Jarryd Bartle, In defence of Michel Foucault, Unherd, January 27, 2022
Blaming French theory for the extremes of the American Left has been a popular line for that last few years. Public intellectual Jordan Peterson has blamed “postmodern neo-Marxism” for the rise of a hypersensitive yet coercive activism, connecting the term to everything from safe spaces, to cultural appropriation, to campus protests.
Let’s focus on the ultimate fall guy for ‘wokeism’, the French philosopher Michel Foucault. If you were to read anti-woke commentary about Foucault, you would be under the impression that his main insights are: nothing is true, all truth is power and all claims to truth are oppressive. This is a deliberately misleading.
Despite what you’ve been told, Foucault was not a rabid ‘activist’ bent on tearing down scientific institutions, but a historian of ideas. His work documents how knowledge changes over time, how some ideas become valorised whilst others get pushed to the margins, and how expertise shifts as a result of cultural and historical change.
He was not denying truth, but helping to place it within a broader historical context. Truth could not help being “a thing of this world”, he wrote. Every society had a regime of truth, and a “general politics” of truth. These are simply types of discourse which society “accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”