Foucalt and Autonomy

The Frenchman Michel Foucault was one of the leading figures in twentieth century philosophy. His theories and constructs made a profound impact across many social movements and institutions including women’s liberation and psychiatry. A Foucaultian analysis surfaces deep insights into the political context in which the individual operates. The reality an individual experiences cannot be separated from the society and institutions and belief systems of the time.


The attempt to subjugate and control the individual includes through the body itself – something that became coined as bio-power. For example, consider the contemporary epidemic we label as ADHD. In agrarian times perhaps such behaviour was desirable. Energy that could be expended in useful physical activity in the field or just dissipated running around the open spaces. We now find ourselves living in densely populated settings and in employment typically office bound and sedentary. Society now wants a body content to sit quietly.

Foucault would have followed with interest what neuroscience is revealing about the role of autonomy. Experiments demonstrate that subjects report better pain management outcomes at decreased dosages when given administrative control of their medication. Nursing homes report increased longevity for residents given even the most modest of choices to affect their circumstances. We find, therefore, that a sense of autonomy can materially impact the most micro of subjective experiences – pain – through to its most macro manifestation – lifespan.

For our French philosopher, autonomy is but political power and is inextricably linked with how the individual views his world. In the workplace this acts alongside the codes of dress, ethics, rituals and rules which form the discursive systems that shape our reality. That autonomy can express itself in physiological symptoms in the body would be of no surprise. His theoretical framework helps label and make meaning of the situation. For those suffering for want of greater autonomy, this can assist in the journey of reappraisal to reclaim control.

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