Main postmodern theorists and their main concepts

Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.

One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.

Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.

In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.

From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

Foucault’s biopolitics seems like it’s just a subtle form of nationalism

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, largely on the strength of Barry’s recommendation (see also this fiery debate between Barry and Jacques), and a couple of things have already stood out to me. 1) Foucault, lecturing in 1978-79, is about 20 years behind Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty in terms of formulating interesting, relevant political theory and roughly 35 years behind his The Road to Serfdom (1944) in terms of expressing doubts over the expanding role of the state into the lives of citizens.

2) The whole series of lectures seems like a clever plea for French nationalism. Foucault is very ardent about identifying “neo-liberalism” in two different models, a German one and an American one, and continually makes references about the importation or lack thereof of these models into other societies.

Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into his words.

Or maybe Foucault isn’t trying to make a clever case for French nationalism, and is instead trying to undercut the case for a more liberal world order but – because nothing else has worked as well as liberalism, or even come close – he cannot help but rely upon nationalist sentiments to make his anti-liberal case and he just doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

These two thoughts are just my raw reactions to what is an excellent book if you’re into political theory and Cold War scholarship. I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the book in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Some notes I wrote that I’ll never finish

Here you go. Make of them what you will – BC.


I would argue that it can matter, and often does, from a certain vantage point.

The West is not open-minded when it comes to recognizing centrifugal forces in a post-colonial state, though. The argument is that smaller states will have less power than the single, unified state currently in place. (when Democrat Joe Biden borrowed my arguments by suggesting Iraq be carved up into three states.) This doesn’t refute your musings, at all, but complements them in a way.

So size does matter, from a certain point of view.


zero-sum game is not real; logic is sharp mostly in socialists and libertarians, so then we move on to facts to get at the truth of the matter.


I tend to see the West as Europe, the Anglo-Saxon world, and Latin America. Korea, Japan, and India are also Western in my mind, but I am an open-minded son-of-a-bitch and realize that some folks just can’t see the connection. They see brown and yellow people, and they see the struggle between conservatism and liberalism being played out there, and they think to themselves “those aren’t Western societies!”

Russia is somewhere in-between the West and the other West. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, the entire Levant, North Africa, hell, the entire Arab world save for Saudi Arabia and Yemen were Western until the Cold War ramped up.

Why do Europeans and Latin Americans tend to be much more hawkish than North Americans? (I can’t say much about Indians and East Asians, though I suspect they are somewhere in between North Americans and Europeans.Latin Americans because their choices are very different from the traditional West’s; Pakistan and China are very different from Russia and the Arab world, and the US plays different roles in Asia as well.)


Fuddy-duddy conservatives and large swathes of the Left are not advancing the conversation. Jacques complains that Foucault is full of shit. Leftists – far from being offended or threatened, simply roll their eyes (if he’s lucky), or – more often – simply ignore him.

Irfan’s link to Reason Papers shows this well. I think it’s absolutely true that postmodernism is dead. I think it was invented to replace socialism. The paper is correct in all of these things. What do conservatives do in response to this simple fact? Throw poo-poo at Leftists and stay stubbornly in their ideological cage.

This is why Barry’s posts are so impressive. They advance knowledge and understanding. The reactions – from both the monkeys in the cage on the Left and the monkeys in the cage on the Right – to Barry’s pieces range from vitriolic to rudely skeptical. This signals, to me at least, that Barry is on the right track. He is much closer to the Truth than the poo-poo flingers.

Unfortunately in the post-colonial world, those fuddy-duddy conservatives and murderous Leftists dominate the conversation.



“If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident. (111)” – Eric Hoffer, True Believer 1951 (1989 reprint)


I wonder if Falk includes supporting bad laws in this maxim?


Is ISIS Islamic? Yes and no. Obviously, it is in some respects, but it’s a new kind of Islam. It’s political and has designated its ideological others as ‘the West’, while operating against the notion of the nation-state. I think it’s postmodernism carried to its logical end, with a regional twist of course. (Think of the destruction, real and imagined, of all those ancient artifacts. That’s post-modernism at work, not the strains of Islam we’ve been accustomed to for the last 1,500 years.

From the Comments: Foucault, Obscurity, and Liberty

Jacques and Barry had an excellent back-and-forth on Barry’s post about Foucault’s contributions to liberty. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response to Dr Delacroix’s questions:

Well Jacques, my last comment was not supposed to be the full reply to your preceding comment, as I tried to make clear. As I said I needed time to think before posting anything from Foucault. I was just preparing the way with comments on the background to Foucault’s style. On Montaigne, how easy is Montaigne? Maybe he seems clear to you and other French people who read him in the Lycée. I teach a lot of Montaigne in Istanbul and students don’t find him easy. Maybe his style at a sentence by sentence level is clearer than Foucault, but I would say only Foucault at his most supposedly obscure. Montaigne can seem clear because he writes in a conversational way, appearing to just comment informally on something in his mind. However, his essays are endlessly digressive and shifting in viewpoint and claim within just one essay, some of which are very long and very detached from the starting point. He mixes quotations from classics, historical illustrations, unreliable anecdotes, and personal memories, in ways which could be often said to obscure as much as clarify any underlying claim, though sometimes a relatively simple maxim seems to be the point. Even there, one really has to think about the relation between the apparent maxim and Montaigne’s shifting point of view to get the underlying point/points. The way that the style interacts with Montaigne’s mind and the uncertainties of his point of view, and the persistent anxieties about saving his world of experience from extinction in death, all have some echoes in Foucault and in various ways it seems to be me that Foucault works on a basis in Montaigne, even if adding the kind of abstract language, vocabulary and sentence construction coming from a mixture of German philosophy since Kant, and poetic-literary language since the Romantics.

Now for a couple of quotations. The first is a random selection from the book that first made him famous, History of Madness. The second is a less random selection from his late essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

History of Madness, page 29 (2006 Routledge edition translated by Murphy and Khalfa)

Rising up in spirit towards God and sounding the bottomless depths into which we find ourselves plunged are one and the same, and in Calvin’s experience madness is the measure of man when he is compared to the boundless reason of God.

In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself—he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ (as published in Michel Foucault Essential Works vol 1, ed. Rabinow, 2000), p 315

We must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, and through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterised as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question must was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.

In the first passage above, Foucault uses a language recognisable to anyone who has read much Heidegger to discuss the thought of the 16th century religious reformer Calvin. Since Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time has some roots in Reformation theology this maybe a particularly intriguing way of using Heidegger. The finitude of man compared to God is something that alludes to Heidegger’s understanding of the essential mortality, finitude, temporality of humanity. It also brings out how for Calvin, madness is an aspect of the limitation of human consciousness compared with that of God. In this passage Foucault is bringing together 16th century religious thought, the way that some 20th century philosophy approaches the themes of earlier philosophy and religion when concerned with questions of the limit of experience, how the question of defining ‘madness’ relates to the questions of defining consciousness, experience and limits from the viewpoints of the dominant ways of thinking and organising experience at the time, the ideology operating in the institutions and laws which are applied to the ‘mad’. What Foucault also brings out is that madness’ was closely related to a positive idea of transcending human bounds, so that the stigmatisation of madness then as now is intimately associated with altered states of consciousness that are given value. The use of a ‘mad’ perspective in 20th century Surrealism is one of the aspects that Foucault is alluding to here, an the ways that such aestheticised encounters with the limits of consciousness and rationality relate to earlier religious ideas of exalted spiritual states.

In the second passage above, Foucault is still concerned with the limit and while individual passages in Foucault may seem obscure, he had a very persistent interest in limits of experience, and related questions over some decades, so it is possible to build up an accumulating familiarity with Foucault’s treatment of the issue. The ‘message’ in that passage is the value of moving from Enlightenment of a Kantian kind, which places limits on the claims of universality, to a a kind of Enlightenment based on exploration of the non-necessity of limits, the exploration of the plurality of individual instances unlimited by rationalistic limitations. This is a very Montaigne-like thought, even if the language is more ‘obscure’. There is a commitment to a ‘historical ontology’, that is the understanding of ourselves as individuals and of the ‘human’ in general as the product of contingency and circumstances rather than a deep self or deep humanity detached from experience and history. This is both a proposal for the study of human institutions and discourses as Foucault already had been doing for decades and a proposal for an ethics which values subjectivity in its variability and different contexts. There is no clear limit to knowledge or consciousness, just as there is no clear limit between different areas of knowledge or experience. Foucault’s idea of Enlightenment knowledge and ethics is to keep exploring and pushing at the limits that have been assumed, which is a way of showing their continent constructed nature as well as the way that consciousness is always dealing with a sense of inside and outside that is open to transformation.

In both passages above, I would argue, Foucault uses allusion and compression of multiple allusions, to show connections and differences, and to make us think about those connections and differences. Calvin’s thought about theology has implications for defining ‘madness’, Enlightenment scientific inquiry is related to assumptions about limits of reason and experience. The ‘obscurity’ arises from the way that the syntheses, allusions, and challenges to a priori boundaries are put in a language which shows these things at work rather than just saying that they exist and makes us aware that the language we constantly use is structured and energised by the unions and tensions contained within these thoughts.

If one simply wants the ideas about institutions, history, discourse and so on in Foucault, without the ‘obscure’ language, then to some degree these can be found in Foucault’s lectures, and then maybe more so in those commentators committed to a clarification of Foucault for those not immersed in the use of philosophical language to convey meaning beyond the most literal transmission of messages, commentators including Gary Gutting, Ian Hacking, and Hans Sluga. I recommend them to anyone who finds Foucault’s style to be a chore but wants to find out about ideas which have certainly influenced a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences.

The whole dialogue between the two starts here, if you’re interested.

Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous, History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life. As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health, and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault’s ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods, and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty-inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty


History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended