November 15, 2018
Knowledge is Power
Our society today is build upon the idea that “Knowledge is power”. This theme has been a major philosophical interest for hundreds of years. The phrase is often attributed to the philosopher Francis Bacon in his book Meditationes Sacrae, which was written in 1597. It became part of the foundations for many later philosophers like Foucault, Hard & Negri, and Edward Said. Foucault -> Power
In Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punishment (1975), he analyzes how modern prison systems have shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner’s body to his soul. His book isn’t just directed at penal systems though, many of the connections he makes can be seen in the world today. One example of this is the panopticon- which is often described as a building with a tower at the center from which it is possible to see each cell that a prisoner is kept. The prisoners are seen but cannot communicate with any guards or other prisoners, they can always see the tower but never know when they are being watched. The panopticon is a portrayal of power reduced to its ideal state. It gives power over people’s minds through design. Foucault states, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power . . . he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (###)” This idea is often seen in society today, especially when we are young. Go back to your childhood. Imagine a kid in your class getting caught for picking his nose. Think about how the event affected you. You learned not to pick your nose when people are around because you might be subject to the same humiliation. As a result, you internalize the social punishment. Even when no one is around, society is still controlling your actions because of the possibility that you are being watched. The knowledge of what you learned about the kid picking his nose resulted in a subconscious limiting of your power to pick your nose in public.
For Foucault, power is a function of knowledge and knowledge is an exercise of power. “We should admit rather that power produces knowledge; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge . . .” (Foucault 27). This dynamic between power and knowledge shows how it doesn’t only limit what we do, but it also opens up a new way of thinking about ourselves. In other words, power provides a site for the expansion of knowledge, you cannot have one without the other.