Summary of:

M. Phelp, "Michel Foucault," in Q. Skinner, The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Science, Cambridge UP 1985.




This article illustrates well Feminist and Postmodernist theories. Although the postmodernist perspective actually started in the worlds of architecture, arts and philosophy, its clout has extended broadly to other areas in the last three decades, including organization theory. Giving a sharp, definite definition of the postmodernist perspective is far from being easy, if possible. However, one common feature of all postmodernist theories is that they criticize profoundly the universalistic theories that prevailed before them. Foucault is a central reference of labeled postmodernist authors.


The main aim of Philip is to situate the work of Foucault in perspective with the resurgence of Grand Theory. Doing so, he summarizes what he sees as being the most important features of Foucaultís philosophy. He particularly insists on Foucaultís notions of discourse, knowledge-power and genealogies.


The key steps of Philipís account are summarized thereafter.


Foucaultís primary objective is to provide an account of how modern societies control unobtrusively the behavior of people through the knowledge-power of sciences such as psychiatry and social sciences at large. Science has transformed men into subjects of the state and of their experiments. They have created a multi-normalized view of the human being which stems from the general philosophy of Enlightenment. However, these views are highly mistaken and they contribute to the ever-increasing alienation of man. Therefore, we can see why Foucaultís main effort is to criticize the Enlightened views of universalistic sciences in order to provide a mean (although feeble) to men to resist the all-pervasive forms of modern alienation. Hence, Foucault is definitely against any form of Grand Theory.


Foucaultís primary unit of analysis is the discourse. In his vocabulary, the discourse is the set of rules that enable a body of science to identify certain statements as true and other as false. The discourse is therefore formal, but it has nothing to do with ontological nature of the statements that it is supposed to be dealing with. Discourses are ways of seeing and articulating the world. They place an artificial framework on it and thus define a system of possibilities. Foucault seems not to be willing to commit himself to judging the ultimate truths that discourses contain. He is even in a difficult position as to judging the truth of his own theory, which he tries to avoid (since otherwise, it would lead him to a logical contradiction).


In his early writings, Foucault was simply concerned to show the discoursesí biases. In his later writings, he identified the link between discourses and power. He illustrated this link in his study of the evolution of the link between psychiatry and the judicial system in Europe in the nineteenth century. In the middle of this century, two horrible crimes were committed. In France, Henriette Cornier decapitated the child of the neighbor of her employer, for no reason. In Vienna, Catherine Ziegler killed her new-born baby, was released, got pregnant again and killed her second new-born baby again. Both crimes were puzzling for the psychiatric and judicial community. They had no motives and were excessively horrible. Therefore, psychiatrists invented a new type of insanity to fit these crimes, Ďhomicidal monomaniaí. Doing so, they extended their field beyond its traditional limits (insanity was confined to highly evident and permanent behaviors such as dementia, imbecility or furor). Foucault argues that this move was entirely strategic. It was not motivated by a strife for objective knowledge, it was motivated by a need to categorize the uncategorizable, it was an instrumental move to fix a judicial problem. But the consequences from this move were even more dramatic. The judicial practice evolved from a focus on the crime to the criminal. This led to the development of theories on the criminal mind. A new categorization of normality was born. Paradoxically, the judicial practice has come to the axiom that only free acts can be punished, yet, the more psychologically determined an act, the more legally responsible the criminal is, for only incomprehensible acts are considered as not free.


It must be reiterated that Foucault doesnít care about the underlying truth of all these criminal theories. He is only interested in showing how biased the formation of discourses is.


Foucault defines power as the ability of an agent to influence the actions of another agent. But the other agent must be free and unconstrained. Hence, Foucault dismisses utter consent and violence as power relationships. Power essentially functions in restraining the possibilities of others. The production of truth hence is essentially related to power, since it restrains the possibilities. Power only exists in relationships. It cannot be held or stored by anybody. The development of social sciences as part of the enlightenment project of the State as formalized patterns of domination. It is thus the ultimate and the only stable technique to formalize power relationships.


How are we to fight against these patterns of domination? Foucaultís answer is through is work of genealogy. He describes his work as a set of genealogies that painstakingly get to the roots of every sort of alienating discourse in order to show its biases and its non-objective links to power. Doing so, he hopes to raise the conscience of the oppressed people, who will thus be able to resist the micro sources of power in our modern societies. Foucault does not purport to give people means of fighting against alienation, he only purports to open their eyes, for this is the first step for them to be able to fight against power. He neither pretends that criminals should not be punished, he just wants to show how the normalizing effect of the judicial systems applies also pervasively to anybody in society, with an alienating effect.


An account on Foucault would not be complete without referring to his view about the human subject in history. He does not believe that there is a constant human subject in history. He denies the existence of a coherent and constant human nature. History is both uncontrolled and directionless, making alienation all the more meaningless and painful.


Philipís main criticism of Foucault is that he doesnít offer any grounds for encouraging resistance, because his theory doesnít allow him to make statements about human nature (otherwise, he would fall under the criticism of his own system of thoughts).

It is quite impossible to criticize Foucault on other grounds, since any such criticism would have to use a Ďdiscourseí to which Foucaultís philosophy denies any objective claim to truth.


Foucault might leave us in a deeply estranged state, wondering who and what we are. But we have then to turn only to ourselves to give us a meaning, and this is precisely what Foucault aims at.


Comments and relation to other texts


Foucaultís critical views of modern societies cannot leave us indifferent. They both compel our sympathy and relate to some of our life experiences and still elicit some sort of uneasiness to give in too quickly to his arguments. No doubt that what he says might have some Ďtruthí (although he cannot say that since it would be contradictory with his own theory). But I would not be so radical as to dismiss any form of scientific knowledge. Here, I join some of the arguments of Paul Thompson against postmodernist perspectives on organization theory, though Iím not quite as radical as he is in his criticism of postmodernism. Still, the work of Foucault and other so-called postmodernist theorists are very valuable insofar as they challenge our well-established views of society and of the world. I agree with John Jermierís apology of critical perspectives in social sciences because they can help our imperfect societies to evolve towards ideals that we must not let down.


However, my overall impression on postmodernism is quite blurred. David Harveyís documented and erudite presentation of postmodernism, completed by the other readings of the week have convinced me that postmodernism might be too large a cap to unite such diverse theories as it does. Even modernism is not a sharp-bounded category.