Wednesday, 13 July 2011

David Newheiser - Foucault and the Discontinuity of Tradition

"Foucault and the Discontinuity of Tradition"

This paper argues that, among the many ways in which the work of Michel Foucault may usefully contribute to the field of Patristics, his attention to the invention of concepts represents a valuable corrective to the tendency to read ancient texts through the lens of later settlements. The temptation to construe the history of doctrine as an harmonious process of development is frequently motivated by the conviction that tradition represents a sort of continuity; in response, Foucault's method helps to clarify the ruptures involved as new ways of thinking emerge. Taking the debate concerning the Nicene homoousion as an example, I aim to show that Athanasius's interpretation of Nicaea represents a genuine novelty despite his own claim to represent a univocal tradition.
      In his work on the history of sexuality, Foucault shows that, whereas concepts such as "sexuality" are often used to interpret the past,  these concepts take form in particular historical periods. Thus, whereas some historians discuss the forms of sexuality prevalent in ancient Greece, Foucault suggests that this approach is distorting insofar as "sexuality" itself is a modern invention, one that is foreign to the ancient Greek context. Instead, he suggests, the eccentricity of ancient texts and their distance from later formulations ought to be allowed to stand.
      Athanasius's appropriation of the council of Nicaea provides a prime example of the tendency to read later concepts onto the past. Writing more than thirty years after the fact, Athanasius claims that the bishops at Nicaea included the term homoousion in order to definitively exclude the Arian heresy; however, the council's immediate context suggests that the term actually had a more vague and problematic sense. Athanasius may thus be seen to have given the contested term a new meaning, but this fact is obscured by his own claim to represent a univocal tradition. In this way, then, Foucault's fine-grained sensitivity to the historical formation of concepts helps to clarify the vital heterogeneity of Patristic theology.

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