This blog post addresses a seemingly simple question,
“How indeed is knowledge generated?”
The discussion is heavily inspired by the philosophy of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, social theorist and literary critic, who combined elements of modern philosophy and sociology, arguing that knowledge emerges from power relations. He moved beyond the previous classical philosophical questions, which sound rather nebulous and unimportant, and jumped to the real thing.
Michel Foucault’s singular most significant inspiration had been the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who often wrote on the overlap of genealogy of philosophical ideas. Foucault wrote various books including Madness and Civilization, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. He was inspired by Nietzsche’s genealogical investigation of social practices. The basic idea behind all of his works is demonstrating how discourses of power have modified and altered the way we think about ideas such as morality, sexuality, madness etc.
Foucault was concerned with how systems of knowledge were scattered across different historical episodes, called epistemes. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish explores the relation between discourse, perception and conduct. He gives the illustration of a prison cell, a power institution wherein the prisoners are subjugated and oppressed by the prison guards. Even when the guards are not on patrol, there is an internalised fear in the minds of the prisoners that they are being scrutinised from the watchtower, which results in a cycle of disciplinary society of checks and surveillance. Here, Foucault builds upon Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualisation of the watchtower, or the Panoptican. Both the victim and the oppressor are part of the power institution. Thus, according to him, knowledge is generated by reducing people to docile bodies and by systematically punishing the deviants. The deviants, in turn, stifle their individuality and internalise their actions according to the professed norm, which is referred to as dynamic normalisation.
In The History of Sexuality, a three-volume series of books, Foucault discusses the classification of sex as being “normal” and “deviant”, a joint effort by the government, the medical practitioners and the Church. He explains how homosexuality was scientifically classified as being abnormal and perverse, and how modern-day discourse on sexuality is actually a part of the same history of repression. By tracing the accounts of views on sexuality from ancient Rome and Greece, where sex was regarded as something normal and uncontroversial, to the West, where discussions on sexuality instantly raise moral questions, Foucault reveals how the knowledge of sex was really created by social power relations.
Madness and Civilization throws light upon how during Renaissance, insane people were not regarded as being sufferers of some mental abnormality, rather people blessed with occult wisdom. But the birth of the “medical gaze” began classifying all mad people as being diseased and in need of medical cure, which he also discusses in The Birth of the Clinic.
Foucault had a distressful personal life- with instances of suppressed sexuality, hints of sado-masochism and depression which all projected subtle influences on his works.
I agree with Foucault’s works on many levels, however I find them rather dark and distrustful. Foucault gives a very comprehensive study of social norms and established morals, and allows us to be in a better position to understand them. Although I have almost always glorified the rebels, the square pegs in the round holes, I do believe that there is a certain set of ethics that would keep psycho killers from roaming about the streets and murdering innocent civilians, or a college student from stepping into the downward spiral of drugs, alcoholism and crime. But again, this sense of discernment is personal to an individual, and it is wrong for a society to draw lines and bars on people. Foucault’s works are extremely important for people to realise that our identity, dignity and morals are non-existent; they are merely products of power relations which are morphed and moulded with time, to the advantage of the dominant.
What I extremely like about his works are how they all talk about extremely diverse subjects- discipline, insanity, sexuality etc. but all somehow converge to the conclusion that all of these are but an interplay of power relations that run through society. He demystifies history, and goes on to use history the way it should be used- as a tool to understand the present. I believe that his works are of extreme relevance even today, and should continue to inspire
modern philosophers in the years to come.