sexta-feira, 21 de setembro de 2012

Foucault, Butler, and the Body

Foucault, Butler, and the Body
David Dudrick
Judith Butler has presented a powerful and influential criticism of Michel
Foucault’s understanding of the body.1 According to that criticism, Foucault’s
understanding of the body is incoherent; he is supposed to assert that the body is
a cultural construction while being committed to the denial of that claim.
Foucault is led to this paradox, on Butler’s account, by the tension between his
(welcome) recognition of the radical nature of cultural construction and his
(unwelcome and unacknowledged) ‘logocentrism’.
What, exactly, is Butler’s argument for the incoherence of Foucault’s position?
Though not presented as such, we might construct an argument in premise/
conclusion form using the resources found in Butler’s ‘Foucault and the Paradox
of Bodily Inscriptions’. In that essay, Butler reasons as follows:
(1) Foucault holds that ‘bodies are constituted within the specific nexus
of culture or discourse/power regimes’ (Butler 1989: 602).
(2) Foucault is therefore committed to the claim that ‘there is no
materiality or ontological independence of the body outside of any
one of these specific regimes’ (Butler 1989: 602).
(3) Foucault holds that the ‘process of cultural construction [may be
understood] on the model of ‘‘inscription’’ ’ (Butler 1989: 602).
(4) Foucault is therefore committed to the claim that the ‘body [has] an
ontological status apart from’ inscription (Butler 1989: 603).
(5) Discourse/power form a regime just in case they constitute the
locus of inscription.2
(6) Therefore (2) and (4) are inconsistent.
(7) Therefore (1) and (3) are inconsistent.
(8) Therefore Foucault’s understanding of the body, as expressed in (1)
and(3), is inconsistent.
Foucault’s understanding of the body must, then, on Butler’s account, be
modified in order to be defensible. On her view, the problematic claim is (3),
Foucault’s suggestion that cultural construction of bodies should be understood
on the model of inscription—a suggestion Butler castigates as ‘a logocentric move
if there ever was one’. If logocentrism were not enough reason for rejection,
Butler claims that (4), the claim that the body has an ontological status apart from
inscription, gestures toward a ‘real’ body that underlies and resists cultural
construction, a notion Butler finds unacceptable. Foucault is thus guilty of two
grave and related offenses: his account of inscription is guilty of logocentrism
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and his account of the body is guilty of offering the false hope of redemption by a
recovery of the pure, the unadulterated, the ‘real’. The body subject to inscription
offers the chimera of liberation.
As an alternative to Foucault’s understanding, Butler holds that the cultural
construction of bodies should be understood in terms of ‘a diffuse and active
structuring social field’ (Butler 1989: 607). While in ‘Foucault’ Butler does not
provide the account of ‘performatives’ she develops elsewhere (e.g. in Butler
1999: 41–50), she does make clear that her account will involve neither
‘inscription’—at least as Foucault understands it—or what she calls ‘fictions
of bodies, subversive or otherwise, ontologically intact before the law’ (Butler
1989: 607).
Butler’s view of the body deserves sustained attention. For one sympathetic
with Foucault’s view, however, a question presents itself here: Is Butler’s claim—
that Foucault’s understanding of the body is incoherent—justified?
Butler’s claim is not justified. She is quite right that Foucault accepts (3), that
bodies are subject to ‘inscription’ and that it follows that the body has an
ontological status independent of such inscription (as expressed in (4)). She is
also right that (2) is inconsistent with (4); that is, if bodies are not ontologically
independent of discourse/power regimes, then they have no ontological status
independent of inscription. She is, however, wrong to suppose that Foucault
endorses (2): Foucault nowhere denies that bodies have this ontological
independence. It follows, of course, that insofar as (1) implies (2), Foucault does
not endorse (1), the proposition that bodies are constructed.
This may come as a shock to those whose familiarity with Foucault is
mediated by postmodernist scholarship. Does Foucault not hold that the body is
a construction? As Ian Hacking has argued (Hacking 1999), the answer to that
question depends on what is meant by ‘body’. Does ‘body’ here refer to an object
or to an idea? That is, does Butler attribute to Foucault the claim that certain
things in the world—bodies—are manufactured? Or is the claim attributed that a
concept—that of the body—has been developed over time? In order for Butler’s
paradox to hold, the claim she attributes to Foucault must concern bodies
understood as objects. If (1) is read as referring to ideas, then it becomes the claim
that ideas about bodies are constituted in an organized and institutionally
supported pursuit of knowledge. So read, (1) may be rendered as follows:
(1a) Foucault holds that ideas about bodies are constituted within the
specific nexus of culture or discourse/power regimes.
It is evident that (2) does not follow from (1a) so understood: it does not follow,
that is, that bodies, understood as objects, have no ontological independence
from such pursuit. When (1) is rendered as (1a), support for (2) thus vanishes,
and with it Butler’s proposed paradox.
To maintain the paradox, then, Butler must interpret Foucault as holding that
bodies understood as objects are constructions of culture. That is, (1) must be
rendered as follows:
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(1b) Foucault holds that bodies themselves are constituted within the
specific nexus of culture or discourse/power regimes.3
I shall argue that (1b), as Butler construes it, is false and that there is no paradox
for Foucault’s understanding of the body. Doing so invites a problem of a
different sort, however. To deny that Foucault holds that bodies understood as
objects are culturally constructed appears to alleviate the position not only of its
implausibility, but also of its interest. For (1a) may seem as blandly reasonable as
(1b) is strikingly implausible: who would deny that ideas about bodies have
developed over time? An important aim of this essay is to show that, in fact,
Foucault has much of interest to say about the body; his position is at once more
reasonable and—not only for that reason—more revolutionary than the one
attributed to him by Butler.
In order to appreciate this position, another ambiguity, this time in (1b), must
be dispelled. While it is clear that (1b) refers to bodies themselves and not to
ideas about bodies, the nature of these bodies remains unclear. In order to
generate an inconsistency with (4)—the claim that Foucault is committed to the
position that the body has an ontological status apart from inscription—(1b) must
be referring to natural human bodies: the collection of organs, studied by
anatomy, that form functioning systems, studied by physiology, that constitute a
member of the species homo sapiens. For if (1b) does not refer to the physiological
body, then this body may serve as the surface of inscription which is
ontologically independent of it. Thus, Bulter’s paradox presupposes that (1b)
be construed as:
(1c) Foucault holds that physiological bodies themselves are constituted
within the specific nexus of culture or discourse/power regimes.
Now, while it may seem to some that this is the only plausible construal of (1b),
part of Foucault’s contribution lies in the fact that he is not among this group. In
Discipline and Punish, Foucault acknowledges that the body may be studied as
‘the locus of physiological processes and metabolisms’, but adds that ‘the body is
also directly involved in a political field’ (Foucault 1995: 25). He then announces
his intention to examine this latter body, which he strikingly calls ‘the soul’.
Foucault holds that this body—not the idea of such a body, but the body itself—is
constituted in and by discourse/power regimes. Thus, I accept:
(1d) Foucault holds that bodies ‘directly involved in a political field’—that
is, souls—themselves are constituted within the specific nexus of
culture or discourse/power regimes.
Explanation of and support for (1d) will be offered below; it suffices here to note
that acceptance of (1d) coupled with rejection of (1c) makes room for the position
that Foucault holds: that the body ‘directly involved in a political field’ is a
construction produced by the workings of disciplinary techniques upon the
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physiological body. I shall argue that these workings are well-described as
‘inscription’, since ‘the soul’ is the physiological body made intentional with
respect to specific aspects of its environment. While Zarathustra claims that the
soul is ‘something about the body’ (Nietzsche 1982: 146), Foucault might be said
to hold a complimentary position: that the soul is the body about something.
This paper consists of two main parts. In the first part, I shall argue that,
contrary to Butler’s claims, Foucault gives no reason to suppose that the
physiological body (as opposed to the idea of it) is constructed. To this end I shall
give readings of the pertinent passages in ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History’,
Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality: volume 1. In the second part, I shall
argue for the proposition expressed in (1d), that Foucault holds that bodies
‘directly involved in a political field’—that is, souls—themselves are constituted
within the specific nexus of culture or discourse/power regimes. I hope to show
that a proper understanding of Foucault’s account of the soul is essential to an
appreciation of his later work. I then reflect briefly on the relevance of Foucault’s
account of body and soul for contemporary social psychology.
I. Foucault and the Physiological Body
A. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’
Butler endorses the proposition expressed in (1c), that Foucault holds that
physiological bodies themselves are constituted within the specific nexus of culture
or discourse/power regimes. Among the passages she uses to support the
proposition expressed in (1c) is the following from ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy,
We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of
physiology, and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is
false. The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken
down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food
or values, through eating habits and moral laws; it constructs
resistances.4 ‘Effective’ history differs from the history of the historians
in being without constants. Nothing in man—not even his body—is
sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for
understanding other men. (Foucault 1994: 380)
Butler uses this passage to support the proposition expressed in (2), that the
physiological body lacks ontological independence, as an indirect way of
supporting (1c).5 Does this passage provide an argument for the denial of the
ontological independence of physiological bodies? It has largely been taken for
granted that it does something of the sort. Dreyfus and Rabinow call it an
‘extreme stand’ which indicates that ‘every aspect of the body can be totally
modified’ and that ‘the body’s habits can change arbitrarily from day to day’
(Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983: 110–1). On this reading, the position amounts to
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something akin to the view that the physiological body is whatever is dictated by
the cultural context and so an endorsement of (1c).
Dreyfus and Rabinow misread Foucault here, however; he does not attribute
to Nietzsche the ‘extreme stand’ that would support a denial of the ontological
independence of physiological bodies. Undoubtedly, he seems to do so when he
denies that ‘the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology’. But Foucault is not
here denying that the body obeys the laws of physiology; he is rather denying
that these are the only—or the most important, for the purposes common to
himself and Nietzsche—laws that the body obeys. His disagreement is not with
those who endorse the laws of physiology, but with those who endorse them
while ignoring the influence of ‘rhythms of work, rest, and holidays’ as well as
‘food or values’, ‘eating habits and moral laws’—an influence that, one might
plausibly suppose, extends to the physiological workings of the body. Foucault’s
reading endorses the importance of these ‘rhythms’, ‘habits’, and ‘laws’ not
instead of but in addition to these ‘the laws of physiology’.6
That said, the statement which appears to provide the best evidence for an
endorsement of (2) is the following: ‘Nothing in man—not even his body—is
sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding
other men’. To deny stability to man’s body is to deny (at least) the findings of
physiology, and so to reject the ontological independence of the physiological
body. But is the stability of man’s body denied here? It is denied only insofar as
the body might ‘serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other
men’. There is, however, no reason to think that mere physiological stability
could play this role; thus there is no reason to think physiological stability is
denied here.
To see this, consider that self-recognition of the kind discussed here might be
thought of in terms of what Bernard Williams calls a ‘real option’. According to
Williams, an outlook offers a real option for a person if she could ‘live inside it in
[her] actual historical circumstances and retain [her] hold on reality, not engage in
extensive self-deception, and so on’ (Williams 1985: 160–1). An outlook is a real
option, then, if and only if one can understand oneself in its terms—if and only if,
that is, ‘it can serve as a basis for self-recognition’. Clearly, however, the fact that
another’s body displays the same physiological make-up as one’s own is no basis
for such self-recognition. That a medieval samurai has a body comprising a
broadly similar configuration of broadly similar organs in broadly similar
physiological systems allows me no ‘self-recognition’ upon contemplating him—
thus it does not render the outlook of a medieval samurai a real option for me.
Thus, the claim that man’s body is ‘not sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for
self-recognition or for understanding other men’ does not imply the rejection of
the ontological independence of the physiological body.
‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ thus provides no support for (2), that the
physiological body lacks ontological independence, and so provides no support
for Butler’s endorsement of (1c), that Foucault claims that physiological bodies
themselves are constituted within the specific nexus of culture or discourse/
power regimes.
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B. Discipline and Punish
Ladelle McWhorter, in her ‘Nature or Culture’, attempts to support the
proposition expressed in (1c) via a different route. She cites a passage in
Discipline and Punish in which Foucault states that ‘disciplinary power has its
correlative an individuality that is not only analytic and ‘‘cellular’’, but also
natural and ‘‘organic’’ ’ (Foucault 1995: 156). She takes this to imply that the
physiological body is ‘a product of discipline’ (McWhorter 1989: 609) and so has
no ontological independence from discursive regimes. While a detailed
examination of Foucault’s understanding of the body in Discipline and Punish
must be deferred, even a cursory examination of this passage in its context shows
that it implies no such thing. Having given an initial characterization of a ‘docile
body’ as a body one that not only ‘does’ what one wishes, but ‘operates’ as one
wishes (Foucault 1995: 138), Foucault describes the techniques of discipline that
produce such bodies. After discussing the way discipline orders bodies in space
(‘the art of distributions’, Foucault 1995: 141–9), Foucault examines the
disciplinary ordering of bodies in time (‘the control of activity’, Foucault 1995:
149–154). Having finished that discussion, Foucault states the following:
Through this technique of subjection [the ‘control of activity’ discussed
previously] a new object was being formed; slowly, it superseded the
mechanical body—the body composed of solids and assigned movements,
the image of which had so long haunted those who dreamt of disciplinary
perfection. This new object is the natural body, the bearer of forces and the
seat of duration; it is the body susceptible to specified operations, which
have their order, their stages, their internal conditions, their constituent
elements. In becoming the target of new mechanisms of power, the body is
offered up to new forms of knowledge. (Foucault 1995: 155)
Does this understanding of the ‘natural body’ imply a rejection of the ontological
independence of the physiological body? Keeping in mind the distinction
between the construction of an object and the construction of an idea, it might
plausibly be argued that it does no such thing. While Foucault calls the natural
body a ‘new object’ (objet nouveau), he means this not in an ontological sense (i.e.
as a thing that has come into existence), but in an epistemological sense (i.e. as a
novel way of conceiving a thing). The ‘natural body’ is new and a different
‘object’ than the ‘mechanical body’ only in the sense that it is a new idea: the
correlate of a new way of engaging with and knowing about the body.
Foucault’s claim that ‘in becoming the target of new mechanisms of power, the
body is offered up to new forms of knowledge’ helps clarify this interpretation.
The natural body is a new object in the sense of being a new ‘target’ (cible). As
disciplinary practices begin to produce docile bodies, new forms of knowledge
are made possible. In this case, the ‘control of activity’ makes possible and
plausible an understanding of the body as ‘natural’ in the sense discussed above.
(It is also the case, of course, that with new knowledge come new forms of power
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as well; this fact need not concern us here.) The body, hitherto conceived of as
‘mechanical’, is now, as a result of these new disciplinary practices, conceived of
as ‘natural’, as ‘bearer of forces and the seat of duration’.
One rightly regards this ‘natural body’ as discovered because among the things
that comes to be known about the ‘specified operations’ which comprise this
body is that they are of a nature as to exist prior to our knowledge of them. Such
‘ontological independence’ does not imply metaphysical realism or any other
philosophically substantial position; it is simply to admit a rather humdrum kind
of fact: e.g. hearts existed and were pumping blood before scientists articulated
any systematic knowledge of them. None of the considerations McWhorter
advances here provide reason to think that Foucault does or should deny this
C. The History of Sexuality: volume 1
Butler also claims to find support for the proposition expressed in (1c) in
Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: volume 1. In that work, she suggests, Foucault
denies that there is a ‘‘materiality’ to bodies which is in any sense separable from
the ideational or cultural meanings that constitute bodies within specific social
fields’ (Butler 1989: 602). That is, she asserts (2) above: that Foucault claims that
there is no ontological independence of the body outside of discourse/power
regimes. On Butler’s reading of The History of Sexuality: volume 1, Foucault claims
that the very ‘materiality’ of the body—not ideas about the body, that is, but the
body considered as an object—is ‘ ‘‘invested’’ with ideas’, and even its seemingly
‘most ‘‘factic’’ aspects’ (most importantly, sex) are constructions (Butler 1989: 602).
If Butler’s interpretation of The History of Sexuality: volume 1 is correct in this
regard, it will serve as evidence for (1c). To see why it is not correct, consider
Foucault’s response to the charge that in his analysis of sexuality, he acts as if sex
did not exist. It may be, the objection goes, that sexuality is a construction—a
constructed idea to which a constructed (if any) reality corresponds. But surely
sex—’the basis on which this sexualization was able to develop’ (Foucault 1990:
151)—is a reality that is not constructed. In response, Foucault rejects:
the idea that there exists something other than bodies, organs, somatic
localizations, functions, anatomo-physiological systems, sensations, and
pleasures; something else and something more, with intrinsic properties
and laws of its own: ‘sex’. (Foucault 1990: 152–3)
Two points here are important for our purposes. First, Foucault admits to acting
as if sex does not exist since, in an important sense, it does not. Foucault here not
only sees but plays on the ambiguity noted above concerning the cultural
construction of ideas versus that of objects. He suggests that while the idea of sex
is undoubtedly among our concepts, there is no object (or activity) to which it
corresponds. More accurately, sex has no objective reality not reducible to bodies,
organs, pleasures, functions, etc. Far from being the ‘anchorage point that
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supports the manifestation of sexuality’, the idea of sex was ‘formed inside the
deployment of sexuality’ (Foucault 1990: 152). Sex is real considered as an idea,
not (irreducibly) real considered as an object (or activity).
Second, we may infer from the contrast with sex that the other items in this list,
among them anatomical structures and physiological systems, do have material
reality—are real objects/activities. The physiological body is thus real both as an
idea and as an object. As a result, while Butler is right that Foucault denies that the
physiological body understood in terms of sex fails to provide a materiality that is
ontologically independent of discourse/power regimes, The History of Sexuality:
volume 1 fails to provide evidence for the more general claim made in (2) or the key
claim, expressed in (1c), that physiological bodies themselves are constituted
within the specific nexus of culture or discourse/power regimes.
D. Bodies That Matter
The failure of ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, Discipline and Punish, and The
History of Sexuality: volume 1 to provide support for (1c) should give us pause
concerning Butler’s attributions to Foucault. Why, we might wonder, would
anyone deny something so obvious as the fact that the physiological body itself
(and not the idea of it) is the way it is independent of what we might say about it?
Butler, it seems, would suggest that the answer is to be found in the question: it is
the very obviousness of this fact that is a cause for suspicion. In Bodies That
Matter, Butler admits that whenever we think or talk about the body, we find we
must admit that the body (i.e. the body’s physiological properties) exists prior to
our knowledge of it. But, she says, ‘this signification produces as an effect of its
own procedure the very body that it nevertheless and simultaneously claims to
discover as that which precedes its own action’. According to Butler it follows that
we must deny the ‘representational status of language’ and accept that language
is ‘constitutive, one might even argue performative’. Presumably she holds that
once we see that the body is an ‘effect’ of ‘signification’, we can no longer hold
that a proposition’s truth is the result of its accurately representing an
ontologically independent reality. Rather, the truth of a proposition is the result
of its effecting reality—of constituting reality in a way that corresponds to that
Now, there is a sense in which what Butler says about the effect of ‘signification’
is true: the practices in which we attend to an object may highlight certain aspects
of an object to the neglect of others. But this does not imply that the highlighted
aspects are constructed by those practices. And it is thus difficult to see how a
proper understanding of the effect of ‘signification’ implies a rejection of
representationalism. More telling for our purposes, however, is the error involved
in supposing that a rejection of representationalism as a theory implies some form
of linguistic idealism, that language is ‘constitutive’ or ‘performative’. This is the
case only if one assumes that it makes sense to think of ‘language’ and ‘the world’
as two things that may be related. It seems, therefore, that Butler implicitly accepts
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a correspondence theory of truth: she holds that language corresponds to the
world either by way of representing the world or by way of creating it. If, however,
one rejects the idea that ‘language’ and ‘world’ are related by way of
correspondence—and, for that matter, that these ‘two things’ are ‘related’ in any
way—then this consequence does not follow. One might, that is, reject the notion
that truth can be defined at all except in deflationary terms (e.g. ‘P’ is true iff P).
Recall that the ‘ontological independence’ of the physiological body discussed
above amounts simply to the humdrum claim that the ‘specified operations’ that
comprise the human body studied by physiology existed before scientists
articulated any systematic knowledge of them.8
Butler not only thinks that acceptance of the physiological body as
ontologically independent of discursive practices implies representationalism
or metaphysical realism. She also holds that such acceptance requires an
objectionable empiricism. It is not simply a matter of mistaking a constituted
effect as independently real, but as a ‘primary given’, thus implying ‘empiricist
foundationalism’. Butler is certainly right to reject the kind of empiricism ably
criticized by Sellars (Sellars 1997) and Davidson (Davidson 2001). But she is
wrong to think that acceptance of the physiological body implies such an
empiricism. To endorse the existence of the physiological body is not to insist on
a sense datum, but rather to accept what we know, through physiology, about the
human body. Butler’s well-founded worries about the ‘myth of the given’ thus
give no reason to reject the physiological body.
Butler rejects the myth of the given, yet she criticizes Foucault for ignoring
questions which make sense only on the assumption of something akin to
untranslatable conceptual schemes. She asks:
To what extent is materialization governed by principles of intelligibility
that require and institute a domain of radical unintelligibility that resists
materialization altogether or that remains radically dematerialized?
(Butler 1993: 3)
Foucault’s ‘ignorance’ of this question can be explained by his rejection of the
notion of untranslatable conceptual schemes.9 Foucault states that ‘there is no
experience which is not a way of thinking, and which cannot be analyzed from
the point of view of the history of thought’ (Rabinow 1984: 335). We can make
sense of an area of possible investigation that is unintelligible because ignored.
By conceiving of the body as ‘mechanical’, those who studied the body in the
Classical period rendered the operations that characterize the natural body
unintelligible: insofar as the body was thought to be ‘mechanical’, its ‘natural’
processes were necessarily hidden.We cannot, however, make sense of a ‘domain
of radical unintelligibility that resists materialization altogether’. What is this
domain? What can be said about it? The ‘natural processes’ of the body were not
unintelligible in this way: modern physiologists came to understand them.
Foucault is concerned with what is rendered unintelligible by one discursive
regime but which would be (or was or is) intelligible in another discursive regime
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(as can be seen in the example of the ‘mechanical’ and ‘natural’ bodies). However,
he has no truck with that which is ‘radically unintelligible’, since to do so would
be to court absurdity. Butler accuses Foucault of failing ‘to account for what is
excluded from the economics of discursive intelligibility that he describes [and]
for what has to be excluded in order for those economies to function as selfsustaining
systems’. Foucault is falsely accused in the first instance and falsely
accused in the second. He does indeed account for what is excluded, but does not
(and cannot) account for what has to be excluded. How can one ‘account for’ that
which is not only ‘necessarily excluded’ but marked by ‘radical intelligibility’?
It may be that at this point Butler would turn to the suspicion mentioned above.
Yes, she might say, it certainly appears that, among the things we come to know
about the physiological body, is that it exists prior to our knowledge of it, ‘but this
appearance is precisely the moment in which the power/discourse regime is most
fully dissimulated and insidiously effective’. How one ought to respond to such a
claim is not entirely clear. Compare: ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean
they’re not out to get me’. There is a significant difference here, however: while we
can make sense of the possibility that, despite all appearances, they really are out to
get you, we cannot, it seems, do so for the possibility that the physiological body is
merely an effect of discourse. We might be wrong in all our substantive claims
about the workings of that body, but by Butler’s own admission, logic dictates that
there must be some body about which we may be wrong. It seems Butler might
well acknowledge this, and declare it to be to the detriment of logic. To do so,
though, smacks of desperation as much as irrationalism.
II. Body And Soul
A. Foucault’s Account
None of the passages cited above in support of (1c), that Foucault holds that
physiological bodies themselves are constituted within the specific nexus of culture
or discourse/power regimes, in fact do so. Butler’s criticism of Foucault’s
understanding of the body is therefore unwarranted. The question remains,
however: what is Foucault’s understanding of the body?
An answer to this question begins to take shape upon examination of Discipline
and Punish. One of Foucault’s aims in that work is to ‘write a history of
punishment . . . against the background of a history of bodies’ (Foucault 1995: 25).
He admits that ‘historians long ago began to write the history of the body’; they
have studied it as:
the seat of needs and appetites, as the locus of physiological processes
and metabolisms, as the target for the attacks of germs or viruses;
they have shown to what extent historical processes were involved in
what might seem to be the purely biological base of existence. (Foucault
1995: 25)
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Foucault distinguishes his own history of the body from these approaches,
adding that ‘the body is also directly involved in a political field’. Note that
Foucault is careful not to deny the understandings of the body here mentioned; to
consider the body as ‘involved in a political field’ is not to deny, e.g. that it is the
‘locus of physiological processes and metabolisms’. Thus, to understand fully
Foucault’s account of the body is to accommodate its consistency with the
accounts of the body here mentioned.10
Foucault says that the body is ‘directly involved in a political field’ that power
relations ‘have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture
it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs’ (Foucault 1995:
25). A puzzle immediately presents itself. Cannot what Foucault says here about
the body be read as referring to the person (or better, the political subject)? Surely,
one might suppose, a body can be forced to carry out tasks (perform ceremonies,
emit signs, be the object of torture or training) only insofar as the person can be so
forced. Is it possible to torture my body without torturing me? Indeed, the person
may ultimately be the body—but if this is the sense in which Foucault uses
‘body’, his claim here is awkward and misleading.
Foucault denies, however, that his claim about the body can be read as a claim
about the person. The power relations he is considering ‘are not localized in the
relations between the state and its citizens’, but ‘go right down into the depths of
society’ where they ‘have a grip’ on the body. That being so, it appears that
Foucault’s claim that power relations cause the body to carry out tasks is
misleading not for its use of ‘body’ but for its description of the events caused in
intentional terms, as actions. For it seems that if ‘body’ is not equivalent to
‘person’, then the body is not made to act. And if that is so, then because Foucault
does deny this equivalence, he must admit that while the body in the ‘political
field’ may be manipulated, deformed, mangled, it is a passive object that cannot
be made to act.
Foucault denies too, though, that the body ‘involved in a political field’ is a
passive object. More specifically, he denies that the mastery of this body
consists in a domination or repression of its forces: mastery of the body does
not consist in insuring its passivity. Because he denies to the body ‘directly
involved in a political field’ both passivity and equivalence with the person,
Foucault’s position implies that there are cases in which a person’s body carries
out tasks (e.g.) and in which the person (or citizen) does not—cases in
which a person’s body exhibits an intentionality that is not shared by
the person.
This contention appears problematic. For Foucault’s position here implies a
denial of the link between intentionality and subjectivity. That is, it denies that
intentional activity (carrying out tasks, e.g.) is necessarily such as to be explicable
in terms of the intention of an agent, thereby making way for the possibility of
what one might call unintentional (i.e. unintended) intentionality. Far from seeing
this implication as a liability, Foucault embraces it. In his methodological
reflections on the study of power relations in The History of Sexuality: volume 1, he
states that such relations are:
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both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is
not because they are the effect of another instance that ‘explains’ them,
but rather because they are imbued, through and through with
calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims
and objectives. (Foucault 1990: 94–5)
‘But’, he is quick to add, ‘this does not mean that it results from the choice or
decision of an individual subject’. Foucault asserts the possibility of ‘comprehensive
systems’ whose ‘logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable’, and yet
such as not to have been ‘invented’ or even ‘formulated’ (Foucault 1990: 95). To
gloss this position, then, one might say that an activity bears intentionality
insofar as it is imbued with calculation concerning some aim, whether or not any
subject has this calculation or aim ‘in mind’. Foucault’s position here is therefore
not unlike those, like Daniel Dennett, who propose that intentionality be
understood as a result of taking up ‘the intentional stance’ (Dennett 1996).
Putting aside whatever problems arise from convergences with Dennett’s
position, it is an apparent divergence with that position that poses the most
serious threat. For it may be that a person just is a body ‘imbued’ with
‘calculation’, that the person is not to be identified with something else (an
immaterial, substantial soul that bestows subjectivity and so intentionality, e.g.).
If so, then a person just is a body considered under the auspices of intentionality.
But once this ‘intentional stance’ is taken, it would seem that talk of bodies falls
out and we are left with persons. That talk of bodies does not fall out for Foucault
indicates that he treats the body as an intentional system to be considered
independently of the intentional system that is the person. Foucault thus appears
to imply that the body is in fact two: it comprises the physiological body (the
body as ‘locus of physiological processes’) and what might be called the
intentional body (the body ‘directly involved in a political field’).
To understand Foucault’s account of the body is to appreciate the way in which
the body is doubled. He calls ‘remarkable’ Kantorowitz’s analysis of ‘The King’s
Body’ as ‘a double body’—a body which comprises not just the ‘transitory element
that is born and dies’ but the body which is ‘the physical yet intangible support of
the kingdom’ (Foucault 1995: 28). By Foucault’s account, a similar duplication is at
work in the ‘subjected body’. Here the physiological body is overlaid by another
which, because it is ‘non-corporal’, may be called ‘soul’. Foucault insists that the
soul is not, contrary to appearances, ‘an illusion, or an ideological effect;’ he claims
that it ‘is produced permanently around, on, within the body’ by the power of
‘punishment, supervision, and constraint’, that is, by discipline. The soul, then, is
‘not a substance’, but ‘the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain
type of power’. Man is composed of body and soul, where the soul is the body
insofar as it is ‘directly involved in a political field’.
A proper understanding of Foucault’s account of the body is possible only
insofar as it accommodates Foucault’s understanding of the soul. If, however, ‘the
soul’ is to be identified with ‘the person’, it will be unable to play a role in the
solution to the problem raised above. Foucault does not identify soul and person,
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though he appears to make possession of a soul a necessary condition for
personhood: he states that ‘on this reality-reference [i.e. the soul], various
concepts have been constructed and domains of analysis carved out: psyche,
subjectivity, personality, consciousness, etc’. (Foucault 1995: 29–30). The picture
that emerges here is one of a human being as ‘body’ (i.e. physiological body),
‘soul’ (i.e. intentional body), and ‘spirit’ (i.e. person).
The question arises as to how these aspects of the human being—body, soul,
and spirit—are related. For our purposes—and for his—a detailed answer to this
difficult question is unnecessary. That said, a better understanding of the soul or
intentional body emerges upon examination of its relationship to the other two
aspects of the human being, the person and the physiological body.
How is the soul or intentional body related to the person on this picture? How
can the intentional body exhibit an intentionality that is not that of the person? To
see how this is possible, consider Daniel Dennett’s discussion of the ingenious
diagnosis of Capgras syndrome (Dennett 1996: 111–3). Sufferers of this syndrome
often claim that a loved one has been replaced by an impostor, who, by the
sufferer’s own admission, looks exactly like that loved one. Andrew Young made
his diagnosis by way of examining sufferers of a different disorder, prosopagnosia
(Young 1994: 173–203). Those who suffer from that disorder fail to recognize even
the most familiar faces, though their eyesight may be fine. Once the sufferer does
recognize the loved one (by recognizing her speech, e.g.), he would be able to
interact normally with her. Sufferers were unable even to distinguish familiar
from unfamiliar faces in a series of pictures. Young noticed, however, that if
presented with a familiar (though unrecognized) face and a series of names, the
sufferer showed elevated levels of galvanic response in his skin when the correct
name was uttered. (Galvanic skin response, Dennett explains, is measured in
polygraphs.) Dennett tells us that this suggested to researchers that ‘there must
be two (or more) systems that can identify a face’, one of which is ‘spared in the
prosopagnosics who show this response’ (Dennett 1996: 113). Young further
surmised that the system spared in the prosopagnosic was destroyed in the case
of the Capgras sufferers, and vice-versa. The prosopagnosic cannot identify the
face, but his body can; the Capgras sufferer might be able to identify a loved one,
but his body cannot.
Thus a person whose galvanic skin response is tuned to the presence of a loved
one has, in this regard, a well-ordered soul: her intentional body does recognize
this familiar person. While in such a case the body’s judgment is so seamlessly
integrated with that of the person (or ‘psyche’ or ‘consciousness’) to be
unnoticed, the above example shows that it is crucial. In the case of the Capgras
sufferer, the judgment of the body overrides the judgment of the person. The body
is thus the bearer of intentionality: it is directed toward the world in way that
might be wrong. The possibility of the body’s exhibiting its own intentionality is
proven by its actuality.
Having discussed the relationship between the intentional body and the
person, we now turn to that between the intentional body and the physiological
body. The intentional body is the physiological body directed at its environment
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in specific ways. To see how this is so, consider the system that is damaged in
those who suffer Capgras syndrome, one that uses galvanic skin response to
recognize a face. Human beings’ capacity to exhibit galvanic skin response is due
to a physiological reality. That human beings exhibit this response is a result
of the nature of the physiological body. How human beings exhibit this
response—in which situations, at which faces—is, however, underdetermined
by the physiology. The exercise of this capacity is explained by the fact that
the physiological system is directed at the environment in a particular way. The
physiological body so directed, as the bearer of a specific intentional relationship
to the environment, is the intentional body or soul. It becomes evident, then, that
contrary to Butler’s disparagement of it, Foucault’s description of the processes
whereby the soul is formed as ‘inscription’ is apt. The physiological body made
to be ‘about’ something is the soul.11
This discussion allows some light to be shed on the proposition expressed in
(1d) and endorsed above.
(1d) Foucault holds that bodies ‘directly involved in a political field’—that
is, souls—themselves are constituted within the specific nexus of
culture or discourse/power regimes.
To endorse (1d) is to claim that the soul is constituted not merely as an idea but as
an objective reality. The process of ‘inscription’ is one of construction in a more
literal sense: e.g. neural pathways are cleared and neural connections made. The
intentional body is made out of the physiological body.12
But how, exactly, is this construction accomplished? That is, what are the
processes of inscription which produce the soul? Foucault’s account of these
processes sets him apart from a philosopher’s whose understanding of the body
is of obvious importance for his own: Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s
notion of the lived body (le corps proper), one with which Foucault was no doubt
familiar, is among the influences on Foucault’s account (Dreyfus and Rabinow
1983: 111–2). Unlike Merleau-Ponty, who attributes the acquisition of intentionality
by the body to ‘an imperceptible twist’ (Merleau-Ponty 1981: 153), Foucault
offers an account as to how inscription is accomplished.
‘Disciplines’, according to Foucault, are all those processes which cause bodies
to exhibit intentionality. By his account, such methods are those that capitalize on
two other, more familiar ways of regarding and engaging the body, the anatomicometaphysical
register and the technico-political register. The techniques of the former
are simply those that allow for the study of the physiological body in order to
actualize its potentialities (the health sciences, e.g.). The techniques of the latter are
the regulations used in military, educational, and medical institutions in order to
‘control and correct operations of the body’ (e.g. exercise) (Foucault 1995: 136). As
such, these registers are distinct: the anatomico-metaphysical concerns ‘functioning
and explanation’, the technico-political ‘submission and use’ (Foucault 1995: 136).
‘Discipline’ links analysis with manipulation, thus producing what Foucault calls
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‘docile bodies;’ thus, disciplines emerge when the goal of proper functioning is
connected with that of submission (Foucault 1995: 137).
Now, this seems implausible, since there would appear to be an inverse
relation between increased skills and intensified subjection: to the extent that the
body’s powers are exercised and increased, it is free of control and vice-versa. It
is the essence of discipline—and its genius—to render this contention false:
‘discipline’, Foucault tells us, ‘increases the forces of the body (in economic terms
of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience);’ it
‘establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and
an increased domination’ (Foucault 1995: 138). We have seen above that the
body’s power to act may and does in some instances swing free from that of the
person. In empowering the body to act in particular ways, then, discipline need
not and does not also so empower the person. In fact, discipline empowers the
body to act in ways that are conducive to the control of the person.
To see how this is so, consider Foucault’s description of one method of
discipline (‘the art of composition’). He tells us that in cases of schoolchildren no
less than those of soldiers (detailed by La Salle and Boussanelle, respectively), ‘all
the activity of the disciplined individual must be punctuated and sustained by
injunctions’, injunctions that that need not be ‘explicit or formulated’, but which
must simply ‘trigger off the required behavior’. ‘It is a question’ according to
Foucault’s description of these cases, ‘not of understanding the injunction but of
perceiving the signal and reacting to it immediately’. And if understanding is
present, it is by design inconsequential to the action produced: ‘even verbal
orders . . . function as elements of signalization’ (Foucault 1995: 166). The one
who is disciplined ‘begins to obey whatever he is ordered to do’ prior to and
independent of understanding; ‘his obedience is prompt and blind’ (Foucault
1995: 167).
This notion of ‘blind obedience’ nicely captures the essence of discipline,
embodying as it does an apparent paradox. Obedience that is truly blind is not
obedience: if one does something blindly—unknowingly—then one cannot be
said to have obeyed. Discipline resolves this paradox by supposing that the
obedience belongs to the body made intentional and the blindness to the person.
Discipline endows the physiological body with intentionality by empowering it
to act in certain ways without the guidance—or in some instances even the
consent—of the person. ‘The soul’, Foucault tells us in an inversion of Plato’s
dictum, ‘is the prison of the body’ (Foucault 1995: 30). That the inversion is apt is
here apparent: the powers bestowed by discipline upon the physiological body—
i.e. the soul—may lead the body to act in ways contrary to the interests of the
person, though in accord with the interests of the forces of discipline. The soul is
that in virtue of which the body is a double-agent, one who does our bidding
while ready at any moment to serve its benefactor, its master.
Now, talk of discipline as a benefactor or master is sure to raise hackles, and
not without some justification. In fact, a new reason to regard the metaphor of
inscription as problematic surfaces here. For it may be that the written word is
legible and so bears intentionality. However, it only is so insofar as it is, in fact,
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written word—only insofar, that is, as it is the product of an intentionality which is
prior to it. But what is this intentionality which does the inscribing here—who is
this mysterious, malevolent inscriber? One might suppose that the problem is not
so much that this imputes to them malevolence but that that it treats this set of
practices as though it were an agent, as exhibiting intentionality, at all.
The response open to Foucault here is the same as that offered on his behalf to
the objection posed in the case of the body above. Recall that Foucault denies that
subjectivity is necessary for intentionality. The intentionality exhibited by these
practices, like that of the bodies which they ensoul, is unintentional (i.e. unintended,
nonsubjective). Foucault denies that ‘the ‘‘invention’’ of discipline’ should be ‘seen
as a sudden discovery’ made by some person or persons. ‘It is rather’:
a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered
location, which overlap, repeat, or imitate one another, support one
another, distinguish themselves from one another according to their
domain of application, converge and gradually produce the blueprint of
a general method. (Foucault 1995: 170)
This is, of course, not to deny that these processes were developed and
undertaken by individuals for particular purposes. On the contrary, ‘on almost
every occasion, they were adopted in response to particular needs: an industrial
innovation, a renewed outbreak of certain epidemic diseases, the invention of the
rifle’, etc. These processes were not, however, undertaken as disciplines—though
disciplines they were. Considered as disciplines, to use the language of The
History of Sexuality: volume 1, ‘the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable,
and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few
who can be said to have formulated them’. This, Foucault tells us, is ‘an implicit
characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which
coordinate the loquacious tactics whose ‘‘inventors’’ or decisionmakers are often
without hypocrisy’ (Foucault 1990: 94–5).
His contention is striking: he contends that the processes which operate on the
body so as to make it exhibit intentionality themselves exhibit intentionality. These
apparently disparate processes, which Foucault calls ‘disciplines’, are, in the
words of The History of Sexuality: volume 1, ‘imbued, through and through with
calculation’, and are thus to be understood in terms of ‘a series of aims and
objectives’—as exhibiting intentionality. The ‘aim’ or ‘objective’ in virtue of which
these processes exhibit intentionality is to cause bodies to exhibit intentionality:
disciplines are all those processes which empower the physiological body to
exhibit intentionality, to act.
The intentionality exhibited by the physiological body may be unconscious, as
shown in the example of ‘blind obedience’ above. And Dennett’s account of
Capgras syndrome shows that such unconscious bodily intentionality may affect
our conscious judgment. To see this, consider a disciplined elementary school
classroom or factory. When an order is given, for example, to ‘line up’, students’ or
workers’ physiological systems may begin to obey the order just prior to the
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decision to do so. If so, then it seems that the judgments of the students or workers
as to whether such a social practice is justified—their intuitions or ‘gut reactions’—
will be shaped by their bodily reactions, which is in turn shaped by discipline. To
discern the workings of discipline is, then, to discern not only the soul but the
spirit (collective conscious judgment) of an age. While such a large-scale project
was, no doubt, not Foucault’s, his work helps provide the resources for it.
B. The Relevance of Social Psychology
Nothing said here should be taken to suggest that Foucault’s account is without
problems. My main goal is not so much to defend the specifics of Foucault’s
account as to provide an accurate rendering of the account which shows that it is
not inconsistent in the ways suggested by Butler. Even if one regards this project
as successful, one may object to the specifics of Foucault’s account—e.g. claims
regarding which practices are instrumental in the construction of the intentional
body and regarding how they do so. In what follows, I will briefly consider
studies in contemporary social psychology which provide support for Foucault’s
understanding of the intentional body while offering the possibility of
empirically justified accounts as to the mechanisms of its formation.
Consider John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand’s account of ‘automaticity’ (Bargh
and Chartrand 1997). Bargh states that a ‘mental phenomenon’ is ‘automatic’
when it ‘occurs reflexively whenever certain triggering conditions are in place;
when those conditions are present, the process runs autonomously, independent
of conscious guidance’ (Bargh and Chartrand 1997: 3) Bargh and Chartrand
contend that in cases in which environmental factors are sufficient to trigger the
process, without regard to current focus of conscious attention, then the process
in question is a preconscious automatic process.13 Such processes are intentional in
that they are instances of goal-directed behavior, and yet they are not intentional
in that they are not the voluntary actions of the agent. Therefore, the empirical
evidence that put is forth for these preconscious automatic processes instilled by
social interaction is in turn empirical evidence for Foucault’s view that discipline
(i.e. social interaction) produces political bodies (i.e. goal-directed behavior not
attributable to the voluntary action of the agent).
Social psychology has produced compelling evidence for such processes. In
their ‘Rudimentary Determinants of Attitudes’, Cacioppo, Priester, and Berntson
suggest that ‘some forms of motor biases or their sensory consequences can
subtly influence a person’s attitude, such that the attitude would have different
manifestations had the motor component been absent’ (Cacioppo, Priester and
Berntson 1993: 15). Participants were more likely to like novel stimuli in cases in
which they had been doing tasks that required flexing their arm muscles than
they were when doing tasks that required extending their arm muscles. Thus,
‘the attitudinal effects involve active motor processes’ and ‘a person does not
need to know the evaluative or motivational significance of the motor process for
it to have attitudinal effects’ (Cacioppo, Priester and Berntson 1993: 16).
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Bargh and Chartrand cite research that suggests that ‘perceptions of the
behavior of one’s interaction partner leads directly [i.e. without conscious
awareness of the behavior or conscious decision] to tendencies to behave that
way oneself’ (Bargh and Chartrand 1997: 487). They further describe an
experiment in which the participants’ behavior (e.g. foot-shaking and facerubbing)
correlated with similar behavior of a confederate, even though the
participants were preoccupied with their own task, only dimly aware of the
presence of the confederate. ‘In a chameleon-like way’, Bargh and Chartrand say,
‘the participants’ behavior changed as a function of their social environment’
(Bargh and Chartrand 1997: 487). Bargh and Chatrand’s research suggests ways
in which intentionality may be communicated among bodies.
Timothy Wilson (Wilson 2002: 100–2) calls attention to a set of experiments in
which the state of the body had an affect of a striking nature on the conscious
judgment of the person. In the experiment, an attractive female assistant
approached males and asked them to fill out a survey. When they did, the
woman thanked them, gave them her phone number, and said she hoped to talk
to them again. The key component in the experiment is this: half the men were
approached as they sat on a park bench, the other half as they crossed a swaying,
narrow footbridge that spanned a deep ravine. The outcome of the study was
remarkable: the men who were accosted in the shaky footbridge were more than
twice as likely to call the woman than were those who were seated when they
spoke. Researchers theorized that the first set of men misinterpreted their own
physiological arousal. What they unconsciously inferred to be due to attraction
(sweating, increased heart-rate, etc.) was in fact due to their fear of falling.
These contemporary social psychology accounts have implications that support
and refine Foucault’s understanding of discipline and, as a result, of the body. The
study conducted by Cacioppo, Priester, and Berntson suggests that disciplinary
practices (e.g. the activity of the workshop, of the school, of the penitentiary) may
affect the evaluations one has of the stimuli associated with such practices. Our
bodies may provide positive reinforcement for the practices by which they are
disciplined. Bargh and Chartrand’s study suggests that the habits of the body may
be transmitted not just by a decision to emulate others, but by a communication
among bodies. Our bodies tend to behave in ways that maximize conformity.
Wilson suggests that our bodily states and dispositions are apt to be misconstrued
by us. Thus, insofar as disciplinary practices redirect physiological reactions, thus
composing the soul, they affect our conscious judgment. Our intuitions may be
less a product of pure reason and more akin to a ‘gut reaction’, what Nietzsche
called ‘a judgment of our muscles’ (Nietzsche 1968: 258).
III. Conclusion
Butler’s criticism of Foucault’s understanding of the body ignores the distinction
in Foucault’s work between the body considered as the ‘locus of physiological
processes’—the physiological body—and the body ‘directly involved in a
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political field’—the intentional body or soul. ‘Inscription’ is an appropriate
metaphor for the workings of disciplinary practices, since the latter cause
the physiological body to bear intentionality—i.e. they construct the soul.
Contemporary social psychology provides resources for articulating Foucault’s
understanding of body and soul, one that is both consistent and
David Dudrick
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY 13346
1 The relevant texts for Butler’s account are her ‘Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily
Inscriptions’, Bodies That Matter, Gender Trouble, and ‘Bodies and Power, Revisited’.
2 The proposition expressed in this premise, necessary for the argument’s validity, is
nowhere explicitly asserted in Butler’s piece.
3 As (1b) is not inconsistent with (1a), she may hold (1a) as well, though (1a) fails to
motivate the paradox.
4 Foucault cites Nietzsche 2001, section 7 in support of this passage. Butler and others
who make use of this passage (see, e.g. Couzens-Hoy 1999) fail to indicate this important
5 Gary Gutting has called for caution in attributing views expressed in ‘Nietzsche,
Genealogy, History’ to Foucault himself. Gutting says that we should be mindful that ‘this
essay is entirely devoted to the exposition and interpretation of Nietzsche’s views’. He
adds that ‘at no point does Foucault express his own agreement with the position he is
discussing’ (Gutting 1989: 277–8). If Gutting is right, then this passage is of no consequence
for determining Foucault’s own view, and so cannot provide evidence for Butler’s account
of Foucault’s understanding of body.
6 The account of Foucault’s understanding of the soul in the second part of the paper
will show that Foucault would regard such ‘rhythms’, ‘habits’, and ‘laws’ as important
precisely because and insofar as they cause the physiological system to bear particular
intentional relationships to the environment.
7 The position I am advocating here is akin to Gutting’s ‘humdrum realism’, Arthur
Fine’s ‘natural ontological attitude’, and Paul Horwich’s ‘minimal truth’.
8 See footnote 7 above.
9 Though I cannot develop the point here, I think that Foucault’s does in fact endorse
the existence of untranslatable conceptual schemes in his early work, e.g. Madness and
Civilization, and that this endorsement is persistent and pernicious.
10 When Foucault speaks of those who ‘have shown to what extent historical processes
were involved in what might seem to be the purely biological base of existence’, he
undoubtedly has the work of Georges Canguilhem in mind. An account of the nature and
extent to which Foucault’s understanding of the body is influenced by Canguilhem’s
understanding of physiology is beyond the scope of this paper. For an account of the way
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in which Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ method is influenced by Canguilhem, see Gutting
1989: 9–54.
11 As presented here, Foucault’s account of the soul has obvious affinities with that
Aristotle; the soul is that in virtue of which the potencies of the physiological body are
12 Though Foucault clearly takes ‘soul’ to be an objective reality, the same cannot be
said for ‘spirit’. He is careful to say that the ‘concept’ of, e.g. personhood has been
constructed, while taking no position with respect to whether there is a corresponding
objective reality (Foucault 1995: 29–30).
13 If environmental factors are not sufficient—if, that is, conscious attention of a
particular kind is necessary to begin the process, then the process is either a post-conscious
automatic process or a goal-dependent automatic process. Examples of the former include those
that depend upon priming—inducing a mental process so that a related mental process
soon after occurs automatically. Goal-dependent automaticity has as a precondition the
person intending to perform the function but, given this intention, the process occurs
Aristotle (1984), On the Soul, trans. J. A. Smith, in Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works
of Aristotle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bargh, J. and Chartrand, T. (1997), ‘The Unbearable Automaticity of Being’, American
Psychologist, 54, 7: 462–479.
Butler, J. (1989), ‘Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions’, The Journal of Philosophy,
86, 601–607.
—— (1993), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge.
—— (1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
—— (2002), ‘Bodies and Power, Revisited’, Radical Philosophy, 114, 13–19.
Cacioppo, J., Priester, J. and Berntson, G. (1993), ‘Rudimentary Determinants of Attitudes.
II: Arm Flexion and Extension Have Differential Effects on Attitudes’, Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1: 5–17.
Couzens-Hoy, D. (1999), ‘Critical Resistance: Foucault and Bourdieu’, in Gail Weiss and
Honi Fern Haber (eds.), Perspectives on Embodiment: The Intersections of Nature and
Culture. New York: Routledge.
Davidson, D. (2001), ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, in Inquiries into Truth and
Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. (1996), Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness. New York:
Basic Books.
Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P. (1983), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics.
Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Fine, A. (1984), ‘The Natural Ontological Attitude’, in J. Lepin Berkeley (ed.), Scientific
Realism. University of California Press.
Foucault, M. (1988), Madness and Civilization, abridged translation of Historie de la Folie,
trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage.
—— (1990), The History of Sexuality trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
—— (1994), ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in James D. Faubion (ed.) Essential Works of
Michel Foucault, 1954–1984: volume 2. New York: The New Press.
Foucault, Butler, and the Body 245
r Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005
—— (1995), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York:
Gutting, G. (1989), Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
—— (1999), Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Hacking, I. (1999), The Social Construction of What? Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Horwich, P. (1990), Truth. Oxford: Blackwell.
McWhorter, L. (1989), ‘Nature or Culture?’, The Journal of Philosophy, 86, 608–614.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1981), Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. Atlantic
Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1968), The Will to Power, trans.W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York:
—— (1982), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (ed.) Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche, trans.
Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin.
—— (2001), The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams; trans. Josefine Nauckoff; poems trans.
Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rabinow, P. (1984), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Press.
Sellars, W. (1997), Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, B. (1985), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

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Texto 03 - Organization Theory - Modern Symbolic and postmodern perspectives Matriz 2

(Chapter 6); as physical structures that support and constrain both activity and meaning
(Chapter 7); and as arenas within which power relations express themselves through
organizational politics, conflict and control (Chapter 8). These core concepts are related in
numerous ways, yet each will contribute something unique to your understanding of
organizations and organizing. As you read and reread these chapters, strive to develop your
appreciation for both the similarities and differences between the concepts because this
will develop your imagination for theorizing.
In addition to providing exposure to the core concepts of organization theory, Part II
will present several different theories of organization that were built using the core
concepts. Within each chapter these theories will be presented in historical order; in most
cases this means beginning with modern and proceeding to symbolic-interpretive and
postmodern perspectives, although organizational culture is an exception in that
symbolic-interpretivists were complicit with modernists in introducing this concept into
organization theory. This format should help you to experience organization theory as an
unfolding series of challenges and disagreements among theorists and their ideas about
and different perspectives on organizations and organizing.
The theories I am going to present will not only give you exposure to the various
types of explanation, understanding and appreciation offered by organization theory,
they will also provide a means to describe some of the skills and practices organization
theorists use. In discussing how theorists produce theory, I mean to encourage you to
become more actively theoretical in your approach to organizations and in your management
practices. In this regard, Part III will show you how organization theorists sometimes
combine concepts, theories and perspectives to analyze and recommend action on practical
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issues and problems such as organizational design, organizational change, knowledge
management and organizational learning (Chapter 9). The final chapter will introduce
you to ideas that lie on the horizon for organization theory: critical realism, network theory,
organizational aesthetics, complexity theory and organizational identity (Chapter 10).
Thus Part III will show you some of the tricks of the trade practiced by organization
A Conceptual Model of Organization
Throughout this book I will provide many conceptual models such as you see in Figure 1.2.
These models visually represent theories as sets of concepts and their relationships.
Organization theorists use them to make abstractions seem more tangible. Figure 1.2, for
example, is a visual way of communicating my definition of organizations as technologies,
social structures, cultures and physical structures that exist within and respond to an
environment. The grey tint over the entire model indicates that all of these elements of
organizing are colored by relations of power.
Diagrams such as Figure 1.2 can help you to remember a great deal about the theories
you will be studying. Giving these diagrams close attention will often reveal aspects of
organization theory that are subtle but important. For example, let the interconnections of
the four small circles in Figure 1.2 remind you that none of these concepts or the theories
and perspectives associated with them is complete in itself; each shares some aspects with
the others and it is the combination of these different ways of knowing that will allow
you to produce rich and complex explanations and descriptions of organization, or to
Figure 1.2 A model for the concept of organization
The five intersecting circles of this model represent the organization as five inter-related phenomena conceptualized
as shown. Power, a sixth core concept, is symbolized by the grey tint that infuses the other circles.
These six concepts will be examined in depth in Part II of the book.
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challenge theories offered by others. Now imagine that each of the circles is a sphere spinning
on its axis and rotating around the others. Let this image remind you that these core
concepts are dynamic, mutually reactive parts of an organization interacting with and
within an environment. Then focus on the intersections of the circles and the gray tint
infusing them all. Let these features of the model remind you that any conceptual distinction
can be regarded as insupportable, that from some other perspective your distinctions
will break down and blend into each other.
I should warn you that, as you move toward understanding each core concept, there
will be times when you get caught in the intersections and become confused as to which
concept, theory or perspective you are using. Expect this. Try not to feel discouraged when
it happens because this is part of the process of becoming knowledgeable about organization
theory. Trust that out of your confusion new possibilities for theorizing, designing and
managing organizations will emerge in ways that you would never have imagined before
you studied organization theory.
A theory attempts to explain (modernist), describe so as to produce understanding and appreciation
of (symbolic-interpretive), criticize or create (postmodernist) a segment of reality. Which of
these purposes you believe theory serves depends on your ontological and epistemological
assumptions. The particular focus of a theory is called its phenomenon of interest. In organization
theory the primary phenomenon of interest is the organization. A theory consists of a set of concepts
and the relationships that tie them together into an explanation (or an understanding, critique
or creation) of the phenomenon of interest.
Because of the complexity and pluralism of organizations, managers who make sense of
and use multiple perspectives are better able to bring their knowledge of organization theory to
bear on the wide range of analyses, decisions and plans their organizations make each and every
day. This book is built upon the framework of multiple perspectives, and in particular, modern,
symbolic-interpretive, and postmodern perspectives will structure our discussion. Studying organization
theory from multiple perspectives will help you to enlarge your knowledge base, master
a wide range of skills and see situations in different ways—all of which are crucial for understanding,
analyzing and managing the complexities of organizational life.
The modernist perspective focuses on the organization as an independent objective entity and
takes a positivist approach to generating knowledge. Modernist organization theorists focus on how
to increase efficiency, effectiveness and other objective indicators of performance through the application
of theories relating to structure and control. The symbolic-interpretive perspective focuses on
the organization as a community sustained by human relationships and uses a predominantly subjectivist
ontology and an interpretive epistemology. Instead of treating organizations as objects to be
measured and analyzed (modernist perspective), symbolic-interpretivists treat them as webs of
meanings that are jointly created, appreciated and communicated. Symbolic-interpretive organization
theory explores how meanings are created and realities (note the plural) made sensible to those who
participate in sustaining them.
Meanwhile postmodernism will generate healthy skepticism toward any dominant theory
and will license you and others to try something completely different. The postmodern perspective
does all this by expanding the focus of theorizing from the organization per se, to how we
speak and write about organizations. Thus one phenomenon postmodern organization theory
addresses is theorizing itself: how what you may perceive as stable or objective elements of
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organizations and organization theory (structure, technology, culture, control, etc.) are but the outcomes
of linguistic convention and discursive practice. As such, postmodernism always makes
you aware that theories are open to revision and invites you to ask who supports them and why.
You should recognize, however, that most postmodernists would object to being categorized as
they are in Figure 1.1 and Table 1.2. Remember, postmodernism challenges categories, seeking
to undermine them by blurring their boundaries and exposing the motivations that produced or
maintain them. In the case of Figure 1.1, for instance, a postmodernist would probably argue that
this typology objectifies organization theory and theorizing in ways that reproduce and legitimize
seeing the field as constructed of modern, symbolic-interpretive and postmodern perspectives,
when other perspectives might be promoted at the same time or instead of these (some others
will be discussed in Chapter 10).
I believe that the best theories are those that you have found or invented to match your own
experience of organization. In this book you will learn about the theories of organizations and organizing
that others have developed and the skills they used to formulate them. This will give you a
foundation for your own theorizing. You can use the already formulated theories as they stand, if
this proves useful to your purposes, or as inspiration for your own theory-building efforts, but in
either case, using organization theory will require both the mastery of existing theories and personal
development of the skills of theorizing, analysis, interpretation and critique. Just remember:
when you want to apply your abstract reasoning to concrete situations you will need to reverse
the process of abstraction and that will require you to perform a creative act.
Finally, you have your own reasons for studying organization theory. Mine are that organization
theory broadens my appreciation of organizations and the world in general and opens my
mind to new ideas and possibilities for change and transformation. I am constantly renewed by
my work in this field and find that the ideas it has given me promote an increased ability to
develop new concepts and theories and enhance my ability to learn. Although it may hold other
meanings and possibilities for you, I hope that my enthusiasm, which is built on my own particular
needs, values and experiences, will inspire you to explore and learn to use organization theory
in ways that enhance your life and career.
phenomenon of interest
multiple perspectives
1. See Miller (1956).
2. The multiple perspectives approach to
organization theory has been employed by a
variety of researchers. One of the earliest and
most influential of these was American
political scientist Graham Allison (1971),
who analyzed the Cuban Missile Crisis using
several different theoretical perspectives. John
Hassard (1988, 1991; Hassard and Pym 1990)
has been particularly active in promoting
Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) framework.
W. Richard Scott (1992) presented rational,
natural, and open system views of
organizations, while Joanne Martin (1992)
built her analysis of organizational culture
theory around a multiple perspective
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Smith, Adam (1957). Selections from “The Wealth of
Nations” (ed. George J. Stigler). New York:
Appleton Century Crofts (originally published
in 1776).
Marx, Karl (1954). Capital. Moscow: Foreign
Languages Publishing House (first published in
Durkheim, Émile (1949). The division of labor in
society. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (first published in
Taylor, Frederick W. (1911). The principles of scientific
management. New York: Harper.
Follett, Mary Parker (1923). The new state: Group
organization and the solution of popular government.
New York: Longmans, Green and Co. (originally
published 1918).
Fayol, Henri (1919/1949). General and industrial
management. London: Pitman (first published in
Weber, Max (1947). The theory of social and economic
organization (ed. A. H. Henderson and Talcott
Parsons). Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (first published
in 1924).
Gulick, Luther, and Urwick, Lyndall (1937) (eds.).
Papers on the science of administration. New York:
Institute of Public Administration, Columbia
Barnard, Chester (1938). The functions of the executive.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Modernist perspective
Bertalanffy, Ludwig von (1950). The theory of
open systems in physics and biology. Science, 111:
——(1968). General systems theory: Foundations,
development, applications (revised edn.). New York:
George Braziller.
Trist, Eric, and Bamforth, Kenneth W. (1951). Some
social and psychological consequences of the
approach including integration,
differentiation, and fragmentation
3. This assumption is important because theorists
use language to create and communicate their
theories and if language did not align with
reality then it would be impossible to lay claim
to positive knowledge.
4. See Schneider (1993) for further discussion and
analysis of this ongoing debate.
5. Foucault (1977).
Allison, Graham (1971). The essence of decision:
Explaining the Cuban missile crisis. Boston: Little,
Burrell, Gibson, and Morgan, Gareth (1979).
Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis.
London: Heinemann.
Foucault, Michel (1977). Power/knowledge (ed. Colin
Gordon). New York: Pantheon.
Hassard, John (1988). Overcoming hermeticism in
organization theory: An alternative to paradigm
incommensurability. Human Relations, 41/3:
——(1991). Multiple paradigms and organizational
analysis: A case study. Organization Studies, 12/2:
——and Pym, Denis (1990) (eds.). The theory and
philosophy of organizations: Critical issues and new
perspectives. London: Routledge.
Martin, Joanne (1992). Cultures in organizations:
Three perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University
Miller, George A. (1956). The magical number
seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our
capacity for processing information. Psychological
Review, 63/2: 81–97.
Schneider, Mark A. (1993). Culture and enchantment.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Scott, W. Richard (1992). Organizations: Rational,
natural, and open systems (3rd edn.). Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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long-wall method of coal-getting. Human
Relations, 4: 3–38.
Boulding, Kenneth E. (1956). General systems
theory—The skeleton of science. Management
Science, 2: 197–208.
Simon, Herbert (1957). Administrative behavior
(2nd edn.). New York: Macmillan (first published
in 1945).
March, James G., and Simon, Herbert (1958).
Organizations. New York: John Wiley.
Emery, Fredrick (1960) (ed.). Systems thinking.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.
——and Trist, Eric L. (1960). Socio-technical
systems. In Management science models and
techniques, Vol. 2. London: Pergamon.
Burns, Tom, and Stalker, G. M. (1961/1995). The
management of innovation. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Woodward, Joan (1958). Management and technology.
London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
——(1965). Industrial organization: Theory and
practice. London: Oxford University Press.
Lawrence, P. R., and Lorsch, J. W. (1967).
Differentiation and integration in complex
organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12:
Thompson, James (1967). Organizations in action.
New York: McGraw-Hill.
Symbolic-interpretive perspective
Schütz, Alfred (1967). The phenomenology of the
social world (trans. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert).
Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press
(first published in 1932).
Whyte, William F. (1943). Street corner society.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Selznick, Philip (1949). TVA and the grass roots.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Goffman, Erving (1959). The presentation of self in
everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
Gadamer, Han-Georg (1994). Truth and method
(second revised edn., translation revised by
J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall). New York:
Continuum (originally published as Wahrheit
and J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck,
Tubingen, 1960).
Berger, Peter, and Luckmann, Thomas (1966). The
social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology
of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Weick, Karl E. (1979 [1969]). The social psychology of
organizing. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of cultures. New
York: Basic Books.
Clifford, James, and Marcus, George E. (1986)
(eds.). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of
ethnography. Berkeley: University of California
Postmodern perspective
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1959). Course in general
linguistics (trans. Wade Baskin). New York:
Foucault, Michel (1972). The archeology of knowledge
and the discourse on language (trans. A. M.
Sheridan Smith). London: Tavistock Publications.
——(1973). The order of things. New York: Vintage
Bell, Daniel (1973). The coming of post-industrial
society. New York: Basic Books.
——(1976). The cultural contradictions of capitalism.
New York: Basic Books.
Jencks, Charles (1977). The language of post-modern
architecture. London: Academy.
Derrida, Jacques (1978). Writing and difference (trans.
Alan Bass). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
——(1980). Of grammatology (trans. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). The postmodern
condition: A report on knowledge (trans. G.
Bennington and B. Massumi). Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Rorty, Richard (1980). Philosophy and the mirror of
nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981). The dialogic imagination:
Four essays (trans. Chorale Emerson and Michael
Holquist). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Lash, Scott, and Urry, John (1987). The end of
organized capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Baudrillard, Jean (1988). Selected writings (ed.
M. Poster). Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University
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and practitioners report feeling is the result of not recognizing that the application of theory
is a creative act. A belief that abstract theory can generate instant solutions to specific
problems is naïve. It is equally naïve to reject theory as having little value simply because
you have not yet learned how to use it. Theory is better suited to raising important questions
at critical moments and reminding you what relevant knowledge is available, than it
is to providing ready-made answers to your problems. Use theory as a tool to help you
reason through complex situations; do not expect it to guarantee your success.
Multiple Perspectives
Different ways of looking at the world produce different knowledge and thus different
perspectives come to be associated with their own concepts and theories. This is the case with
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the multiple perspectives you will study in this book—modern, symbolic-interpretive and
postmodern. The concepts and theories of a particular perspective offer you distinctive
thinking tools with which to craft ideas about organizations and organizing. Depending
upon your intentions, you may find that particular perspectives have greater appeal than
others for your purpose. The more knowledge you have of multiple perspectives, concepts
and theories, the greater will be your capacity to choose a useful approach to dealing with the
situations you face in your organization.
British sociologist Gibson Burrell and British organization theorist Gareth Morgan
were among the first to draw attention to the multiple perspectives of organization theory
in their highly acclaimed book Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis,
published in 1979.2 They argued that knowledge is based on different paradigms, each with
its own assumptions about the world. Paradigms encourage researchers to study
phenomena in different ways.3However, be sure to notice that paradigm differences are not
just academic; they become practical when knowledge is used to create a more desirable
reality or better ways of organizing. Beliefs, assumptions and knowledge of the world
influence how researchers carry out their research, how leaders design and manage their
organizations and how each of us relates to the world and to other people. For example,
whether you assume that your organization is best run as a well-oiled machine, a web of
meaning, or a broken mirror will influence what you perceive to be the best way of
designing your organization and managing its people. As you will see, the three
perspectives used in this book draw upon significantly different assumptions about the
organizational world and consequently will lead you to think about organizations in
different ways (e.g., as machines, cultures or fragmented images) and thus to seek different
kinds of knowledge about them.
I am committed to maintaining multiple perspectives in organization theory for a
number of reasons. First, today few would disagree that organizations operate in complex,
uncertain, and often contradictory situations. Managers and employees are expected to do
more with less, to maximize both short-term gain and long-term investment, and be more
efficient as well as more humane and ethical. Confronting such a variety of contradictory
forces demands the broadest set of concepts and theories that your mind can
grasp. Learning to think about organizations using the multiple perspectives
presented in this book will help you embrace complexity and uncertainty and their contradictory
demands. Second, recent corporate scandals, such as those that occurred at
Enron, the FBI, and Parmalat, raise questions about the nature of ethical action and
the pressures managers face when trying to act in socially and organizationally responsible
ways. Learning to use multiple perspectives can help make you aware of the assumptions
and values underlying your theory and practice, which in turn should make you more
conscious of your reasons for doing things and better able to understand the reasons
behind the actions taken by others. As you begin to grasp the differences between
perspectives, you will become aware that what you consider reasonable is defined by the
perspective you take. Being able to reflect on your own reasoning processes and compare
them to those used by the people around you will develop your ethical awareness. Third,
by learning organization theory, by knowing how to theorize, and by understanding
how different perspectives influence the way you and others experience, interpret
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and shape organizational realities, you will become a more effective member of any
organization you join.
In order to compare modernism, symbolic-interpretivism and postmodernism, you
will need to examine the assumptions underlying each of these perspectives. A good place
to begin is with the important philosophical choices of ontology and epistemology.
Ontology is concerned with how you choose to define what is real, whereas epistemology
is concerned with how you form knowledge and establish criteria for evaluating it.
Thinking about ontology and epistemology is a useful place to begin because these philosophical
choices explain basic differences between the perspectives of organization theory.
Although they are difficult philosophical issues, by giving ontology and epistemology
some attention now, you will begin to learn why different perspectives lead to different
ways of theorizing organizations and how modern, symbolic-interpretive and postmodern
perspectives make distinctive contributions to organization theory.
Ontology concerns our assumptions about reality. Is there an objective reality out there or
is it subjective, existing only in our minds? In ordinary, everyday life, you probably take
your assumptions about what exists for granted because you believe you know what the real
world is. You get up, drive to work, do your job as a student, manager or administrator, go to
meetings, write reports, establish policy etc. You don’t question whether these things are
real or have an existence independent of you; you know your car exists because you drive it.
But does your job exist if you are not there to perform it? Does your report describe what is
really going on or does it describe only what you think is happening? Philosophers
sometimes refer to these as existential questions because they attribute existence to one set
of things (reality), but not to another (the unreal, metaphysical or fantastical). Depending
upon your perspective, you will give some things the status of being real, while you
disregard others. These ontological assumptions about whether a particular phenomenon
exists or is merely an illusion (e.g., culture, power, control) lead to arguments between
those who maintain different perspectives and cause them to set up separate and
sometimes conflicting research communities.
Ontology is also concerned with the question of agency—do people have free will
and are they wholly responsible for their own actions, or is life predetermined, whether
by situations or by God? Subjectivists stand at one end of the reality continuum in
their belief that something exists only when you experience and give it meaning. At the
other end, objectivists believe reality exists independently of those who live in it.
Seen from the subjectivist point of view, people create and experience realities in different
ways because individuals and groups have their own assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions
that lead them to do so. Seen from the objectivist point of view, people react to what is happening
around them in predictable ways because their behavior is part of the material
world in which they live and is determined by causes, just as is the behavior of matter. In
between these points of view you can find many combinations of subjectivism and
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Epistemology is concerned with knowing how you can know. Typical questions asked by
those investigating epistemology include: how do humans generate knowledge, what are
the criteria by which they discriminate good knowledge from bad (e.g., true from false,
valid from invalid, rational from irrational, scientific from pseudoscientific), and how
should reality be represented or described? Epistemology is closely related to ontology
because the answers to these questions depend on, and in turn help to forge, ontological
assumptions about the nature of reality.
Table 1.2 summarizes the key ontological and epistemological differences of the
modern, symbolic-interpretive and postmodern perspectives and their implications for
organization theory.
Positivist epistemology assumes you can discover what truly happens in organizations
through the categorization and scientific measurement of the behavior of people and
systems. Positivists also assume that language mirrors reality, that is, reality and its objects
can be described using language without any loss of meaning or inherent bias.4 For positivists,
good knowledge is generated by developing hypotheses and propositions, gathering
and analyzing data, and then testing the hypotheses and propositions against the
external reality represented by their data to see if they are correct. In this way, modernists
can develop general theories explaining many different aspects of one overarching reality,
and make predictions about the future.
Positivist epistemology is based on foundational principals that celebrate the values
of reason, truth and validity. Positivist organization theorists study organizations as
objective entities and are attracted to methods adapted from the physical or hard sciences.
They gather data using surveys and laboratory or field experiments relying upon measures
of behavior that their assumptions lead them to regard as objective. Based on statistical
analysis of the data collected using these methods, they derive theoretical models that they
believe provide factual explanations of how organizations operate.
Antipositivist or interpretive epistemology assumes that knowledge can only be created
and understood from the point of view of the individuals who live and work in a particular
culture or organization. Interpretivists assume that each of us acts in situations and
makes sense of what is happening based on our experience of that situation and the memories
and expectations we bring to it. This means that there may be many different understandings
and interpretations of reality and interpretive epistemology leads us to use
methods designed to access the meanings made by others and describe how they come
to make those meanings. However, we know that our understanding of others is
filtered through our own experiences, and therefore we can never be objective about the
interpretations made by others.
What interpretivists believe they can do is work alongside others as they create their
realities and, by studying their interpretations and interactions in particular situations,
develop intersubjective awareness of and appreciation for the meanings produced. This
stance is what turns a researcher into an interpreter, bridging meaning between the
researcher’s academic experiences and the experiences of organizational members. Both of
these experiences are subjective, and bias is controlled (but never eliminated) through
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Table 1.2 Summary of the three perspectives of organization theory
Modernism Symbolic interpretivism Postmodernism
Ontology Ontology Ontology
Objectivism—belief in an objective, external Subjectivism—the belief that we cannot know an Postmodernism—the belief that the world appears
reality whose existence is independent of our external or objective existence apart from our through language and is situated in discourse; what is
knowledge of it subjective awareness of it; that which exists is that spoken of exists, therefore everything that exists is a
which we agree exists text to be read or performed
Epistemology Epistemology Epistemology
Positivism—we discover Truth through valid Interpretivism—all knowledge is relative to the Postmodernism—knowledge cannot be an accurate
conceptualization and reliable measurement knower and can only be understood from the point account of Truth because meanings cannot be fixed;
that allows us to test knowledge against an of view of the individuals who are directly involved; there is no independent reality; there are no facts, only
objective world; knowledge accumulates, truth is socially constructed via multiple interpretations; knowledge is a power play
allowing humans to progress and evolve interpretations of the objects of knowledge
thereby constructed and therefore
shifts and changes through time
Organizations are Organizations are Organizations are
Objectively real entities operating in a real Continually constructed and reconstructed by Sites for enacting power relations, oppression,
world. When well-designed and managed their members through symbolically mediated irrationality, communicative distortion—or arenas of
they are systems of decision and action interaction. Organizations are socially constructed fun and playful irony. Organizations are texts
driven by norms of rationality, efficiency realities where meanings promote and are produced by and in language; we can rewrite them so
and effectiveness for stated purposes promoted by understanding of the self and as to emancipate ourselves from human folly and
others that occurs within the organizational context degradation
Focus of Organization Theory Focus of Organization Theory Focus of Organization Theory
Finding universal laws, methods and Describing how people give meaning and order to Deconstructing organizational texts; destabilizing
techniques of organization and control; their experience within specific contexts, through managerial ideologies and modernist modes of
favors rational structures, rules, interpretive and symbolic acts, forms and processes organizing and theorizing; revealing marginalized and
standardized procedures and routine practices oppressed viewpoints; encouraging reflexive and
inclusive forms of theorizing and organizing
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rigorous training in self-reflection. Such training is designed to teach you to separate your
interpretations from those of the people you study. This method allows you to describe
how meaning was made in particular situations and among particular people and to offer
your understanding for others who were not there to witness what you experienced.
Taking an interpretive epistemological stance helps you to become sensitive to how
people make meaning to the point where, while you will never be able to fully understand
or predict the meanings others will make, you can develop your intuitive capacity to
anticipate the range of meanings that are likely to emerge in given circumstances
by specific people with whom you share adequate intersubjective understanding. Perhaps
most importantly, your growing appreciation for the limits of understanding will prevent
you from ever claiming to fully know another’s meaning and will open you to deep
Comparing Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives
You might think of ontology and epistemology as commitments you make to your
preferred genre of organization theory. To take a modernist perspective, you must commit
to limiting what you count as knowledge to what you can know through your five senses.
Of course modernists augment their five senses with sense-enhancing devices (e.g., microscope,
telescope), but what counts as data is what is collected by the eyes, ears, nose, tongue
or skin. Modernists claim that ‘I saw (heard, smelled, tasted or touched) my data, and you
can confirm them for yourself by replicating my procedures’.
Symbolic-interpretivists are willing to extend the definition of empirical reality to
include forms of experience that lie outside the reach of the five senses, as do emotion and
intuition. As a result of this subjectivity, their findings cannot be easily replicated by
others. The commitment these researchers make is to be true to their personal experience
and to honor the accounts and explanations made by others. What is more, symbolicinterpretivists
focus on meaning and understanding as it occurs in particular contexts;
consequently their findings should not be generalized beyond the context in which they
were produced. Modernists find this problematic—can we really call what we create knowledge
if we are unable to replicate studies or apply their findings to other organizations?
As opposed to generalizability, symbolic-interpretivists sometimes use verisimilitude (the
resonance of one’s own experience with the experiences of others) as the basis for claiming
they have made a contribution to understanding.
Because of the differences in their assumptions, modernist and symbolic-interpretive
researchers endlessly debate methodology. For instance, modernists say subjectivity undermines
scientific rigor, while symbolic-interpretivists say it cannot be avoided and, indeed, is
required if we are to study meaning. Modernists typically believe that subjective understandings
introduce bias, and bias is precisely what science seeks to eradicate in pursuit of
the rational ideals of modernism. Lurking behind these epistemological positions is an
irresolvable debate between their differing ontologies that permit symbolic-interpretivists
to investigate meaning as a subjective phenomenon, while modernists are precluded by
their ontological assumption of objectivity from allowing the subjective to enter their
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science. As you will see in the following chapters, these differences in assumptions mean
that modernist and symbolic-interpretive organization theorists define organizational
concepts differently and use different research methods that often cause them to disagree
rather violently with one another.
Turning to postmodern perspectives, there is even more trouble to be found.
Postmodernism diverges from the other two perspectives in its unwillingness to seek Truth
(spelled with a capital T to indicate the idea of truth in any final or irrefutable sense), or to
make permanent ontological or epistemological commitments such as those that give rise
to modernist forms of scientific endeavor or to symbolic-interpretive descriptions of
meaning and human meaning making activity. Seen from these other perspectives, postmodernists
seem to flit between philosophical positions. They often refuse to take even a
temporary philosophical stand because they believe that doing so privileges some forms of
knowledge over others and this violates postmodern ethics.
Many postmodernists trace the ethical foundations of postmodernism to the French
poststructural philosophers, especially to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. For example,
Foucault argued that, since knowledge is power, when anyone privileges particular forms of
knowledge, they push other forms to the margins where they are likely to be ignored.5
Derrida observed that this is because modern thought is binary and binary thinking leads us
to center our attention on one element of a pair while ignoring or denigrating its opposite or
other (e.g., true/false, nature/culture, reality/representation). Therefore the development
and use of knowledge are always power plays that must be resisted for the sake of the powerless.
Many postmodernists commit themselves to uncovering and challenging all forms of
power (including knowledge) in order to expose the sources of domination that are so easily
taken for granted. They do so by decrying the privileged and bringing those people and ideas
relegated to the margins out of the shadow of their repression. (If this and other statements
about postmodernism confuse you, don’t worry, you will find a more elaborate introduction
to postmodernism in Chapter 2 and a more thorough treatment of power in Chapter 8.)
The other two perspectives have not ignored the challenge laid down by postmodernists.
First, symbolic-interpretivists, and more recently modernists, have tried to respond
to this challenge within their own systems of belief and commitment. The result has been
some movement toward greater self-consciousness about the assumptions each perspective
makes, and how these commitments apply to the practice of social science and the
theories that result from their application. For example, postmodernists have critiqued
cultural anthropologists (both modernist and symbolic-interpretive) for their co-optation
by Western governments to aid in the subordination of indigenous and aboriginal cultures.
Postmodernists argued that cultural anthropologists, seduced by the allure of government
grants and a romantic vision of helping less advanced cultures progress toward the ideals of
Western civilization, conspired in the colonization of non-Western peoples to the
detriment if not the destruction of many native cultures. The response by Western anthropologists
was to give voice to the members of the cultures they studied by inviting them to
help interpret the data collected about them, and in some cases to write cultural reports
themselves. Aboriginal reports are, of course, no freer of self-interest than any other, but by
juxtaposing reports from many perspectives you can begin to learn about the range
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of biases that appear in all data. Watch the film Rabbit-Proof Fence to get a taste of aboriginal
self-reporting on the injustices experienced by native Australians when European
colonizers attempted to Westernize their culture.
As you can see, the issues of ontology and epistemology are complex and are
understood differently when viewed from within each perspective. To get a feel for how
different these perspectives can be, take the well-known question: if a tree falls in a forest
and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? To the modernist the answer is yes
because the tree and sound are real and can be measured; therefore it doesn’t matter
whether anyone is there to experience the tree falling or not—knowledge of what happens
when a tree falls generalizes to all falling trees. To the symbolic-interpretivist there is no
way of knowing the answer to this question because there is no one to experience the tree
falling. Although a symbolic-interpretivist could study how different people make sense of
the question, if no one is present when the tree falls then there is no meaning to address
apart from that of the rhetorical move of asking a hypothetical question. To a postmodernist
the answer is likely to be a set of entirely different questions: Who has the right to ask
or answer this question? Whose interests have been marginalized and violated in the
Returning to our prior discussion of concepts, you should now be ready to refine your
understanding of a concept by applying the three perspectives. Notice that modernists
emphasize the representative aspect of concepts—concepts align with objects in the real
world (e.g., the concept of dog represents real dogs). Symbolic-interpretivists emphasize
the agreement among the people of one culture to call things by the same names (e.g., the
English word dog versus the French chien), pointing out that you construct concepts in the
context of intersubjective meanings and vocabularies shared with other members of your
culture. Postmodernists emphasize the ever-changing relationship between concepts. For
the postmodernist all words, including concepts, are defined in relation to other words
(dog versus cat, mouse, house, life) rather than in relation to objects in the real world; no
word’s meaning can be fully or finally determined because each use brings a word into relationship
with a different set of other words and this continually changing juxtapositioning
causes its meaning to endlessly shift.
It is important to understand the differences in the applications of the perspectives
because these differences are not only crucial to how theory is created but also to the way
organizing is practiced. If you take the objectivist stance that an organization is a formal
structure with an internal order, a set of natural laws governing its operation, and roles that
must be carried out in a deterministic manner by organizational members, you will
manage your organization and act differently toward it and others within it than if you
adopt either the subjectivist stance or the postmodern perspective. Similarly, if you take the
subjectivist stance, that organizations have no objective structure but are continually
constructed and maintained by people as they try to make sense of what is going on, you
will manage your organization differently than if you assume the postmodern perspective
and thereby maintain skepticism toward the idea that knowledge is anything more than a
ploy to gain power over others. It is important to know what your underlying assumptions
are when you apply your theories because each set of ontological and epistemological
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assumptions will exercise a different influence on the way you design and manage your
Plan of the Book
Part I of the book describes the approach I will use to help you learn organization theory
and develop your capacity to theorize. Chapter 1 has introduced you to several core ideas—
theory, theorizing, concepts and abstraction—and to the three perspectives that form the
framework of this book—modern, symbolic-interpretive, and postmodern. Chapter 2
presents a historical account of the economists, sociologists and classical management
scholars whose work inspired the first organization theorists and to some of the theories
that subsequently shaped the three perspectives of organization theory.
Part II of the book will present you with the core concepts that contemporary
organization theorists use to explain, understand and theorize organizations. In these
chapters you will learn to look at organizations as constituents of a larger environment
(Chapter 3); as social structures ordering the activities of their members (Chapter 4); as
technologies for producing goods and services for society (Chapter 5); as cultures that
produce and are produced by meanings that form the symbolic world of the organization