Michel Foucault had some truly brilliant and important insights about power, insights that have had an important influence on some of today’s most prominent activist movements, and that arguably should be having more of an influence on others. It’s true that there’s a lot to take issue with in his work, but there’s also a lot to be inspired by.
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 take power from Gary Gutting from the University of Notre Dame, author of Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960.
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.