From: John Ransom <ransom@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 1997 23:57:36 -0400 (EDT)
Foucault on intellectuals.
Someone asked recently about Foucault's approach to intellectuals. I
thought we might use that comment as an invitation to discuss Foucault's
specific views in this regard.
Rather than immediately saying what I think on the subject, I thought I
would point to a few places where Foucault says something about the role
of the intellectual. Interested individuals can then go take a look for
In the _Foucault Reader_ Foucault claims that the intellectuals should
shift their focus from a battle "on behalf" of truth to one that raises
questions about the status of truth and the economic and political role it
plays. See _FR_, 72-75.
The above point is amplified in a selection from _Power/Knowledge_. There
he says that the "left" intellectual has paraded as master of truth and
justice (126). This however has been abandoned and now intellectuals deal
with specific, non-universal issues and problems.
One consequence of this move from care for the universal to care for the
specific is that the wall between practice and theory is breached.
Intellectuals at one time were those who wrote, and these were contrasted
to mere technicians who simply carried out the will of the capitalist
order. But now "writing" as the sacralizing mark of the intellectual has
disappeared. Everyone gets politicized. See p. 127 of _P/K_. So there's
this sort of breakdown of the division of labor between those who 'write'
and those who 'do.' Instead of this division, Foucault says, we now are
witnessing a "global process of politicization" that includes
psychiatrists, magistrates, doctors, social workers, sociologists, and so
The above is followed by Foucault's classic comment on 'Oppenheimer.' He
identifies the atomic scientist as an important point of transition
between the old 'universal' kind of intellectual and the more 'specific'
(skill-centered?) intellectual that is nevertheless able to produce what F
calls 'global effects.'
At P/K 129, Foucault suggests that perhaps not Oppenheimer, but rather
Darwin be thought of as the originator of the 'specific' intellectual. For
Darwin and especially his popularizers, a 'local' scientific truth
(evolutionism) was put into play in contemporary political struggles.
Foucault concludes his argument in P/K by addressing several familiar
(though not for that reason inconsequential) objections: Won't the
specific intellectual (SI) "remain at the level of conjunctural struggles"
that do not challenge the full range of society's oppressive effects? See
What's valuable about the SI is that this kind of intellectual is not a
bearer of universal values but rather someone who occupies a specific
position linked to the general functioning of truth. And it is this
relationship to truth, Foucault says, that allows the SI's activity to
take on general significance. See 132 of P/K.
There's plenty more, of course, but perhaps the above is enough to get
discussion going for those interested.