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Abstract  

The now-famous equation, “knowledge is power” (“scientia potestas est”), was coined by Francis Bacon in 1597. Since then it has been rephrased in a wide variety of contexts from Thomas Hobbes to Michel Foucault. In recent years, this elusive topos has in fact proved essential to the poststructuralist critique of the humanist subject. Acknowledging the impossibility of doing justice, in this essay, to the complexities of Bacon’s and the poststructuralists’ respective articulations of knowledge and power, I will focus primarily on a selection of significant aphorisms that encapsulate Bacon’s main ideas on science and the state. In the second half of the essay I also assess Michel Foucault’s immensely influential “knowledge/power” (“pouvoir/savoir”) binomial. Both Bacon’s and Foucault’s ideas will be filtered through Pierre Bourdieu’s restatement of hierarchically organized structures of knowledge and power. In the last few pages I bring into my discussion Foucault’s later writings on ethics and disciplinarity – the so-called “final Foucault” or “1980s Foucault” – which allow the self both a greater degree of freedom and larger room for maneuver in organizing its resistance to the coercion of dominant powers. Whereas Foucault moves from his earlier suspicion of public forms of learning and their attending institutions (e.g., existing hierarchies, discursive conventions) to an instrumental appropriation by the self of that learning for the purposes of self-cultivation, both Bacon and Bourdieu seem to agree that power and knowledge are most clearly seen in the creation and self-reproduction of a professional class of experts in science and communication whose main interest is to keep control over official institutions of learning.