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

81: Michel Foucault part III:
What is Enlightenment? & Truth and Power

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         According to Wikipedia the Enlightenment is synonyms with the Age of Reason; it started about 1650 and lasted until about 1800 and is most commonly marked by a questioning of everything. In Foucault's essay, “What is Enlightenment?” he looks at a number of ideas and notions which he finds incomplete and lacking. From his research he claims, first, that the Enlightenment has been misunderstood on at least two points: It was not an either-or movement. It is impossible, with any intellectual honesty to say one is for or against the enlightenment because so much of our modern world has been structured by it. Secondly, the Enlightenment is not the same as humanism. He believes that the two movements were, more often than not, in tension rather than supportive. Humanism, of which there are hundreds, is, in Foucault's reading, a theme that is always used as a justification or rational for an easily discernible political agenda.
         For Foucault the Enlightenment is best characterized as an attitude or ethos that insists on questioning everything so as to find the proper limits. In so far as we question everything we are children of the enlightenment but today we must move beyond the negative search for limits “...into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression.” The Enlightenment was concerned with finding the limits of knowledge, truth, experience etc. as if they were formal structures that could be delineated. This is only possible within a system of thought; so a modern enlightenment attitude of questioning everything must be coupled with “...a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subject of what we are doing, thinking, saying.” This is Foucault's philosophical project: to understand how we became the subjects we currently are.
         The critical attitude of the Enlightenment today must become “...genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method.” By archaeological he means that we must unearth the past systems of thought and understand them within their own context; by genealogical he means that we order these past systems of thought and their influences on later systems of thought. In this way questioning everything becomes a positive exercise instead of the dead ends of perpetual skepticism and cynicism.
         In an interview later called “Truth and Power,” Foucault explains the “truth” of truth and power in their centrality to his philosophical project. Truth is commonly thought of as being separate from power but for Foucault truth and power are mutually dependent and inseparable. “'Truth' is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. 'Truth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it.”
         Truth is not mystical or supernatural; truth is not hidden or in need of being found; truth is a very real part of the world; truth is all around us. “Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth:... the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”
         In every society there are five traits that show up again and again in the politics of truth: 1) there is a type of discourse and institutions which produce it – in the medieval world the discourse was theology and churches and universities produced it; today the discourse is science and laboratories and universities produce it. 2) The economic and political spheres constantly pay homage to the discourse and the institutions – in the medieval world huge cathedrals were built and wars demanded religious justification; today research and development is paramount and the scientific experts are always necessarily consulted. 3) Truth is always the object of intense consumption. In the medieval world all art was religious as was the obligation to go to church; today there is a proliferation of scientific journals and everyone needs to show their truth with scientific principles. 4) There are institutions and missionaries charged with disseminating the discourse: in the medieval world churches, missionaries and armies today scientists, researchers and armies. 5) Truth is always under attack in debate and ideological struggle: in the medieval world the debates were theological; today they are scientific. Every society, according to Foucault, has had these five traits with only the object of truth differentiating them.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren