Economics and Michel Foucault

Joshua Miller, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Another cut on local knowledge: what is economics' relationship to Michel Foucault? Often I see folks like you and Hanson making points that the rest of the social sciences and humanities would call Foucauldian, about the role of disciplinary power in knowledge-production, but you don't seem to ever reference or perhaps even read him. Perhaps he is simply not considered very interesting? Given the fact that there is some history of economics in his "Les Mots and les choses," I'd think there'd be more of an attempt to discredit or claim him.

Foucault is interesting, but use him with caution.  Most of his books have not held up very well as history, even if he succeeded in drawing people's attention to some neglected factors.  On top of that, his theoretical framework is incoherent.  Try reading The Archaeology of Knowledge.  I find The Order of Things to be an insightful but skewed account of the seventeenth century; detailed objections aside, it goes astray by assuming, implicitly, explicitly or otherwise, that structural categories somehow interact with each other in the world of ideas.  It's much more micro and disaggregated than he lets on, but still I am glad I read the book.  This volume is a good, readable introduction to his work.

Perhaps Foucault is best on prisons and hospitals, though again caveat emptor on the history.  His most valuable insight, both theoretically and historically, is that what appears to be "enlightenment" (or for that matter "Enlightenment") is often anything but.

Foucault is important, and he deserves to be read, but I am not sure he will be much read fifty years from now.  I also view "engaging with him" as a much overdone and much overrated exercise, carried in large part by the less salubrious tendencies in Continental and U.S. humanities scholarly discourse.  It is better to simply work on the topics he cared about, using his books as a reminder to consider some different angles.

Did you know that Foucault — at least the late Foucault — appreciated Mises, Hayek, and Friedman?


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