Foucault and power
Michel Foucault had this fantastic dark vision of how politics works in our world, which I love because nothing makes me happier than a fancy theory that makes all politicians look bad. So here’s some political theory for you.
Back in the day, there was a man called Thomas Hobbes and he came up with an interesting story to understand how and why we have rulers (not the ones you put in your pencil case, I mean leaders and monarchs). In his story, humans are scared about being harmed and so make a contract with this strong fictional being called the Leviathan. The masses willingly surrender all their power to the Leviathan who now becomes their ruler and in return he gives them protection and safety.
So based on this story, the ones with the power are the leaders or rulers and the ones with no power are regular people; and for a long time people believed this. But Foucault then came along and said that this idea is rubbish and actually power is like a big web in society and is EVERWHERE. In your school, hospital, council- basically in all institutions there are power relations. As for regular people, the way we think and function is a product of power relations and we also help spread these power relations. Basically, what this means is that everything and everyone is controlled, even when you don’t realise it, and guess what? There’s no way you can escape this. You can kill your king or vote for someone else, but in the end of the day you will never be really free or not controlled in some way. Politicians are literally full of hot air because they can only make superficial changes, but the system will never change. And oh yes! If you ever decide to revolt to get rid of this system, then don’t bother because you ARE the system and your revolution will just put in place a new system that will do the exact same thing. Suddenly it all makes sense why post-revolution Middle East is still so messed up… they should’ve read Foucault.
Immanuel Kant and the Categories
Let’s keep this one as simple as possible. You’re sitting in your living room watching TV and you have this impression that all that’s happening at that moment is that you’re receiving data from your TV. But this is not true. In fact, for a long time people believed that the human mind is a blank piece of paper that simply receives data from the outside world through the five senses. But then Kant, being the genius that he is, came along and said that actually our minds are not blank canvasses at all. In fact, our minds have a number of built-in ideas called the ‘categories’ and without these ideas we would not be able to process the data we receive. You can’t learn these categories; they’re just simply built into us. One of these categories is the idea of the ‘object’. Look at your TV again, how did you know where the TV ends and where the stand begins? It’s because your brain understands that these are two separate objects. But an alien for instance might think that the TV and stand are one thing, or that the remote on the table is part of the table, or that the sofa is part of the floor. Without this idea, all the huge amount of data we receive from the world would look like it’s all mushed together and connected. The ‘object’ category allows us to organise the data into separate bits and chunks- basically our minds filter and interpret, not just receive data.
Husserl and Phenomenological Reduction
Husserl was interested in understanding the essence of things. Like what really makes a chair a chair? What is the soul of a pot, tree, spoon or any phenomenon? He then realised that peering into the soul of anything we experience is difficult because our minds always apply ideas and interpretations; and these stop us from seeing things as they are. For instance, when I look at a spoon, my brain automatically associates it with the spoon scene from the Matrix film. So instead of seeing it simply for what it is, the spoon now has become a symbol for other things.
Husserl’s solution to this is what he calls ‘phenomenological reduction’, which basically involves you getting rid of all the contexts, symbols, and ideas that you have about something and reducing it to its simplest state. So I basically need to get rid of everything I associate spoons with in my head, until I reach an understanding of the essence of the spoon in all its magnificent simplicity.