Chapter 7: Michel Foucault: How Power Affects Our View of Truth M ichel Foucault was a French philosopher who wrote on history, philosophy, politics, and psychology. He was often struggling with the question of how power has an effect on the stories we tell about the world. For example, he wrote on what we call ‘mad’ and how that this is sometimes influenced by political motivations. He applied this as well to professional psychology which calls particular behaviors ‘deviant’. His questioning had a profound effect on many academics across the disciplines.
Foucault once said, “I would say that this has always been my problem: the effects of power and the production of “truth.” (Politics, Philosophy, Culture, 118) Foucault’s goal is always to try to discover how our view of truth is influenced by power relationships and perspectives. People have often accused Foucault of claiming that truth claims are nothing but power plays—that truth is merely power. But Foucault rejects this misunderstanding:
“ . . . when I read—and I know it has been attributed to me—the thesis, “Knowledge is power,” or “Power is knowledge,” I begin to laugh, since studying their relation is precisely my problem. If they were identical, I would not have to study them and I would be spared a lot of fatigue as a result.”
Rather than saying truth merely is what the powerful decide it is, Foucault is concerned with the ways in which our power position affects how we see reality. I face this when I try to talk to rich white students with no inner city friends or exposure to inner city issues about the privileges they benefited from growing up. Most of them don’t see themselves to have any special privilege, because they are no different than all of their peers. But this power which they have keeps them from seeing reality of the world.
When Foucault discusses power, he doesn’t talk about it like it is a substance—something you get or lose. Rather, it is a certain relationship. He says, “Power is not a substance. Neither is it a mysterious property whose origin must be delved into. Power is only a certain type of relation between individuals.” (PPC, 83) All relationships are power relations. Power isn’t bad, it isn’t good. It just is. Foucault is interested in how that power works, and how the relationships play a role in what and how we believe. He says, “What I am attentive to is the fact that every human relation is to some degree a power relation. We move in a world of perpetual strategic relations. Every power relation is not bad in itself, but it is a fact that always involves danger.” (PPC, 168)
Foucault does not think that power is something that we should exterminate. Power is not some cancer which should be destroyed. He also doesn’t think we can somehow escape power relationships and somehow believe things purely without any power affecting our perspective. He says, “I have no solution to offer. But I think it is pointless to avert one’s gaze: we must try to get to the bottom of things and confront them.” (PPC, 172) Now obviously, this does not sit well with a modern who wants to discover the problem and solve it, but Foucault is not a modern. He is concerned to realize the multiple layers of motives and relationships behind beliefs and ‘truth’ claims, not so that he can lay bare ‘the truth’, and escape its influence, but rather, so he can at least be aware of these influences and motivations.
To tell ‘the truth’ about ourselves is not to gain absolutely universal and certain claims which are transcendent to our existence. I am made up, in effect, of multiple relationships, multiple responsibilities, multiple identities—son, father, student, teacher, neighbor, stranger—all at once. Foucault says, “If I tell the truth about myself, as I am now doing, it is in part that I am constituted as a subject across a number of power relations which are exerted over me and which I exert over others.” (PPC, 39) In this sense, Foucault’s view of the self is quite similar to some existentialists like Sartre, who think that we are what we do:
“I do indeed believe that there is no sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject to be found everywhere. I am very skeptical of this view of the subject and very hostile to it. I believe, on the contrary, that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty, . . .” (PPC,50)
Foucault has tried to show us the ways that we are constituted by our relationships, and the ways in which our notions of truth or rationality are constituted by our history or political situatedness. This has led him to produce ‘historical’ accounts of how we come to view things as good or bad, right or wrong, reasonable or crazy. In all his work, he says, “My aim is not to write the social history of a prohibition but the political history of the production of ‘truth.’” (PPC, 112) By producing these ‘histories’ Foucault undermines the notion that there is one history of events. Rather, there are multiple histories which tell the same events, but from different perspectives and from within different power relationships. In doing this, he hopes to help unsettle us in a healthy way, so that we are woken from our lethargic dogmatic ways of looking at the world. “But experience has taught me that the history of various forms of rationality is sometimes more effective in unsettling our certitudes and dogmatism than is abstract criticism.” (PPC, 83)
Some might think that Foucault’s criticism of one universally accessible history of the facts is depressing, because it may leave us without the ability to tell just one story of the facts. But Foucault in fact is encouraged by the multiplicity of ways of telling the same events:
No, I don’t Subscribe to the notion of a decadence, of a lack of writers, of the sterility of thought, of a gloomy future, lacking in prospects.
On the contrary, I believe that there is a plethora. What we are suffering from is not a void, but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. There is an overabundance of things to be known: fundamental, terrible, wonderful, funny, insignificant, and crucial at the same time.” (PPC 327)
Foucaults's Genealogy of Power: "Everything is dangerous": Knowledge is Power? Perhaps Foucault is (mistakenly) best known for the slogan, "knowledge is power," which is taken to mean that 'anything you say is just a power-move on your part, so I need not take it as true, but only as an expression of your desire for power.' Foucault has read his Nietzsche, but he does not ever make such a silly statement as "knowledge is power." Foucault directly denies this slogan:
You must understand that is a part of the destiny common to all problems once they are posed: they degenerate into slogans. . . . you have to understand that when I read-- and I know it has been attributed to me-- the thesis, "Knowledge is power," or "Power is knowledge," I begin to laugh, since studying their relation is precisely my problem. If they were identical, I would not have to study them and I would be spared a lot of fatigue as a result. the very fact that I pose the quesion of their relation proves clearly that I do not [equate] them.(PPC, 43)
Foucault speaks quite clearly for himself. Of course he does not think that knowledge is power, because his whole question is: how do power relations affect my knowing processes? He wants to know how that my desire to maintain my job, for example, would affect my view on minority hiring quotas, or the ability of women to work in my position. He want to know how that my concern to maintain my position, or to force a particular outcome play a role in my opinions about “the truth.” In another interview, Peter Burger asked Foucault, “Marxism has been criticized for analyzing everything, in the final analysis, to an economic problem. Can you, too, bot be criticized for seeing power everywhere and, in the final analysis, of reducing everything to power?” to which Foucault responded,
That’s an important question. For me, power is the problem that has to be resolved. Take an example like the prisons. I want to study the way in which people set about using--and late on in history-- imprisonment, rather than banishment or torture, as a punitive method. . . . I constantly show the economic or political origin of these methods; but, while refraining from seeing power everywhere, I also think there is a specificity in these new techniques of training. I believe that the methods used, right down to the way of conditioning an individual’s behavior, have a logic, obey a type of rationality, and are all based on one another to form a sort of specific stratum.1 There is, for Foucault, a logic of power, which guides much of politics, renditions of history, and cultural patterns of thought. Foucault wants to critically analyze who we are and how we think, in order to help us explore new possibilities of thought, and to break past old boundaries of stereotypes and insecurities:
The critical ontology of ourselves . . . has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. (FR 50)