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Michel Foucault and Social Theory

This study will examine the contributions of Michel Foucault to social theory, focusing on the concepts of knowledge and culture and the theory and critique of ideology. Foucault's theory, in its simplest form, is twofold. First, the network of social power/knowledge which controls the life of the individual is so pervasive that it is, in fact, everywhere. Second, because there is nothing outside of the individual to which he can refer for definition of reality in this web of power, the individual must create himself, like a piece of unique art. The ideas of Foucault which will be discussed in this study will touch in one way or another on these basic principles of his social philosophy.

Foucault's aim in critiquing history, or society, or social relationships, or culture, or ideology, is to increase the individual's awareness of the web of power in which he is caught, and to increase his freedom as a result of that awareness. The prisoner, in other words, will never free himself unless he comes to realize that he is, in fact, imprisoned. As John Rajchman writes in the aptly named Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy,

The point of Foucault's history of our categories of the criminal personality or of our practices of incarceration is thus neither to explain the past nor to learn moral lessons from it. Foucault does not show our situation to be a lawlike outcome of previous [situations], or to have been necessitated by the latest historical "conjuncture." On the contrary, he tries to make our situation seem less "necessitated" by history, and more peculiar, unique, or arbitrary (Rajchman, 1985, 58).

Foucault's critique, then, involves the study of the past insofar as that study will reveal alternatives for present attitudes and actions. At the same time, however, Foucault's critique is not prescriptive. The reader who comes to Foucault hoping to find solutions to social problems will be deeply disappointed. He does no...

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Michel Foucault and Social Theory. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 15:07, April 13, 2024, from