Posted by: gcarkner | February 18, 2014

Higher Education: Truth & Power

Can Truth Speak to Power?

French poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault’s (College de France) middle work is centered on power-knowledge or power/knowledge, and nowhere is power and knowledge more intertwined than in today’s university. As many readers know, Foucault is still one of the most quoted intellectuals in academia, especially in Europe. His thought and critique of culture continues to have an incredible influence across a huge spectrum of fields.

Knowledge to some degree is always implicated by, entwined with, power but that is not always a bad thing. Power is a condition of knowledge and therefore knowledge must take account of its involvement with power. Who gets to say such and such a proposition/declaration/claim is true, weighty, the way to go, or credible? In fact, it is often the person or persons who have earned their way up in the echelons of power—the ‘expert’, those who edit the journals, or lead a school of thought. We look for the most credible sources to make our case in our thesis proposal or dissertation. We locate our discourse or discussion among those who have earned their stripes the hard way, or whose ideas have met the test of time and application. Their opinion, even if we disagree with it, counts in the larger debates, many of which have been raging for centuries. It is a complex and fascinating relationship.

In the end, some of us hope that truth can transcend power, speak to power, rather than just be a product of power (just a power game by another name). We shudder when a politician hires spin doctors or coerces the media to bend or hide the truth, in order to shape his/her national image. We cringed when we realized that professionals at all levels of the financial industry lied through their teeth in order to get rich quick in the Sub-prime real estate scandal and market crash of 2008. The suffering cased by this gigantic global Ponzi Scheme was phenomenal.

In his later work, which I studied more intensely, Foucault showed that our identity/spirituality/ethics (the self or soul) is constantly intersecting with power and knowledge. This resonates with our experience. He sees a triangular relationship between truth, power and the self; it is very insightful if not complete. This discourse offers some real insight into the complexity of late modern identity or consciousness. The danger or tendency in his thought is to reduce truth to our social or individual construction of it, and thereby to suspect all truth claims as a bid for power, or even a will to power (as per Nietzsche). Foucault focuses too much attention on our creation/construction of self and truth, and too little on our discovery of self or discovery of truth and reality, one’s context. He is an unashamed nominalist: we are nothing but that which we put into our selves. He is very weak on narrative structure of identity (compare Paul Ricoeur). To him, there is no such thing as human nature that we hold in common, no template of what it means to be human. Rather, he celebrates la diférence (variety) among members of the linguistic, self-constructing species, the higher language animals.

It is right and fruitful for us to expose a power-bid, to see through bold rhetoric that can reduce to mere Sophism. These are often rooted in self-interest or attempts to dominate (disguised as truth claims) or manipulate/alienate the Other. We can watch out for intellectual or political bullying or hubris disguised as brilliance or loquacious verbosity. There are many games in university that are just thinly disguised deceptions and we should be on our guard. Certain ideological or culture wars offer examples of this.

But it is deeply wrong and harmful to assume that all truth-claims are in essence a power-play at bottom—a stance of cynicism. Christians believe in transcendent truth or revealed truth as well. Truth cannot be totally subsumed or fully defined under power-knowledge. It can be located in a God of integrity who loves us and covenants with us (Psalm 119).

An excessive adherence to power-knowledge leads to moral helplessness, cynicism and potential complicity with evil or domination. We give up and succumb to power interests or power games. Foucault was left with a powerless agent (Discipline & Punish) in his middle period, and it set him searching in his later period for some way to recover the self and its agency. Sometimes truth leans in the opposite direction to the power constructions in front of us, or it resists (stands over against) power interests which seek to oppress or exploit. Without trust in truth qua truth that transcends interest, we have no basis upon which to confront the abuses or corruptions of power which will always be out there in every system, religious or secular.

Biblical narrative and theology offers a means of separating out and discerning disguised self-interest from statements with integrity and sincerity, truthfulness and deceptiveness, authenticity from lies. We must find a position within the university as graduate students from which to call the lie without becoming cynical. Not all truth can be reduced to politicized truth. Some truth has our best interests at heart. Discerning between these is part of the hard stuff of life and we need much wisdom in the journey. There is wisdom and strength in the position that embraces the good and shuns evil, embraces truth and rejects deception/falsehood, embraces love/justice and shuns violence/marginalization.

Have you ever felt called to love the truth, to love the good, to love integrity, and capture a vision that this would benefit you and others? Read Psalm 119 or the entire book of Proverbs as an ancient source of insight on truth speaking to power: the prophetic stance.

Gordon E. Carkner

PhD dissertation: ‘A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-Constitution in Dialogue with Charles Taylor’  University of Wales/Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

See also Christopher Norris, Reclaiming Truth: contribution to a critique of cultural relativism (Lawrence & Wishart, 1996)

Some common  tendencies within the Postmodern/Late Modern Age:

  • a recognition of pluralism and indeterminacy in the world.
  • a renunciation of intellectual hopes for simplicity, completeness, and certainty.
  • a new focus on representation or cultural signs as a dominant force and place in social life.
  • an acceptance of play and fictionalization in cultural fields that had earlier sought a serious, realist truth.
  • a focus on the way societies use language to construct their own realities.
  • a preference for the local and specfic over the universal and abstract.
  • a doubt that any human truth is a simple objective representation of reality and an acceptance that the various views cannot be objectively measured in any final sense (various stories).
  • a renewed interest in narrative and story-telling.
  • a willingness to accept things as they are on the surface rather than search for deeper meanings.


Whistler Mountain

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