So there was a longish (8 minutes) bit that I cut from the episode where I asked Katie whether Foucault’s notions of Power and Knowledge correlated in some way with Heidegger’s notions of Being and Truth. I was incoherent and Katie understandably treated the question as the nonsense that it was. She has since addressed the Heidegger/Foucault connection in the comments on the episode here. One of the papers she links to by Dreyfus is precisely on this topic: Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault.
In his usual straightforward style, Dreyfus sets the stage:
At the heart of Heidegger’s thought is the notion of being, and the same could be said of power in the works of Foucault. The history of being gives Heidegger a perspective from which to understand how in our modern world things have been turned into objects. Foucault transforms Heidegger’s focus on things to a focus on selves and how they became subjects. [You should read the paper, it’s fun]
His stated goal in the paper is to push the correlation between the two as far as he can and see where it goes. He hits upon that in which I was interested in section II. Seinsgeschichte and Genealogy. Here Dreyfus shows the parallels between Heidegger’s History of Being and Foucault’s Genealogy of regimes of power. Dreyfus is concerned to show the structural similarities in the accounts, how they deal with historical epochs and then how that leads each thinker to their criticisms of the modern notion of subjectivity and human being.
What I wanted to know was whether the similarity in the two mechanisms – Seinsgeschichte and Genealogy of Power – result in a corresponding similar function of Truth for Heidegger and Knowledge for Foucault. I was very struck by Foucault’s assertion that the advent of Discipline (as he characterizes it) essentially produced the knowledge structure of the psychological and human social sciences. His claim in the book is that the shift from punishment of the body of the criminal to discipline of the self required the creation of fields of knowledge of the self, i.e. psychology, criminology, etc.
I understand Foucault’s claim to be that Power manifested in such a way as to necessitate the kind of knowledge that would support its perpetuation. A different paradigm of Power would presumably require different types of knowledge to support it and we can conceive – in fact the historical epochs show that different knowledge structures have in fact been in play as Power structures have changed over time.
Since Knowledge sets the boundaries for what is considered ‘fact’ and what is true or false, I thought of how Heidegger uses Truth in connection with Being when considering what Foucault proposes. Heidegger’s was critical of the correspondence theory of truth and dismissed knowledge structures built on correspondence (or coherence) theories. His notion of Truth owes something to the Greek idea of alētheia, which he characterizes as ‘disclosure’.
For Heidegger, what is disclosed is the world. Disclosed here means ‘given’, but not as an object of knowledge, rather as an intelligible totality in which things can be conceptualized as objects or encountered as ready-to-hand, etc. Our possible ways of conceiving of things and our selves is made possible by how the world is disclosed to us. Heidegger’s History of Being is therefore also a history of world disclosure – of possible ways of self- and other-conception.
Truth in this world-disclosure functions to reveal and conceal things simultaneously. If we are revealed to ourselves as Cartesian subjects, our being as ens creatum (the Medieval conception of self, if you will) is concealed. This does not mean that we can’t talk about other conceptions or think about them, but we do not experience ourselves in the world that way. Our ‘truth’ is being as subjects, which is determined by the way the world discloses itself to us. Our Truth then determines how we order knowledge, what we think is knowable and how. [The enterprise of Being and Time was to try and kick-start a world disclosure in which we didn’t see ourselves as subjects.]
So for Foucault, Power orders the world and for Heidegger, Being discloses it. In both cases, the order/disclosure creates the horizon (boundaries, structure) in which Knowledge/Truth (with a capital “K” and “T”) is possible. This possibility then shapes the methodologies and areas of knowledge (with a little “k”). In both cases, the thesis is that knowledge is historically determined.
I see how this thesis makes some sense when applied to both philosophy and the social or human sciences. And as everyone knows, I’m sympathetic to Heidegger’s quasi-mystical History of Being though I can get on board with Foucault and get something similar but more empirical and ‘academic’. What I’m wondering is whether the thesis that knowledge is determined by historically contingent power structures or world-disclosure can be said to apply to knowledge that we consider to be ahistorical such as truths of math and science.
In our philosophy of physics episode, we covered Heisenberg’s extensive review of the Pre-Socratics. It is popular to ascribe to them the initial inklings of atomic theory. We are told that Hero of Alexandria experimented with steam power. The Greeks did extensive development in geometry. And yet it was hundreds or thousands of years before we got quantum mechanics, steam engines and calculus. A conventional view would be to trace the development of ideas and technology to get from the ancient ideas and inventions to modern ones, but I am tempted to ask whether something more is at work here: whether the limits of their conception of what was knowable and worth knowing put a limit on what they could do with these facts and objects.
So, the world had to disclose itself (power had to be ordered) differently for humans to see steam as source of power for machines for commerce. The world-historical change started with the move out of a Medieval conception of self into Cartesian subjectivity. If you buy this thesis, then subjectivity in some way as a symptom of a change in Power/Being made modern math and science possible. These fields of knowledge, which we idealize as ‘True’ (with a capital “T”), are historically contingent – at least in their development. People tend to think that scientific method is absolute and scientific knowledge supersedes other types of knowledge of the world. There is the possibility, however, that a change in Power/Being might render our current conception of science as an artifact of a bygone epoch.
Bacon is credited with saying, “Knowledge is Power”, but it was Hobbes who said ‘the end of knowledge is power’. My high school motto (Severna Park Falcons!) was ‘Knowledge is the key to the Future’. Really knowledge is not a means – it is knowledge that is the end of power and it is a key only to the present – what is true to us now and how we experience it. And that can certainly change.