Michel Foucault’s theory on Knowledge and Truth

By Neelam Shah. Neelam is a Kingston University Social Sciences and Psychoanalysis Masters Graduate. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

This article will discuss Michel Foucault’s academy theory, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” It will do so in relation to education and exploring schools as mechanisms of power between discipline and acquisition of knowledge truth.

Foucault’s conceptual, ideological thinking encompasses different perspectives that people go through at different stages in their lives. People progress as individuals in society, and therefore become different from the person they were at beginning of their lives. In other words, people develop a different identity throughout their work and life, without knowing exactly who they are.

Foucault’s theory is focused not necessarily on knowing exactly who you are in terms of your first individual identity and persona, but that which you will become going through experiences in life and work.

Foucault’s fundamental conception of freedom is the idea that it rests on our relationship to ourselves and the struggle to be different from what we are. Many problems in reading Foucault originate because we come to him with the whole framework of modernist social science, and we want to know where he fits, even though he spent plenty of energy avoiding fitting. This leads to another fundamental problem in reading Foucault, because he is studiedly anti-modernist and studiedly anti-humanist. He is not willing to accept any of the basic tenets of modernist philosophy, of modernist social theory. As Johanna Oksala (2005, p. 1) puts it:

“To get closer to Foucault’s intent, it helps if one is willing to question the ingrained social order, give up all truths firmly fixed in stone, whilst holding on to a fragile commitment to freedom.

“We have to give up normativity, our traditional conception of freedom, our traditional conception of politics, we have to give up our modernist building blocks of scholarship and research practice and to start again treating those as problems to be addressed. And that of course is not an easy thing to do.”

How can Foucault be related to education? The majority of work that uses Foucault draws, in particular, upon Discipline and Punish, and explores schools as power houses, as apparatuses working through mechanisms of discipline, visibility and surveillance, and correct training. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault himself contributes to this vision of school as a machine of discipline in which power is literally made visible and invisible, is written onto bodies. Power is represented and executed in architecture and in space, and in the multiple practices of division and exclusion that actually constitute modern school. Power plays a role in organizing school as an analytic space, a cellular space that surrounds us, a ‘therapeutic space’ in terms of the ways in which teachers act toward students, a space of precision, a space of exclusion, a space of division. This has been very intriguing to researchers. It falls back into other kinds of traditions of analysis that sociologists use to think about school. It reproduces this vibrant, powerful, exhaustive language through which we can understand how school functions. In particular it brings into play the role of the gates and the representation of gates: in particular, in Discipline and Punish, through the form of the panopticon as the gates of power within which the learner is made visible and power itself is made invisible, where the learners see only the tasks and the tests which they must undertake as they become subjects in the ‘eye of power’, virtually made visible to the teacher.

Foucault believes that it is not necessary to know exactly what I am, but what I am going to become with the aid of education. It is necessary to note how discipline and power can then mould strong individuals, not from knowing who they are, but how they can become someone else through learning, and develop their spiritual mindset by keeping an open mind. In the Western model of education, the aim is the transmission of truth: the point of learning is the acquisition of knowledge, the acquisition of truth. In a different sense, Foucault has been addressing the relationship between knowledge and expertise, but we do not often operate with this in relation to education.

Foucault has utilised his theory in relation to exploring education in terms of discovering the self and power of one’s self through life when struggling to reach freedom. One develops through different life experiences which can shape the individual identity for who they are through assessing the relationship between knowledge and expertise which can philosophise identity. It is not vital or important to know who you are when you can become someone different from whom you were at the beginning; we become who we can become through learning from others and seeing what you genuinely love to do and seek out the truth, power and knowledge in education.

Different transitions in life are made where freedom of choice is deeply questioned with certain legislative power and control in society. They are made in education, where discipline and truth of knowledge is greatly stretched down different avenues, where learners can venture in and decide who they want to become without knowing at first who they are.

Foucault’s theory – “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning” – focuses on his conception that, throughout life, experiences will shape you as an individual and change your beliefs, mindset and persona. Since coming into contact with other people your identity is changing you are not the same individual as you once were in other words 10 or 15 years ago as you grow older once reached your adult life.


Oksala, J. (2005). Foucault on freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


3 comments on “Michel Foucault’s theory on Knowledge and Truth

  1. Yemisi Sanya Adekola on

    A lovely theoretical educational write-up written in relation to exploring schools as mechanisms of power between discipline and acquisition of knowledge. It status thật people progress as individuals in society and become diferent through life êxperiences…. But I believe that people dont just develop a diferent identity from nothing. To develop and change, you neêd some kind of baseline asessment that you improve upon gradually. You assess the struggles and the strenghts in ỏther not to overlook dèiciencies before you administer an intervention to be able to move on. As an educational theory, then what is the esence of asessments and evaluations before placement. It is highly important to know what you are. Very true thật one develops through life êxperiences only when you know where you are coming from and you want to improve on that….only when you are true to yourself can any form of intervention can be meaningful.

  2. milroy Martyn on

    Any definition of truth can not be different to any other definition of truth because truth is eternal and constant and can not change and is not changeable. therefore all definitions should lead to the ultimate objective of being truth.
    The ultimate truth being an absolute finds its conclusion in God,
    being the ultimate truth.
    All absolutes rest in God who is the source of all knowledge and truth.


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