Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

Knowledge and the world to be known; the politics of truth

October 26, 2013

What is the connection between knowledge and the world to be known? In considering this question, Foucault (1973: 8-9) provides a comparison between the views of Kant and Nietzsche. He notes that Kant was the first (among Western philosophers) to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzche, on the other hand, believed that there is no resemblance or prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known  that there is human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or natural tie between them. In other words, there is not necessarily any connection between human knowledge and the world to be known. Rather, knowledge must struggle against a world without order, connectedness, form, or law.

So how to best understand knowledge? Given the discord between knowledge and the world to be known, Nietzche declared that philosophers are the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, because they tend to think of knowledge in the form of congruence. Rather, if we truly wish to understand knowledge, Foucault (1973: 12) suggested we must look not to philosophers, but to politicians; we must understand what the relations of struggle and power are. In other words, one can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining relations of power  the manner in which people fight one another, try to dominate one another, and seek to exercise power relations over one another. This is a key aspect of what Foucault (1973: 13) refers to as the “politics of truth.” Rather than knowledge and power being separate entities, behind all knowledge is a struggle for power; “political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it” (Foucault 1973: 32).

In examining the politics of truth, Foucault (1973: 14) highlights the importance of understanding the “perspectival character” of knowledge. By this Foucault (through his interpretation of Nietzsche) means that there is knowledge only in the form of actions by which human beings violently take hold of things, react to situations, and subject them to relations of force. In other words, knowledge is always a certain strategic relation in which humans are placed  there is a battle, and knowledge is the result of this battle.

Foucault’s view of knowledge differs from the traditional Marxist concept of ideology, in which the subject’s relation to truth is understood to be obscured and violated by conditions of existence, social relations, or the political forms imposed on the subject of knowledge from the outside. In contrast, Foucault (1973: 15) suggests that the political and economic conditions of existence are not a veil or an obstacle for the subject of knowledge but the means by which subjects of knowledge and, in turn, truth relations are formed. Political conditions are the very ground on which subjects of knowledge and relations of truth are formed. What Foucault seeks to do in his work is examine the history through which models of truth have come into existence (e.g., truths regarding juridicial forms, punishment, insanity).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

A proper level of modesty

February 3, 2013

How to go about beginning a lecture with a proper level of modesty? Here is one idea:

What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress. (Foucault, 1973, p. 1)

This was how Foucault opened a series of lectures about truth and juridical forms at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1973. By using the term modesty, I refer to a postmodern-inspired idea about recognizing the limits of any epistemological stance. This is a modesty which recognizes that although we may develop a stance that is valid, it may not be possible to develop an epistemological position that is fully complete. This is, of course, not to say that “anything goes”; recognizing the validity of multiple positions does not necessitate declaring that all positions are equally valid. Rather, all positions must be appropriately justified and supported. However, maintaining a certain level of modesty in our claims is key in leaving ourselves open to the possibility of growth and learning.