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Foucault on How Power Damages the Human Ability to Know Others

Foucault on How Power Damages the Human Ability to Know Others



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Published by: Bill McLella on May 08, 2008
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Lusts for Power Irreparably Damage the Human Ability to Know Others
William McLellan
Covenant College

It\u2019s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a
chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of
hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.

~Michel Foucault, \u201cTruth and Power\u201d

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

~Ephesians 4:22-24
Introduction to Power-Knowledge

The dream of the enlightenment was that reason and knowledge would lead
humanity out of its foolish wars and power struggles into an age of peace. The mind was
thought to be that faculty in man that could transcend his animal passions and reach a
neutral, common realm of truth, accessible to all who embraced reason. In recent
decades, this dream has all but died, and attention has been given to the complicity of
reason and knowledge in power struggles between groups. Influenced by the late-
nineteenth-century German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, who claimed that the mind
could never be separated from the passions, the French intellectual Michel Foucault has
persuasively argued that knowledge always arises from social relationships of power.

In this paper I will present the epistemological challenge of power-knowledge as
Foucault understands it, and then I will discuss what I believe to be a better
understanding of the lust for power and its relationship to human knowing. Although
ethical problems pervade this issue, my focus will be squarely epistemological: how do
selfish desires for prestige and dominance over others damage the ability of human
beings to know their world and their neighbors? I have learned a lot from Foucault, but
in answering this question I must depart from his conclusions. Beyond the finite
limitations of human knowledge, sinful lusts for power have devastated the human
capacity to accurately understand others. Further, this problem needs to be overcome
rather than merely tolerated as Foucault suggests, and I believe that God, in Christ and in
the coming of his kingdom, has actively begun to heal human knowing.

Before tackling Foucault directly, however, I want to propose a simple model for
thinking about the link between human understanding and the subjects of study in the
world. Suppose I want to know more about Chinese intellectuals in the 1890s and what
they thought about historical change and modernization. Involved in this epistemic quest
are (a) myself, along with all of my identity, personality, time, culture, worldview,
interests, and agendas; (b) my subject of study, human beings who inhabited another
time, space, and culture with identities, personalities, worldviews, interests and agendas


of their own; (c) something that mediates between my subject of study and myself, in this
case historical documents (in other areas of study sense perception, statistical surveys,
observation, and experimentation serve as mediating agents); and (d) the representation I
construct of my subject of study, which may exist in my inner thoughts, a speech I give,
or a paper I write. Epistemologically, the central issue here concerns how relationships of
power between myself and my subject affect my ability to represent or know my subject

Michel Foucault

Foucault thinks that the pathway from human minds to their subjects in the world
is so treacherous that it cannot be traveled. Between minds and the world stand not only
mental concepts, as Kant argued, but also social relationships of power and physical lusts
for power. The representations our minds construct of others are just fictions that do not
correspond with the external reality of our subjects, but at the same time, Foucault
believes that this limitation of human knowledge need not devastate the human sciences.
We can cope with it. In fact, his entire project should be understood as a
recommendation for how human cultures can learn to function well, despite the
complications power brings to knowledge. Most significantly, Foucault argues that
power-knowledge should be thought of not as a primarily repressive force but as a spiral
of production: \u201cTruth is linked in circular relation with systems of power that produce
and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it\u2014a \u2018regime\u2019
of truth.\u201d1 To better explain how this process works in Foucault\u2019s philosophy, I have
divided it into the following four stages.

Stage 1: Relationships of Power. Foucault argues that we cannot limit power to

the application of knowledge; knowledge itself is power. At the same time, power itself is nothing at all; it has no essence or substance or force. Power is a relationship among people or groups that governs the ways in which people act on the actions of others. Violence, in contrast to power, occurs when people act directly on others\u2019 bodies, but power functions as a historically determined relationship among people or groups that enables them influence the ways in which others behave.2

Further, Foucault argues that no one can transcend relationships of power. \u201cTo
live in society is, in any event, to live in such a way that some can act on the actions of
others. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.\u201d3 Following
Nietzsche, Foucault believes that struggle is a basic, unalterable characteristic of human
social life. Still, power never pushes in only one direction; resistance functions within
power relationships, never in pure opposition to them, and for this reason, relationships of
power always involve some degree of struggle among its participants.4

Stage 2: Subjectification of the Other. Foucault claims that the focus of this

1 Michel Foucault, \u201cTruth and Power\u201d in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1884, Volume
3, ed James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1994), 132. This is an interview conducted with
Foucault in June 1976 in which he answers questions about his writing, methods, and philosophy.

2 Michel Foucault, \u201cThe Subject and Power,\u201d in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1884,
Volume 3, ed James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1994), 337-42. This is an essay Foucault
wrote in 1982, responding to some questions and objections concerning his writing and philosophy.

3 Ibid., 343.
4 Ibid., 341.

writing has never been to develop a theory of power or an historical methodology for
dealing with power. \u201cMy objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different
modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects [of study].\u201d5 In his
discussions of the various human (or social) sciences\u2014psychiatry, criminology,
medicine, and sexuality\u2014Foucault charts the ways in which relationships of power in the
west have enabled certain people to get their mental fingers on other human beings.
Some people become the scientists; others become the subjects, gazed upon by those who
seek to know them and control their behavior.6

Rather than claiming that the power to subjectify other human beings somehow
represses true knowledge about them, Foucault argues that knowledge would not be
possible apart from this arrangement. People do not first acquire knowledge and then
apply it in ways one can judge as interested or disinterested; rather, relationships of
power produce knowledge, first by subjectifying others and then by differentiating
between normal and abnormal human beings.7 \u201cIf power were never anything but
repressive,\u201d Foucault asks, \u201cif it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one
would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is
simply the fact that it doesn\u2019t only weigh on us as a force that says no; it also traverses
and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.\u201d8

The concept of discourse here is key. As Foucault sees it, the external reality of
the subject is so incomprehensibly complex that scientists must rely upon their own
power-interests in deciding (a) how to distinguish between true and false, and (b) how to
select and construct information about their subjects into a unified body of communally
accepted knowledge, called a discourse. While the discourse purports to serve as an
epistemic passageway to the subject, it actually serves as a facade that hides and
disguises it. It may seem here that Foucault proposes a \u201cskeptical or relativistic refusal of
all verified truth,\u201d but he objects to this caricature. Rather, he wants to expose discourses
or \u201cregimes of knowledge\u201d as what they are rather than what they purport to be.
Discourses may contain verifiable nuggets of information, but they should not be taken as
power-neutral representations that correspond directly or even accurately with reality.9

Stage 3: Differentiation.As mentioned above, Foucault argues that the

discourses of the human sciences have produced distinctions between normative and anti-
normative behavior, distinctions that claim to be rooted in scientific knowledge of the
way things are. Psychiatric discourses have distinguished between madness and sanity,
medical discourses between health and sickness, juridical discourses between criminality
and civility, and discourses on sexuality between the natural and the perverse. Likewise,
Foucault describes these distinctions not as perverse additions to pure scientific
knowledge but as an integral aspect of how claims to knowledge function in society.10

Stage 4: Back to Relationships of Power. With differentiation between
5 Ibid., 326.
6 Ibid., 326-328; see also Lydia Alix Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners (New York: Writers and

Readers Publishing, 1993), 67-75.
7 Foucault, \u201cTruth and Power,\u201d 116-120; see also Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners, 15-18.
8 Foucault, \u201cTruth and Power,\u201d 120.
9 Foucault, \u201cThe Subject and Power,\u201d 329-331; and Foucault, \u201cTruth and Power,\u201d 116-118.
10 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley

(New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 31-5, 39-43, 53-58. See also Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners, 26-

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