Foucault, freedom, and the struggle to understand politics

Freedom has two major definitions: 1) the absence of restrictions and 2) the power to do something. Foucault’s ‘soul’ forces us to abide by only one definition.

In ‘Discipline and Punish,’ the definition of ‘soul’ – “born of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint” – differs from those offered by Christian theologians – that the soul is born of sin.

Foucault argues that the soul wields a certain power and influences knowledge, Essentially, he describes the soul as the non-physical space in which knowledge and power engage in an internal conflict. From this soul comes a person’s “psyche, subjectivity, personality, and consciousness.” Without this soul, neither scientific innovation, humanism, nor morality would exist.

Another fascinating assertion in Foucault’s explanation of the soul is how he incorporates political anatomy – his idea that humans are controlled by external objects and forces.

“The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”

The definitions of soul and political anatomy render the notion of liberating a personal, internalized power mute since the definitions make it clear that individuals have no control over the inherent power they possess.

These definitions also indirectly suggest that representative democracies as we understand them are not possible – by the people, for the people. Foucault claims that the soul provides individuals with the ability to employ intellect, reason, and creativity, meaning it is the soul – something external from the individual – that is creating laws and practicing governance.

However, Foucault doesn’t address whether concepts like political or regime legitimacy – political power concepts that are considered to be significant indicators of administration or regime success – are possible under his definition. This question also incorporates a debate among political scholars as to whether governments should be understood on an individual or systemic level. This definition of soul would make both of those considerations irrelevant since people and political structures are made up of individuals existing under the assumption that individual decisions carry weight.

For politics to work, both individual and systemic powers have to exist. Given this, is hard to apply Foucault’s and still provide substantive reasons for the actions of governments.


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