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I am trying to understand Foucault’s power-knowledge concept. It seems that Foucault viewed knowledge not as an understanding of an objective reality but a way to exert power? (1)

It seems that one theme that occupied Foucault was mental illness. I could agree that insanity is just a social construct. I doubt there is any objective criteria for who is sane and not. I also find it plausible that entire “sciences” have been constructed to justify societies view on who is sane and not.

"Western societies largely accept the findings of science as the most authoritative source of knowledge and this, to Foucault, was evidence that it was power-knowledge. He called this particular type of power-knowledge bio-power.” (1)

Again I may agree with this in the case of some social sciences. But the problem here seems to be that these "sciences" are not very scientific.

Contrast this with the physical sciences. Before Copernicus in 1543 showed that the earth orbits the sun it was “knowledge” that it was the other way around. According to Foucault’s reasoning this is just someone exerting their power. Who is this? Who benefits from us believing that the earth orbits the sun? Or Semmelweis who discovered bacteria. In which way did Semmelweis exert power over us?

It seems that it would be impossible to advance science and technology if people were to adopt Foucault’s views? Are there not problems that face us today, like global warming, that both requires us to believe in science, and technological improvements in clean energy?

(1) Helen Pluckrose: The enduring legacy of Michel Foucault

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    Perhaps it's become clear in reading the answers, but it may be worth explicitly noting that this description of power/knowledge is, at best, an oversimplification of what Foucault himself wrote. For instance, I (having read a good deal of Foucault) see no reason to make this kind of statement, "Therefore, what is understood by society as knowledge is really just an exercise of power." Probably better to understand knowledge as an application of power in addition to whatever else it might be.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 13, 2021 at 23:48

3 Answers 3

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Foucault understood knowledge not merely to be disinterested enquiry but also a way of exerting power. Here, he's not talking about the power to inform or educate but the kind of power that places people in positions of influence and marginalise's others.

One specific notion he had was the notion of biopolitics. That is technology that is used to surveil the body politic. He was interested in the question of how demographics was used in early industrialised societies. This is an early case of big data. In todays world of big data and even bigger data this has become a huge political issue. Witness France Haugen's testimony about Facebook conduct to Congress and Parliament. She testified that Facebook was more interested in driving up growth at the expense of the social good. It was notable after this that Facebook scrapped their database of a billion prints for their facial recognition system.

This case is paradigmatic of what Foucault was talking about. Facebook is not interested in building harmonious communities - despite Zuclerberg's talk of connecting communities and nor is it interested in free speech. It is not in the market for altruistic reasons but to turn over as large a profit as it can. Like all market driven companies it is driven by the profit motive and this can and often is inimical to the public good. It's their power over impressionable young minds as well as older and more mature ones that legislators and law-makers are concerned about.

Foucaults notion has nothing per se to do about the scientific method but is really about how tyranny in a modern age can exert itself - a perennial topic in politics.

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    Facebook has a lot of knowledge, which gives it power, which it in turn use in an unethical way, polarizing and hurting the society. However that knowledge can be used to exert power is different from saying that power and knowledge is the same thing. It depends on how you use the knowledge. Again who benefits from us believing that the earth orbits the sun?
    – Andy
    Dec 12, 2021 at 12:58
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    @Andy: The point is to think about where power is inimical. Orientalism by Edward Said is another case where he shows knowledge being used to construct a notion of the middle east that was inimical to it and not grounded in reality. It was a way for the West to exert soft power. As for who is benefiting from the earth orbits the sun, those who wanted to overturn Christian Europe into a more secular and scientific society devoted to power. For example, Nietzsche. This did not work out well - see the first & second war, the holocaust of jews, romanies and other social undesirables. Dec 12, 2021 at 13:14
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    Nietzsche lived 300 years after Copernicus. Also it seems that like Foucault he distrusted reason. The Enlightenment on the other hand started 1600 according to Britannica. Those who wanted to overturn Christian Europe into a more secular and scientific society were probably early Enlightenment thinkers who valued reason over religious dogma. Enlightenment is not to blame for fascism. Rather fascism represented a backclash against reason and modernity. There is no reason behind slogans like "blut und boden" just raw negative emotions.
    – Andy
    Dec 12, 2021 at 13:40
  • @Andy: Nietzsche didn't distrust reason, he distrusted enlightment thinkers who were inspired by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. He disliked those philosophers as part of his general dislike of "womanly" Christianity and so its thought he didn't like reason. The early enlightment thinkers were like Socrates in that they didn't want to reject the divine but merely to remove religious superstition. But what they began did exactly that, and which was something that Nietzsche welcomed and advocated. I'm not suggesting the early enlightment thinkers were responsible for fascism but I definitely ... Dec 12, 2021 at 13:51
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Consider for a moment the current Climate Change debate (or the somewhat older debate over the Theory of Evolution). In both cases, both the scientific and non-scientific side are simultaneously asserting truth and applying sociopolitical force to control the perspective of the other side. This is power-knowledge, and it is pervasive in human culture. I suspect that Foucault meant that power-knowledge is the essence of pedagogy (though I don't think he ever said that), because pedagogy always has three components:

  1. The assertion that I/we know the truth
  2. The assertion that you/they must learn it
  3. The pragmatic political reality that I/we get to judge your/their knowledge, and punish any failure to conform or cohere

Despite Foucault's cynical and jaded approach to this topic, power-knowledge is a normal and usually non-problematic dynamic. When we first learn to drive a car, people tell us that a stop sign means to stop the car and look for crossing traffic before preceding. Most of us recognize that this piece of knowledge is meant to prevent car accidents, and thus represents a degree of power over our circumstances. Some people don't realize that, or don't care, and then we have systems of authoritative power — police offices writing expensive tickets, consequent increases in insurance rates, the potential for losing one's license to drive — meant to impose the truth that a stop sign means stop. In this case the body politic establishes a rule as truth, and sets up tests of that truth that every member of the body politic must pass, or suffer punishments.

Science is (perhaps) a special case, because science's form of power is (for lack of a better term) validation-shame. Basically, someone presenting a scientific theory to the world is saying:

  • Here's a theory
  • Here are cases where one can see with one's own senses that the theory works in practice
  • Anyone who cannot or will not see such obvious pragmatic cases is too stupid or vain to be worth listening to

You may think that last statement is overly harsh, but that is exactly the attitude that anti-evolutionists, climate change deniers, flat earthers, moon landing truthers, and other anti-science movements are responding to: The presumed intellectual superiority of science.

Science advances when new theories shame old theories into quiescence. If you've read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", he points out a number of such cases, where a new theory is proposed and a huge (and often nasty) squabble ensues. Most people initially reject the new theory. A few diehards who've made their careers on the old theory dig in as though it were a fight to the death. Over time the sheer empirical obviousness of the new theory brings most people around — they don't want the shame that comes from aligning with the hard-line diehards — and a new paradigm is formed. The validation aspect pushes the discipline forward (because no one will switch to a new theory that doesn't explain more than an old theory), the shame aspect solidifies it into a paradigm (because no one wants to look dumb by ignoring a better tool). The same is true in technology: who would stick with a land-line when a flip-phone is available, and who would stick with a flip-phone when a smart-phone is available? The validation of improvement and the shame of backwardness drive people in a certain direction. So even the seemingly prosaic aspects of science and technology are still manifestations of power-knowledge: the imposition of 'truths' through sociopolitical pressure.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 13, 2021 at 7:54
  • "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." - Plancks principle. Sometimes pithily summarised as 'Science progresses one funeral at a time'...
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 13, 2021 at 9:50
  • Presenting a scientific theory is nothing more and nothing less than "here is an interpretation of some facts". Any implication of someone being "too stupid or vain" to believe it doesn't come from the presentation of the theory itself, but rather from the rhetoric surrounding that theory (often more by the general public than scientists), once it's been accepted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, and the societal expectation that any intelligent person will accept what's true (which isn't specific to science, but scientists do value truth more than most).
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 13, 2021 at 13:03
  • @NotThatGuy: That strikes me as whitewashing. I've known enough research academics to know they are intelligent, competitive people determined to make a name for themselves. You're presenting them as though they are wise hermits calmly doling out facts with no interest in how the facts are received. Granted, that's a carefully cultured persona scientists adopt to mask the moral authority of the intellect that they universally invoke. But let's call things what they are here. Dec 13, 2021 at 15:01
  • It seems that by your line of reasoning global warming could be one massive "hoax"? If new evidence appeared within the scientific community that would be hushed down since scientists are reluctant to change. Further global warming ensures funding for climate scientists so they have a vested interest in it being "true".
    – Andy
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:26
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I would invite anyone who believes that sanity is merely a social construct to come to my town and spend a week objectively observing the homeless schizophrenics on First and Second streets. The words "sane" and "schizophrenic" may be social constructs laden with silent context but the behavior exhibited by someone suffering from schizophrenia is not.

Knowledge can be easily weaponized in the interests of exerting power simply by denying it to the people you wish to oppress. So for example the Israeli occupation forces will not share with their Palestinian enemies the means of removing the crowd-control malodorant with which they load their water cannons to disperse rioters. Nor did the American authorities deliver the blueprints for the atomic bomb to Hirohito in advance of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

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    +1: For stating that insanity has an objective component and not reducible to mere social constructs. Dec 12, 2021 at 21:05
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    Sanity is not just a social construct because, while the words for sanity and schizophrenia might be social constructs, the behaviour of someone suffering from schizophrenia is not. - This just seems like a strawman (or some other fallacious argument). You start with sanity, then you switch to sanity and schizophrenia and then you end with a statement about just schizophrenia in order to support your argument about sanity.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 12:58
  • Both sanity and schizophrenia are social constructs in the sense that we define which conditions sanity includes, which conditions exist and which behaviours those conditions include, and this can change over time. Not so long ago, many would've called schizophrenia demonic possession (and many probably still would or do). And more recently women might've been classified as insane if they tried to think for themselves. How meaningful "sane" is as a categorisation is correlated with how well we understand the human mind (with as little bias as possible) at any given point in time.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 13:01
  • Although the whole sanity discussion doesn't seem to have that much to do with the actual question asked, so it should probably just have been edited out of the question instead of addressed in an answer.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 13:28

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