French philosopher and social critic Paul-Michel Foucault has long stood as an intellectual juggernaut in humanities programs all around the world. For better or worse, the contemporary understanding of critical theory—and critical race theory—as well as gender theory owes debts to Foucault’s ideas about power, knowledge, and language.
Even beyond the classroom, Foucault’s ideas have been used to dismantle and destabilize the traditional and orthodox conceptions of various issues, including sexuality, education, and society as a whole.
What Did Foucault Believe?
Power is an idea thrown around a lot in today’s political conversations. Who has power? Who is oppressed? Which groups have power, and which do not?
Power was also one of Foucault’s focuses. He thought that historical notions about power were flawed. While we often think of power as being related to the government or another institution, Foucault believed that power does not manifest in such a simple way. To Foucault, power cannot be outlined; it is sprawling, like broken glass sprinkled in every direction. There are some areas with larger portions of power, and then there are some areas with almost none.
With this view of power, it is not difficult to see how Foucault would set out to de-center traditional sources of power, such as the English monarchy, dictatorships, and Christianity. If power can be discovered virtually anywhere, in different measures, then it stands to reason that places like the state hold power not from right but from influence.
And by destabilizing the legitimacy of traditional modes of power, Foucault could call into question all entities that hold disproportionate amounts of power—such as the state or religious institutions.
But it does not stop there. Foucault continued his intellectual rebellion by claiming that there is no such thing as “absolute” knowledge. The ideas we have about the world, for Foucault, are historically contingent: The knowledge we currently have about the world would not manifest if history had played out differently.
In turn, this calls into question the notion of objective truth. How can we know what is objectively true—or even if there is objective truth—if knowledge is merely a product of an ever-changing set of experiences?
Indeed, Foucault’s final blow to tradition and orthodoxy was the relationship between knowledge and language. He went so far as to suggest that reality, as we know it, is only possible with the language that we have access to.
A fragment of this thought can be seen by the languages available to us right now. English speakers are not going to describe the world in the same way as those who speak Swedish or Russian. Why? Because different groups of people are behind different languages.
The ancient Greeks, for example, had many different dialects. There were dialects used by the common people (including Koine), and then there were dialects used by the upper class (including Attic). And it would go without saying that the life, experience, and reality of a common Greek varied greatly from an upper-class Greek.
However, by peeling back all legitimacy to authority, reality, and knowledge, Foucault paved the way for some egregious propositions. The first is that Foucault pushed what is now known as moral relativism, claiming that there are no objective notions of right and wrong. But this is not even the worst.
Was Foucault a Pedophile?
In addition to moral relativism, Foucault’s ideas would help push along serious debates about the legal exploitation of a protected class: children. Foucault, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and other French luminaries, signed a petition in 1977 that would make underage sex with children legal.
Guy Sorman, another French intellectual, has also claimed that Foucault was a pedophile who raped Arab children in Tunisia in the 1960s, but the evidence presented thus far has been subject to mixed reactions.
Takeaways From Foucault
Many of Foucault’s ideas have become foundational to the ongoing teardown of Western society and culture. Many academics and radical thinkers have adopted Foucault’s ideas surrounding power in a direction that folds in on itself: While Antifa members and other leftists assault police officers and destroy buildings with claims of challenging systems of power, these actions merely reinforce the need for law and order, as well as pre-existing forms of power and authority.
The legacy of Christian values already has a long-standing history in Western civilization. For many people, it is considered old hat. It’s clear that there is a concerted effort to usurp this cultural fabric. New ideas on gender, race, and the age of consent have quickly taken over the cultural conversation. And if we want to effectively challenge these ideologies, we would do well to challenge the very philosophical underpinnings that has made it possible for these radical ideas to take hold of our institutions.