Power, Knowledge, Science and Anti-Science

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Power and knowledge are central to the life of most of the people in the contemporary world. While hard power has been used to gain physical control over people or territories, knowledge has been used as an effective tool to coerce people with their own consent. According to me, power and knowledge are mere tools for controlling people and their actions. The postmodernist view of power and knowledge is in sync with the argument against singular drivers of social reproduction and political domination in the postmodern world of multiple dimensions, wherein the power of theories of modernity often prove to be ineffective. Their fundamental disagreement is with the “metanarratives” of the modernity era, which have been used as a tool of political and social coercion. They reject that the theories of modernity are continuous functions of society while arguing that radical breaks have been a characteristic feature of theories of modernity and, therefore, such theories are unscientific. In this regard, while the postmodernists like Lyotard and Foucault are critical about the science of metanarratives, modernists like Marx and Weber have left no stone unturned to establish the scientific nature of their theory. Weber, however, realized that the rationality of the modern era was an “iron cage.”

Through this essay, I shall argue how the views of the modernists and the postmodernists differ on the aspects of knowledge and power. In the process, this essay shall bring out what various postmodernists thinkers have to say on the idea of knowledge and power, and compare the same with the rationalist, scientific thinking of thinkers like Weber and Marx of the modern era. In the debate, I locate Marx and Weber in the realm of science and Lyotard and Foucault on the side of anti-science.

Marx was a believer in science, and his works are based on a typically scientific understanding of the society. One can locate Marx’s idea of knowledge and power in the realm of science because he has categorically theorized the flow of power in the hands of proletariat and bourgeoisie and argued that the knowledge or culture of the bourgeoisie is the dominant knowledge of the era. The scientific validity of Marx’s theory is subject to a debate in the modern world but within his own construct Marx is scientifically consistent, and the theory holds true at all epochs in history just like science in Newton’s era. Marx theorized a world in which his very knowledge of people was based on scientific study of the economy as the base and social relations of production as the superstructure.

Moving on to Weber, we realize that Weber too was a believer in the scientific method and the rationality of the era of modernity. Given Weber’s conception of theorizing knowledge, one can, without doubt, locate him in the sphere of modernity. Weber, however, was skeptical about the rationality of the modern era and expounded that it was an era of when men were shadowed by delusions that they had achieved a level of development which had never before been attained by the humankind. The only difference between the Weber and the postmodernists like Foucault, as we shall see, is that his critique of the rationality of modernity is rooted in pessimism while the critique of the postmodernists is celebratory. On the one hand, Weber realized the problems with the rationality of the modern era but saw it as something unavoidable, while, on the other, the postmodernists reject the rationality of the modern era altogether but are celebratory about the same.

From Marx who is on the cusp of modernity, we moved on to Weber who laid the foundation for those who laid the foundations of postmodernity. Moving further, we shall understand thinkers like Lyotard and Foucault who have written extensively on knowledge and power and have presented a vehement critique of the science and rationality of the era of modernity. We have already located the postmodernists on the side on anti-science in the debate. Now, I shall make an exposition of what the postmodernists have to say on knowledge and power in order to justify my claims.

Lyotard argues that modernity grounds science and knowledge in metanarratives which were seductively designed for social repression and political domination of the people. For him, incredulity towards metanarratives is the characteristic feature of postmodernism. Knowledge, as he defines it, is nothing but a conceptualized game of languages. The knowledge in the postmodern world is based on perspectives and is incomplete. However, such knowledge is grounded in multiplicity and any attempt to singularize the causes of a factor, as in metanarratives, would bring down the credibility of knowledge. Lyotard celebrates pluralism in knowledge, which deepens his contempt for metanarratives which tend to generalize the diverse truths of life.

Lyotard argues that the ability of a smaller language game is suppressed by the might of larger language game. Ultimately it is the interplay of language games which decides the dominant language game of an era. Knowledge, therefore, is that language game which has faced odds against all language games and established itself. Knowledge itself is a mode of instinctive desires and libidinal intensities of one language game to dominate the other. However, while criticizing the metanarratives, Lyotard must realize that the end which the metanarratives seek are same most of the times although their means might differ. Rather than being scientific, the theories of social science change as the language changes and are, therefore, not scientific according to Lyotard.

Moving on from Lyotard, we shall go on to see how Foucault conceptualizes knowledge and power in a way very similar to Lyotard. Foucault’s work is characterized by suspicions of claims to universal truth. Foucault argues that it is the will to theorize utopias which leaves us in the dark most of the times. Rather than rooting knowledge on first principles, like in science, Foucault argues that there exists no external position of certainty which is beyond the realm of historicization of social conditions. In other words, there exists no absolute truth. Knowledge, for Foucault, is the key to power and manipulation in the postmodern world and not a mere subject to the command of rationality as in the era of modernity.

Science, for Foucault, is the art of manipulation by which the subject of the study in the contemporary world is segregated from his/her self and objectified through the process of division and classification. Scientific knowledge has been used as a weapon to segregate people by classifying them into various sub-categories for mere exercise of power. The process of dominance through knowledge has become so strong that the people have actually begun to understand themselves through such lenses. One’s understanding of self is based on knowledge which is not consistent, at times, and never the ultimate truth. The knowledge of the sciences has been characterized by several radical breaks wherein the existing science has often been replaced by a completely new set of ideas. One instance which we can use to elucidate such discursivities is the abrupt change in the idea of relativity from the era of Newtonian physics to the era of Einstien’s special theory of relativity.

However, one should not see Foucault’s skepticism about rationality as his rejection of reason. Unlike Marx, Foucault didn’t aim at establishing a general theory of the history of the human beings. Such theories are based on the ideals of the modern era and are, therefore, at risk of being pro-cyclic to excesses of political power. Weber was a rationalist, but his works show striking similarity with the thoughts of postmodernism; he recognized that reason was central in the process of rationalization but was equally dangerous as it had destructive functioning. However, one should not put Weber in the realm of anti-science of postmodernity because he was a strong believer in the rationale of modernity and advocated the centrality of rational thought.

Postmodernity, I argue, is not a radical break from the modern thought but a mere realization of the fact that the means to achieve the ends were often singular in the modern metanarratives. Study of various cultures around the world proves to us that the theories which are claimed to be scientific are often ridden with discontinuities. What is science for one set of people might be a mere farce for others. Truth is never absolute; it is merely a game of words. Therefore, one single narrative cannot direct the diverse, multi-dimensional and globalized world in which we live.

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Rakshit Mohan is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. His specializations are International Affairs and International Political Economy. He has previously interned at Carnegie India, New Delhi and has a keen interest in Indian foreign policy and Indian politics. He has published articles with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Maritime Executive.