Foucault and Power

Sunday, July 4, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 2, 2018

What Is It

Michel Foucault was a 20th century philosopher known for his work concerning power and knowledge. Foucault is often cited for his theory of knowledge and power, which are inextricably linked. But what exactly is Foucault's philosophy of power? Is it a universal theory intended to be applied in any context, or was Foucault simply responding to the specific power dynamics of his time? Josh and Ken share power with Gary Gutting from the University of Notre Dame, author of Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960.

Listening Notes

How does power operate in society? Is it just a matter of coercing others or does it affect who we are? Ken believes that power affects the social categories people occupy and limits their ability to embrace them, citing ancient Greece as an example. He introduces Michel Foucault’s idea of the episteme – a series of background power relations that affect how we interact with the social world. Josh pushes back, arguing that power has to be more multifaceted and relational, rather than absolute. 

The hosts are joined by guest Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He joins the discussion by introducing the link between power and knowledge that Foucault establishes in his work. While Ken questions what the metaphysical justification for this theory looks like, Gary reiterates that Foucault’s project primarily tried to establish a method for analyzing power in particular situations. Discussing the link between power and knowledge, Gary offers that certain institutions of knowledge – such as those of criminology – create the things they seek to study (i.e., the label of the criminal). Josh questions whether this paints society in too much of a pessimistic light, to which Gary quotes Foucault in saying: “It’s not that everything is bad, but everything is dangerous.” 

In the last segment of the show, Ken, Josh, and Gary continue a discussion of how to resist power. This involves both a general conversation on subjectivity and a particular one on current movements against power. Gary cites the sexual revolution as an instance where power can make seemingly progressive developments as restrictive as their predecessors. Moreover, on the topic of current movements such as Black Lives Matter, Gary brings up the fluid nature of power and how social advocates today need to consider movements in the past when engaging in the structure of power. Otherwise, movements may not be able to fully overcome the prejudices of the past. 

  • Roving Philosophic Report (Seek to 6:55): Liza Veale discusses the efforts of the Social Justice Summit, a conference where organizers try to encourage more personal relations to politics and power. Like these movements, Foucault exposed how power exists throughout society, giving people the opportunity to challenge it in a variety of different ways in an effort to fight the norms it generates.  
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:15): Ian Shoales discusses his own encounters with Foucault’s literature. He also mentions Foucault’s belief that how you structure information is a powerful component of power, producing a useful heuristic for approaching knowledge. 



Ken Taylor
Coming up on Philosophy Talk…

Josh Landy
Michelle Foucault and Power

Ken Taylor
What does it mean to have power?

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 -- 3:07 PM

Most of us are familiar with

Most of us are familiar with the old adage, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. This suggests that in order to have the second, one must have the first. Yet, there have been many times in the history of man, when the sheer force of numbers has negated any need for knowledge, beyond knowing that strength of one's adversaries. This is/was elementary. Mr. Foucault was no more or less adept in his assessment of things than those such as Rousseau, Hume, Locke, or Kant. Everything changes with time and enlightenment. And science. And philosophy. And, progress.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, December 3, 2018 -- 11:26 AM

A little something more on

A little something more on what we think we know. I sent this to my brother, as a Christmas greeting. He liked it. Maybe you will too:

To Infinity, (and then some...)

In his 1689 treatise, Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke waxed abundant on the notion of INFINITY. That he did so was au courant for his time, as are such philosophic discourses in our own. I'd very much like to clear the air and flush the toilet on this matter, once, if not, for all. Infinity is (I assert) a nebulous construct from human reason and language. Mulling and muddling over it is about as productive as counting clover leafs in a midsummer meadow. It is a long haul, past and future, but plays not into the scheme of human evolution, history or affairs.
It was neither needed, nor critically useful to physics, mathematics or science in general. Constructions ARE, sometimes helpful to their progenitors. Quantum Mechanics (for example) allows for some measurement of things very small. I cannot claim to understand it, yet can project its value, when/if it should be better understood. Richard Feynman would probably approve.
People feel better about things they can quantify or qualify. I have no quarrel with that. But unless you love the heat of philosophy; the thrill of agony; or the victory of defeat, you may as well cross infinity of your list (be that 'bucket' or other). It is not an achievement. Neither you, nor I nor anyone else will ever get there...there is no 'there' to get to.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 -- 12:13 PM

Mon frere, Michel Foucault,

Mon frere, Michel Foucault, was quite the social historian, I have discovered, after reading some of his writing. Interesting intellect. However, I cannot in my own view categorize him as: philosopher. His scholarship defines him more in the historian modality, even though he clearly had a philosophy of life. I would, hesitantly, compare Foucault to some of our latter-day public intellectuals: important for their contributions to knowledge generally and/or specifically, but only incidentally influential to the broader cosmology of philosophy itself.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 -- 6:56 AM

This show is topped off with

This show is topped off with Potassium Benzoate
That's Bad.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, June 5, 2021 -- 12:52 PM

Nothing more to say of

Nothing more to say of Foucault. He stated the obvious.