Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

24: Michel Foucault part I:
The Modern Concept of Man

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Last time we looked at Jacques Derrida's idea that linguistic constructions determine the prejudices we hold as we look at and make sense of the world around us. Both Derrida and Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) are considered post-structuralists which is a branch of postmodernism. Were Derrida concentrated his work in linguistics Foucault concentrated on history. Foucault wanted to describe how the evolution of scientific language since the 16th century had created the modern concept of humans.
         Foucault criticized how human sciences (psychology, psychiatry, medicine, penology) were used to define deviancy and then used to justify the segregation of aberrant people all for the purpose of creating a notion of normality. He viewed the idea of 'normal' as extremely dangerous.
         1) Do you see any danger in the belief that there exists a 'normal' anything? Why or why not.
         2) Do you consider yourself normal? Why or why not?
         3) We lock people who are crazy in insane asylums. We lock up drug users, prostitutes, anti-government protesters, tax evaders and many people guilty of victimless crimes. Normal people do not act that way so lock him/her up – normal people don't do illegal drugs so lock him/her up, etc. How much of this is based on a concept of normality?
         Foucault claimed that 'man' was created in the 16th century. 'Man' is a word which is constituted by a set of discourses (the linguistic and practical activities of humans). But the way we speak and act toward 'man' today is determined by the human sciences (psychology, psychiatry, medicine, penology) which began in the 16th century (no one speaks in any other terms like the old Four Humors Theory). These new human science constructed a new normative normalizing depiction of what it means to be human.
         4) Foucault claimed that experience has a history. People today experience everything differently than people experienced things 500 years ago because today's discourses (the linguistic and practical activities of humans) are different. If our discourse on a topic makes a big deal of something then we value it and react to it more than if our discourse diminishes it. For example bullying in ancient Sparta was technique to build strength but in the modern world it is an evil to be stamped out. The reaction and the psychological well-being of the victim and perpetrator are vastly different. Can people with different discourses experience identical actions and/or tragedies differently?
         5) If you agree with Foucault in the previous question, could the discourse of our civilization be making some problems worse just by naming them? Labeling a person as having ADD (attention deficits disorder) certainly helps the clinician and other groups that cater to such labels but if the patient internalize the label and uses it as a crutch, is he better off? And if he is cured then are the clinicians and support groups better off? Can we ever overcome the negative challenges of labeling and are the risks worth the possible benefits?
         More generally: a class of people (those in power), in order to feel secure about their own identity (normality and superiority), need some other class (deviant or different and inferior) to rule and they need to construct the 'selves' of the other (deviant or different and inferior) people as being very different from their own. The class in power has to project their own unattractive qualities on to the other group so as to construct their own identity as different and superior. This process, according to Foucault has been the model used by all successful institutions.
         6) Institutions and bureaucracies tend to make life better for some and worse for others. In your opinion have you benefited more or less from bureaucracies?
         If power only oppressed it would be a poor thing. Foucault claims that power does more than oppress. It organizes, empowers, discovers and creates. All institutions seek to increase their power (some more than others) and they operate by imposing an oppressive idea of normality on people. Institutions are a major tool for those groups with power to exercise their power over others. Challengers outside the institutions are subtly (sometime overtly) discredited and marginalized and their needs and/or concerns are not given any legitimacy and sometimes de-legitimized.
         7) Can you imagination a world with less powerful bureaucracies? If so how and what would be the trade offs? Do you agree with Foucault's trade offs?
         Foucault believed that all life and all knowledge is power. The political question is: how do we seek knowledge and still maintain a free society? For Foucault the goal of social liberation is not to transcend power relations (he believed that was impossible because all relations are power relations) but rather to fragment power relations so that there are no large concentrations of power.
         8) There has been no progress in our thinking. Systems of thought change very quickly like paradigm shifts. Today we just look at people and what it means to be a person differently than in the past but not necessary better or worse. Do you agree or disagree?
         9) Progress, if it is possible, happens only when power becomes more and more fragmentary – when the power of the largest group or institution is brought closer to the power of the weakest group or institution. What do you think of this idea of progress?
         10) Would you as a person be better off in a more progressive society (in the Foucaultian sense)?
         11) Would your home country be better off in a more progressive international environment? Or would your home country be better off in the modern Unipolar world of U.S. hegemony?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren