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Foucault as Complexity Theorist: Overcoming the problems of classical philosophical analysis

Olssen, MEH (2008) Foucault as Complexity Theorist: Overcoming the problems of classical philosophical analysis Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40 (1). pp. 96-117.

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This article explores the affinities and parallels between Foucault's Nietzschean view of history and models of complexity developed in the physical sciences in the twentieth century. It claims that Foucault's rejection of structuralism and Marxism can be explained as a consequence of his own approach which posits a radical ontology whereby the conception of the totality or whole is reconfigured as an always open, relatively borderless system of infinite interconnections, possibilities and developments. His rejection of Hegelianism, as well as of other enlightenment philosophies, can be understood at one level as a direct response to his rejection of the mechanical atomist, and organicist epistemological world views, based upon a Newtonian conception of a closed universe operating upon the basis of a small number of invariable and universal laws, by which all could be predicted and explained. The idea of a fully determined, closed universe is replaced; and in a way parallel to complexity theories, Foucault's own approach emphasises notions such as self‐organisation and dissipative structures; time as an irreversible, existential dimension; a world of finite resources but with infinite possibilities for articulation, or re‐investment; and characterised by the principles of openness, indeterminism, unpredictability, and uncertainty. The implications of Foucault's type of approach are then explored in relation to identity, creativity, and the uniqueness of the person. The article suggests that within a complexity theory approach many of the old conundrums concerning determinism and creativity, social constructionism and uniqueness, can be overcome.

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Politics
Authors :
Olssen, MEH
Date : February 2008
DOI : 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00406.x
Related URLs :
Additional Information : This is an electronic version of an article published as Olssen MEH (2008). Foucault as Complexity Theorist: Overcoming the problems of classical philosophical analysis. Educational Philosophy and Theory 40(1):96-117 Available online at:
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 20 Jun 2013 12:30
Last Modified : 31 Oct 2017 14:36

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