Foucault and Liberalism


When the philosopher Michel Foucault died of AIDS in Paris in 1984, he was one of the world’s most famous intellectuals. In his native France, he had managed to obtain the special French superstar status, which is only granted to a chosen few, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Foucault’s works were read and discussed in most of the academic world. In the years after his death, his status has only grown, and today his scientific methods have long since spread beyond the narrow circle of historians and philosophers to every corner of the university. Foucault’s thoughts have managed become a sort of default in every branch of social science (except perhaps economics). At several Western universities, he is today the most cited social science theorist. It is hard to overstate his importance. The entire strand of philosophy known as ‘postmodernism’ or ‘poststructuralism’ owes Foucault something, and frequently quite a bit more than something.

Foucault also laid the foundation for one of the most commonly used methods in social science education: Discourse analysis. Here it is superfluous to mention that he is an obligatory part of every curriculum in the social sciences and the humanities, and even at some non-academic educations. Personally, I’ve seen instances of Foucault’s philosophy being peddled as mandatory for nurses and paramedics too.

If you read his works, it can be difficult to understand how they could have spread across the globe; how they could be read and purchased in the hundreds of thousands and discussed ad nauseam. His books are unbearably cryptic, incredibly difficult to decipher, and the insights you can squeeze from them are often contradictory and sometimes meaningless.

Foucault’s success is partly due to his timing. He wrote his works in the 1960s and 1970s, when the growing countercultural movement won more and more popularity within the intelligentsia. His anti-essentialism and rejection of Enlightenment thinking was well received by the greater part of a generation of European intellectuals that pined for a confrontation with established bourgeois truths, Western imperialism and the old authorities. These were to become the basis for what has since become known as the youth rebellion.

Among the many incomprehensible sentences found in Foucault’s books, one finds a particular anti-authoritarian message which has undoubtedly has swayed many people who felt a need to do away with the old standards. But this anti-authoritarian message is fettered to a totalitarian Siamese twin. And if the two should be separated from each other, they will both die.

Accepting Foucault’s theories of knowledge, power and man means that you will have to renounce to any belief in humanity’s ability to comprehend objective reality, as well as any belief that individual liberty can be achieved within the norms of established society. The notions that individual human beings have a personal responsibility for their actions has to go out of the window as well.

Foucault’s theories are some of the best and purest instances of culturalism one can find in modern thinking. If one gives pride of place to these ideas, one must also necessarily place the entire foundation for liberal democracy and human rights in the trash. To someone who has truly understood Foucault, such ideas are even more odious than straight up dictatorships. His philosophy is fundamentally incompatible with belief in democratic government and individual rights.

Today it is quite normal that the term ‘positivism’ is used as a slur. A ‘positivist’ is someone who lives within the established consensus. He is a naive, altmodisch figure. A ridiculous figure, who believe there is an objective reality which can be comprehended through formal and uniform scientific inquiries. These are beliefs that even today may evoke laughter from humanities students and faculty. No, they say, reality is not ‘objective’, it is created by power. It is the power structures in a given society that shape all our knowledge through linguistic, discursive processes. The only way to be able to establish any type of remotely credible knowledge, is through the critical analysis, in which we look at language and discourse and how they shape our way of thinking.

All of this is a legacy that can be traced back to Foucault. And it is actually an excellent means of critical correction. A good counterweight for theorists on a blind empirico-quanitative rampage. It is never a bad thing to be aware of the power of perspectives and linguistic, discursive processes surrounding one’s research.

But when this approach alone is dominant, instead of just a critical correction, it paradoxically becomes its own normative hegemony, and when that happens, we end up with a serious intellectual problem. It leads to every kind of vulgar social constructivism where university graduates think they can solve deep problems just by doing a bit of textual analysis. It leads to a new naivety, where one imagines that the underlying realities of the world can be changed if we just talk differently about surface signs and signifiers. But worst of all, it leads to the total rejection of any ethical universalism  and any common standard of knowledge, to a monstrous culturalism, in which the individual disappears in favor of large, collective, discursive currents, and the complete dissolution of the subject.

It is possible that Foucault did not intend for his work to end up being used in this manner, but if so, he never did anything to guard against this being the outcome of what he produced.

Foucault’s project was not particularly normative or ethical, but more philosophical, historical, and political. His primary aim was to break the spell of enlightenment thinking, which in his opinion, had created an implicit normativity in the modern social sciences, often leading scholars to deal with how everything should be in stead of how it actually is. He saw himself as carrying on the work of Nietzsche, where ethics is a lie that only weak-minded losers believe in.

It was this approach that Foucault adopted. He was interested in discovering how knowledge was created and how it could be converted into power in the form of discipline, which could again be used to control people. He went against the Popperian – and someone might mockingly say: ‘positivist’ approach to knowledge – where one methodically, soberly and rigorously embarks on a journey leading one closer and closer to the ‘truth’.

Foucault never wrote a line  about methodology. Yet it is his method, which has enjoyed the greatest acclaim.