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Continental Thoughts

Foucault’s Elephant

Thomas Morrison looks hard at Michel Foucault’s problem with science.

“… discourses themselves are neither true nor false”
(Power/Knowledge, p.118)

“The confession [is] the general standard governing the production of the true discourse on sex”
(History of Sexuality Vol. I, p.63)

Flamboyant French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is as well known for his historical analyses of criminality, sexuality, and madness as he is for his enigmatic statements on the nature of power, knowledge, and truth. In this article I want to examine the latter, especially in relation to scientific knowledge.

As a structuralist, Foucault believes the key to understanding the status of scientific knowledge is to understand the conceptual structures that lie at its foundations. Conceptual structures give rise to and organize fields of knowledge by establishing what categories of things there are, how they exist, and the ways in which we know and speak about them. For instance, sexual pleasure and pregnancy have been discussed by writers since ancient times, but not as ‘sexuality’. Sexuality wasn’t an attribute of individuals – it wasn’t something someone had – until the nineteenth century. And without certain systems of concepts (for example, ‘normal’/‘pathological’, ‘confessor’/‘confessee’) and the social practices that utilized them (nineteenth century medicine, Catholic penance), the scientific study of human sexuality would never have emerged. Foucault calls the conceptual structures that come to organize a field of knowledge discourses, so there are biological discourses, or chemical, or anthropological discourses, and so on. Importantly, Foucault argues that a scientific discourse is not the simple product of an objective study of phenomena, as scientific realists (such as most scientists) like to believe, but is rather the product of systems of power relations struggling to create fields of knowledge within a society.

Unfortunately, what he says about the possibility of objective scientific knowledge is not always clear. Is truth always relative to discourse? Is there really no possibility of getting at objective truth if the phenomena we study and the procedures for knowing them are historical products of power? This problem is the elephant always in the room with Foucault, going wherever he goes, from one work to the next.

I want to argue here that Foucault is not and cannot be an absolute relativist about knowledge. Rather, he is a relativist only toward scientific theorization and our knowledge generated from that. To show this we must understand both his theory of power and its relation to scientific knowledge, as well as some basic aspects of the nature of scientific theorizing and scientific concepts generally.

Types of Power

Foucault wasn’t the first philosopher to think about the relation between political power and science. Karl Marx (1818-1883), for instance, had a theory of how power influences our beliefs in terms of his understanding of ideology. This theory describes the relation between power and knowledge as sometimes being an illegitimate external force imposing false beliefs on a society. In such a case, objective science is possible, we just have to free ourselves from this illegitimate authority and let nature speak for itself.

To illustrate this idea, let’s use (neo-)Marxist ideology itself, the classic example being Lysenkoism in 1930s-60s Soviet Union. For thirty years, Soviet scientists affirmed Trofim Lysenko’s theory of environmentally-acquired biology inheritance, which fitted a Marxist view of history but which was contrary to Mendelian genetics, the view that was (and is) accepted by scientists in the West. The price for not believing Lysenkoism could be death, as with Vavilov in 1941. The Soviet Institute of Genetics used its power to conceal the truth about genetic inheritance by literally determining what counted as scientific knowledge. This is ideology at work on knowledge through brute force.

Knowledge being ideologically influenced in this way relies on a specific understanding of power. Foucault traces this understanding of power back to the twelfth century resurrection of Roman law in Europe. He calls it the ‘juridical conception of power’ (Power/Knowledge, 1980, p.83). On this view, the supreme example of power is the sovereignty of the king and his right to rule – to impose his will on others. Here, power is a right that’s held on the model of a legal contract: if the king defends the interests of his subjects, then he has a right to rule. (Compare this with the political theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). When power transgresses this social contract, it is oppressive or forced upon us, and is illegitimate. This is how ideology works for Marx in terms of knowledge too – it is an oppressive putting upon or covering up of our scientific knowledge by an illegitimate authority.

For Foucault, for power to play a role in the practice of science in Marx’s ideological sort of way, power must be conceived in the juridical-sovereignty sense. But he finds this conception unable to adequately describe power and its effects. In modern societies, power does not seek a right to rule, but operates through struggle and negotiation. Foucault doesn’t see power generally imposing beliefs by an external force, for instance as the state imposing science, but as something fluid, operating throughout the entire social body. Power works at every level of society, from large-scale political phenomena such as the establishment of a Constitution, down to individual interpersonal exchanges, such as between a parent and child or a doctor and patient.

Foucault calls this theory of power ‘tactics of domination’ (Power/Knowledge, p.92). Power is an expression of the will to dominate, and domination comes through controlling even options or choices. Thus you control a theatre of war by establishing boundaries and avenues of advance and retreat for your enemy; you define and direct all possible decisions and actions for the opposing force, and then let them make their choices. This need for control even of choices is why power must operate even at the minutest levels of an individual’s life.

Michel Foucault
Pas Michel Foucault
© Woodrow Cowher 2018. Please visit woodrawspictures.com

Discoursing On Science & Sexuality

Relating this conception of power to the practice of science, we get a clearer understanding of what Foucault understands scientific knowledge to be. He argues that power plays a major role in science by creating discourses.

Recall that a discourse is a set of concepts related in specific ways to other concepts. These can be either binary oppositions (eg normal/pathological), or more complex relations, such as the quadrilateral relation underlying the study of language in eighteenth century Europe: proposition, articulation, designation, and derivation (see The History of Sexuality, 1976, p.65; The Order of Things, 1966, p.127). A discourse establishes categories of objects, their mode of existence, and the methods for investigating and judging assertions about them – that is, for judging what constitutes knowledge and truth about them. Yet unlike with ideology for Marx, a discourse is not something covering over truth, because science is not a simple process of uncovering nature. Rather, a discourse structures science from the inside. Certainly, scientific knowledge is a product of scientists in the lab or field themselves, not state propagandists; yet scientific knowledge is still directly organized by the discourse of the society at the time, and this discourse is produced as an effect of power.

To illustrate this idea, let’s turn to the scientific concept of sexuality. If you accept the juridical conception of power, you might understand our scientific knowledge of sexuality as a gradual uncovering of a suppressed aspect of reality. You might say, social taboos and laws have distorted and repressed our knowledge of sexuality, leaving marginalized sexualities obscure, hidden; but once we free ourselves from these taboos and laws (these coverings), we can disclose the objective truth about sexuality.

Foucault shows how this story about the emergence of the science of sexuality doesn’t fit the historical record, because even the term ‘sexuality’ itself doesn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. This means that until then there was no such thing, in our experience of ourselves, in the minds of scientists, or in the world itself, as ‘sexuality’. The scientific concept simply did not exist. It wasn’t until the newly-created nineteenth century Western medical sciences adapted the Catholic procedure of confession, de-ritualized by Protestantism, to the rules of scientific discourse, that the field of human sexuality could emerge (The History of Sexuality, p.63). It was only then that sexuality became a means of classifying individuals; that it had anything to do with a person’s identity; that ‘homosexual,’ ‘heterosexual,’ and ‘pervert’ could be seen as kinds of people – or as boundaries or connections in the field of knowledge. Moreover, the mechanisms of power at that time produced and employed this discourse on sexuality not for the sake of knowledge but in order to extend control over individuals. And they did this by creating knowledge: “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (Power/Knowledge, p.93).

One might think that even if knowledge about something (for instance, human sexuality) must come from a discourse created by juridical-sovereign systems of power, there would still be objective facts about it that science could objectively investigate. Nineteenth century bourgeois society might have produced a certain discourse on the body, still influencing what we think today, but we would be able to eventually throw off that discourse and get at the truth. But Foucault argues that power constitutes knowledge from the inside. It isn’t a matter of throwing away false concepts to get to objective knowledge about human sexual behavior. Rather, everything we say about ourselves as individuals, and so what we are as human beings, is always a product of some system of power, and it is a matter of continually struggling against these systems of power to create new discourses. The object within my experience that I label ‘myself’, and those others that I label ‘human’, are (as eighteenth century empiricists taught us), sets of experiences or ‘impressions’ scattered across space and time, identified as similar or the same thing by a mental operation that’s external to the experience itself – by a discourse. The truth about human sexuality or any other complex concept involving a discourse can never be simply a listing of direct impressions; that would be incoherent and boring. Instead, how we understand human sexuality comes from the integration of these impressions in a certain systematic way defined by a discourse. This is a basic aspect of scientific theorizing. To better understand the role of power in scientific knowledge we need to understand scientific theorizing and the nature of a scientific concept.

Observation Is Not Science

Direct observation gives us very little besides immediate sense impressions. Of course, these are the meat of empirical science. But the essence of scientific theorizing involves understanding and prediction (or manipulation). Merely describing experience cannot give us either of those things. What parts of experience we investigate in a certain science, like physics or chemistry, what we count as the phenomena to be studied, their boundaries, essential properties, modes of existence, and so on, are determined by ideas outside of experience. There are the notions of relevance that the scientist accepts at the time and manifests in their work by the creation and use of specific scientific concepts.

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
‘The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’ by H. Lee, 1887

Take the example of defining a species. Before creating his taxonomy, Linnaeus wrote that he first needed “a complete knowledge… of everything that is relevant” (Systema Naturae, 1735). But what even is a species? There is no part of experience we can point to, called a ‘species’. Rather, it is a theoretical concept created by scientists as a way to systematically integrate and explain diverse experiences. A second question: what defines membership in a plant species? Is it the particular shape of the leaves or stem of the plant, the historical lore on the plant, or is it the ability for two members of that group to produce fertile offspring? Linnaeus defined species reproductively. Many botanists and zoologists before the eighteenth century defined it primarily by reference to lore and mythology, as Claude Duret did in his Histoire Admirable Des Plantes (1605) – which is why they included in their studies zoophytes such as ‘the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’. Or we may ask, what does a botanist study? What parts of experience are relevant to botanical phenomena? Hearsay? Stamen? Gametes? What changed between the botanical studies of pre-eighteenth century, the eighteenth century, and today? It wasn’t the gradual lifting of the veil off of the botanical part of reality; what changed were notions of what was relevant to the constitution of botanical concepts and theories.

The key to understanding Foucault’s relativism is this crucial difference between direct experience and science as theoretical systematization. We start off with an unorganized mess of sense impressions, testimony from others, and edicts from authorities, such as religious texts. Only by superimposing a structure on these diverse experiences can we judge that both experience A and experience B but not experience C are of the same individual object, for example, a birch tree. The experiences themselves are simply organisations of geometrically related points of colour, taste, sound, etc. The fact that this observed object is identical to or similar enough to that one is not something we get from observation itself. A suitable resemblance between two or more observations is instead constituted by the discourse used, which tells us what is relevant, and so what the object is and how we test our judgments about it. For example, there is nothing called ‘wealth’ in our observations, or ‘sexuality’, or ‘criminality’. These features of the world or individuals are created by the ways in which we theoretically systematize and organize experience.

Take another example from the natural sciences: electricity. Eighteenth century scientists disagreed on what they considered to be electrical phenomena. Attraction and friction but not repulsion; attraction and repulsion? Electrical conduction but not attraction or repulsion? (See The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, 1962, p.14). It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, with James Clerk Maxwell, that electricity and magnetism were considered more similar than different and deemed a unified force in nature: electromagnetism. There had for a long time been recorded examples of the effects of electricity on magnetized metals such as lodestones, but the idea that these phenomena were part of the same force had to be brought in by a new way of systematizing experience.

So it is the very essence of science to go beyond experience. And if experience itself does not tell us how to organize experience, what does? The root of Foucault’s notion of discourse is this: if experience does not tell us how we should theoretically systematize it, something else must.

Can There Be Truth?

The fact that scientific theorizing and scientific concepts go beyond observable experience sits at the very heart of science. So we can now see how we necessarily need something organizing our research. For scientific realists, this something is axiomatic or intuitive theoretical virtues or principles. For Foucault, it’s a discourse created by the tactics of domination (power) within the society. Therefore, for Foucault, scientific knowledge, grounded in theoretical systematization, is necessarily relative to power.

Does this mean that Foucault must be a relativist when it comes to knowledge and truth, believing that something is only true relative to someone’s beliefs, and there is no absolute, objective fact of the matter? I will close by asking three questions. First, how are we to regard Foucault’s own work in light of such potential relativism? Are his genealogies of the historical struggles that came to constitute our scientific fields themselves not making objective truth claims, that there really was a States General in France in 1575 to discuss abandoning the use of ‘accounting units’ (The Order of Things, p.185) or that so and so published their book in year x? Foucault cannot be a relativist when it comes to the truth or falsehood of these sort of statements.

Second, has his theory about discourse and scientific knowledge precluded the possibility of objective categories in nature (some philosophers call these ‘natural kinds’)? Can reality not still have natural connections and boundaries? To say that scientists rely on discourses set up by power to systematize experience and create science does not mean that reality itself is constituted by power, just that science is. The argument does not go far enough to be relativist in this regard. There may still be objective categories in nature, even if we cannot try and understand them besides through the effects of power. And whatever it is, science isn’t the mere listing of observable data in a giant compendium called The Book of the World. Instead the essence of science is theoretical systematization. Systematization produces both understanding and prediction (and hence the ability to manipulate) by trying to get closer to the actual patterns or laws in nature, independent of how our human cognition happens to be constituted.

Finally, do Foucault’s arguments allow us to conclude that any truth may become a falsehood (or vice versa) if we simply change the discourse in which we assert it? Or to put this conversely, are there truths which no discourse can coherently deny? Do discourses operate within certain immutable logical boundaries; provided by, for instance, the Law of Contradiction and similar logical laws? As I’ve tried to show, Foucault has given us no reason to believe he’s a global relativist about knowledge, and some reason to think he cannot be one even if that’s what he intended. Foucault is, however, to some extent a relativist in respect to scientific theories and the knowledge we get from them.

© Thomas Morrison 2018

Thomas Morrison teaches at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Missouri. He was trained at the University of Chicago and the University of Kansas, and focuses on issues in epistemology, logic, and the sciences; or, intellect and imagination.

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