The Influence of Man's Subjectivity in Shaping Society

An approach based on Michel Foucault's Truth and Juridical Forms (Lectures 1, 3,4 & 5)

Image 1. Michel Foucault (Eterna Cadencia, s.f.)

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was a French historian and philosopher, associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist movements. He has had a strong influence not only (or even primarily) in philosophy but also in a wide range of humanistic and social scientific disciplines. He worked as a professor at various universities in France, Sweden, Warsaw, and Tunisia, while finishing his double doctoral thesis. In 1966 he published Les Mots et Les Choses [The Order of Things], one of his most important contributions to structuralism together with Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes (Gutting & Oksala, 2021).

Truth and Juridical Forms consists of five lectures given by Michel Foucault at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1973. In them, he builds a genealogy of power and describes its gradual, intimate, dark, and effective intertwining that configures all the social relations of our time. The points addressed in these lectures constitute a part of Social Theories Studies, a branch of science that is dedicated to the study of the development, structure, and function of human societies. Furthermore, these ideas develop the basic theses from which he would later build one of his main works: Discipline and Punish, in which he examines the birth of the prison as a reflection of the strategies of surveillance and control of power from the nineteenth century onward.

The central theme of these lectures is undoubtedly the consolidation of a disciplinary society, which translates into the historical configuration of a criminal-legal system based on rectifying behavior before criminal execution.

In the first conference, Foucault introduces the question of the relationship between knowledge and power, based on Nietzsche's thought in one of his books (The Gay Science). The first conference thus establishes how knowledge does not originate from humans nor does it come from an impulse within them, but rather is an invention of the human being.

Knowledge, for Foucault, is not a neutral concept. Rather, knowledge is based on the constant clash between power and human instincts. In the third conference, the birth of legal inquiry is reflected on, and how this inquiry was presented in Greece and the Middle Ages and how they approached the concept of inquiry to determine what could be considered rational knowledge or not.

In the fourth conference, the criminal practices that characterize the disciplinary society of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are established. Finally, in the fifth conference, Panopticism is addressed at its simplest level and is analyzed in terms of how it affects the individual lives of people in a framework of what Foucault terms "kidnapping institutions". These institutions are characterized by surveillance, control, and punishment. The author defines Panopticism as the characteristic feature that makes up the contemporary human organization, constituted by three defining elements: vigilance, control, and correction (Foucault, 1980).

Following the concept of a Panoptic society established in the last lecture, Foucault advocates for a theory based on an intrinsic relationship between knowledge and power. In this framework, it could be conjectured that power is the instrument that man uses to configure truths on which the configuration of society sits. In simpler words, the conformation of society is relative to the subjectivity of man and the truths that he establishes.

In the first place, it would be appropriate to formulate the relationship between the concepts of knowledge, power, and truth, and how these are defined by the author. According to the references to Nietzsche, knowledge arises from the struggle of instincts, but it would be incorrect to describe it as instinctive (Foucault, 1996). Foucault posits it as counter-instinctive and counter-natural, defining it as an operator over the world in a relationship of violence and power, imposing itself on the chaos of nature. In this context, it is pertinent to emphasize that man invents knowledge, operating violently on things and what he knows.

Image 2. Panopticism is represented as 'the eye that sees all' (Graffignano, 2020).

The concept of power can be understood as a relationship of forces that occurs within a society at a given time (Foucault, 1996). Truth is understood as those models that prevail in society as a result of judicial practices (Foucault, 1996).

According to the conception of knowledge, it would be appropriate to point out that, since there is an inclination of power towards the notables (the ones that do not belong to the group of commoners)(Foucault, 1996), this group of people uses knowledge to formulate truths that govern societies (here the concept of subjectivity is glimpsed). These are accepted by the rest of the individuals, provoking an air of domination by the "notable", although these truths are modified throughout social history. This can be explained in a better way with the differences that Foucault establishes in the different social epochs regarding the different ways of maintaining order (Greece, the Middle Ages, and the disciplinary society) (Foucault, 1996).

I address the concept of subjectivity because, as the author points out in the first conference, man invents these conceptions of the things that prevail in society, called norms, lifestyles, etc. These conceptions start from the invention of knowledge (Foucault, 1996) and lead to the invention of new forms of justice, judicial practices and procedures that then govern societies (Foucault, 1996).

Image 3. A caricature that represents the power-knowledge-truth trilogy (Spainonymous, 2017).

It is based on these forms of justice, which are created by man, that truth is formed and gives way to what Foucault addresses in conferences four and five: Panopticism namely, "a form that is exercised over individuals in the manner of individual and continuous vigilance, as control of punishment and reward and as correction, that is, as a method of formation and transformation of individuals according to certain norms” (Foucault, 1996, p.107). This Panopticism has as its main purpose the domination of societies without them realizing this control is being exercised over them. This domination includes institutions such as schools, factories, and even the family itself (Foucault, 1996).

In conclusion, it would then be possible to affirm that this relationship between knowledge, power, and truth as a network allows for the domination of current societies, considering that they all come from the invention and conception of man. His subjectivity is also inherently present in the configuration of societies. Therefore, the individual will be integrated into different apparatuses: productivity, the transmission of knowledge, correction, and normalization but that comes from the subjective conception of those who sustain power.


  • Foucault, M. (1999). Vigilar y castigar; Nacimiento de la prisión. (29a ed.) Siglo XXI, Medellín.

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Dinka Hernández Avilés

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