Modern Moral Philosopohy by G.E.M. Anscombe — A Summary

Anscombe, G. E. M. ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19.

Before you start reading the summary…

The influence that this article — or more correctly, this unrelenting attack — had on moral philosophy, especially the impetus it gave to virtue ethics, is difficult to overstate.

For somebody new to moral philosophy, the article will be a difficult read. Not only because Anscombe is engaging with moral philosophy since Aristotle up to the mid-twentieth century and assuming, obviously, a learned reader but also because she does it with frustrating brevity — she disposes off a procession of some of the most prominent moral philosophers, Joseph Butler, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, with a few terse paragraphs in less than a page! As such, I have added more than a few hyperlinks. The interested (and intrepid) student may follow them for more.

[I find analytic philosophers generally unpleasant to read. While the concise, rigorous, matter-of-fact arguments present themselves with, to invoke Hume — Anscombe also invokes Hume but for more philosophically pertinent reasons — force [the doctrines of the tradition in which she is writing has no small determining influence on this particularly economical manner of writing!], they are sorely lacking in the vivacity which would beckon and then hold the reader’s mind.

To get a glimpse of such writing, and these are only the few that I have encountered, see Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [Anscombe, in addition to being greatly influenced by, was actually friends with, Wittgenstein!], Willard Van Orman Quine’s On What There Is and Two Dogmas of Empiricism [Quine can be humorous, as much as a logician can], as well as Anscombe’s own Intention. What these have in common is that they have all been unfathomably influential on philosophy in addition to being admirably brief.]

Three theses will be presented in the article. First, that moral philosophy should be abandoned until such time as an adequate knowledge of psychology has been acquired. Second, that moral obligation and moral duty, moral rightness and wrongness, and the moral sense of ought be abandoned as well. Third, that the differences between well-known moral philosophers writing in the English language are inconsequential.

The contrast between Aristotle’s Ethics and any modern work on moral philosophy is telling. Aristotle distinguishes between intellectual and moral virtues. But what he calls moral virtues have nothing to do with our notion of moral. There is no discussion of moral blame. Nor of moral obligations to do or not do certain things.

If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such, he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don't come together in a proper bite.

Aristotle cannot, therefore, elucidate the modern way of talking about morality. And the best writers on ethics in modern times fail to provide any “direct light on [morality]”.

[Joseph] Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.”

[David] Hume defines ‘truth’ in such a way as to exclude ethical judgments from it, and professes that he has proved that they are so excluded.

[Immanuel] Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself,’ which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0.

Bentham and Mill do not notice the difficulty of the concept ‘pleasure.’ … The reason is simple: since Locke, pleasure was taken to be some sort of internal impression. But it was superficial, if that was the right account of it, to make it the point of actions.

[What follows is three paragraphs summarising another very influential paper, “On Brute Facts”. [See Section 5 and 6 of the IEP entry on Anscombe. Also this video explanation by]

In the article, Anscombe’s defines brute facts as those facts “which held, and in virtue of which, in a proper context, such-and-such a description [of a state of affairs] is true or false”. For the description — for instance, that I owe someone a certain amount of money — to be true, both the facts of the description — the fact: that I ordered potatoes, that you supplied them, that you sent me a bill etc. — and the context — the existence of certain market institutions — must hold. In a situation where all of these hold, me may call the facts of the description as brute relative to the description and the context. Having said this, it is possible that special circumstances — perhaps the exercise was part of an act in a movie, or perhaps the grocer decided to let me have them for free after he had sent the bill, etc. — will intervene to upset the truth of the description.

The point, really, is that brute facts are brute relative to some description [of a state of affairs, or fact] and some context, i.e. they are not absolute. And it is brute facts along with a certain context (which can always be altered or rendered inapplicable by extraordinary circumstances and which therefore cannot be theoretically anticipated) which makes a description true. But moral philosophy is populated with notions such as theft, adultery, slander, and punishment of the innocent, to use her examples, which are conceived as always (or absolutely) wrong. Anscombe’s argument is that the description, for instance, that I should never steal does not hold true absolutely but holds only in the context of certain background institutions (which can, as we have seen be upset by extraordinary circumstances) and certain facts which are brute relative to that description and context.]

“[I]n present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology.” [Thesis I] Why? Because to give such an explanation would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue” and this is impossible unless we have an account of what type of characteristic virtue is. This problem ultimately reduces to coming up with an account of human action and how specific actions are affected by motives and intentions, i.e. coming up with an understanding of human psychology.

The words ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘needs’ relate to good and bad — “machinery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that running without oil is bad for it, or it runs badly without oil”. Here, these words don’t have a moral sense. In this conception, the sentence “I should not steal” would have no special moral sense. But to us, this sentence does have a special moral sense in that the word ‘should’ implies an absolute verdict on the action that is described, i.e. that it is morally wrong to steal.

How did this come about? Because of the dominance of Christianity, in the time between Aristotle and us, with its law conception of ethics. “To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues, failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician [as Aristotle would hold]), is required by divine law.” Even if this conception based on divine law has now been abandoned, the special moral sense and weight which it bequeathed to the concepts of ‘obligation’ and of being bound or required as by a law has remained.

It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by “criminal,” which alone gave the word its sense.

[The next few paragraphs expound and extend Hume’s argument about the logical invalidity of going from is statements, i.e. positive statements like “Human females evolved to take care of children” to ought statements, i.e. normative statements like “Women ought to stay in the house and take care of children” [example from this explainlikeimfive post]. Forgive the digression, but this is the famous is–ought problem. A search on jstor for articles whose titles contain “ought” and “is” throws up 141 results. Oh! and there is a book about it.]

The argument is that the word “ought” — so invested with a moral sense which is the legacy, a “survival”, of an ethical system we have since abandoned, more or less — now posseses merely a “mesmeric” force and that “no [ethical] content [can actually] be found in the notion ‘morally ought’”. Therefore, “[i]t would be most reasonable to drop it.” [Thesis II]

In all modern English moral philosophers starting from G.E. Moore, the overriding concern of ethics has become consequences. “The ‘right action’ is the action which produces the best possible consequences.” Of course, it is possible to generate diversity of views by probing various interpretations of “right” and “best” as well as the connections between them. But underlying this diversity, which is only apparent, lies a unity which is revealed by the fact that “every one of the best known English academic moral philosophers [since Henry Sidgwick] has put out a philosophy according to which, e.g., it is not possible to hold that it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.” [Thesis III]

This is significant because this is quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic which prohibits a lot of things “simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences”.

Sidgwick’s defense of a notion of intention covering all foreseen consequences is problematic. Say a man is responsible for maintaining a child. If he deliberately stops supporting the child because I.a he no longer wishes to do so or I.b by doing so he would compel someone else to do something, say an admirable thing. Now, consider that that man has to choose between II.a doing something disgraceful and II.b going to prison, which would necessarily mean I. For Sidgwick, there is no point of choosing between I.a I.b and II.b because in all cases case, the consequences are the same, i.e. the child loses its maintenance, even if the motivations — self-regarding in I.a, consequence regarding in I.b, and unavoidable consequence in II.b — are different.

The man then has only to choose between II.a and II.b, and if he thinks that the former is less vicious, he’ll do it. It is not the intrinsic goodness and badness of the action which matters but the consequences. Now, it may be that the man misjudged things and II.a is in fact more vicious than II.b. However, given Sidgwick’s definition of intention, he would get away with his action because its consequence was not what he had foreseen. For Sidgwick, the badness of an action is dependent on its expected consequences. This is troubling because if we pair it with his definition of intention, we see that one can get away with the (terrible) actual consequences by making a case that they were unforeseen (or unexpected).

“The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences ... explains the difference between old-fashioned Utilitarianism and ... consequentialism.”

Also, consequentialism cannot deal with borderline cases. And such cases are commonplace in ethics. The consequentialist can only say in such borderline cases that a person must not bring about this or that. What ‘this or that’, i.e. the consequence, is will of course be judged on the basis of standards invariably determined by current standards in society. What are the chances that the standards of a society will be decent?

There are people who accept the notions of ‘obligation’ and of the ‘moral’ ought but reject the notion of a divine legislator. They look for non-divine sources of moral norms: society, reason or legislation by oneself, contracthuman virtue.

Society, it will be obvious, is hardly a steady standard for decent norms. Legislating for oneself sounds good but it must be realised that left to his own reason, ahem, devices, a person will more often than not come up with rules he thinks are good on the basis of custom, determined by his society. With contract, it is difficult to determine who promulgated it to whom and whether, if, or how, we are party to it. Also, even if these are worked out, it is likely that the norms arising will be largely formal — along the lines of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — and not at all concerned with ethical particularities.

Might we find ‘norms’ in human virtues? Perhaps, it is a norm that man qua social/moral/political being has such-and-such virtues in the same way that it is a norm that man qua biological being has so many teeth. However, in this sense, the notion of ‘norm’ no longer has the distinctly Christian meaning. Instead, it has become Aristotelian. If this direction is where we want to go, “the notions of ‘moral obligation,’ ‘the moral ought,’ and ‘duty’ are best put on the Index”.

But meanwhile — is it not clear that there are several concepts that need investigating simply as part of the philosophy of psychology and, — as I should recommend — banishing ethics totally from our minds? Namely — to begin with: ‘action,’ ‘intention,’ ‘pleasure,’ ‘wanting.’ More will probably tum up if we start with these. Eventually it might be possible to advance to considering the concept ‘virtue’; with which, I suppose, we should be beginning some sort of a study of ethics.

“I will end by describing the advantages of using the word ‘ought’ in a non-emphatic fashion, and not in a special ‘moral’ sense; of discarding the term ‘wrong’ in a ‘moral’ sense, and using such notions as ‘unjust.’”

It is quite possible to distinguish between what is intrinsically unjust and what is unjust given the circumstances. To arrange that a man be convicted for a crime he did not commit is intrinsically unjust. To deprive a man of his property without legal procedure, to not pay debts, to break contracts, etc. are unjust given the circumstances. Circumstances are crucial to determining questions of justice and injustice, and the circumstances may sometimes include expected consequences.

A man’s claim to a property, i.e. a matter of justice, will be nullified if its seizure can avert some obvious disaster, i.e. an expected consequence. This is not to say that consequences always overrule considerations of intrinsic justice. The point is that the lines to be drawn between intrinsic and circumstantial (including consequential) factors in determining justice is complicated and that in particular cases, the line is drawn “according to what’s reasonable”. In other words, “there can in principle be no canon other than giving a few examples.”

That is to say, while it is because of a big gap in philosophy that we can give no general account of the concept of virtue and of the concept of justice, but have to proceed, using the concepts, only by giving examples; still there is an area where it is not because of any gap, but is in principle the case, that there is no account except by way of examples: and that is where the canon is ‘what's reasonable’: which of course is not a canon.

In the intrinscially unjust example, it is clear that no circumstances or consequences would modify the description of the action as unjust. However, in English moral philosophy since Sidgwick, it is possible to question the description. Might it (arranging for a man to be convicted for a crime he did not commit) be morally right in some circumstances? The point again is that we lack the philosophic equipment to answer this question with any certitude.

There is a dilemma here. If we are to use unjust as a factual description, without the moral connotation of wrongness, it is open to ask whether one ought to do injustice? [If unjust, understood to be determined by a consideration of whether it is right to do so-and-so in such-and-such circumstances, is used with the moral connotation of wrongness, the question (whether one ought to do injustice) simply does not arise!] One could reply to the question by determining moral rightness in terms of some other principles or make a principle out of injustice itself (that injustice is morally wrong). But however we reply, so long as the term unjust remains factual, the moral propriety is determined not by the term ‘unjust’ but instead by a decision that injustice is wrong. If one grants this, he cannot criticise someone who does not make that decision.

We find that in this discussion of the dilemma, the moral sense of the term wrong is retained while its substance is quaranteed quite null.

And I should be inclined to congratulate the present-day moral philosophers on depriving “morally ought” of its now delusive appearance of content, if only they did not manifest a detestable desire to retain the atmosphere of the term.

If we discard the notion ‘morally ought’ and return to its ordinary notion, we might reasonably ask if commiting injustice would be the beast thing to do. The answers will be various. A philosopher might, à la Plato and Aristotle, permit only just actions since just, i.e. virtuous, actions are necessary for a man to be good (to flourish) even if such actions might actually make him flourish less, or not at all.

[P]hilosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human “flourishing.” And it is the last concept that appears the most doubtful. For it is a bit much to swallow that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is “flourishing,” as Aristotle himself admitted.

A person unimpressed by this argument might, faced with a hard choice, answer that given such-and-such requirements, which we can’t fulfill without doing injustice, we ought to do it. And it has been the job of modern moral philosophers since Sidgwick to construct systems according to which this person may be virtuous!



The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance by Ashis Nandy — A Summary

Nandy, Ashis. 1990. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance.” In Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, edited by Veena Das, 69–93. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Faith, Ideology and the Self

The paper aims to provide “a political preface to the recovery of … religious tolerance from the hegemonic language of secularism”.[1]This hegemonic language of secularism has now become a cover for the new forms of religious violence.[2]

To provide the preface, four trends visible in South Asia in recent times must first be described.

The first is that each religion in South Asia has split into two: faith and ideology. Faith means “a way of life, a tradition which is definitionally non-monolithic and operationally plural”. Ideology, on the other hand, means “a sub-national, national or cross-national identifier of populations contesting for or protecting non-religious, usually political or socio-economic, interests”.

The modern state always prefers to deal with religious ideologies rather than faiths. It is wary of both forms of religion but it finds the ways of life more inchoate and, hence, unmanageable, even though it is faith rather than ideology which has traditionally shown more pliability and catholicity.

Second, a tendency to view faiths of the region through the eyes of evangelical Christianity has developed. This Eurocentric way of looking at faiths subsumes under it clear polarities: centre vs. periphery; true faith vs. distortions, civil vs. primordial; and great traditions vs. local cultures. In these dyads, the second category is set up to lose.

Third, the idea of secularism, imported from Europe, has gained immense potency among the middle class and ‘state sectors’ thanks to its relation with religion-as-ideology, even as it has nothing to say about religion-as-faith. These secularists see religion as an ideology which must be contained. Clashes between faiths are viewed as reflections of socio-economic forces.

Fourth, this imported idea of secularism which endorses a well-bounded and individuated self which can be separated from the non-self has become incompatible with the somewhat fluid and inclusive definitions of the self which many South Asian cultures live out.

“It is in the context of these four processes that I shall now discuss the scope and limits of the ideology of secularism in India and its relationship with the new forms of ethnic violence we have been witnessing.”

The Fate of Secularism

This is not the work of a secularist but that of an anti-secularist who has come to believe that the ideology and politics of secularism have more or less exhausted their possibilities. Here, by secularism, the standard western definition of the word is being meant. It is that idea of secularism which seeks to exclude religion from the public domain and consign it to the private.

But there is another non-standard, non-western meaning of secularism which advocates equal respect for all religions without any injunction against the involvement of religion in public life and only requiring that a continuous dialogue among religious traditions and between the religious and the secular be maintained.

Associated with the scientific, western meaning of secularism is a hidden political hierarchy which makes a four-fold classification of political actors in the subcontinent.

Four Categories of Political Actors
From Ashis Nandy, “An Anti-secularist Manifesto”, India International Centre Quarterly 22 no. 1 (1995): p. 37.

At the top come those who are believers neither in public nor in private. The obvious example here is Nehru. These are the perfect role models for “twentieth-century citizens of the flawed cultural reality called India”. Below this comes those who choose not to appear as believers in public but are devour believers in private of which Indira Gandhi is an example. These are accepted as reasonable compromises.

Next comes those who are believers in public but do not believe in private. Examples of political actors in this category are Jinnah and Savarkar. Such persons use religion instrumentally, as a political tool, to homogenise co-believers into political formations so as to remove folk-diversities which might stand in the way of their personal or political aims. And at the bottom are those who are believers both in public and in private. The best example is Gandhi.

The point of bringing this up is that this modern classification and hierarchy has always embarrassed us. Gandhi does not do well in this hierarchy! But this is not a big problem, for some modern Indians, because the classification, and the ideology informing it, i.e., secularism has not worked. It has neither removed religion from politics nor brought about tolerance.

It has not worked because of many reasons. First, with the growth of democratic participation, the formation of the political elite has become haphazard in that those entering public life cannot be properly evaluated for their commitment to secular politics. The result has been that religion has entered public life through the back door.

Second, it is becoming obvious to more and more people, even religious ones, that modernity has become the organizing principle of the dominant culture of politics. There is, on the one hand, a feeling of defeat of the believers in an increasingly secular and desacralized world and on the other, a move by the state towards the dilution of both majority and minority religions in order to secure freedom and tolerance.

Third, while the state tries to keep the public sphere free of religion, it has no means of ensuring that the ideologies of secularism, development and nationalism do not become faiths intolerant of other faiths.

Fourth, it is being realised that the belief that secularism would deliver us from the evils of intolerance and provide a better guide for political action has now been greatly undermined.

“In sum, we are at a point of time when old-style secularism can no longer pretend to guide moral or political action. All that the ideology of secularism can do now is to sanction the absurd search for a modern language of politics in a traditional society which has an open polity.”

The invisible reference point in the tussle regarding secularism is the Western Man — an abstraction we have constructed who “rules the world, it seems to the defeated [i.e., us], because of his superior understanding of the relationship between religion and politics”.

The first response, that of the already modernized (or more accurately, westernized), is to model ourselves based on the traits of the Western Man. Such modeling is seen as a universal response. The second response, that of the zealot, is to somehow defeat the Western Man at his own game. And the third (non-)response, that of the non-modern majority, is to simply assert that traditional ways of life have developed internal principles of tolerances which mush have a play in contemporary politics.

“This [third] response affirms that religious communities have known how to live with each other. It is not modern India which has tolerated Judaism in India for nearly two thousand years, Christianity from before the time it went to Europe, and Zoroastrianism for more than twelve hundred years; it is traditional India which has shown such tolerance.”

It is from non-modern India, from its traditions and principles of religious tolerance encoded into everyday life, that we will have to seek clues to the renewal of Indian political culture. Figures like Ashoka and Akbar, who have been hijacked by moderns, based their tolerance not on secularism but on their religions, Buddhism and Islam respectively. A similar remark can be made about Gandhi who derived his tolerance from Hinduism.

The new forms of religious violence that we have seen in recent times are quite secular. They — anti-Sikh riots in Delhi (1984), anti-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad (1985), anti-Hindu riots in Bangalore (1986) — were all associated with political cost-calculations and/or economic greed and not with religious hatred. “Zealotry has produced many riots, but secular politics, too, has now begun to produce its own version of ‘religious riots’.”

The moral of the story is this: the time has come for us to recognise that instead of trying to build religious tolerance on the food faith or conscience of a small group of de-ethnicised, middle-class politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals, a far more serious venture would be to explore the philosophy, the symbolism and the theology of tolerance in the various faith of the citizens and hope that the state systems in South Asia may learn something about religious tolerance from everyday Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and or Sikhism, rather than wish that ordinary Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs will learn tolerance from the various fashionable secular theories of statecraft.

The Heart of Darkness[3]

Psychological and Cultural Frame of the Heart of Darkness
The Politics of Secularism, p. 86.

The above table is an attempt capture the psychological and cultural frame with which to clarify the point made in the end of the last section — that new forms of religious violence that we have seen in recent times are quite secular.

While the table admits that the western concept of secularism has worked to an extent — checked ethnic intolerance and violence, contributed to humane government — it now seems incapable of handling the new forms of violence, new fears and intolerances of religions, and pogroms and ethnocides justified in terms of state ideology.

This is because the new forms of intolerance and violence are sustained by a different configuration of social and psychological forces.[4]

“[T]he planners, instigators and legitimizers of religious and ethnic violence can now be identified as secular users of non-secular forces in society. There is very little continuity between their motivational structures and that of the street mobs which act out [their] wishes”.

The destructive potential objectification, scientization and bureaucratic rationality for violence is clear now more than ever. The modern nation-state system views statecraft in purely secular, amoral and scientific terms. For this system, the biggest dangers are posed by religion and ethnicity which therefore are seen, at best, as things to be “studied, ‘engineered’, ghettoed, museumized or preserved in reservations” and, at worst, as inferior cultures anathema to modern politics, science and development.

[T]he most extreme forms of violence in our times come not from the faulty passions or human irrationality but from unrestrained instrumental rationality.

Religious tolerance outside the bounds of secularism is exactly what it says it is. It not only means tolerance of other religions but also a tolerance that is religious. ... It is the ... presumption of tolerance in others, not its existence ... which must become the major source of tolerance for those who want to fight the new violence of our times, whether they are believers or not.

End Notes

[1] The hegemonic language of secularism that Nandy is referring to is the western, scientific, and rational (or as he terms it elsewhere, ‘old-style’, ‘ideological’) idea of secularism which chalks out an area in public life from where religion is excluded.

[2] The ‘new forms of religious violence’ are those, Nandy insists, which are “associated not so much with religious hatred as with political cost-calculations and/or economic greed”. See p. 85 for an inventory of such new forms of religious violence.

[3] This alludes to the novella Heart of Darkness by the Polish–English novelist Joseph Conrad.

[4] Nandy, with admirable brevity, alludes to a number of such theories, which are western, of course, in their origin. They are all inaccessible to me!


What is Indian secularism and what is it for? by Rajeev Bhargava — A Summary

Bhargava, Rajeev. 2002. “What Is Indian Secularism and What Is It For?” India Review 1 (1): 1–32.

With the growth of Hindu nationalism and the consequent alienation of religious minorities, it is obvious that secularism in India is in crisis. The question is whether this crisis is due primarily to factors external to it, i.e. poorly practiced, in the wrong hands, undermined by inimical forces, or whether the cause of the crisis is internal to secularism itself, i.e. a deep conceptual flaw, a case of a wrong-footed ideal.

Indian Critiques of Secularism

T.N. Madan, Ashis Nandy and Partha Chatterjee have argued that secularism in India is in crisis in the second deeper conceptual, sense.

Madan argues that “in the prevailing circumstances, secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent”[1]: impossible because a majority of the people in South Asia cannot make a distinction between the sacred and profane, as required by secularism, as they are deep adherents of some religious faith or other; impracticable because religion is pervasive and disestablishment of religion, predicated as it is on a particular mainstream Enlightenment view which sees religion as irrational, would be culturally unacceptable; and therefore, secularism is impotent to either fight fundamentalism — which, ironically, is  a product of state-sponsored anti-religiosity (i.e., secularism) — or serve as a blueprint for political action.

Nandy draws a distinction between religion-as-faith and religion-as-ideology. The former refers to “a way of life, a tradition which is definitionally non-monolithic and operationally plural” while the latter means “a sub-national, national or cross-national identifier of populations contesting for or protecting non-religious, usually political or socio-economic, interests”.[2] The crisis of secularism lies in the fact that modernisation creates religion-as-ideology, while ignoring religion-as-faith, and then generates secularism to meet this ideological challenge. The public/private distinction, so central to modern secularism, does not hold for the faithful and so, to ask people for whom religions hold immense importance to expunge their faith from the public realm is insensitive at best. At worst, it forces the communalisation of politics. Religion is forced, if you will, to enter public life through the back door.

Secularism, for Madan and Nandy, “is a comprehensive rationalist world view that, because of the incontestable irrationality of religion, seeks first the reversal of hierarchy between the secular and the religious and eventually the demise of religion altogether, its ejection from the belief systems of people”. It seeks to first depoliticise and then depublicise religion until it is thoroughly privatised.

Chatterjee’s analysis of secularism[3] is a little different. For him, secularism is guided by non-religious principles. It is characterised further by its commitment to neutrality towards religions. In other words, the project of active exclusion of religion from the public or political domain must be carried out in a non-preferential manner. Clearly, these have not been met by the secularism practiced in India. The state has intervened in the affairs of some religions more than others deviating from the norm of neutrality making it deserving of the charge of favouritism and minoritism. For example, it changed Hindu personal laws quite significantly: polygamy was made illegal, the right to divorce was introduced, child marriage was abolished, inter-caste marriages were legally recognized. But it has been non-interventionist with respect to Islam.

In short, political secularism for these three writers means that, first, the state excludes religion from politics; second, the state then excludes religion from the wider public domain; third, it carries out this project of exclusion in a neutral way; and, fourth, it behaves neutrally toward this privatized religion. The first aspect may work in India but may not be morally desirable; the second is neither workable nor morally acceptable. If the second aspect does not work or is not morally acceptable, then the third aspect cannot work or be morally acceptable either. If the third does not work, then the fourth must fail. Ergo: Forget secularism, abandon it.

Theocracy, Establishment,
Multiple Establishment

First, some ideal-type distinctions must be made. A theocratic state is governed by divine laws directly administered by a priestly order claiming divine commission. Examples are ancient Israel, the Papal states, Iran as ruled by the Ayahtollahs and the Taliban-led Afghanistan.

On the other hand, a state that establishes religion grants it official, legal recognition. Here, religion benefits from a formal alliance with government but, unlike in a theocratic state, the sacerdotal order need not govern the state. Establishment of religion can mean the recognition of a single church or religion, as exemplified by the Anglican Church in England or the Roman Catholic churches of Spain and Italy. It can also mean the establishment of multiple religions. Here, the state recognises and perhaps nurtures all religions without preferring one over the others. Examples are the state of New York in the middle of the 17th century and the 14th century Vijayanagar kingdom in India.

Secular State as Disestablishment

A secular state is a state in which religion is disestablished. It means, and this is Feature I of secular states, that the separation of the state is from all religions. A secular state is not anti-religious but it ensures that religion does not become hegemonic. It also admits equality and peace not just among believers of different religions but among different kinds of religious believers as well as non-believers.

Values of a Secular State

A secular state also ensures religious liberty to all. This liberty has the following dimensions.  A secular state, and this is Feature II, gives liberty to the believers of one religious group. This is important because within religions there may be multiple interpretations with some being dominant. It, Feature III, grants this liberty non-preferentially to all members of every religious community. (This feature might be found in states that establish multiple religions. Such occurrence however is only incidental. In contrast, in a secular state, this feature is constitutive.) Individuals in a secular state, Feature IVare free not only to criticize their religion but also to reject it and remain without a religion.

Religious equality and liberty thus outlined is one broad feature of a secular state. The other feature is that this equality and liberty extends to that of equal and free citizenship. If it were not so, a degree of religious liberty may easily go hand in hand with second class citizenship.

For instance, it may be that a person freely defies the authority of the religious head of his own denomination but is not free to challenge the authority of the state or that the undisturbed conduct of religious worship is guaranteed to religious dissenters or minorities, though they continue to suffer the statutory disabilities which had accumulated in the past against them.

The value of equal citizenship has two dimensions, active and passive. The former entitles a citizen to physical security, a minimum of material well-being and a sphere of one’s own in which others ought not to interfere. This entitlement should, Feature Vbe available to everyone irrespective of religion. And since, citizenship is conditional upon education, no one must, Feature VI, be denied admission to educational institutions solely on grounds of religion. The latter recognises every citizen as equal participants in the public domain. It acknowledges, Feature VII, that every citizen must garner equal respect in the political domain.

What Secularism is Not

The core idea of secularism then is this: separation of religion and state for the sake of civic peace, religious liberty and equality of free citizenship.

First, secularism is not just about the separation of state from religion lacking in substantive values. Second, secularism is also not to be identified with rationalism, individualism, disenchantment, scientism, or even with whole process of modernization.

Secularism is not a comprehensive doctrine laden with every single substantive value in the empire of modernity nor merely a strategy with instrumental significance.

Third, secularism is not a single-value doctrine that prevents religious conflict. Neither the maintenance of peace among religions nor the institutionalisation of religious tolerance is sufficient to make a state secular.

Is the Indian Constitution Secular?


  1. Feature I — Article 27, Article 28(1).
  2. Feature II — Article 25(1)
  3. Feature III — Article 25(1)
  4. Feature IV — Article 25(1), Article 27, Article 28(3)
  5. Feature V — Articles 14, 15(1)
  6. Feature VI — Article 29(2)
  7. Feature VII — Article 16(1)(2), Article 325

The existence of these features in the Indian constitution means that secularism departs from strict separation. First, they enjoin the state to interfere in religion. Second, they necessitate a departure from strict neutrality or equidistance.

In short, some Articles in the Indian constitution support an individualist interpretation and others a non-individualist one. Some conceive separation as exclusion, others as non-preferential treatment and, finally, some depart altogether from separation understood as exclusion or neutrality. At the end of the day, a confusing, somewhat contradictory picture on secularism emerges from a reading of the constitution. Critics could hardly fail to notice this.

A Defense of Indian Secularism

Aid to Religious Institutions

Does giving aid to religious communities [Article 30(2)] violate secularism? It is instructive to turn to the Constituent Assembly Debates. The case against giving aid to religious instruction was made on three grounds. First, that the burden of such funding is borne by all but the benefit accrues only to some. Second, that it would favour majority religions. Third, that religious instruction would peddle in dogma and exacerbate communalism.

The following rejoinders may be considered. To the first, it must be said that institutions run by a religious community teach much more than religion and that others are burdened unfairly only if they are denied entry to such institutions. So long as funds are available to all religious institutions on a non-preferential basis, the argument that funding such insitutitons imposes an unfair burden on other citizens falls apart. To the second, while it is likely that the majority religious community will draw most of the funds, banning state funding would create the same state of affairs such that while the majority community is able to maintain its institutions, the minority communities may not be able to sustain theirs. And to the third, it could be counter-argued that proper teaching of different religions would instead help dispel caricatures and diffuse tension between religious groups.

“[B]y giving conditional aid to educational institutions run by religious communities and by ensuring their conformity to public standards, [the Indian constitution] appears to reconcile values of individual liberty, group autonomy, and equality of citizenship. Since secularism is equally committed to each of these values, far from violating core principles, Article 30(2) encapsulates them in the best possible manner.”

Community-based Rights

The recognition of community-based social rights, such as the right to establish educational institutions may be required by the principles of secularism. However, the same principles rule out the recognition of certain kinds of community-based political rights (see next section).

The Debate over Separate Electorate

In the Constituent Assembly Debates, the proponents of separate electorates contended that minorities are inevitable and the eradication of differences, impossible. A minimisation of differences is possible but only if the minorities are satisfied with the political framework of which they are part. Such satisfaction would be ensured if the minorities are given participatory voice in the legislature. The minorities are best placed to choose the representatives most appropriate for them. Therefore, there should be separate electorates.

While the premises of this chain of reasoning, offered by Pocker Sahib Bahadur, were acceptable to the opponents, its conclusion was rejected. Govind Ballabh Pant argued that separate electorates fail to ensure democratic accountability. Representatives of the majority would not, in such a system, be accountable to the minority, so that even if there is a formal presence of minority representatives, the majority could easily take decisions against the interest of the minority.

“Separate electorates were rejected not because they fostered communal difference as such or because they endangered a simple idea of national unity but because, as Patel put it, ‘they had in the past sharpened communal difference to a dangerous extent and had proved one of the main stumbling blocks to the development of a healthy national life’” (italics added by author).

“[D]emocratic states need cohesion, a common identity, a common personality, and a common agency. Democracy is not just a procedural issue but also a matter of identity. It allows for differences but it cannot stomach divisions which are ‘sharpened to a dangerous extent’. It was precisely for this reason that … eventually no political rights were granted to religious communities.”

Secularism: Community-based Rights and Principled Distance

By accepting community-based rights for religious minorities and endorsing state intervention in religion, the Indian constitution innovated a modern variant of secularism. The uniqueness of this secularism can be grasped only when the cultural and social context of India is understood.

First is the mind-boggling diversity of religious communities. Second is the emphasis, especially in Hinduism, on practice rather than belief and since practices are intrinsically social, any significance attached to them serve to valorise communities. These first two features entail inter-community conflicts. Third, many religiously sanctions social practices oppressive owing to their illiberal and inegalitarian character. Fourth, in Hinduism, the absence of an organized institution such as the church has meant that the impetus for effective reform cannot come exclusively from within.

Given this peculiar and demanding context, India could not simply replicate the classical liberal model. But despite deviation, India still continues to embody a model of secularism. Consider the three relations that constitute Donald Smith’s working definition of secularism (India as a Secular State 1963): religious liberty construed individualistically; equal citizenship, and; non-establishment and therefore to a strict separation of religion from state. Firstly, it is possible to construe religious liberty in terms of practices of groups rather than the beliefs of individuals. Secondly, while Smith’s version of secularism entails a charter of uniform rights, the commitment of secularism to equal citizenship can dictate community-based rights and therefore differentiated citizenship: this is reflected in the addition of community-specific social rights. Thirdly, separation need not mean strict non-interference. It could be a policy of principled distance which entails a flexible approach on the question of intervention or abstention, combining both, dependent on the context, nature, or current state of relevant religions.

It is important to understand that the idea of separation within a value-based secularism cannot mean exclusion, especially exclusion of the state from religious institutions. Recall [that] equal citizenship rights easily challenge hierarchical religions... . To uphold the value of equal citizenship, to ensure equal treatment and protect the ordinary life of citizens, the state may have to interfere in hierarchically organized religions. Secularism is consistent with, indeed requires such intervention.

It is true that the contitution explicitly sanctions interference only in Hinduism. However, this is merely the functioning of principled distance which entails just and impartial intervention. Impartiality does not mean neutrality understood as equidistance.

“In the strategy of principled distance, whether or not the state intervenes or refrains from action depends on what really strengthens religious liberty and equality of citizenship for all. …[T]he state may not relate to every religion in the same way, intervene in the same degree or in the same manner. All it must ensure is that the relation between religious and political institutions be guided by non-sectarian principles that remain consistent with a set of values constitutive of a life of equal dignity for all.”

The idea of principled distance derives from Ronald Dworkin’s distinction between treating everyone equally and treating everyone as an equal.[4] The former requires that people be treated equally in the relevant respects. The latter requires that people be treated with equal concern and respect. This is compatible with differential treatment.

“To say that a state keeps principled distance from religion is to claim that it intervenes or refrains from interfering in religion, depending entirely upon whether or not some values (liberty and equality) are protected or advanced. Moreover, it is to admit that a state may interfere in one religion more than in others, depending once again on the historical and social condition of all relevant religions. …On this interpretation of separation, a secular state neither mindlessly excludes all religions nor is blindly neutral towards them.”

A strict absolutist wall of separation was never a constitutive feature of the Indian model of secularism. On the contrary, the wall here was always permeable.


[1] The quotation is from T.N. Madan, “Secularism in its Place,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 46 no. 4 (Nov 1987): 747–59. See p. 748.

[2]The quotations in this sentence are from Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” in Veena Das, ed., Mirrors of Violence (Delhi: OUP, 1990), pp. 69–93. See p. 70.

[3] Partha Chatterjee, “Secularism and Toleration,” Economic and Political Weekly, 29 no. 28 (July 1994): 1768–77.

[4] Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism,” in Stuart Hampshire, ed., Public and Private Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 113–43. See p. 125.


The Subject and Power by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8 (4): 777–95.

“My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.” p. 777.

If this statement is accessible to you, you can skip this rather protracted introduction (to the first section of the article). If not, do not proceed without first reading this.

The word ‘subject’ has many meanings. The Oxford Dictionary lists as many as seventeen. As such, it is easy to get confused when you encounter its numerous derivatives, mixed with its opposite, i.e., object, which comes with its own set of meanings and derivatives.

Here is a brief introduction to the subject–object dichotomy in philosophy penned with a view to clarifying (or perhaps mystifying further, given the way I write) the myriad ways in which their derivatives — subjective, objective, subjectivity, subjectification, objectify, objectification, and so on — are used in mundane [as well as?] philosophical discussions. Clarity in this regard is particularly crucial for understanding Michel Foucault. Their ordinary uses and connotations are mentioned where necessary.

Very crudely, a subject is conscious and an object is unconscious. What creates the distinction between the subject and object is the ability of the subject to experience, feel, or think (or, in other words, to be conscious). To use jargon, subjects possess subjectivity. Objects, on the other hand, do not. Rather, they are experienced and felt. Put another way, subjects are active, i.e., they have agency, while objects are passive. (It is easy to understand the distinction made in grammar between active and passive voice!)

To complicate this a little more, we, humans, as conscious beings, are subjects. Whatever is external to us — stones, buildings, colours, other human beings etc. — are, from a particular subject’s perspective, objects. Here, a crucial gap has opened up. The gap is this: how should I, as a subject, treat other humans, who, even if they are subjects in their own right, are nonetheless external to me, and therefore, objects as far as I am concerned? One straightforward way is to treat them as objects; to objectify them.

But what if you can determine their very subjectivity? Foucault argues that this is what power does. Now this is not a simple case of somebody influencing another person. But of someone or something, to use a very risky word for the sake of putting the point across, hacking into another person inner workings/mind/life such that this person lives/behaves/orders his life — constitutes his subjectivity, to use jargon — in a particular way. And autonomously at that, well effectively autonomously. Of course, in Foucault, the ‘thing’ doing the determining is not the individual person but rather the whole complex of the modern state/society/religion and the ‘they’ being made subjects is everyone.

The following might throw some light on the way we use objectification, subjective and objective — words which have philosophical significance — in daily conversation.

  1. To charge someone of, for instance, objectifying women, is to say that that person is treating women as if they possessed no subjectivity, i.e., as if they were passive objects unable to determine themselves what they are. This points to the gap I mentioned above.
  2. To say that someone is expressing a subjective viewpoint is to simply say that the truth of that viewpoint depends on the subject himself/herself. That viewpoint may not be shared by somebody else, i.e., another subject. This is common while making aesthetic judgements. What is beautiful for me may not be to you.
  3. To say that someone is stating an objective fact is to say that the truth of that statement depends on the object. If proper care was taken in formulating that statement, other subjects would have to agree with it. This is common in scientific inquiry. The inexorable march of science is built, we are made to believe, on the accumulation of objective facts. [Objective, as a noun, also means a goal, a purpose. But this meaning is unconnected to what is described here.]

In relation to Foucault, the word ‘subject’ can be read as having two broad senses. First, it connotes the thinking, feeling, conscious being possessing subjectivity, as is understood in philosophy. We have encountered this already. The origin of this connotation (and also in the senses in which it is understood in grammar and logic) goes back to (the Latin translation of) a Greek term coined by Aristotle. In many important instances, this is what Foucault means by ‘subject’.

Second, the word ‘subject’ also ordinarily means a person or thing towards whom or which action, thought, or feeling is directed.  It is in this sense that the sentence “I was the subject of a police investigation” can be understood. As a verb, in this sense, ‘subject’ would mean the process of directing actions, thoughts and feelings. Consider the sentence “I was subjected to torture during the investigation”. The origin of this connotation is, the Oxford Dictionary informs us, Middle English.

The problem — and I grappled with this when I first encountered this article about two years ago, often ending in despair — lies in figuring out which of these senses is meant. Often, it’s the former. Other times, it’s the latter. These two uses are usually obvious.

But sometimes, and this is where it becomes tricky, both are meant simultaneously. Rarely, the derivatives are used consecutively in different senses. Consider the last two complete paragraphs at page 781 for an illustration.

  1. “It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.” Here, the word subject must be read to mean both even if grammatical rules might not allow. Thankfully, Foucault is explicit about this.
  2. “…(struggles against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission).” In this case, subjection could straightforwardly be read in the second sense but could easily, and fruitfully, be read as conveying both senses. Subjectivity on the other hand means, at first glance, the first but can be read, and more instructively at that, as having the second sense as well.

These issues of meaning and of usage will have to be kept in mind while reading the text.

To wrap up this introduction, let us consider the sentence that I opened with: “My (i) objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of (ii) objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made (iii) subjects.” p. 777.

(i) Objective means purpose in this context. That’s obvious.

(ii) By modes of objectification, Foucault is referring to the ways in which the agency, self-knowledge, or individuality of the subject is determined or controlled by, to use his examples, the sciences, by institutions, or even by the subjects themselves.

(iii) But at the end of all this, human beings still remain subjects possessing agency except that whatever agency or subjectivity they have is not really their own.

Why Study Power?
The Question of the Subject

My goal has been to analyse the ways in which human beings are made subjects. There have been three modes of objectification which have made this transformation possible.

First, there are the sciences such as grammar, philology and linguistics, economics, and biology whose classificatory endeavours have objectified the speaking subject, the labourer and the very living being. Second, there are dividing practices which have objectified subjects by dividing them within or from others. Consider the division between the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the “good boys”. Third, there is the process of subjectification whereby humans turn their very selves into subjects. Consider the identification of people with certain forms of sexuality.

The general theme of my work thus has been “the question of the subject”. But I have had to “study power” because the existing legal model (the question of what legitimises power) and institutional model (the question of what is the state) of understanding power were insufficient to account for the objectification of the subject.

The dimensions of power have to be expanded.

It is important in this regard to start from forms of resistance against power and analyse power relations through the “antagonism of strategies”. “For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity. And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.”

“As a starting point, let us take a series of oppositions which have developed over the last few years: opposition to the power of men over women, of parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, of administration over the ways people live.”

These struggles cut across state boundaries. They are against the effects of power as such as opposed to the exercise of power. They are immediate struggles — both temporally and spatially. They assert individuality. They are opposed to the privileges of knowledge and forms of imposition on people. They ask “Who are we?”, i.e., they are directed towards determining ones own subjectivity.

“To sum up, the main objective of these struggles is … to attack a technique, a form of power. This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.

“Generally, it can be said that there are three types of struggles: either against forms of domination; against forms of exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or … against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission.” While the struggles against forms of subjection have become salient, struggles against domination and exploitation have not disappeared.

They reason why this form of struggle has become salient in this century is the rise of the modern state. The state totalises its power in the sense that it seeks to look after the totality of its subjects, i.e., the population. [For more on this aspect, see his essay “Governmentality”, summarised here.] But it also individualises.

Never, I think, in the history of human societies ... has there been such a tricky combination in the same political structures of individualization techniques and of totalization procedures.

In saying that the state power is individualising, I mean that the state exercises a form of power which is seeks the production of truth of the individual. This is a form of power that is analogous to the role played by pastors in Christianity, and hence may be called pastoral power. Pastoral power, in its religious context, aims at salvation, is sacrificial, is oriented towards the individual, and demands that the individual reveal his conscience and his innermost secrets. The modern state exercises secularised versions of these aspects of pastoral power. The welfare state with its commitment to the health and well-being of its citizens is engaged in ensuring worldly salvation. The surveillance state with its hunger for data on its citizens is analogous to the Catholic priest who has access to the innermost details of those who come to confession.

The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state's institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

How Is Power Exercised?

Analyses of the question of the “how” of power are generally limited to inventorying its manifestations. But are not these manifestations or effects of power linked to its origin and basic nature?

How is power exercised?

The “how” I have in mind is not the question of how power manifests itself but the question of the means by which power is exercised. Power implies an objective capacity to exert force over things and the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them. Power also implies relationships between individuals or groups in that in any discussion of the mechanisms of power, we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others.

There are relationships of communication, i.e., transmission of information by means of a language, a system of signs, or any other symbolic medium, through which persons act upon others. However, if the objectives or consequences of such relationships have results in the realm of power, it is only incidental. The point is that objective capacities, power relations, and relationships are not to be confused for one another. At the same time, they are not to be treated as three separate domains. In fact, they “always overlap one another, support one another reciprocally, and use each other mutually as means to an end”.

The application of objective capacities in their most elementary forms implies relationships of communication (whether in the form of previously acquired information or of shared work); it is tied also to power relations (whether they consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor). Relationships of communication imply finalized activities (even if only the correct putting into operation of elements of meaning) and, by virtue of modifying the field of information between partners, produce effects of power.

Across different societies, the coordination or relation between these three types of relationships is neither uniform nor constant. Rather, there are diverse specific models.

“But there are also ‘blocks’ in which the adjustment of abilities, the resources of communication, and power relations constitute regulated and concerted systems.” Consider an educational institution whose constituents constitute a block of capacity–communication–power. “The activity which ensures apprenticeship and the acquisition of aptitudes or types of behavior is developed there by means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the ‘value’ of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy).”

Blocks like this constitute a ‘discipline’. Disciplines provide a view into the ways in which the constituents components — the capacity–communication–power triad — are welded together as well as the varied ways in which their interrelationships are articulated.

“To approach the theme of power by an analysis of ‘how’ is therefore to introduce several critical shifts in relation to the supposition of a fundamental power. It is to give oneself as the object of analysis power relations and not power itself.”

What constitutes the specific nature of power?

“[S]omething called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action.” That’s to say that power exists as a relation. What defines this relationship is that it is a mode of action which acts only indirectly; it is an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future. This requires that the one over whom power is exercised be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts, i.e., as a subject.

In itself the exercise of power is not violence; nor is it a consent which, implicitly, is renewable. It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions.

The specificities of power relations can be better understood through the word conduct which means both (as a verb) to lead others and (as a noun) a way of behaving. The question of power is a question of government. Government in this sense refers not only to political structures or to the management of states but also the structuring of the possible field of action of others.

To understand power in this way — as a mode of action upon the actions of others, or as the government of men by other men — is to presuppose free subjects over whom power is exercised, and that too, only insofar as they are free subjects.

[S]lavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.) Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination).

“At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential freedom [then], it would be better to speak of an ‘agonism’ — of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, … [of] a permanent provocation.”

How is one to analyze the power relationship?

[This section has extracts only.]

“One can analyze such relationships … by focusing on carefully defined institutions. [Institutions] constitute a privileged point of observation, diversified, concentrated, put in order, and carried through to the highest point of their efficacy. It is here that, as a first approximation, one might expect to see the appearance of the form and logic of their elementary mechanisms.

“The analysis of power relations demands that a certain number of points be established concretely:

  1. The system of differentiations which permits one to act upon the actions of others: differentiations determined by the law or by traditions of status and privilege; economic differences …
  2. The types of objectives pursued by those who act upon the actions of others: the maintenance of privileges, the accumulation of profits …
  3. The means of bringing power relations into being: according to whether power is exercised by the threat of arms, by the effects of the word, by means of economic disparities, by more or less complex means of control …
  4. Forms of institutionalization: these may mix traditional predispositions, legal structures, phenomena relating to custom or to fashion (e.g., a family); they can also take the form of an apparatus closed in upon itself, with its specific loci, its own regulations, its hierarchical structures which are carefully defined, a relative autonomy in its functioning (e.g., military institutions); they can also form very complex systems endowed with multiple apparatuses (e.g., the state) …
  5. The degrees of rationalization: [to what extent the play of] power relations as action in a field of possibilities [are] more or less elaborate in relation to the effectiveness of the instruments and the certainty of the results …

“[Thus,] one sees why the analysis of power relations within a society cannot be reduced to the study of a series of institutions, not even to the study of all those institutions which would merit the name ‘political’. Power relations are rooted in the system of social networks. … In referring here to the restricted sense of the word ‘government’, one could say that power relations have been progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions.

Relations of power and relations of strategy

“The word ‘strategy’ is currently employed in three ways. First, to designate the means employed to attain a certain end… . Second, to designate the manner in which a partner in a certain game acts with regard to what he thinks should be the action of the others and what he considers the others think to be his own… . Third, to designate the procedures used in a situation of confrontation to deprive the opponent of his means of combat and to reduce him to giving up the struggle… . These three meanings come together in situations of confrontation … where the objective is to act upon an adversary in such a manner as to render the struggle impossible for him. … But it must be borne in mind that this is a very special type of situation and that there are others in which the distinctions between the different senses of the word ‘strategy’ must be maintained.” (emphasis added)

There can be no relationship of power without the potential for a strategy of struggle. This is because, to quote again what has been said before, “at the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom”. A capacity for struggle (for freedom) is the precondition of power.

This relationship of confrontation between power and struggle is an unstable one and if it attains stability, it would mean that one of the two has won out. When the confrontation is stabilised, the power relationship becomes at once its (the confrontation’s) target, fulfillment, and suspension while the strategy of struggle becomes a limit, a frontier for the relationship of power.

Which is to say that every strategy of confrontation dreams of becoming a relationship of power, and every relationship of power leans toward the idea that, if it follows its own line of development and comes up against direct confrontation, it may become the winning strategy.


A Discourse on the Method by René Descartes — Extracts

Descartes, René. [1637] 2006. A Discourse on the Method. Translated by Ian Maclean. Oxford World’s Classics. London: Oxford University Press.

This is a very short and readable book written from an informal first person perspective. I don’t see any reason why anybody would be looking for a shortened version.

My purpose here is to reproduce the ‘method’ of, to quote the full title of the book, Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. This is achieved in the first three sections. (There are six in all.) If your modern scientific sensibility finds the ‘method’ trite or obvious, remember that it is because of the triumph of this book that it is so.

“[T]his short, informally presented introduction to his work threatened the very foundations of many prevailing philosophical beliefs, and set an agenda for enquiry into man and nature whose effects have lasted up to the present day.” (p. vii.)

Part One

Good sense is the most evenly distributed thing in the world … [T]he power of judging correctly and of distinguishing the true from the false (which is what is properly called good sense or reason) is naturally equal in all men … [C]onsequently, the diversity of our opinions arises not from the fact that some of us are more reasonable than others, but [because] we have different ways of directing our thoughts, and do not take into account the same things. For it is not enough to possess a good mind; the most important thing is to apply it correctly.

[S]ince my early youth I have had the great good fortune of finding myself taking certain paths that have led me to reflections and maxims from which I have fashioned a method by which, it seems to me, I have a way of adding progressively to my knowledge and raising it by degrees to the highest point that the limitations of my mind and the short span of life allotted to me will permit it to reach.

My aim here is not to teach the method that everyone must follow for the right conduct of his reason, but only to show in what way I have tried to conduct mine.

I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs; but I did not yet see its true use. Believing as I did that its only application was to the mechanical arts, I was astonished that nothing more exalted had been built on such sure and solid foundations; whereas, on the other hand, I compared the moral works of ancient pagan writers to splendid and magnificent palaces built on nothing more than sand and mud.

I shall not say anything about philosophy except that, when I realized that it had been cultivated by the best minds for many centuries, and that nevertheless there is nothing in it that is not disputed and consequently is not subject to doubt … ; and that seeing how different learned men may defend different opinions on the same subject, without there ever being more than one which is true, I deemed anything that was no more than plausible to be tantamount to false.

As for the other disciplines, in so far as they borrow their principles from philosophy, I concluded that nothing solid could have been built on such shaky foundations

Part Two

I came to believe that booklearning, or at least learning whose rational foundations are no better than generally approved, and which contains no real proof, is not as close to the truth, composed as it is of the opinions of many different people, as the simple reasoning that any man of good sense can produce about things in his purview. And so, although I came to believe that, because we were children before we were men, and because for a long time we were governed by our appetites and our teachers (the former being often in conflict with the latter, with neither giving the best advice in every case), it is almost impossible that our judgements are as pure or as solid as they might have been if we had had full use of our reason from the moment of our birth, and had been guided by that alone.

In earlier years I had made some study of logic in the philosophy course, and of geometrical analysis and algebra in  mathematics, three arts or branches of knowledge that seemed destined to contribute to my plan. But, on examining them, I noted, in the case of logic, that its syllogisms and most of its other techniques are employed more to explain things to other people that one knows already. … And although logic really does contain many very true and excellent precepts, there are so many others mixed in with them that are either harmful or superfluous, that it is almost as difficult to separate the former from the latter.

As for ancient geometrical analysis and modern algebra, even apart from the fact that they deal only in highly abstract matters that seem to have no practical application, the former is so closely tied to the consideration of figures that it is unable to exercise the intellect without greatly tiring the imagination, while in the latter case one is so much a slave to certain rules and symbols that it has been turned into a confused and obscure art that bewilders the mind instead of being a form of knowledge that cultivates it. This was why I thought that another method had to be found which retained the advantages of all three but was free from their defects.

I came to believe that … the following four [precepts] would be sufficient for my purposes, provided that I took a firm and unshakeable decision never once to depart from them.

  1. The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not incontrovertibly know to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid  both prejudice and premature conclusions; and to include nothing in my judgements other than that which presented itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly, that I would have no occasion to doubt it.
  2. The second was to divide all the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as many as were required to solve them in the best way. [DIVISION]
  3. The third was to conduct my thoughts in a given order, beginning with the simplest and most easily understood objects, and gradually ascending, as it were step by step, to the knowledge of the most complex; and positing an order even on those which do not have a natural order of precedence. [SIMPLIFICATION]
  4. The last was to undertake such complete enumerations and such general surveys that I would be sure to have left nothing out. [ENUMERATION]

Part Three

Finally, just as it is not enough, before beginning to rebuild the house in which one lives, to do no more than demolish it, make provision for materials and architects, or become oneself trained as an architect, or even to have carefully drawn up the plans, but one must also provide oneself with another house in which one may be comfortably lodged while work is in progress; so also, in order not to remain indecisive in my actions while my reason was forcing me to be so in my judgements, and to carry on living from then on as happily as I could, I formed a provisional moral code for myself consisting in only three or four maxims, which I should like to share with you.

The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, and to adhere to the religion in which God by His grace had me instructed from my childhood, and to govern myself in everything else according to the most moderate and least extreme opinions, being those commonly received among the wisest of those with whom I should have to live. For, having begun already to discount my own opinions because I wished to subject them all to rigorous examination, I was certain that I could do no better than to follow those of the wisest. … [Also] it seemed to me that the most useful thing to do would be to regulate my conduct by that of the people among whom I was to live; and that for me to know what their opinions really were, I had to take note of what they did rather than what they said.

My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I could, and to follow no less constantly the most doubtful opinions, once I had opted for them, than I would have if they had been the most certain ones. … This maxim was able from then on to free me from all the regret and remorse that usually troubles the consciences of weak and vacillating minds, who are inconsistent and allow themselves to follow certain practices as though they were good, that they later judge to be bad.

My third maxim was to endeavour always to master myself rather than fortune, to try to change my desires rather than to change the order of the world, and in general to settle for the belief that there is nothing entirely in our power except our thoughts, and after we have tried, in respect of things external to us, to do our best, everything in which we do not succeed is absolutely impossible as far as we are concerned.

Finally, as a conclusion to this moral code, I decided to review the various occupations that men have in this life, in order to try to select the best one. Without wishing to pass judgement on the occupations of others, I came to the view that I could do no better than to continue in the one in which I found myself, that is to say, to devote my life to the cultivation of my reason and make such progress as I could in the knowledge of the truth following the method I had prescribed for myself.

Once I had established these maxims, and set them aside in my mind with the truths of the faith which have always held first place in my beliefs, I took the decision that, as far as the rest of my opinions were concerned, I could freely undertake to rid myself of them.