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Michel Foucault—Cynical Libertarian or Postmodernist?

Week 2

Michel Foucault—Cynical Libertarian or Postmodernist?

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Week 2

Executive Summary

Michel Foucault was a leading French postmodern thinker whose works include Madness and Civilization, and The Order of Things. Here we present themes from his History of Sexuality, as discussed in a TAS CyberSeminar led by Stephen R. C. Hicks.

  1. A common interpretation of Foucault is as a diagnostician of corrupt power. In most political centers, abstractions such as truth and rights and justice are meaningless; power is the reality. 
  2. But that power rhetorically cloaks itself in self-congratulatory words like liberty and equality, all the while effectively silencing and squashing the lives of most people. 
  3. What is needed, then, is to unmask the hypocrisies and posturings to show the naked power struggles for what they are, to subvert the institutions that are oppressing individuals, to de-centralize the power that has been co-opted by a few, and thus liberate new voices and untold energies.
  4. Yet Foucault’s philosophy is more radical: his question is never whether discourses are true or accurate in representing reality but rather what role they play in the evolution of power
  5. Power is conceived in Nietzschean terms: as an evolving metaphysical force that constructs and uses humans. For example, Foucault defines power as follows: “the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable.”
  6. For humans, language is a form of power: “words are the tools we use in constructing and maintaining those social practices.” It follows, then, that in the power struggle “winners will be those who get to define the terms, set the agendas, and put their ‘spin’ on events.”
  7. In the modern world, especially since the Enlightenment, “our discourse has privileged reason, science, and technology.” But while that discourse is just one of many possible, all of us modern humans are raised and constructed to it into that system. 
  8. What of those who do not fit? They “are either deemed criminals, in which case they are turned over to the legal system (the physical police), or they are deemed insane, in which case they are turned over to the psychiatric system (the mental police).” 
  9. Modern “enlightened” society, despite all its rhetoric of progress, liberty, and tolerance, is oppressive through and through: “in this society that has been more imaginative, probably, than any other in creating devious and supple mechanisms of power” (HS 86). Hence it must be critiqued constantly and ruthlessly. 
  10. In this battle, “truth” and “logic” also are strategic weapons: “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy” (HS 102).

Find The History of Sexuality here. Read the CyberSeminar discussion here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2020.

See next:

  1. Stephen Hicks, "The Postmodern Critique of Liberal Education" (2019 Clemson University lecture)
  2. Executive Summary of TAS CyberSeminar on Richard Rorty's "Solidarity or Objectivity?" and "The Contingency of Language"
  3. Andrew Colgan's Pocket Guide to Postmodernism
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