Elsewhere (5)
Thick Air

Foucault Undone


Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse that 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.

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 1980.


Truth for [Foucault] is not something absolute that everyone must acknowledge but merely what counts as true within a particular discourse… However, it is not difficult to show that a relativist concept of truth of this kind is untenable. If what is true is always relative to a particular society, there are no propositions that can be true across all societies. However, this means that Foucault’s own claim cannot be true for all societies. So he contradicts himself. What he says cannot be true at all.

The relativist fallacy also applies to the concept of knowledge. One cannot hold that there are alternative, indeed competing, forms of knowledge, as Foucault maintains. Inherent in the concept of knowledge is that of truth. One can only know something if it is true. If something is not true, or even if its truth status is uncertain, one cannot know it. To talk, as Foucault does, of opposing knowledges is to hold that there is one set of truths that runs counter to another set of truths. It is certainly possible to talk about beliefs or values that may be held in opposition by the authorities and by their subjects, since neither beliefs nor values necessarily entail truth. But Foucault’s idea that there are knowledges held by the centralising powers that are opposed to the subjugated knowledges of the oppressed is an abuse of both logic and language.

Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, 1996.


foucault, n. A howler, an insane mistake. “I’m afraid I’ve committed an egregious foucault.”

From the Philosophical Lexicon.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this kind of relativistic position is best understood not as an epistemic insight but as a political prejudice. For some, it is ideologically intolerable that so called ‘Western ways of knowing’ should be largely preeminent in their effectiveness and rewards. If certain ways of looking at the world tend to produce advantages, both materially and culturally, this must somehow be ‘unfair’ and subject to correction, or at least disdain. Thus we arrive at assertions that, for instance, the scientific method and expectations of evidence should not be “privileged” above other, less reliable modes of thinking. In common usage, this levelling of knowledge claims reduces analysis to mere opinion or lifestyle choice, and is corrosive to critical thought for fairly obvious reasons. In order to maintain a pretence of ‘fairness’ and non-judgmental equivalence, there are any number of things one cannot allow oneself to think about, at least in certain ways.

As Windschuttle points out,

Despite its logical untenability, the genealogical method holds a great attraction for Foucault and his followers. In debates with their opponents… they hold what they believe is an unassailable position by focusing on who is speaking rather than on what is being said. They use the genealogical method to absolve themselves from the need to examine the content of any statement. All they see the need to do is examine the conditions of its production – not ‘is it true?’ but ‘who made the statement and for what reasons?’. This is a tactic that is well known in Marxist circles, where, to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says. If someone can be labelled ‘bourgeois’ everything this person says will simply reflect the ideology of that class.

The Foucauldian version is little different. In debate, any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing ‘discursive formation’ or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned. One of the reasons for Foucault’s popularity in the university environment is that he offers such tactics to his followers – tactics which should be regarded as a negation of the traditional aims of the university: the gaining of knowledge and the practise of scholarship. Foucault’s influence on the type of academic debate so frequently found today should be a matter of great concern. Instead of talk about real issues, all we get is talk about talk. Instead of debates based on evidence and reason, all we get is a retreat to a level of abstraction where enough is assumed to have been said when one has identified the epistemological position of one’s opponent.

More Windschuttle here and here.