I will continue on what has become an interesting topic in our Forum. I will expand on this by asking: What is Knowledge?
What is knowledge? This question has been a topic of philosophical debate for centuries and provides insight into what society claims knowledge to be. Is the truth rational (as many ancient philosophers claim) or is it habit, as Nietzsche would think. According to the philosopher in question, Foucault, it is relative – there is no rational truth, and therefore, knowledge itself is relative. His theories state that the relationship between power and knowledge is used as a type of social control through certain institutions. In his work, The Archaeology of Knowledge, he develops his ideas through “archaeological” methods in which he exposed the role of power in a society’s history and evolution – he set out to find the origin of an institution and therefore, where our “knowledge” comes from.
In Foucault’s Madness and Insanity, he writes about his studies into medical history and how society dealt with madness. In the passages of this work, he argues that “madness” is a social construct, not a clearly defined illness. The definition of “madness” is inside the institution and is different than what society labels as “normal.” For him, language helps define a term, such as “madness,” but there is no one individual that can completely fit within the definition of this word. He would call this person a “border line:” an individual who does not fit completely within the given definition. As he would argue: language helps to define something but cannot encompass the idea completely. Then what is “normal?” He would claim that it is the same thing: a loose, constructed idea based of a relative idea held by an institution.
If this is the case, what is the origin of these terms? Anything, as he would claim, we believe as a truth is only a classification. These classes are just a history of resemblances. In his Archaeology of Knowledge, he writes:
[…] statements differ in form, and dispersed in time, form a group if they refer to one and the same object.
Here, Foucault argues that although one object is still the same object, the meaning changes throughout time. He asks what kinds of groups really exist in history – can a truth really exist? Foucault examines four hypotheses with the intention of finding unity based on the discourse of the object, the author (or authors) of the discourse, the concepts, and themes. Each basis turns out to be more complex than originally thought and the reader ends up without a single basis for unity or truth, but winds up with an aspect that can only be described as complex and variable. He goes on in The Order of Things to state that our knowledge and thought “[…] bears the stamp of our age and our geography.” This means that there are different views and no one solid classification. He points this out by creating a list of imagined categories (that can be found in his Order of Things, a translation of Les Mots et Les Choses in the preface, xv). With all these new categories, he demonstrates what he calls “the exotic charm of another system of thought,” which points out the limitations of our own. In this realization, we are forced to realize that, as he says:
[…] all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction […]
The groups we make are just made-up: there is no solid truth in them. Our groups get broader over time as well. Take into example the discovery of new sub-atomic particles – this new category would seem surreal even 200 years ago. But they do exist and this new category proves that classification changes over time. This change shows how reality has empty spaces and that classification is discrepant from reality. So is there a truth, knowledge? He would claim that language could not determine this since the more we know, the less knowledge we seem to have – the ability to classify new things lessens with the more knowledge we obtain.
Foucault argues that we cannot know anything “as it is” – knowledge is not the origin of the object, but it is the understanding of the origin of the knowledge. If there is a truth, it cannot be a social construction (classification) or human-made. Knowledge is based off of human acts and therefore, knowledge is a “human act.” He claims that every “truth” is built on something. We cannot escape the relativity of knowledge but we also cannot escape classification. The object in question is viewed through a lens of subjective human reality that differs according to each person’s language, culture, history, etc. The groupings are created and can be dissolved and replaced.
However, this leaves the human feeling empty – is there no truth, then why continue to try to find it? It is possible that the truth is abstract, as Plato would claim. Plato writes in his Republic:
When the mind’s eye rests on objects illuminated by truth and reality, it understands and comprehends them, and functions intelligently; but when it turns to the twilight world of change and decay, it can only form opinions, its vision is confused and its beliefs shifting, and it seems to lack intelligence.
Plato would find Foucault’s argument invalid, however, there may be some correlation between the two. Plato argues that change only a forms opinion, while Foucault points out that this change represents the limitations of our knowledge. For Plato, opinions are the limitations. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus attempts to show that an individual can achieve what he wants with just the appearance of justice. This enables people to effectively confuse truth (ἀλήθεια) with the appearance of truth. Plato goes on to reason that virtue does more than establish a notion of morality by demonstrating how morality is grounded in essence – which is shown through the Forms. This interplay exists between appearance and reality – a central part in Plato’s metaphysics. Yet, it also provides a universal quality – that Foucault would not agree with – that suits the purpose of understanding a cohesion in his theory of forms.
Both Plato and Foucault would argue that knowledge can not be a social construction. They also would state that no one expresses something in the exact same manner as another. Language provides a good example of this: there is one central idea in language but it is made into many instances by many individuals in a certain classification, while showing that there is no one concrete class due to different ways of thinking, differences in language, etc. To make this clearer, take an example of a rabbit. Plato would argue that there is only one true form of a rabbit and this was an individual who is part of that classification. Foucault would argue that the knowledge of this rabbit is dependent on what the origin is and that “rabbit” might not mean anything for a different culture (such as the “running rabbit” being a distinct word from “rabbit” in an African tribal culture). However, this would not dissuade Plato. Plato would claim that although there are many different words that could define “rabbit,” it is still a rabbit and the idea remains the same. Another example of the relation between Plato and Foucault can be found in the origins themselves. Foucault claims that in order to understand something, one must go back to the origin of that object to discover any hint of truth – that knowledge is based off something. For Plato, knowledge is based off something: his theory just claims that it is perfect ideal forms while Foucault does not think that. All in all, one cannot escape relativity and cannot escape an individual’s own thoughts and classification.
C Cassia Longina