This entry and the one to follow are prompted by a question I received about the place of nominalism in Foucault’s thinking. In Part 1 I describe how nominalism informs Foucault’s critical analysis. In Part 2 (entry in a month’s time) I illustrate how starting from Foucault’s nominalism opens up his work in useful and accessible ways, considering topics such as “power”, “the state”, “man”, “sexuality”, “madness”, etc. Starting from nominalism helps explain important connections among several concepts that feature prominently in Foucault’s political analyses, e.g. practices, genealogy, “a history of the present”, objectivizations, governmentality, and problematization. Throughout I will signal how WPR engages with these understandings.

“Nominalism” comes from the Latin word nominalis meaning “of or pertaining to names”. As a philosophical position it has a long history. Debates about the relationship between nominalism and realism go back to the Middle Ages (Rodriguez-Pereyra 2015). Distinctions have been drawn between nominalists who wished to challenge the existence of universals, as in Plato’s “forms”, and those who questioned the existence of abstract objects (as opposed to concrete objects). For our purposes it is adequate to think of nominalism in Foucault as an analytic intervention designed to disrupt assumptions about general categories of “things” (“objects” and “subjects”) through a focus on what we “call” (or name) them.

A good place to start is Foucault’s comment in the Birth of Biopolitics (Senellart 2008: 3): “Let’s suppose that universals do not exist”. I suggest that we need to focus on the words: “Let’s suppose”. In my view, such wording indicates that Foucault is not interested in engaging in philosophical debates about the meaning of nominalism; rather, he wants to suggest that assuming there are no universals opens up political analysis in useful ways – that taking such a position allows us “to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known” (Foucault 1990: 9).  My hope is, in this and the subsequent Research Hub entry, to illustrate just what he intends to accomplish through this analytic strategy. To illustrate my argument, I draw upon a number of theorists who have made useful contributions on the topic of Foucault and nominalism. 

Oksala (2012: 28) helps us to draw a clear distinction between nominalism and natural realism.  She explains how, in Foucault, there is a need to see “things” not simply as “existing” (“exister”) – the realist position – but as “becoming something” (“devenir quelque chose”) – the nominalist position. In the latter the focus of study becomes how specific “things”, such as “the domains we call sexuality”, “have been formed”, how they come to be something (Foucault in Mort and Peters 2005: 12-13; emphasis added). 

In the Birth of Biopolitics (Senellart 2008: 19), Foucault elaborates this position, indicating how his nominalist starting point shapes his studies of madness, disease, delinquency and sexuality. He distinguishes his stance from accounts that speak of these “things” as “hidden before finally being discovered” or as “wicked illusions or ideological products to be dispelled in the [light] of reason”. Rather, in his account, 

“It was a matter of showing by what conjunctions a whole set of practices – from the moment they become coordinated with a regime of truth – was able to make what does not exist (madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, etcetera), nonetheless become something, something however that continues not to exist.” (Senellart 2008: 19; emphasis added)

The last point here is important and needs to be read through the distinction between “exister” (as essences) and “devenir” (becoming). Foucault clarifies that this position is not anti-realist: “It [e.g. sexuality] is not an illusion since it is precisely a set of practices, real practices, which established it and thus imperiously marks it out in reality” (Senellart 2008: 19). As Dean (2015: 359; emphasis added) explains, Foucault “seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about or ‘name’ the real”.  

Returning to Oksala we can describe the two positions, “exister” and “devenir” (existing and becoming), as contrasting ontologies (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 15). Recognizing that “all thinking necessarily relies on ontological commitments of some kind”, Oksala (2012: 18-19) emphasizes the need to reflect upon the political implications of the ontology one adopts – how for example seeing “things” simply as “existing” tends to install them as “truth”, making it difficult to initiate change.  By contrast, in an ontology of becoming (the nominalist stance), one tends to stress the practices and processes that shape “subjects”, “objects”, “places” and “problems”, opening up opportunities for modifications (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

For example, as seen in a previous Research Hub entry (10 Dec. 2017), starting from a nominalist ontology of becoming, Annemarie Mol (1999; 2002: 155) stresses how research practices shape specific realities, a proposition she describes as “ontological politics”. Pellizzoni (2015: 75 ff) elaborates the distinction between “political ontology” – the argument that all ontological stances are political, as in Oksala – and “ontological politics” – the argument that researchers are involved in shaping realities through their research practices, as in Mol (see also Fraser 2019).

Above, I suggest that Foucault is less interested in philosophical debates about nominalism than in what such a stance can do in terms of political analysis. This stance is clear in his claim that “knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting” (Foucault 1977: 88). As Rose (2000: 58) explains, the goal is “to disturb that which forms the very groundwork of our present, to make the given once more strange and to cause us to wonder at how it came to appear so natural” (see also Osberg 2010). To this end, as Valverde (2010: 45) describes, concepts (in Foucault) have no fixed meaning; rather, they are “tactical weapons” or tools for political change. Nominalism frees us up to use concepts in this way since they are not presumed to describe “essences” while it encourages critical interrogation of accepted “universals” or “constants” in valorised knowledges. 

It is often noted that Foucault uses several concepts in different ways at different times. In other work, together with co-authors, I point out how he uses “discourse” in at least three ways (Bacchi and Bonhan 2014: 178), and both “problematization” (Bacchi 2012) and “governmentality” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 41) with two different meanings. The point to make here is that this practice is not an indication of fuzzy thinking; rather, it illustrates the political usefulness of a nominalist way of thinking – how nominalism frees up the researcher’s ability to mobilise concepts for political effect. 

This stance explains why it is inappropriate, in poststructuralist analysis, to give precise definitions of “things”. “Words are just that: words. They do not capture, reflect, mirror or correspond to an external reality” (Merlingen 2013). Mol, Moser and Pols (in Mol et al. 2010: 84) assist here. They point out that, if you offer a definition of an apple, you will proceed to see as “apples” only those things that match that definition. To open up thinking in useful ways we need to refuse assigned and assumed categories. In Care in Practice (Mol, Moser and Pols 2010) Mol and her co-editors refuse to stipulate what “care” is. Relatedly, they point out the stumbling block created by trying to specify the precise meaning of “practices”: 

“… the quintessence of the practice turn is to study practices – not to define the term. It is to follow objects and/or processes, like autonomy, subjectivity, respect, killing, tagging, buying, tasting, filling in forms, using a webcam, and so on, without beforehand fixing what these things and activities are.” (Mol et al. 2010: 85)

In this view, “words are tools within a practice rather than labels that can be firmly circumscribed” (Mol et al. 2010: 85; see also Bacchi 2005: 198-199).

To repeat the key argument developed in this entry, nominalism (as used by Foucault) accomplishes two things: first, it opens up a critical strategy to interrogate commonly assumed “things”, including “subjects” and “objects”; and second, it allows us to think in terms of deploying concepts for political purposes – in other words, to engage in “ontopolitically-oriented research” (see Fraser 2019). If “things” do not simply “exist” (as the nominalist contends), attention must be paid to how they have “come to be” and how they function politically. On these grounds it becomes crucial to interrogate the assumed categories (or “field assumptions”; see Research Hub entries 31 May 2020, 30 June 2020) in the “methods” we adopt for social analysis. This point will be pursued in the next entry.

For now, let us see how Foucault’s nominalism – the view that “things” do not simply “exist” but “come to be” – flows through into Foucault’s political analysis. Lemke (2011: 31) describes Foucault’s “nominalist critique” as a two-step process: first, questioning universals; second, investigating the “system of acceptability” that allows these “things” to “come to be” acceptable.

The latter goal requires us to reconstruct the “conditions of possibility for the presence of phenomena” (Keller 2017: 59). To this end we analyse the multiplicity of factors and practices involved in the coming to be of “things” – the network of “connections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on, that at a given moment establish what subsequently counts as being self-evident, universal and necessary” (Foucault 1991: 76). 

Foucault adopts several terms to capture this sense of multiplicity – including “assemblage”, “dispositif” and “discursive practices” (see Bacchi and Bonham 2014). In this way Foucault (1991: 33) effects “a sort of multiplication or pluralization of causes” that illustrates “a micro-physics of power” (Foucault 1979: 26; see next entry).  This stance helps makes sense of Veyne’s (1997: 160) contention that “There are no natural objects. … There are only multiple objectivisations (‘population’, ‘fauna’, ‘subjects under law’), correlatives of heterogeneous practices”: “The object is only the correlative of the practice: prior to the practice there exists no eternal governed that could be targeted more or less accurately.” (Veyne 1997: 155-156). Correlatives are terms paired to perform a single function (e.g. “both/and”, “either/or”). 

Foucault describes himself as a “historical nominalist” (Foucault 1980: 56; see also Flynn 1989). He sets out to trace the history, or genealogy, of “things”, to show precisely how they have “come to be”. “The role of genealogy”, he tells us, is to record “the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts, the history of the concept of liberty or of the ascetic life” (Foucault 1977: 1). He describes the specific form of history he produces as a “history of the present” and an “effective history”:

“Instead of criticising the past in terms of the present, the Foucauldian histories criticise the present by reflecting upon the ways the discursive and institutional practices of the past still affect the constitution of the present.” (Tamboukou 1999: 205)

Rajchman (1983-84: 10-14) elaborates four nominalist arguments or tropes developed in Foucault’s writings. The first, “argument by dispersal”, refers to the emphasis in Foucault on multiplicity and heterogeneity (see above). His goal is “to ‘disperse’ what is presumed to be essentially whole”, accomplished in his nominalist genealogies.  

The second trope – “argument by reversal” – sets out to trace the “objectification” (or objectivization; see above) of those “things” historians take as “objectively given” (Foucault 1980: 55). For example, in his work on the history of madness, Foucault (2006) rebukes historians for using psychiatric categories to understand, for example, witchcraft or magic in pre-psychiatric societies. He reverses this approach and asks about how the object “mental illness” was produced. This thinking highlights the need to interrogate the assumed categories of analysis in our research and writing (pursued in the next entry). Rajchman (1983-84: 12) emphasises that this practice of reversal is meant to be “politically consequential”. It operates as a form of criticism “of the preconditions and foundations of our own present’s intellectual habits” (Valverde 2010: Abstract).

Rajchman (1983-84: 12) characterizes the third nominalist trope as “argument by critical exposure of current practice”. This argument refers to Foucault’s style of nominalist history, his “history of the present” described above.  As Rajchman elaborates, Foucault uses the past to criticize the present “under the assumption that the past still informs the present in ways and with consequences we don’t recognize”. These influences need to be exposed and questioned. Importantly, there is no assumption that “our situation is the lawlike outcome of previous ones”. Rather, Foucault “tries to make our situation seem less ‘necessitated’’ by history, and more peculiar, unique, or arbitrary” (Rajchman 1983-84: 12). 

Rendering our current practices “arbitrary or contingent” opens them to criticism and change. The emphasis on contingency produces the fourth nominalist trope – “argument to singular enlightenment”. This trope provides a link to Foucault’s well-known scepticism concerning the “universalism of the Enlightenment” (see next entry). On this point, Rajchman (1983-84: 5) emphasises that, while Foucault uses these arguments to open up consideration of alternative social arrangements, his nominalist history is not about the alternatives themselves. As Foucault (1988: 197) explains: 

“My position is that it is not up to us to propose. As soon as one “proposes” – one proposes a vocabulary, an ideology, which can only have effects of domination. What we have to present are instruments or tools that people might find useful.”

WPR is offered as one such instrument (Bacchi WPR CHART). It deploys the four nominalist arguments outlined above. Embracing Foucault’s nominalist genealogies, it emphasizes the pluralizing (or dispersal) of factors producing “realities” (Questions 3 and 6) alongside a critical analysis of current practices (Question 5). WPR also encourages the continual questioning of governmental categories and of our categories of analysis, or “field assumptions” (Question 2). And while encouraging consideration of alternative problematizations (Question 4), it insists on continual reappraisal of those alternatives (Step 7 on self-problematization). 

The next entry offers some examples of how Foucault’s nominalism helps to explain his positions on “power”, “the state” and “man”. 


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