Sunday, January 27, 2008

Featured Philosopher: Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault, or as I prefer to call him (for unknown reasons), Jean-Michel Foucault, was a French political philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984. His emphasis and interests were history and thought and how Power came to play,affect and be affected by them, which served as tools to elaborate his relativistic views. For example, by showing that the concept of "Madness" has changed through history and between societies, he has shown that that concept is historic and therefore, according to the Marxist way of thought, is artificial and can be changed. That also means that there are no mad men or women per se, but rather that each society determines the normality of its members in relative terms (and not absolute terms). Whilst his views can be shown to have several important contradictions, he did propose some interesting ideas that are still being used today (Post modernism).

"The History of Sexuality"
One of his most notable of works is "The History of Sexuality", published in three volumes during the 1980's. In the first volume, titled "The Will to Knowledge", he attacks what he perceives as a dominant Humanistic conception termed "The Repressive Hypothesis". According to this hypothesis, power (i.e. politics and much more) has repressed sex for the past three hundred years. Since the rise of the bourgeoisie, sex has been condemned as a waste of energy. As a result, it
has been repressed, silenced, and confined to reproductive purposes. According to this hypothesis, we can achieve political liberation and sexual liberation simultaneously if we free ourselves from this repression by talking openly about sex and enjoying it more frequently. Foucault finds this hypothesis to be deeply flawed for several reasons:

1. Not only is talking about sex not forbidden, it is in fact encouraged by the power and its supporters in society (those political institutions that preserve the existing order of society such as the psychologists and the education system).

2. The basis of the Repressive Hypothesis is the Humanistic preposition that man has an essence, a hidden truth that explains and is his meaning and being. In light of the psychoanalytical studies, this essence is man's sexuality. Foucault rejects this and claims that sexuality is in fact a historical-social construct and therefore artificial. Further more, there is no universal hidden to man, but each man (or woman, of course) is shaped by the context of society in which he lives.

3. The Humanistic notion of a hidden truth is also perceived as dangerous by Foucault because it allows society to judge which sexuality is true and natural and which is false and perverse. The sick can then be taken care of in a myriad of ways (so-called benevolent and somewhat less than benign).

There are several criticisms on Foucault work, but I will leave that for next time.

References: Sparknotes and Wikipedia (for the picture).

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