Foucault, Feyerabend, and Freedom

Operation Iraqi Freedom. Land of the free. Freedom fries. In the midst of a plethora of political and pop-culture references to the concept of “freedom,” one should stop and question, “What is freedom”? Put simply, freedom is an absence of constraint. America was founded on certain freedoms and each one of us inherits these rights. But how “free” are we really? Are our thoughts and actions completely autonomous of external forces? Do we have the power to think at will, and behave in any manner we wish? Even if we tend to think otherwise, both Michel Foucault and Paul Feyerabend would contest that we actually have very little freedom with our current mindset. According to these philosophers, social forces and scientific ignorance constrict all knowledge, truth, and power. Foucault and Feyerabend offer insights into the origins and nature of power that, if harnessed, can free humanity of hundreds of years of institutional dominance and theoretical constraint.

According to Foucault, power is influence exerted by one subject on another. Furthermore, power is not individually possessed. Rather, it is “employed and exercised through a net-like organization” (98). In other words, power permeates society everywhere. Foucault’s “capillary network” of power contrasts with a sovereign, central-like power. Unlike network power, sovereign power radiates from a central figure of authority such as a king and weakens in strength as it reaches the fringes of society. Because network power does not operate “top-down” from a central source, Foucault suggests that power functions “bottom-up” through social norms. Foucault writes that power works “at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviors etc.” (97). In other words, power is evident in the micro-politic actions of our everyday lives. For example, we choose not to fill our teachers’ erasers with chalk, for we are self-governed in our attempt to achieve societal normalcy. Because power exists as norms, Foucault is most concerned with social institutions (i.e. punishment, sexuality) that support and develop our norms. These social institutions are akin to paradigmatic worldviews. Government, for example, sets the laws for acceptable thought and behavior. Consequently, the majority of our thoughts and actions are constrained by social institutions. According to Foucault, normative power relations thusly influence and define all scientific knowledge and truth. Knowledge cannot be seen as objective and innocent; rather, it is very much subjective and “war-like.” In fact, the battles between competing theories have resulted in “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task” and “have been buried and disguised in a functionalist coherence or formal systemization” (81-82). In other words, theories that ineffectively describe the facts are dismissed and hidden under a blanket of newer theories. These “subjugated knowledges,” as Foucault calls them, are evidence that our subjective notions of truth have been guided by an innate desire for one definitive theory, thereby preventing a multiplicity of theories. Essentially, Foucault believes social norms define truth.

Similar to Foucault, Feyerabend also appears to have an interest with power relations. However, unlike Foucault’s societal normalization, knowledge is power for Feyerabend. Scientific knowledge, through mastery of nature, invention, and experimentation, is the “real ultimate power”. Hence, the attainment and understanding of knowledge is of prime concern for Feyerabend. Feyerabend describes knowledge as “not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view” but as an “ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives” (21). In other words, science works best when we accept a pluralism of theories, rather than relying on a fixed hierarchy of consistent theories. According to Feyerabend, fact and theory are inextricably linked, thereby necessitating alternative theories to advance knowledge. Without alternatives, facts may remain hidden much like Foucault’s “subjugated knowledges” and cause science to see only the corner of the “big picture.” Feyerabend believes comparison of theory, or “counter-induction,” is the only fit way for science to function. One can only make sense of something by comparing it to another, Feyerabend would contest. Contrarily, Foucault would probably disagree that a plurality of theories could exist in today’s world because of its subjective, “war-like” nature. Nonetheless, Foucault would appreciate Feyerabend’s “network” aim of understanding science. Rather than viewing science as having a hierarchical, rigid structure, Feyerabend sees science as an interconnected web of theories with each articulating another.

But what is the motive for Feyerabend and Foucault’s discourses on knowledge and power? I believe both philosophers’ aims are central to the concept of freedom. Foucault recognizes the power of social norms and their ability control us. Norms feel natural to us, making them hard to notice, and even harder to question. However, it is important for us not to take them for granted because norms define our freedom. Parallel to Foucault, Feyerabend recognizes the power of knowledge. Feyerabend urges us to value a multiplicity of theories and even to consider the thoughts of “madmen” so that we may free our minds of theoretical constraint. According to Feyerabend, “a method that encourages variety is also the only method that is compatible with a humanitarian outlook” (32). In the spirit of Foucault and Feyerabend, let us then question our most indoctrinated principles. Let us consider heretical ideas. Let us not blindly accept what we have been taught to believe. This is not to say that we should toss our social institutions out the window. Rather, we should recognize other possible ways of thinking and living, so that we may better understand and improve our society. Through these actions, I believe, we could achieve unparalleled freedom.