Michael Foucault: At the Edge of Art and Science

by Jeffrey Holmes

In Western academia, lines between the arts and sciences are often clearly defined, as scholars tend to specialize in a sub-field of their chosen discipline. This was not the approach of Michel Foucault. The French historian and philosopher’s career spanned over human sexuality, mental illness, political activism, Kant, and Nietzsche. His The Order of Things (1966) is considered one of the most significant books of the 20th Century by Le Monde.1 In this work, Foucault develops the notion of the episteme, that any possible knowledge has a historical dimension to it and the conditions for obtaining it are related to the socio-cultural moment a person is located in. His later Discipline and Punish (1975) is listed by Buzzfeed as a text that can change how one sees the world.2 In it, Foucault provides a historical analysis of the mechanisms behind various penal systems in Western society and argues that these systems arise in the pursuit of power and hegemony. At the core of his oeuvre is a writer who strived to investigate the relationship between critical thought and its historical context and asked how these two spheres lend themselves to human progress. His career has led to Stanford University’s press publishing several books on him, including Nealon’s Foucault Beyond Foucault (2007) and Dean and Villadsen’s State Phobia and Civil Society: The Political Legacy of Michel Foucault (2016). In writing this article, I aim to discuss the relevance of Foucault’s works today and demonstrate how the ideology he put forth is at the edge of art and science.

Elsewhere, Dean and Villadsen’s State Phobia and Civil Society use Foucault to examine the political concept of the state as an antiquity for the modern world. The two acknowledge that there is an ambiguity to fully defining the state in Foucault’s works, but they use this as an opportunity to reroute the discussion to political sovereignty. They find that the state may be the fundamental condition for social order and individual security, but the power exerted by those to govern is not beyond critique.5 The book features a lengthy discussion on neoliberalism, that its subject is a citizen who is inherently “governable.”6 For Foucault, neoliberalism is a further evolution of a system of power necessary to reign over citizens, similar to the evolution of laws issued to maintain dominance over the Internet.

While Foucault initially presents as tangentially related to the work of LAST, his ideas have practical salience for the intersections of life, art, science, and technology. As both a historian and philosopher, his incorporations of multiple disciplines in his research led to his critical success in the academic world. Here, Foucault finds common ground with the works of Snow, particularly the significance other disciplines play into one’s own inquiries. In The Rede Lecture (1959), Snow criticizes the state of academia, proposing that the Western world is host to two diametrically-opposed intellectual cultures: the sciences and the arts, or to use Snow’s term, the humanities.7 On Snow’s view, each culture is biased against the other, yet neither has attained more than a barebones understanding of what their counterpart does. This is hardly different today, with Hawking declaring philosophy as dead in The Grand Design (2010) and then supporting the claim with zero evidence.8 The rift Snow critiques has the same spirit as Foucault in The Order of Things; both are against attitudes that divide education and knowledge. In his text, Foucault is against the split between analytic and continental traditions of philosophical thought, finding the two to ultimately be complementary projects of human thought9.

Snow relates his concerns to education, maintaining that opposing intellectual cultures discourages a general receptivity to knowledge, especially if that knowledge comes from a field one’s respective cultures controverts. The longstanding ramification here is that higher education does not create open-minded individuals, rather, generalists with a narrow toolkit. He argues that in the wake of modernity and a rapidly-advancing world, having educated professionals with a knowledgebase that covers some areas in both sides of the divide will be essential to progressing society at large. In Foucault’s examination of the modern philosophical division, the bias one school has against the other is similarly antithetical to advancing philosophy as a discipline. It can be concluded that Foucault’s argument furthers Snow’s: Snow analyzes a divide between the sciences and the humanities, and Foucault analyzes a divide within one of the humanities. The two would find themselves in agreement that this intellectual elitism is contrary to an individual’s pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society overall.

The thee texts discussed here project Foucault’s ideas into the current century. His works on systems of power and concepts of statehood and political sovereignty are clearly relevant to those governed in the Western world. Demonstrated by Hawking, superfluous intellectual tribalism still plagues academia today, conflicting with the multi-disciplinary methodology that made Foucault’s research so groundbreaking. Despite its inception in the ivory towers of academia and the ensuing difficult style of prose, Foucault and his commentators are worth reading in 2019 for a variety of reasons. His critical eye for society, its individuals, and their relations has not only a historical precedent, but may be used to imagine the world to come.