Foucault’s Philosophy of Science: Structures of Truth/Structures of Power
Michel Foucault’s formative years included the study not only of history and philosophy but also of psychology: two years after he took a license in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1948, he took another in psychology, and then obtained, in 1952, a Diplôme de Psycho-Pathologie. From his earliest years at the Ecole Normale Superieur he had taken courses on general and social psychology with one of most influential psychologists of the time, Daniel Lagache, who was attempting to integrate psychoanalysis with clinical methods.(Eribon 1991, 42) Foucault’s studies included experimentation and clinical instruction in which patients were presented in an amphitheatre just as in the days of Charcot. For several years after he had received his Diplôme, Foucault continued research in psychopathology, observing practices in mental hospitals, reportedly sometimes volunteering in experiments himself. He purchased the material required to administer Roschach tests, subjecting numerous friends to the inkblots, and became, when it was founded, the honorary president of the French Rorschach organization. Foucault’s first books were on the topic of the psychological characterization of madness and the development of clinical medicine, and his last books addressed the development of psychological norms within the establishment of modern prisons as well as within an increasingly scientific approach to sex. Thus, he worked at the intersections of philosophy and psychology throughout his life. Nonetheless, Foucault reported feeling an intense aversion to psychology no less than to philosophy.(Sheridan 1980, 5)
Foucault’s oeuvre is almost exclusively focused on particular knowledges in the human sciences, especially those aspects which pertained to psychological theories of human behavior, capacity, and normative functioning. His historical approach to these, and his emphasis on the role of discourse, is readily reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn’s similarly historical approach to scientific method with its emphasis on the role of paradigms and the untranslatability of paradigm-dependent objects. Both Kuhn and Foucault are important figures in the development of post-positivist philosophies of science, neither trusted progressivist accounts of scientific development or saw the development of science as primarily a story about improved reference, both emphasized the social context of science but rejected an account of science as ideological, and both insisted that the guiding organizations of scientific knowledge—discourse or paradigm—are not simply constraining of what scientists can see but, more significantly, productive and enabling for the production and solving of problems, the construction of data, and thus the production of new knowledge. Yet Foucault continues to be little read or discussed in the circles of analytic philosophy of science. This, I believe, has three main reasons: because his work addresses the human rather than the natural sciences—sciences, that is, that many consider immature, lacking methodological consensus or sufficient formalization, and because he is associated with anti-rational French postmodernism (an association that is controversial among continental philosophers), and because he wrote a great deal about power. Whether Foucault should be classified as a rationalist, anti-rationalist, or arationalist is less philosophically important to assess, depending as these classifications do on prior commitments or understandings of reason and theories of knowledge. More important for the philosophical evaluation of Foucault’s contribution is to assess his account of the knowledges in the human sciences and their specific implication in power.
Foucault did not offer a generalized and universal account of the epistemologies and methodologies of the human sciences, however, addressing questions of objectivity, covering laws, or models of explanation as was done by philosophers such as Ernest Nagel, Emile Durkheim, William Dray, or Maurice Natanson. Nor does he give a methodological critique or develop a clear normative alternative, such as developed by Max Horkheimer. Rather, Foucault gives us case studies of very particular bodies of knowledge, and occasional generalizations about the techniques of power in relation to these knowledges and about the most effective way to analyze these techniques. In two books, The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, he offers, respectively, a very broad account of major discursive shifts in the epistemic frameworks of the human sciences over the last four centuries and a philosophically descriptive account of the relationship between discourse and knowledge. This last work is indeed his most general and considered by many to be his weakest. Much more influential are his less broad and more specific case studies, from which he develops generalizations which have an unclear range of applicability.
Like all of the highly original philosophers, Foucault’s work poses significant challenges of interpretation and assessment. How are we to take his occasional generalizations when he so often counsels us to analyze only locally and particularly? How can we understand his views on reference, or realism, or an assortment of other contemporary philosophical concerns, when he refuses to address these issues directly? Even more than other continental philosophers who were interested in epistemology and the sciences—such as Lyotard or Deleuze—Foucault’s works read as histories and sociological studies of specific sciences rather than philosophical engagements with the major questions about knowledge, the real, or justification in science. His relationship to the history of European philosophy is no less difficult to draw out than his relationship to Anglo-American philosophy, since Foucault refers very little to the canonical philosophers but chooses rather to discuss such unfamiliar figures as Buffon, Pinel, Jacob Lenz, Charcot, Rusche and Kirchheimer, and Condillac. Yet it is clear that Foucault’s work offers a paradigm shift of its own, with new articulations of problems and new objects of study. Any critical interpretation would be unfair that refuses to engage with Foucault on his own ground, that is, his case-studies in the human sciences, and chooses instead to focus solely on his occasional universal pronouncements. At the very least, one should look at the context within which those pronouncements arise. A surprising number of excellent philosophers, such as Habermas (1987) and Rorty (1986), have seriously misunderstood Foucault because they neglect to address his particular cases or to use those as the guide with which to interpret his generalizations.1
Beyond the particular depictions he gives of the rise of certain sciences, and of their interrelationships and institutional genesis, Foucault’s original contributions to the study of science have mainly to do with how he conceptualized its co-constitutive relationship to power. As in the Hegelian tradition, for Foucault the conceptual and methodological approaches used in producing knowledge are historically contingent; thus “one cannot speak of anything at any time...”(Foucault 1972, 45). This affects not just how objects are interpreted, but how phenomena are grouped into objects, as well as in some cases how phenomena, such as stable sexual identities or criminal personalities, come into existence. The conditions by which objects of study emerge are, then, as he says, “many and imposing.”(Foucault 1972, 45) Unlike the foundationalists but like the coherentists, for Foucault perception has no causal primacy of ontological pre-existence, but neither does an imagined abstracted process of conceptualization. Foucault does not separate perception from conceptualization: produced simultaneously are the object, the mode of perception, and the concept, after which come competing explanatory theories (see e.g. Foucault 1975, 125).
The object [of discourse] does not await in limbo the order that will free it and enable it to become embodied in a visible and prolix objectivity; it does not preexist itself, held back by some obstacle at the first edges of light. It exists under the positive conditions of a complex group of relations.”(Foucault 1972, 45)
In this early period of his work Foucault develops analyses based on the multiple patterns of relations between elements within a structure of statements, rather than with something exterior to that structure, such as intentions or causal forces such as profit motives, or the separate and specific interests of a state or ruling class. Instead he argues that it is at the level of the internal relations of elements within a discourse that can be found its conditions of possibility. (See e.g. Foucault 1972, 46)
“What properly belongs to a discursive formation and what makes it possible to delimit the group of concepts, disparate as they may be, that are specific to it, is the way in which these different elements are related to one another....”(Foucault, 1972, 59-60)
Thus in Madness and Civilization he traces the variable characterizations and responses to insanity in Europe from the end of the Middle Ages through the Classical and to the Modern period, connecting the treatment of madness in each to other knowledges and approaches to knowledge at the time. In the initial work he did on this topic, Foucault contrasted “Madness,” as a socially contextualized positive category, with a prediscursive, stable “madness,” intending to show that there is no easy causal or other correlation between the two: that the unofficial “madness” does not explain officially recognized “Madness.” However, by at least 1960 he abandoned the idea that such a contrast could be made. Instead, he began to theorize all of what is called madness as a social construction, since the “norm” of human behavior and functioning that is used to demarcate the sane from the insane is so implicated in other aspects of its contemporary cultural discourses that it is impossible to find even the outlines of an untouched “madness.” All that can be said across these different representations is that differences do occur; nothing can be inferred about a sameness below the differences, however remotely it might be attached to them.
Nonetheless, what can be shown is how many relations exist between the given treatment of madness with its contemporary knowledges and orientations. In the late middle ages madness was schematized in terms of excess and irregularity, and those exhibiting mad behavior were grouped with other excessive and irregular types such as fools and simpletons, drunkards, and debauchers. The mad/sane distinction was neither medicalized nor psychologized but understood on the terms of a morality which counseled moderation and thus grouped the immoderate together. Thus in the Renaissance the mad were loaded onto ships and exiled from the city but left largely to their own devices. Madness later became construed through the binary of reason and madness, as the concept of secular reason began to dominate, in the classical age, the contrast of human and nature. Then in the modern period we have the more familiar medicalized psychological contrast of sanity/insanity, in which moral discourse is replaced by a discourse of impartial truth. But the move from excess to unreason to clinical insanity does not represent any sort of epistemic progress toward understanding a recurrent phenomenon, but merely reflects the alterations of intelligibility within discursive relations at a given time. These relations organize the formation of social constructions, rendering the mad consecutively as excessive (and grouped with drunkards, debauchers, etc.), as the unfortunate (and grouped with the poor and the homeless), and as the sick (and grouped apart from all others to administer a specific kind of “cure”).
Foucault became very interested in the development during this latter period of the administrative oversight for those subject to confinement. From a period where lepers were confined to colonies and left to themselves, and fools were loaded onto ships to be delivered to “the uncertainty of fate,” (Foucault 1965, 11) in later periods the inhabitants of such excluded spaces came to be looked after and cared for, and still later, came to be cured or rehabilitated. A new discourse of state obligation to the unfortunate emerged during the classical period, which aimed to take charge of them at the nation’s expense. This resulted in significantly restricting their individual freedom (Foucault 1965, 48). Foucault quotes the French King’s decree in 1656 at the founding of the Hôpital Genéral, created to oversee and combine poorhouses, madhouses, and rest homes for military veterans, which grants the directors, appointed for life,
all the power of authority, of direction, of administration, of commerce, of police, of jurisdiction, of correction and punishment over all the poor of Paris, both within and without the Hôpital Genéral. (Foucault 1965, 40)
In the modern period this administrative function became much more associated with a science of psychological diagnosis and cure, expanding by far the degree of intervention and organization of an inmates’ daily life. Each of these three periods, then, portraying madness as part of the excessive and irregular, as part of the irrational, or as part of the psychologically abnormal, represent alternative discursive regimes, alternative social valuations of science, alternative forms of power relations, and alternative legitimations for authority over both life and truth.
It is in Foucault’s second major work, The Birth of the Clinic, that he begins to formulate more clearly then he did in Madness and Civilization his notion of “discourse,” which is never more exactly defined, or less vague, than Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm,” yet is nonetheless explanatorily powerful. (Those critical of Foucault’s vagueness might recall that, in the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Margaret Masterman found twenty-one separate meanings of the term “paradigm.” See Masterman 1970). Hacking perhaps defines discourse best as a system of possibility for a web of belief. (Hacking 1984, 48) Discourses govern existing groups of statements and regulate the generation and distribution of new statements. In circular fashion, a statement is defined as meaningful if it is statable within a discourse. The rules of discursive formation do not mandate specific truth-values for specific statements, but open up a delimited space in which some statements can be meaningfully expressed and understood. Foucault also at this point introduced his concept of the episteme, defined as the set of internal relations that unite the discursive practices that give rise to the sciences. The episteme is not a method or form of knowledge or type of rationality, but simply the totality of relations, e.g. the relations of similarity, analogy, and difference, that give rise to discursive regularities and thus give unity to a discursive formation. This includes the way in which the reasonable has been demarcated from the unreasonable, the true from the false, and the intelligible from the unintelligible.
Like the structuralists Foucault sees discourses as generative and not simply organizational. A fully articulated belief emerges from the prescriptions of a discourse which provides both resources and limitations for the possibilities of cognition. But this account is not necessarily inconsistent with realism: discourses do not determine the truth-value that any given belief has but whether it can have a truth-value. Discourses govern the generation of statements whereas epistemes, at a more distant position, govern the ways in which objects can be constructed and justificatory procedures can be imagined.
For Foucault, statements cannot be adequately analyzed merely as the bearers of propositional content; they are also bearers of an “enunciative function” which
is identified neither with grammatical acceptability nor logical correctness, and which requires if it is to operate: a referential (which is not exactly a fact, a state of things, or even an object, but a principle of differentiation); a subject (not the speaking consciousness, not the author of the formulation, but a position that may be filled in certain conditions by various individuals); an associated field (which is not the real context of the formulation, the situation in which it was articulated, but a domain of coexistence for other statements); a materiality (which is not only the substance or support of the articulation but a status, rules of transcription, possibilities of use and re-use).(Foucault 1972, 115)
A justified belief will require the proper kind of connection, then, between the statement and a referential, a subject, an associated field, and a materiality. Though the terms “referential” and “materiality” might imply an extra-discursive realm to which the statement must have some relations of correspondence, Foucault in the passage just quoted explicitly eliminates this inference by giving a discursive characterization of these terms. A referential is a principle of differentiation by which the object world comes to be constituted; a materiality is a set of rules of transcription that affect possibilities of use for specific statements in diverse contexts.
Especially important to note is the way in which for Foucault forms of subjectivity are connected to a discourse. Foucault argues that a discursive practice sets out the “legitimate perspective for the agent of knowledge”(His of Sys of Thought199) and involves rituals that determine “the individual properties and agreed roles of the speakers.”(DL 225) In other words, who may speak about what to whom is determined at the level of the discursive formation. Foucault develops detailed examples showing how this account can illuminate various moments in the human sciences in several of his books, and showing how previously unconsidered connections appear between disparate discourses, such as language and medicine and economics, when we attend to the similarities in their enunciative functions.
In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault applies his discursive approach to the development of medical science and challenges the prevailing view that saw the development of the medical clinic as the cornerstone of a move from superstition to science, or from practices primarily of classifications to empirical methods based on observation. Prior to the emergence of the medical clinic, diseases were generally conceptualized by Europeans as abstract essences, like Platonic “forms,” that were in some fundamental sense independent of particular bodies. Diseases could become apparent through their visible symptoms, but the visible did not dominate the identification or construction of disease as an object of analysis. Conceptual a priori configurations were primary in identifying disease, and the visible individual bodily manifestations could not provide any independent information and could well be misleading. The primary question asked of patients was not “where does it hurt?” but “what is the matter with you?”
A series of epidemics gave rise to the development of the clinic, from which emerged a new construction of disease as phenomenon, or visible object, rather than concept, or Form. Perception thus came to take a much more important role. However, Foucault contested the usual explanation of this shift which credits the progressivist development of pathological anatomy to revolutionary movements that began to displace the hegemony of religious and moral restrictions on dissection and anatomical inspection. This explanation assumes that the mere increased access to bodies in itself made possible the attainment of new perceptual information from which developed more empirically based theories. Foucault argues that not only the amount but also the form of perception changed: clinicians had to have reasons to give primacy to their perceptions over their classification schemas. They had to know both what to see and how to see it. The gaze could only function successfully when connected to a system of understanding that dictated its use and interpreted its results; a pre-conceptual gaze would be useless. Before the clinic, observable symptoms were viewed as only the distorted manifestations of disease in its pure, natural form. The physician had to look past the observable specifics to “see” disease. When the specific and comparative observations of bodily lesions, spots, sores, malformations and loss of function were organized as the symptoms of living, alterable, and contingent processes, then disease came to be seen not as outside of life, existing independently in its timeless essence waiting to invade life, but as a form of life itself.
Foucault’s treatment of perception, then, locates it not at the foundation of pathological identifications, nor as the mere by-product of theoretical shifts. The disinterment of bodies would not be sufficient in itself to produce the innovations in pathology documented in this period, but in Foucault’s view it is no coincidence that the changes occurred during the development of clinics. Clinics not only enabled comparative observations of disease manifestation; even more importantly, they reorganized the procedures of knowing or what Foucault called enunciative functions. Clinics were set up for the operation of the gaze, with patients lined up and laid out for inspection in a context understood to be the site of research and teaching as much as of the delivery of treatment. The individuality of cases became more important under the increased attentiveness and authority of the gaze, and clinics authorized the gaze and authorized the physician to ask to see, away from the social norms of domestic spaces. Out of this, new classifications emerged for organizing patients, medical knowledge, and authority. New possibilities of analogy and new relations of similarity and of relevance were developed. The subject positions of physician and patient were altered, with the individual physician gaining in authority. Disease as an object was reformulated, making possible the appearance of new theories of etiology.
To separate out the content of this new knowledge from its institutional context is to separate belief from justification. The development of scientific knowledge is always guided by a “body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area...”(Foucault 1972, 117) The broad arena within which Foucault locates and analyzes specific knowledges is not transportable across different discursive domains or different enunciative functions. Justification, and theory-choice, cannot be adequately explained by a reductive account that would eclipse consideration of these contextual conditions,
With the current acceptance in the West of alternative medical approaches, from holism to herbalism to Chinese medicine, which have gained acceptance only because their real practical results are sometimes better than that garnered by “high-tech” orthodox medicine, we should be able to recognize without much intuitive strain that the knowledges developed in the clinics was not the only way to identify and effectively treat human disease. Foucault’s account does not require that we repudiate western medicine’s claims of truth, but it certainly complicates how we may understand what truth is. In the story of medicine’s contingent historical development, Foucault offers, not a causal account, but an expanded explanatory account that refers to nothing outside the practices of medicine as exerting efficacious, independent causality, but he never questions that those practices are engaging with life and death, pain and suffering, or that they altered the elaboration of disease sometimes successfully in ways they had precisely intended.
After The Birth of the Clinic Foucault turned his own gaze to broader questions about the shifts in discursive formation that he had charted in the classical and modern era. He also began to raise more questions about the authorization processes by which knowledges produced in specific contexts grew and spread and metamorphosed through many diverse terrains. Overall, he became interested in the human sciences, those sciences that receive scant respect yet are favored by an enormous influence in institutions, from courts to classrooms to prisons. He refused the “why” question about theoretical developments and transformations and focused rather on the how, the what, and the who: how did knowledges proliferate, diversify, and expand? What new objects for study and analysis came into view? And,
Who is speaking? Who, among the totality of speaking individuals, is accorded the right to use this sort of language? Who is qualified to do so? Who derives from it his own special quality, his prestige, and from whom, in return, does he receive if not the assurance, at least the presumption that what he says was true? (Foucault 1972, 50)
Given his account of how new knowledge emerged in very specific institutional arrangements with very specific actors as well as discursive formations, these how, what, and who questions are not epistemically tangential or “merely” political. Unless we hold that our current knowledge is absolute, final, and non-contingent (where contingent means that it might have evolved otherwise with no necessary sacrifice of truth or reference), unless we hold, in short, positivist accounts of contemporary knowledges, we must allow that such questions may be relevant for any adequate story of epistemic justification. Foucault makes the case for this argument most clearly in his two later works, Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality.
The debate over whether and how political considerations affect science is similar to the old debate about how irrationality is involved. The solution for those who want to protect science from what they worry is a slippery slope of disauthorization is to erect partitions. So irrationality, admitted certainly to playing a role in the development of hypotheses, as well as successful but logically baseless leaps of inference or abduction, intuitions, and so forth, was safely sequestered to the context of discovery, securely away from the context of justification. Similarly, politics is thought by many to affect scientific applications or technologies, choice of research topics, certainly funding sources and who gains entry to the profession, but not, ultimately, theory-choice.
Foucault’s originality is to deconstruct the problem of showing precisely where power enters science by conceptualizing science as a field of power relation, where power is, in other words, always already there. He defines power as “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitutes their own organization...”(Foucault 1978, 92) Because power is without sovereignty or centrality, because it is not analogous to the law in the sense of exerting specific controls over a range of actions and expressions, but is rather contextually based, productive, and relational, we can begin to think of the power operative in science as occurring from the ground up, rather than entering illicitly through the back door. His is not a sense of power as having a uniform or coherent strategy that seeks to manifest itself the same in every instance, but more as a system of possibilities for relations that interact, reenforce, and strengthen other operations. “Relations of power,” he says, “are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter.”(Foucault 1978, 94) But most importantly, power’s condition of possibility is the “moving substrate of force relations” which thus engender only “local and unstable” states of power.(Foucault 1978, 93)
This approach eclipses the question of whether power’s relation to science is intrinsic, as the Strong Programme advocates and postmodernists are thought to believe, or extrinsic, as most philosophers of science, whether sympathetic to continental approaches or not, believe. The question no longer makes sense because power is not strictly speaking something that has a relation to science, or the social, but is organic to them and emerges from them. It is neither ontologically or conceptually separable, but more like the duck/rabbit picture, where we have been trained to see only the duck but the rabbit has been there all along. The relations in the clinic that yielded new forms of knowledge emerged from specific social relations between persons, between domains of discourse, between institutions. These social relations, intelligible as a grid of power, are not extrinsic to the knowledges developed, but neither does their form exhaustively explain those knowledges, or eclipse in any way their truth value.
Many of Foucault’s critics have misconstrued his account as one that would replace rational processes of theory choice with ideological or politically strategic operations, as if he were arguing for power and against, as it were, knowledge. But Foucault also held that there is “no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge,” that “power produces knowledge” and that “power and knowledge directly imply one another”(Foucault 1979, 27). In other words, not only does power provide the site for the elaboration of knowledge, but knowledge itself has a constituting effect on power relations, for example, in establishing and/or reenforcing hierarchies of epistemic authority.
In his study of the birth of the modern prison as both a universal method of punishment and one oriented toward rehabilitation rather than (simple) retribution, Foucault describes the emergence of a new approach to the prisoner and “a redistribution of the economy of punishment", from torture as a public spectacle to an increasingly minute set of controls and surveillance over the body of the prisoner. The object of rehabilitation was the prisoner’s soul, but the prisoner’s body was viewed as the means to reach the soul. Thus, there emerged a new economy of suspended rights, a controlled and limited, rather than spectacular, power over the body, and a new manner of judgement that categorized and rendered punishable not only the actions of the prisoner, but also their motivation, personality, spiritual alignment, and passions. In this way a new discourse of knowledge about the criminal was produced---a new field of the statable, a new 'truth' of crime---which gave impetus to the subsequent development of psychology. Where before one was asked merely "did you do it?" now one was asked questions about motivation, intention, feelings, and so on. Thus new categories of criminals developed, involving what we now call first and second degree murder, manslaughter, and an analysis of the full complexities of causality. The goal of punishment changed from the public demonstration of the sovereign’s absolute authority to the production of normatively functioning citizens. Prisons attempted to bring the desires, the feelings, and the personality of the prisoner into a range of normality. A legal judgement of guilt became a psychological assessment of normalization.
Foucault describes this shift as a new tactics of power which produced processes of individuation. Analogously to Nietzsche’s argument that Christian guilt effected a more developed reflective interiority of the self, Foucault suggests that the disciplinary regimen resulted in an altered, expanded, and more intense subjective life of the individual, who began to approach himself as an object for attentive and vigilant observation.. In the previous era dominated by torture, enforcement was intermittent and there was a realm of free space, both for the prisoners to shout out as they were being hauled off or tortured and for the public to respond. In the developing prison system, the discourse and practice of normalization became much more efficient and invasive, developing a micro-physics of power directed on the body to produce minute self-imposed techniques of discipline, setting out the number of minutes spent on dressing, eating, praying, exercising, defecating, working and sleeping. Actions were broken down into small segments for reorganization toward greater efficiency with the aim of creating totally useful time. To enforce these regimens prisons were built on Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon, a circular spatial arrangement with a central guard tower assuring the possibility of permanent visibility and thus encouraging permanent self-monitoring.
Here, then, emerged a new object of study: “Man.” The target of the prison apparatus---the body—was studied with the detailed precision relegated before to insects or specimens of plant-life: marked, invested, trained, evaluated, compared, and made the carrier of signs. New modes of expertise emerged and proliferated as the knowledges developed in the prison were transported to, and transformed in, hospitals, schools, factories, military camps, and insane asylums, spurring the development of Taylorism and techniques of mass production.
We are still within the epoch of the discipline. Time management skills have filtered into our non-working life, as the means to reduce stress, to find more quality time for our children or spouse, to increase enjoyment and productivity. Women's magazines especially are filled with helpful hints about how to cram every waking minute with useful activity, how to multi-task, how to regulate our daily life into slotted periods for exercise, work, leisure, and romance.
The new disciplinary economy of power stimulated the human sciences, toward pursuing knowledge about Man through statistical analyses, surveys, polls, and controlled experiments. Norms were developed for every possible activity, from the normative amount of time it takes to learn arithmetic, to recover from an operation, to fall asleep, to be convinced to buy a brand of detergent. Persons became individuated through a meticulous measurement of their differences from a norm that imposed homogeneity. It makes perfect sense, then, to describe this as Foucault did: as a new regime for the circulation of power and of knowledge, involving a division and proliferation of forms of expertise, new types of epistemic relations, new institutionally constituted objects of knowledge, and new instrumentalities to direct operational determinations.
The representation of science as prone to ideological manipulation might picture this state of affairs as follows: that power relations confer authority on knowledges that are in the interests of the dominant. But everyone came to be more or less subject to these norms of behavior, and the new subject positions of authority produced by this new domain were not imaginable before: the “trainer,” the psychologist, the efficiency expert, the pollster. Power cannot be separated from justification processes when they occur within and are administered by authority figures operating with norms of model behavior. Nor can it be separated from truths which relate facts about new experiences, practices, techniques, and indeed objects that did not preexist the current power/knowledge era, such as the criminal personality, the delinquent adolescent, the socially maladjusted, or the pervert.
In History of Sexuality Foucault turns to the creation of knowledges and procedures for knowing sexuality. From the disciplined body he turns to the desiring body whose pleasures have become invested with power/knowledge. The confessional practices of the Church instituted a mediating relationship between priest and penitent for the extraction of truth on the basis of which to confer absolution and divine guidance. But the penitent had to confess in detail not only actions but thoughts, inclinations, and fantasies. In contemporary therapeutic relationships, the mediating relation between expert interpreter and the client who recounts the raw experiential data remains the same, and sex continues to be given pride of place in the individual’s life, but here the operation aims at producing an objective diagnosis within a domain of science. Foucault calls into question whether the dramatic shift from the religious to the secular approach to sexuality spells a true change of content, given that there is not much change in form. Whether sex is the domain of the church or of science, it is the object of invasive scrutiny and of evaluation in comparison to a norm. What is new in the modern regime is the entrance of what he names “bio-power,” or the focus on populations and their reproductions as the proper business of science and the state, to be regulated, statistically tabulated, observed, and governed. The deployment of a national output requires a plethora of new discourses about sexuality in relation to reproduction, and the heterosexual couple’s private conduct is now a matter of government reports, therapeutic guidance, medical intervention, and U.N. policy.
In the sphere of more private relations, Foucault is concerned about the shift that has occurred from practices to identities, from the engagement of acts, licit or illicit, to the articulation of birth-to-death stable categories of identity governing both reproductive and pleasurable activities. The confession/therapeutic procedures, flamed by the pleasures of both listening and telling, work not only to reveal but to incite and spread ideas about new possibilities. Thus do the categories of perversion multiply, and the power of the norm increases since it marks not only what one has done but what one is, one’s past as well as one’s future.
The essential features of this new “sexuality”, he tells us,
are not the expression of a representation that is more or less distorted by ideology, or of a misunderstanding caused by taboos; they correspond to the functional requirements of a discourse that must produce its truth.(Foucault 1978, 68)
The truth in sex we seek today is not the poetic, lyrical, mystical, or spiritual truth, nor is it the practical knowledge or ars erotica having to do with the techniques and skills of pleasure (though these are minor discourses). Mainly the truth we seek is the propositional truth, the set of statements that accurately correspond and thus refer to the matter about human sexuality, its detailed diversity, its effects and causes. But for Foucault, this truth is not enough. All of the objects of scientific study may not be social constructions in the same degree, but the persuasiveness of his case-studies suggests we need to ask questions about regimes of power in order to assess the claims to truth, not to reveal them as simple untruths, but to uncover the more complete story of how at least some truths have emerged.
So what then of science? Foucault’s view makes possible the idea, as Mary Rawlinson puts it, of struggling against a system of truth (Rawlinson 1987). Not to divest it from power, but to reorient its functionality and organizational relations. And in this, the political and epistemic motives cannot be easily segregated. One wants relief from the disciplinary nightmare, certainly, but one also wants a fuller account of the truth about the human sciences themselves.
1 Foucault’s sympathetic interpreters range from the cautious (e.g. Gutting 1989), who want to reclaim Foucault for a broadly rationalist tradition, to the extreme (e.g. Barry Allen 1993), who want to read Foucault as an epistemic nihilist. Ian Hacking (1984, 1986) and Joseph Rouse (1988, 1993, 1994) are probably somewhere in between. My own account is more in line with theirs and Gutting’s; my critique of Allen’s can be found in (Alcoff 1999).