Post-Foundationalism Versus Anti-Foundationalism. Thought of the Day 58.0

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In the words of Judith Butler,

the point is not to do away with foundations, or even to champion a position which goes under the name of antifoundationalism: Both of these positions belong together as different versions of foundationalism and the sceptical problematic it engenders. Rather, the task is to interrogate what the theoretical move that establishes foundations authorizes, and what precisely it excludes or forecloses.

The notion of contingent foundations, proposed by Butler as an alternative framing, could best be described as an ontological weakening of the status of foundation without doing away with foundations entirely. It is on its account, that what came to be called post-foundationalism should not be confused with anti-foundationalism. What distinguishes the former from the latter is that it does not assume the absence of any ground; what it assumes is the absence of an ultimate ground, since it is only on the basis of such absence that grounds, in the plural, are possible. The problem is therefore posed not in terms of no foundations (the logic of all- or -nothing), but in terms of contingent foundations. Hence, post-foundationalism does not stop after having assumed the absence of a final ground and so it does not turn into anti-foundationalist nihilism, existentialism or pluralism, all of which would assume the absence of any ground and would result in complete meaninglessness, absolute freedom or total autonomy. Nor does it turn into a sort of post-modern pluralism for which all meta-narratives have equally melted into air, for what is still accepted by post-foundationalism is the necessity for some grounds.

What becomes problematic as a result is not the existence of foundations (in the plural) but their ontological status – which is seen now as necessarily contingent. This shift in the analysis from the ‘actually existing’ foundations to their status – that is to say, to their conditions of possibility – can be described as a quasi-transcendental move. Although implicitly present in Spivak’s notion of a ‘perpetually rehearsed critique’ as well as in Butler’s notion of ‘interrogation’, this quasi-transcendental turn is made explicit by Ernesto Laclau who, starting from the post-foundational premise that ‘the crisis of essentialist universalism as a self-asserted ground has led our attention to the contingent grounds (in the plural) of its emergence and to the complex process of construction’, comes to the conclusion that ‘[t]his operation is, sensu stricto, transcendental: it involves a retreat from an object to its conditions of possibility’.

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