems are able to maintain some kind of systemic integrity at the same time, constantly being interrupted, altered by things beyond the systemic functioning. I think mentality must work something like that. Very, very, very complex dynamic neurological system that’s open. It has to be open. There’s no way that we could perceive and interact if that weren’t the case. That means that it’s never a system in equilibrium. It’s always in disequilibrium. And it’s always at the same time, has some kind of resilience, some kind of plasticity, I guess, is the right word.

I often think about this in relation to other sorts of beings. I spent one afternoon trying to imagine what it was like to be a house fly. What sort of mentality that must be. I mean, it must be… I mean, they have a neurological system. They respond much faster than I do to all kinds of stimuli. So there’s mentality there. There’s some kind of processing. The more complex, or at least larger the system is, larger seems to be a real key, and more integrated the system is, the more it seems to be open to possibilities of being affected. And then when affected, there seems to be some kind of gap between. And this… I’m not giving you a very good answer, I’m afraid.

When there is a stimulus and a response, we say there’s an instinct or reflex. So what must be happening with mentality is that there is a stimulus, and then there is a gap, pause, a break, something before the response. Now, how would that be happening in a system that’s constantly in operation. Some way that happens. Some kind of break in the process that enables some other operation of the system to pause and then allow memory, experiences to be brought to bear. So there’s not an immediate response. So thinking, it seems to me, must be something like stuttering.

What is naturalism or atheism? Is the diagram a good representation? Show the Diagram

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

What is naturalism or atheism? Is the diagram below a good representation? I don’t know the answer to that.

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t know either. I would probably be happier if we used some kind of term like materialism than naturalism, just because I think of naturalism as having a certain set of historical references that I would not necessarily want to be connected with. So does materialism, but I think it has a new set of references that are just coming into play that I am interested in connecting with. So could you say the question again?

Doug Monroe:

Just what is naturalism? Or if you were to define, say your personal atheism.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. Okay.

Doug Monroe:

That might be a good way to go.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, that’s a good way to go. Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. How do you think about that?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. Well, one of the-

Doug Monroe:

I can tell you’re thinking way out there and I don’t see the edge limits to your thought.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, well, that’s probably because I don’t either. Not yet.

Please explain your materialism? Do you start with mind or matter?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I mean, this is part of the new era. This is part of trying to think about some of the environmental issues and get a grasp on the science. So, this is not stuff I’m necessarily sure of in the way that I feel sure of some of the things in the books. So, I think that for a long time, people in the West thought of mind and matter as two separate things, since Descartes at least, and we might go further back than that. But certainly with Descartes, we get mentality is something that is immaterial and matter is something that is non-mental and the twain don’t meet very well. And Descartes had a hard time explaining how they ever possibly could in a human life.

I think that a lot of people focus then on explaining what mentality was, but it might be better to try to rethink matter. And I think a lot of philosophers are doing that right now, trying to rethink matter. And they’re doing it partly because they’re taking some cues from physics, 20th century physics just blows apart our conceptions of matter from the enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. I think a lot of people in the humanities and a lot of people on the street still have… We’ve inherited that view of matter from the Scientific Revolution. We still think of it that way. And that’s just not what physicists are up to anymore. That’s not even what biologists are up to anymore. So, if we think about matter differently, how would we think about it?

Well, it’s not inert. It’s not that it requires mentality to move it, which was a basic idea in the early modern philosophy that matter was immobile. It was absolutely unable to do anything itself. But matter does seem to be self-organizing. And I don’t know why. What I read suggests to me that I need to understand a lot more about electricity and magnetism because molecules seem to form because of polarizations and so on. So, if I understood that better, I might be able to give a better account. But so there seems to be something that’s dynamic. Also, some of the ways we understand causality, stemming from Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, that period of time, the point at which Aristotelian categories of causality dropped out definitively from scientific thought. They remained or at least parts of them remained in play into the 17th century.

Leibniz, for example, one of the two inventors of calculus said that he still held on to final causes, as well as material causes. And Aristotle had four causes and Leibniz held two or three of them. But they drop out and the only cause that’s left is what we now think of as cause, that’s a cause. But electricity doesn’t behave in the way that it should. If that causality holds, it does all kinds of things that are really weird. I’ve seen pictures of lightning. Have you seen any of these pictures of lightning? If you haven’t, you should Google it. So, they’ve got photography now of lightning. We think of lightning as coming from a cloud and hitting the ground, but it now seems to be the case that the ground begins to reach up, the polarity shift in the earth and attract the lightning from the cloud.

It happens very fast, of course, but if you could see it, you would know where the lightning was going to strike. So, causality is not linear in the way that we’ve been taught to think and that we just assume. It’s also not temporal in the way that we’ve been taught to think, at least not on a quantum level. Temporality doesn’t work the way… Like there is now and then there is the second after now, and the second, second after now, I don’t understand this very well because this is high-level physics and it requires mathematics, I think, to really understand what’s going on, and I just don’t have that. So, it seems that if we pay attention to the science at that level, at a quantum level, linearity and linear temporality fall-

Can science still talk about causality?

Ladelle McWhorter:

We can’t talk about causality as we used to. So then the question becomes, at what level of systemic complexity do things begin to look like they do to us? How far up the self-organization of matter does it take for things to get big enough and slow enough that they look like they obey the laws that we have thought that they did. Okay. So if we rethink matters dynamic, as self-organizing as not bound by linear causality and linear temporality. Then I think it becomes much easier to think that at some level of complexity, matter can organize itself in ways that have mental effects. So that’s the way I think about what the world must be. Now, that’s all Ontology and I’m skeptical of Ontology because I’m a Genealogist. So I know that these concepts and these set of mathematical and scientific theories is also supercedable. I mean, scientists would tell you that too. Maybe it’s a new kind of regime of truth that’s forming. A new way of understanding evidence and a new way of understanding reason.

It’s very exciting to me. So I would say, if I had to commit to some kind of ontological truth, if I had to say this is the way the world is, I would say it’s probably something like that. But I can’t actually commit to that for two reasons. One is it’s out of my field, so I don’t have any business making a… a definitive statement. And because as a philosopher, I feel committed to the notion that unless there’s definitive proof, otherwise we should treat things as historical. So we treat the way that we think our concepts is historical, so mind must be too.

What is postmodernism?

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, the term actually comes out of architecture and I’m not sure exactly… it had to do with architectural style, but it got picked up by a lot of other people. My understanding of it and this could be… I don’t think this is idiosyncratic but this might not be universal. But my understanding of it is that the only way to understand postmodernism is to talk about modernism, and modernism philosophically I think basically means from Kant forward. So I would say that whole description that I gave before of Kant’s notion of mentality and the world is it sets the conditions for what we think of as modernism. So the idea that there are limits to what we can know, but we can have objectivity, we can have science and we can also have… Kant certainly believed in ethical, which was another thing that is basically a result of the way human beings think.

So we get a subject/object dichotomy, but it’s a very complex relationship between the subject and the object. Those are part of modernism. There’s a kind of optimism that goes along with the Scientific Revolution and filters through all of modernism, the optimism of progress we’re getting better, we’re getting more moral, we’re getting technologically obviously better, we’re learning more, science is cumulative, there’re no reversals and I think all of those things came into question in the late 20th century. The notion of progress, moral progress, scientific progress, technological progress, all of those things came into question. Not that people have given up believing that there is, that progress is kind of inevitable. I find that my students believe that, they’re a little worried about it but they tend to believe it. People think we’re better than people were back in the middle ages when they executed witches, those sorts of things.

But I think that bringing into question the notion that progress is inevitable, that civilization is marching on is one of the definitive aspects of postmodernism. Another is bringing into question that subject object dichotomy, both as a dichotomy is two different things, and also as two things that can interact given the conditions of their difference. So there’s a lot of questioning of objectivity, there’s a lot of questioning of subjectivity. And you’ve probably heard some of these things, The Death of the Author for example, some people say Foucault says there’s no such thing as a subjectivity, but actually that’s a misreading. He believes that there is subjectivity, but that subjectivity is historically shaped. Not that it’s not real, but that it’s historically shaped. So I would say that postmodernism is a kind of questioning of modernism, it doesn’t necessarily have any of its own particular views which is one of the reasons people find it harder to find and find it confusing. There’s a lot of interrogation of assumptions.

What about deconstruction?

Ladelle McWhorter:

The other thing is that many postmodernists are aware that if you get really deep in your interrogation of subjectivity or objectivity or anything else, you run into this problem that we were talking about before of the self-referential fallacy. So how can I question you if what I’m questioning is the notion that there is truth, right? How can I do that? Well, of course you can’t do that, given the techniques of analysis and the regimes of truth that have been built up through the last several hundred years. And so a bunch of different, often called reading techniques have been developed. Deconstruction is one, genealogy is actually one, but it’s a bit different. It’s in response to some different things.

So a lot of people see those things as sort of tricks. They’re playing with language and so on, and they do. They play with language. A lot of the best of that work, and there’s a lot of crappy work that gets called post-modernists, I’ll be the first to admit that, but the best of that work is actually trying to invent new techniques of analysis in order not to fall into what they see as the modernist traps, the analytic traps that modernism developed by making the analytic assumptions that it did. So I would say post modernism is simply post in that it is a critique of a set of assumptions, values and intellectual procedures that took shape in the very late 18th century through the 19th century and about half of the 20th century.

You identify as a post-structuralist thinker. Please explain.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Structuralism was a way of thinking that was developed. First of all, I think it was developed in linguistics and in anthropology. When you study language or you study culture, one way to study it is by studying individual people, how they speak or how they relate to each other, what rituals they have, and so on. The structuralists were skeptical of some of those techniques in anthropology and linguistics. They were interested more in looking at language as systems rather than language as a bunch of speakers. And so if you look at a language as a system, how does that system work quite apart from who speaks it? Same about cultures, how does this culture work rather than how do these people act? It was a sort of a radical excision of subjectivity in attempt to look at a system without thinking about it in terms of the subjects who were enacting it.

And that was a very successful movement for around the middle of the 20th century. Claude Levi-Strass, who wrote “Structure of Kinship Systems,” that was a major work of structuralism and anthropology. And he was looking at the incest taboo, assuming it was universal, and that it gave structure to every culture, but it did give different structures to different cultures. In the probably, in the 60s, I guess, there started some new studies that suggest that this way of thinking about structure without thinking about people with seen structures as a sort of self-perpetuating, that there were some problems with that. And in fact, it was ridiculed to some extent, as universalistic, leaving out human play. The way we play with language, the way cultures invent, they don’t stay timeless, they change because of things people do, repetitions are never repetition of the same, all stuff like that.

So anyway, so Foucault and a few other thinkers began to call themselves post-structuralists because they were interested in structures and self-organizing structures, much in the way that I was talking about self-organizing systems of materiality, they were interested in self-organizing structures, but they were also interested in the open-endedness, the play in the systems, the changeability, the points at which systems of languages are systems of culture, systems power, systems of government, whatever it might be, the point at which those can break down and alter, transform dramatically.

Whereas the structuralists just assumed that structures were relatively stable and relatively universal. The post-structuralists began to say, “Yeah, the structures are really interesting, but we also see them falling apart.”

And so Foucault’s early work, not his earliest work, but his pretty early work, the stuff he became famous for in the 60s, was looking at the collapse of… Collapse is too strong a word. The sudden reconfigurations of linguistic structures, economic structures, and natural structures systems.

So he wrote this book called “The Order of Things,’ and it’s really about how orders can, at certain points, just reform themselves. And to his surprise, he thought he was writing a book with very limited appeal, a bit erudite. To his surprise, it was a very big seller in France, and it ended up getting translated into a lot of languages.

How Systems Change – Paradigm Shifts

Ladelle McWhorter:

You might be familiar with or a lot of people might be more familiar with the book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” that came out in 1960 or ’61, which was a work of history in the United States talking about how scientific revolutions often don’t actually build on the past. They’re not natural accumulations that result in a new theory being devised that better fits the data.

And sometimes even the new theory that’s proposed it has less scientific support than what it’s trying to displace, but there’s political activity. And then some people die and, they don’t get to purport their theory anymore. So, that book looks at how science can transform. Not that it has no credibility, because it’s just a free for all with different people vying to promote their own theory, but how it’s development actually isn’t rationally structured at every juncture.

So there’s a difference between what gets called in that book normal science, which is just building on and building on and coming up with better data and so on, and then these ruptures that are revolutions or something close to that anyway. And then we get a different kind of theoretical framework for analyzing some of the same data. And that also gives us some new data.

That is in the same vein as some of Foucault’s early work. So what is it that happens when these systems reconfigure at these junctures? Foucault is very interested in this. Why does it look like that systems reconfigure in different fields… He was just looking at different fields of knowledge at that time. How is it that they seem to reconfigure at about the same time? And he looks particularly at about the year 1800 when we moved from natural history to the science of biology right around that time.

At the same time there was a move from analysis of wealth to political economy and a move from philology. Well, no prior to philology from grammar, I guess, different kinds of grammar to linguistics. Those fields emerged in the 19th century and in a couple of decades, within a couple of decades of each other. Why does so much important knowledge reconfigure at about the same time?

He didn’t answer the question of why he just showed in that book that it had seemed to happen that way. In some of his other works he’s much more interested in the conditions, the possibility of such transformations. So, that’s why it would be called post-structuralist. I use the term for myself just because Foucault did I don’t have a good label because I’m a perpetual novice.

Doug Monroe:

I’m going to try and answer that question.

How did Foucault feel about power?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s hard in a way, because I think to some extent, the word “power” is a kind of placeholder or shorthand, but let me approach it from a different angle… I’m going to talk about it in a way that Foucault didn’t, but he’s now been dead for a long time, so we’re allowed. So when I’m thinking in terms of systems, and I’m thinking in terms of systems as being dynamic, whether we’re talking about conceptual systems or material systems, or more specifically whether economic systems or discourse is in particular fields of study or something…

Anything that’s dynamic of course has to have certain amount of energy. And it’s made up of forces’ in tension with each other. You could say that language is that way, that it’s a system of signs that are in tension with each other, antonyms and synonyms and so on. In relationships, things are held together because of tensions and things are moved around because of forces and energy. I’m speaking in very general terms, but I think of power as being something more like that, that which enables, that which powers, motors things. Not in the sense of authority or I can’t think of another good word for it. But it’s like a bully. Somebody who’s going to make you do things or weaponry or something like that. Power can take those forms too. But when I think of power, I think of it very generally as something more like energy or capacity to do ability, something like that.

And I think that’s the case with Foucault’s work, although I think Foucault also wasn’t sure how to think about power. There’s a lot of exploration and experimentation in some of his work in the late 70s when he was writing about sexuality and the little bit of writing he did about race. He wrote about power a lot during that period, and he was trying to think of it as not… He was trying to rid himself of the Marxist notion of power that he had inherited from his own education in France in the first half of the twentieth century, where power is held by some people and exercised over other people who are relatively, at least powerless. He didn’t want to see power as something that one group held in another group lacked. He thought that was a bad model of power. He called that sovereign power or juridical power sometimes. And he said that just doesn’t explain anything. It’s not a helpful way of thinking about power.

So he experimented with these other ways of thinking about it. He tried to think about it on the model of war. He eventually rejects war of all against all, sort of Hobbesian war. He rejects that eventually. He begins to talk about it as more like I was, forces in tension.

Foucault, “Governmentality,” and Power

Ladelle McWhorter:

Eventually he stops really talking about power and begins to talk about governmentality, which means, attempts to affect people’s conduct. Conduct on conduct. Then you can talk about how parents guide and discipline children as being a form of governmentality. It is a long series of exercises and relationships of power, if you want to use his older language. It doesn’t have to be something bad, and in fact, we can’t really do without it. You can’t imagine a world in which there was no forces intentional with each other. It wouldn’t be possible to live. Power is a placeholder in a sense, in that it is an attempt to inject, just as history is an attempt to inject into that older enlightenment way of thinking. Something that will make things seem less stable and inevitable, and absolute. But it really forces intention.

So things can be reconfigured. Those terms are more like levers to begin to move things that look immobile. So I wouldn’t put a lot of emphasis on the word power. I like to use other words like dynamic or forces or tensions or things like that. Sometimes of course, Foucault did talk about domination and power in the way that we think of it, like the oppression of a minority and a dictatorship or something like that, a regime that under which people are so disempowered that they don’t have any options for living. I mean, he did talk about power in that way too, but he said that was an extreme form, a congealing of a dynamic power that was no longer able to be to be disrupted from within. And he said, those are really rare cases.

How do you think about mortality?

Ladelle McWhorter:

It’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard. And I said earlier that I got very frustrated when I was teaching ethics, so much. In the early part of my career, I got very frustrated with the tradition. It seemed inadequate to me. I was teaching, among other students, I was teaching a lot of nursing students. The nursing program at that university required their students to take an ethics course.

Nursing students deal with real life situations of life and death, and they have to make split second decisions. How was I going to help them? How was the utilitarian calculus going to be of use to a nurse trying to decide whether to revive a baby that’s two months, two minutes old and hasn’t breathed? You know…

The real life situations don’t seem to me to fit very easily into the systems of rational, ethical thought that we’ve inherited. So for a long time, I just didn’t want to talk about ethics, and I just sort of muddled through life. I do have a strong sense of justice, which I inherited from my parents. And for a long time, I had no justification whatsoever for that. I just, I guess, as you would say, acted on faith.

Charles Scott on Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

More in the last couple of decades I guess, I have begun to think about ethics in a different way. And part of this has to do with some work that my dissertation director did in a couple of his books, on a book he wrote called “The Question of Ethics.” His name is Charles Scott. And for a long time it was my very favorite book, but then he wrote another one that I really liked too.

Anyway, one of the things he talks about in that book is the word ethics. It comes from ethos, from Greek. And it used to mean in Greek, it meant something more like a way of life. It didn’t mean something like we think of now, professional ethics, a set of rules that you follow. And it didn’t just mean like not cheating or whatever. It was a deliberate way of life. It was a reflective way of life. And it might be any way of life.

The ancient Stoics or the ancient cynics or the Epicureans. They had different ways of life, but each one was an ethos. It was a way of conducting your life within a set of relationships. Usually those were usually communities, precursors to monasteries and convents I guess, only not as rigid.

So I started thinking about ethics that way. And Foucault talks about that. He took a lot of his ideas about ethics from a colleague of his, a classical scholar named Pierre Haddo. He was a bit younger than Foucault and still teaches at the College de France I believe. He may be retired now, but he’s written a lot about the ancient, the Hellenistic philosophers and their ways of life. He talks about philosophy as a way of life in the ancient world. It wasn’t a set of theories. It wasn’t a set of truth claims or principles. It really was a whole way of being, and I like that.

And I think that helps us get away from thinking about, am I doing the right thing in the toilet paper aisle, but rather what is the nature of my projects, my undertakings, my relationships day to day, but month to month, year to year? How do I want to shape my life? Not just a career, but all of those things. We could talk about it as an art of existence. Can I not make my life a work of art? And he joked about that a little bit, because of course you can get pretty self-absorbed if you do that. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about when I think about… And because of my age. I suppose in the last 10 years or 20 years, first, my friend’s parents were dying. I was going to funerals. Occasionally a person’s child would die.

Begin with the End in Mind

Ladelle McWhorter:

A few people my age died and then as we get older these things happen. I’ve been to a lot of funerals. And one of the ways to think about what kind of a life… What is an art of existence, is to think about what gets said in those contexts. I’ve never been to two funerals that were the same, and I’ve been to many funerals that I left feeling like I wish I had known that person better. But there was really a coherent and beautiful life and it was well done. You walk out of some funerals and you just think that person… It was well done. Not the funeral, the life.

The one way to get a grip on this is to start thinking about it that way, in retrospect. What would I want to be able to be said of me, not that anyone will, I don’t have any idea what circumstances I’ll die and if anybody I know will still be left, but what do I hope will be able to be said about me? Not that anyone’s life can ever be summed up. That is just, I think, absolutely impossible. We’re too complex. And people’s memories tend to create narrative where there really wasn’t a narrative. But what kind of a person do I want to have been?

And there are some answers I have to that. I don’t have very good answers about what to purchase or who to vote for, but I do have some pretty good answers to what kind of life I want to have now. I want to have pleasure. I want to have openness and I don’t think you can be open if you’re arrogant. I want to be remembered as a kind person. I’m not a terribly generous person by nature so I work on that. I think I’m much more generous with time and ideas than I am with material resources, so I work on that.

The other aspect of this that Foucault talks about is he says, it’s the selfs relation with itself, so there has to be this reflection. A person who lives a life that in the end you can make comments about, good or bad, may or may not have lived an ethical life if they never reflected on what they’re… Some people they just go through and they do things and they don’t think about it. And sometimes that turns out great. And sometimes it’s terrible. But it’s not an ethical life unless it’s been reflected on and refined, and to some extent worked on. Not worked on in self sacrificial ways or painful ways. I don’t think that guilty self flagellation is very valuable. Some people do. There are those ways of life too, but not for me.

But I think that you have to ask yourself, “Am I exemplifying the traits that I think are valuable? Am I using the little bit of time we all have to do the things that really matter to me? Am I having enough fun or am I enraged all the time? And if I’m enraged all the time, why?” I think we have to ask ourselves those questions on a pretty regular basis. The result’s got to be creative because I don’t think we’ve got a whole lot of rules. And I think that the world is changing so fast that even if we had a whole lot of rules, we might find that they didn’t work.

Bloopers – What duty/virtues? The Smart Ass Redneck

Doug Monroe:

All right. I want to get a little more Foucault, okay? A little more focused Foucault. Maybe three or four questions, if that’s okay. And then we’ll move into the concluding part.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay?

Doug Monroe:

So for the people who don’t know who Mike, Michel Foucault… I have Michael here, but it’s Michel.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. It’s Michel. It’s Michael in French. Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

I would say… Okay. And I’ve read a fair amount. I’m very well read in secondary reading, but not in primary. So I’m the dangerous type.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Depends on which secondary readings you’ve done.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, really, but I’m all over the map. So, but who was Michael Foucault and what is his importance as a philosopher to the average person?

What duty/virtues calculus? Choose what?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I don’t want to choose, cause there are times when I have to. I was talking with a friend yesterday on Skype about this. We were reading a book together called “Carceral Humanitarianism” by Kelly Oliver and in that book, she talks about you can’t really calculate, you can’t weigh one life against other lives. That one person’s mourning a death is as serious as a nuclear war over here. And my friend Todd was just very upset about that. He said, “Of course you can make these,” and I was talking about this movie, I’d seen about these two young soldiers who were being told to activate a drone, to make a drone strike in a village. And they had people on the ground and they knew what their target was and it was in the right place.

And they were trying to do a whole bunch of things undercover to get other people out of the way. But there was this one child who was still in the blast zone and they were getting the order to make the hit. And they were both sitting there crying and they delayed. I mean, this is just a movie, so the two young soldiers delayed and delayed and they finally did it and the child was injured severely and ended up dying. But so it was terrible, but everybody along the line had to make a decision. And the poor two soldiers, two young kids sitting in this control booth had to, you have to sometimes calculate, you have to, and they didn’t control the whole calculus of course a lot of decisions had been made before they were sitting there.

So I do think that you have to use utilitarian calculus sometimes you just don’t have any other choice. Alasdair MacIntyre was one of my teachers in grad school he was at Vanderbilt when I was. So I’m familiar with his work and the problem with that was, and everybody knows this about it and he knew it too. The problem is that he doesn’t give people ground to stand on to criticize their own community’s values and that doesn’t resonate well with me, as you can imagine. Since I grew up in a community that was in the midst of horrible, horrible self critique, and I see a need for that. So yeah, I can’t come down on any particular side of that, I see value in all of those approaches, but I think we’ve still got to be more creative than that.

Michael Foucault and His Early Life and Works

Ladelle McWhorter:

Well, as I said, he was born in 1926 in France and died in 1984, also in France. He started out as a psychologist. In France at that time in the 50s, when he was being educated, psychology was a subfield of philosophy. So it was basically philosophy of mind, but also clinical training, if he wanted to do that. And he did some of that. Went to work in a mental institution for two years as a kind of assistant. He gave Rorschach tests, that was his job. And he got very interested in the power dynamics within the institution, between patients and doctors and the assistants and all kinds of stuff. He said he was there as kind of an observer because he didn’t have any authority. He just administered tests. And so he was able to kind of take a neutral, if you can say that, a neutral position and just kind of watch how the institution functioned.

He got very interested in definitions of mental health and mental illness. Went off, took a government job. He took a lot of government jobs. He was a cultural ambassador. He didn’t really want to be in a university. So his job was cultural ambassador. So he would go to French embassies. He’d be assigned for a year or two to French embassies in other countries. And his job was to bring in French musicians or teach French language to people in the other country. He was in Poland for a while. He was in Tunisia. He was in Germany.

But anyway, his first job was in Sweden and there’s a big medical archive in Sweden. So he spent a lot of time doing research on the history of mental illness. His father had been a doctor and he was supposed to be a doctor himself and he rebelled. But he was interested, always, in medicine. And so he wrote this massive study called “The History of Madness.” He doesn’t really talk about power and he doesn’t really do a lot of the things he did in his later work. There’s no genealogy. But it’s a precursor. It’s the first major work. So the importance of it was, that he was saying what we think of as mental illness today is not necessarily the same thing as what people thought of madness as being before. And these categories that we develop for thinking about mental illness and mental health, evolved out of certain institutional professional and governmental situations. And so really it’s an interesting book. In fact, it’s kind of a fun book. It’s a big book. So that was the first inkling, I guess, of what was going to come.

Foucault on Institutions

Ladelle McWhorter:

And then he started doing these other studies. I already mentioned the order of things, which is a study of three fields of knowledge and transformations that have to do with various institutionalizations and changes in culture and so on.

The major work that I study is from the 70s and the big books are “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” He talks about what he calls a carceral system, the development of imprisonment as the only major means of punishing people who break the law, which as I’m sure most people know, really wasn’t the case for a long time. There were other all kinds of other punishments and there were dungeons, but dungeons weren’t the same thing as prisons. They were mostly where you throw political enemies without particular sentencing or anything.

Also criminals and mad men and other forms of delinquents and deviants, were often just thrown in the same place together. But locking people up for definite periods of time, it was an innovation. And so this is a book that talks about that innovation and talks about it in relation to a bunch of other institutional innovations that occurred in similar ways. The development of factories, factory routines, the ways that factories were first established. Developments of schools, as education and institutional settings became more and more common instead of having tutors for rich kids and apprenticeships for poor kids.

And he looks at how all these different ways of managing time that really is what these institutions do. They manage time. How that comes out of monastery rituals and so, anyway, it’s very interesting book and it also makes it really difficult to look at imprisonment the same way anymore, as a sort of like natural thing to do. So, that’s 1970…

Bloopers – Foucault on Sexuality and Ethics & Scientific Racism (Now Passe)

Doug Monroe:

Let’s, let’s focus in a little bit on the whole notion of being abnormal and normal and the idea of essentialism, let’s say.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. You can talk in general about what he had to say about abnormal versus normal or bio power. Okay. That kind of thing. And I’m not phrasing it in terms of a question. I want to hear what you have to say about that. I do like my question that’s here at the end of… It’s the one where, I don’t mean to create a trap other than a philosophical one, of… If without something to hang your hat on, how do you come to this notion of a statistic normalcy is wrong or right-

Ladelle McWhorter:

Um hmm. (affirmative).

Doug Monroe:

Without any ethics to go along with it. And I’m throwing some questions at you. It’s an opportunity to say what you want to say just as somebody who’s genuinely confused from an intellectual standpoint on this. Is that-

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think I know what you’re getting at.

Doug Monroe:

You know what I’m getting at?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think so. Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. I can walk you through the… My very methodical questions here, which lead you right down the path but I don’t think I have time to read that.

Ladelle McWhorter:

I think I know what you’re getting at. So I think that’s not necessary.

Doug Monroe:

I’m skipping scientific racism and all that. I know that’s way too focused and I think that’s past tense anyway, so…

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah, I would say that we’re past scientific racism. That’s not to say racism, but that particular iteration.

Doug Monroe:

Iteration.

Foucault on Sexuality and Ethics

Ladelle McWhorter:

-1976 was the first volume of the “History of Sexuality”, which is how I first got interested in Foucault. And it says, sexuality was really invented in the 19th century. Terribly counterintuitive claim, but then he talks about it. How the concept of sexuality actually brings together a whole bunch of things that are really considered as different things in previous times. The sinful flesh versus the reproductive, not biology, even reproductive processes and natural history. Other kinds of things that had to do with courtly love, all of that stuff gets rolled into the concept of sexuality and gets medicalized in the late 19th century.

So that’s the stuff that interested me. And then in the 80s, just before his death, he begins the work on ethics, and mostly on ancient Greek ethics. Ethos, as a way of life. His importance was, I think that he just shook a up a lot of people in the post-1968 era in France and in the United States. People really looking around for some other ways to think.

I think there got to be a lot of suspicion of Marxism in Europe. A lot of people had been Marxist or members of communist parties in Europe. Young people were very disaffected. The Russian Gulag system became known, and lots of people really disillusioned with all of that. And at the same time, really skeptical of the kinds of military industrial complexes that we’re developing in the more liberal democratic governments around the world. The beginnings of globalization. What we think of now as globalization, were in the early 70s.

I think during this period, there were just a lot of people saying there’re upheavals all over the place and we don’t understand what’s going on. And we need some new ways to think. Think about power, think about life, think about systems of punishment, systems of discipline. All of those things were just up for grabs. Sexuality, certainly, in the wake of the feminist movement, gay liberation and all those things. It was very timely. It was an alternative to existentialism, which had been sort of the major philosophy of the youth in the 60s, United States, anyway.

And so I think, its importance is a product of 20th century upheavals. And there’ll be a day when it won’t be important anymore.

What is being normal v. abnormal?

Ladelle McWhorter:

So it was not possible to be normal or abnormal before we had statistics because statistics really ushers in this way of thinking that there’s some average that most people are a certain way with regard… And not just people. The statistics of course applies to anything that changes is over time. You can look at the statistical, in terms of development, statistical development of an ecosystem or a tissue growth in a fetus or anything. But you can certainly look at it in terms of sexual development or moral development or intellectual development of a human being. And that’s what, of course, everybody’s familiar with. I think most people nowadays went through school systems after the advent of the standardized test. And the IQ test of course was developed in the early 20th century.

We’ve all been subjected to that. The idea is that you get a whole lot of data. You test a whole lot of people or a whole lot of things, and then you combine all that data and you come out with norms and standard deviations from norms. That was impossible before the development of statistics, which was impossible before the development of calculus. This is all modern period. There is no reason to assume that what is average is also what is good. We tend to think that is true when we think about things like body temperature. If the average body temperature for a human being is 98.6 and your body temperature is 100, that’s a pretty good indication that something’s wrong. But if your body temperature is 98.7, you’re probably just a little bit of deviant or a variation. And nobody worries about that.

These have a place where the norm as average and the norm as the good get conflated. And sometimes that’s perfectly fine in some kinds of medical diagnosis practices and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s not fine. And sometimes we know it’s not fine. For example, the Garrison Keillor joke, all our children are above average. We really don’t want all our children to be average. We like having the one child that’s above average, not the one that’s below. Sometimes we don’t think of statistical norms as being good things, but they always are. They tend to be benchmarks. At least if your child is average, then you think, well, I haven’t done anything horrible yet, or this child’s going to make it, be okay.

How democracy without the idea of normal?

Doug Monroe:

I think that’s what postmodernism has gotten everybody a lot more in touch with. Just what you said, that a statistical… Everything has a standard deviation. There’s nothing… You can’t take statistics and not have a standard deviation, because it’s all math. And the good is not necessarily associated with the bell curve. Okay.

Ladelle McWhorter:

Yeah. And sometimes those outliers are really important.

Doug Monroe:

They are really important. And so you’re left with the question that’s really at the end of this fourth section of having said that to make a decision, like you’re talking about the child, and I think I know the movie you were talking about, getting blown up. You have to decide at some point sometimes. You need a standard of the good or utilitarian construct. And to do that if you’re talking about a moral good or a moral bad from the decider’s point of view. How can you not rely on in a democracy what the majority wants to do? You see what I’m going with that? You need a standard of something to make a decision and it needs to be okay or else you need to have a kingship. What do you do there? What do you appeal to coming from your position?

What are some of the bad consequences of the concept of normal or average for human beings?

Ladelle McWhorter:

If I’m pretty much like everybody else, I can feel pretty good about myself. We know that when we talk about having a conformist society, maybe that’s just part of being a human being, wanting to fit in, wanting to belong, wanting to be like others, wanting to be liked by others. When you impose statistics on that though, and when you do it in some kinds of social scientific projects, you end up with results like this.

So little Johnny has not started speaking in full sentences and he is four years old. We need to get him some therapy. And the more you micromanage that, the more you tend to break down people’s lives into stages of development. And the tendency has been historically to label those stages of development as certain if a person is, say stuck in one of those stages of development. Then we consider their development have been arrested and that’s a bad thing.

And that, actually going back to the scientific racism, that’s what scientific racists after Darwin tended to do. They would say a race was stuck at a certain stage of civilized development. So they had arrested development that made them inferior to those Nordics who were the most developed.

So when Foucault talks about normalization in the mid ’70s, he’s talking about that conflation of the average and the good. He’s also talking about the way in which societies, particularly those infused with practices developed out of the social sciences, the way that they develop methods for getting people back on to that track. So your identity is created by your deviations from various norms. So, you’re whatever, right? You have this IQ, you have this level of reading development, you have this level of sexual development and so on and so forth. And however you’re arrested, or however you’re deviated from the norm is who you are.

And Foucault says, so we set up people’s identities, and we make them live those identities, on the basis of these norms. And we also do things therapeutically and educationally to try to enforce norms. So you’re not going to let your child do things, explore aspects of his or her life that don’t conform to the developmental norms. And it becomes very rigid and it becomes very oppressive in some cases.

So the normal, if when it gets solidified into a certain kind of identity or a certain kind of capacity or whatever, certain kind of body type even, the normal becomes a weapon used against people who deviate and they become abnormal. Instead of just saying there is variation, or there are differences, which is what would’ve been said before. Although some of those differences and variations would’ve been considered sins, they don’t necessarily get considered sins anymore.

They get considered abnormalities, unhealthy lifestyles or arrested developments or things like that. Sometimes there’s also retrograde development so that people are throwbacks is one of the terms that was used in the early 20th century, throwbacks in those stages.

So I wouldn’t want to say that given the technologies that we have, the point we are in our history, the uses of statistics, the uses of norms that we would want to do without them, but it is important to recognize that we have this conflation of our moral standards with really what amounts to a mathematical reality. And that can be very dangerous.

Timeless v. Situational Standards

Ladelle McWhorter:

It depends on the context. But I mean, one of the things that you had on the list there was how do I feel about the Constitution? And I feel really good about it. I mean, we do have a standard, that is a standard, and it was a disputed standard when it was instituted. The Founding Fathers did not all agree. And Patrick Henry actually campaigned against the Constitution. I think that gets forgotten that there was a lot of struggle over it, and it is a compromise document as is the Bill of Rights.

But I feel pretty confident that much of the way the government functions or is supposed to function I should say. Much of the way it’s supposed to function is pretty good. And that if we tamper with it too much things will get worse. And so I appeal to kind of situational standards like that, that would be one thing.

And then the other thing is that, when you’re in a situation where you really… All the choices you have are bad ones, and you really do have to choose the lesser of evils. One of the things we were talking about in that discussion yesterday with my friend and I about that book was a line in it. This is from Hannah Arendt actually, “When you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.”

And so there’s two things to say about that. One is, keep that in mind. That it’s unlike what Jeremy Bentham might have said, “To choose the least of the evils is not to choose the good, it’s still to choose the evil.” But the question then is how do you calculate what’s less? And that, you do need some kind of standard external to the situation to do.

I don’t have a good principle for determining that. Was one child’s life worth the objective of that military strike? I don’t know. If I had been the soldier who had to make the call, I don’t know. I mean, you can’t second-guess the person in that horrible situation, nor was he… There was actually a female and a male soldier sitting there. It was the male soldier who had to push the button, but they were both involved in it. And they were just inconsolable after it. And that seems to me to be the proper response, when we have to choose the evil, we do the best we can, and then we are sorry for the damage that we do have to cause. But life is messy, and there’s no way to keep your hands clean.

Bloopers – How is and was Foucault a personal muse?

Doug Monroe:

Is there somebody or some idea or something out there that you rely on? Your go-to in your most tough moments?

Ladelle McWhorter:

You mean for my personal wellbeing?

Doug Monroe:

Personal, personal. Yeah, just personal, you know, is there anything or any person or any way of thinking?

How is and was Foucault important in your writing or to you as a person?

Ladelle McWhorter:

The first book was an attempt really to grapple with his work much more than the second book was. Even though the second book uses Foucault as a frame, I used to say to people, graduate students, picking the topic for their dissertation, “Do what I did, pick someone who’s not very well known, about whom there is not much secondary literature and who dies and stops producing primary literature right when you pick your dissertation topic.” Because the shelf of books in English on Foucault and by Foucault that were available when I wrote my dissertation was about two feet long.

I loved the work, I really did, and it resonated with me in ways that some of the other things that I cared about didn’t as much. I think the ways in which he worked on sexuality were really important to me in dealing with my own. But as I have gotten older and as the time has passed and the world has changed since he did his thinking, I see the need to do other kinds of thinking and to take into account other ideas.

If I were to write “Racism and Sexual Oppression” again, I wouldn’t rely quite so much on the notion of normalization because I don’t think that disciplinary normalization is as important in our society as it was in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, I think it’s become much less so. And I don’t think Foucault had very much to say about environmental issues, so I’m moving away from his work in that way. It’s the techniques that I really hold onto, the genealogical orientation, the looking for the breaks, looking for the points at which systems shift, which terminology emerges. I think I will always use those techniques most likely because they work for me and other things I’m more skeptical of.

Who or what do you look to for personal solace, guidance, or truth?

Ladelle McWhorter:

I used to reread my dissertation director’s books, Charles Scott’s books, sometimes. Particularly when I was having trouble writing, I would reread some of his books. I haven’t done that in a long time either. I think I’m much more apt when I’m faced with real difficulty to sit on my patio. Maybe it’s not quite cultivating my own garden, but it’s similar to that. I can feel so happy. It’s a nice little patio, I have to say. And I’ve been landscaping around it. And it’s just to be grateful again for what I have. At the time at which I have been able to live, there have been so many advantages. And I think just remembering that I’m happy is what gets me through things.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the U.S. in the future?

Ladelle McWhorter:

That is such a hard thing, because we would all like to be optimistic. I mean maybe not everybody in the world. I think there are some people who would not like our future to be good, but I just don’t know. And there’s several reasons why I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull together to deal with things that we’re going to have to deal with. And I really think that one of the first things we’re going to have to deal with in the next decade is migration inland from people whose towns and cities are inundated. And I think it’s going to happen in Norfolk , and we’re going to, and it may happen all at once with a hurricane or it may happen slower, but we’re going to deal with mass migration and disruption of the economy, poverty induced by people’s property values dropping and so on.

Are we going to be able to pull together and be communities and care about each other or not? And we’ve lost over… I think over the course of my lifetime, I think we’ve lost a lot of the ideals that Americans used to have about doing that kind of thing. I know we were never… We were all kinds of ways in which we were terrible at it before, but I think there was more of an impulse that way when I was younger.

So I worry about our future because I worry about what environmental devastation’s going to do to us. I worry about our future because I think the economy is not stable and we didn’t do what we needed to do after the recession to stabilize it. So I think we’re at risk for other collapses. I think that’s true globally, probably. I… Of course I worry day to day if we’re going to go to war with North Korea. I think we all worry about that. I’m hoping that… I don’t have any way of preventing that, so there’s not anything I can do about that. I just have to try to not worry about it and hope things are under more control than sometimes they seem to be.

If we were not facing the possibility of an economic disruption, if we were not facing all of the things that go with climate change, I would still feel fairly optimistic. It’s not the immediate political situation that scares me as much as those things. I do think that given the current administration’s insistence on dismantling some of our environmental regulations and underfunding the agencies that take care of our interior and our parks and so on and so forth. I think that it’s making it worse, but you know, this too shall pass. There’ll be another election. Yeah. I don’t think we’re falling apart politically as much as I think some pundits are telling us and we say in the university, “Presidents come and go. Deans come and go. It’s the faculty stays. The students come and go. It’s us, we’re the ones who stay.” And I think that’s true about us citizens too.

Print

Related Categories

Similar Videos

Are we worshipping "strong" or "weak" gods and what might that mean for our life satisfaction? Author & editor Dr. R. R. Reno discusses in his interview.

How is the pursuit of diversity harming higher education? Heather Mac Donald, bestselling author of "The Diversity Delusion" explains.

In his interview with us, Hank Sipe shares about life experiences that have shaped his worldview.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about America's future? John Reid gives his views on politics, media, social issues, and more.

Why is it important to care about the worldview of others? May-Lily Lee discusses by drawing from her life experience.

What is the "bell curve" and "dumbbell curve" within politics? Frank Hill discusses in his interview with us.

Our Most Popular Videos

Is religion declining or rising worldwide? Prolific writer and sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, discusses this and more in his interview.

What is philosophy? Sir Roger Scruton draws on his expertise to explain concepts within Western philosophy, anthropology, worldview, and more.

Michael Novak, author of "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism," discusses his views on capitalism and his role in the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

What is postmodernism? Dr. Ladelle McWhorter discusses this and other philosophical concepts relevant to our cultural moment.

What are some key American ideals and why are they important to the West? Dr. Os Guinness discusses this and more in his interview.

Dr. Eben Alexander, bestselling author and former neurosurgeon, discusses his shocking near-death experience and radical worldview shift.