Furthest Right

Foucault’s Anti-Humanism (Geoff Ganaher)

“Much of the notice Foucault initially attracted derived from his ability to coin the striking phrase. The most notorious was his declaration, at the end of his 1966 book, The Order of Things, of ‘the death of man’. His obvious allusion to Nietzsche’s proclamation of ‘the death of God’ drew a considerable degree of attention to himself and to the then-burgeoning school of anti-humanist philosophy.

Foucault meant by ‘the death of Man’ that humanist philosophy had now been overthrown. . . .Humanists have long shared a commitment to the idea that individual man himself, the human subject—understood as man’s consciousness and will—is the originators of human actions and understanding. The notions of individual freedom and individual responsibility, and the philosophies that support them have long been based upon it. However, according to Foucault, this movement has now run its course. His proclamation was based not only on his rejection of this ‘philosophy of man’ but on its demise from its position at the centre of contemporary thought and culture. The humanism of the modern era had been toppled and replaced by the anti-humanism of the postmodern.

One of anti-humanism’s central philosophical claims is that humanism’s belief in the autonomy of the subject is an illusion. The two characteristics of ‘the subject’ that come under strongest attack are those of free will and consciousness. From a humanist perspective, the individual is a free agent who normally weighs up the issues confronting him and makes his own, rational decision about what to do. The anti-humanist rejects this as naive, for it omits the dimension of the unconscious. The concept of the unconscious, which originated in mid-nineteenth century German philosophy, has allowed anti-humanists to proclaim that the entire humanist tradition has been wrong to assign the conscious mind the central role in the functioning of a human being. They believe that the unconscious is the dominant influence on behaviour and thought, and that we must abandon the assumption that purposive action is consciously derived. Hence, we must reject our believe in the autonomy of the individual subject.

Foucault also insists that we have to abandon the common sense assumption that there is a real world outside ourselves and that we can have knowledge about it. This is another illusion of humanism, he claims. Our minds are confined to the realm of our language. Though he shares this assumption with structuralist theory, Foucault denied he was a structuralist. He took the ‘primacy of language’ thesis straight from Nietzsche. Through language, Nietzsche contended, human beings imposed their own arbitrary constructions of meaning on what would otherwise be nothing but chaos. If we could think of the world beyond our minds, Nietzschean philosophy holds, there would be none of our categories, causes, or hierarchies, and none of the boundries that we think separate these things and fashion these forms of order through language. Moreover, we should not think that our language reflects reality in any way, or that the words we use correspond in some direct sense to objects in the world outside. We have no way of knowing about any such reality. All we have access to are the words and meanings we create ourselves which are, of necessity, distortions of whatever reality might be. From this perspective, those who are influential enough to define the concepts of an era consequently define the sense of reality held by their fellow human beings. If we accept this, theory can indeed be practice.


In the 1970s, Foucault shelved ‘archaeology’ as a description of his work and adopted that of ‘genealogy’. This marked his emergence as a militant critic not only of modern philosophy but of modern society itself. ‘Genealogy’ is a concept derived from Nietzsche’s work,On the Genealogy of Morals, where the idea of the objectivity of science is dismissed: there is ‘only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing’. Foucault combined this idea with those in another of Nietzsche’s books, The Will to Power, to argue that not only was all so-called scientific knowledge subjective but that it was a ‘tool of power’ in the hands of those who formulated it. In ‘archaeology’ the task was to analyse the content of a discourse; in ‘genealogy’ the task is to analyse who uses discourses and for what ends. In this new, militant phase, moreover, Foucault declares that the genealogical method is ‘anti-science’ and that it is waging a struggle ‘against the effects of the power of discourse that is considered to be scientific’.

In a theme similar to Marxism’s support for the working class, Foucault’s genealogy claims to serve a different but still oppressed group, the deviants and the afflicted. Again, in parallel with Marxism, Foucault argues that theories which call themselves scientific are not disinterested but are linked to relations of authority. However, unlike Marx who believe that some knowledge could be objective (notably, that of his own writings), Foucault goes on to insist that knowledge and power are always and necessarily interdependent. A site where power is enforced is also a site where knowledge is produced, and conversely, a site from which knowledge is derived is a place where power is exercised. In Discipline and Punish he ewants to show the prison as an example of just such a site of power, and as a place where knowledge essential to the modern social sciences was formed. Reciprocally, the ideas from which the social sciences were formulated were also the ones that gave birth to the prison. The belief that a scientist can arrive at an objective conclusion, Foucault argues, is one of the great fallacies of the modern, humanist era:

Modern humanism is therefore mistaken in drawing this line between knowledge and power. Knowledge and power are integrated with one another, and there is no point in dreaming of a time when knowledge will cease to depend on power; this is just a way of reviving humanism in a utopian guise. It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge. It is impossible for knowledge not to engender power.

So instead of referring to ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ separately, he prefers to compound the term ‘power/knowledge’.

Foucault defines the principle methodology of the genealogist as that of history. In fact, he calls the genealogist ‘the new historian’. The role he prescribes for this new historian is essentially political: to foster the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’, which are opposed to the ‘centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours’.


This raises a few questions:

1.) Foucault was interested in fostering the insurrection of marginalized groups and their subjugated knowledges. What group is more marginalized in our society than any other? Nationalists.

2.) If Foucault and Nietzsche are right and our sense of reality is structured by our language and the symbolic universe of the concepts we use, then who possesses the power that is generated by the discursive means of production? Who has hegemony over the discursive means of production today? Globalists.

3.) If power and knowledge are interdependent, then it must follow that ‘knowledge’ produced by historical practices cannot be disinterested and should not be regarded as such. A set of power relations is necessarily involved. Genealogy would seek to uncover who politically benefits from such discourses and who is marginalized by them.


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