Michel Foucault 1926–1984
French philosopher, psychologist, nonfiction writer, and editor.
Foucault is considered one of the most important thinkers to have emerged from France since 1960. He is sometimes called a historian of ideas. Foucault's methodology, which he regarded as an archaeological examination of knowledge, is based on a combination of historical, philosophical, epistemological, and linguistic analyses. Language is of central importance to Foucault's theory, for it directly connects the formation and utilization of discourses with those who wield power in society. As James Mall has noted, "Foucault is especially preoccupied with the use of power: the ways in which the social order classifies, manipulates, and isolates certain elements of itself: madness, illness, criminality, sexuality, etc." While critics frequently link him with the structuralists or post-structuralists, Foucault himself rejected such classification.
Foucault's first major work, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason), is a treatise on the definition and treatment of madness in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. R. D. Laing said that in this work "the madness of Europe is revealed not in the persons of the madmen of Europe, but in the actions of the self-validated sane ones, who wrote the books, sanctified, and authorised by State, Church, and the representatives of bourgeois morality." In this book, Foucault introduces two issues which are central to his next two works: the emergence of the medical profession and its privileged discourse, and the general essence of language as a power base from which the "sane" world operates. According to Jean Starobinski, Naissance de la clinique: Une archéologie du regard médical (1963; The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception) and Les mots et les choses (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences), along with Madness and Civilization, "make up a trilogy in which the author is successively a historian of psychiatry and psychopathology, of medicine, of natural history, of economics, and of grammar."
Foucault's other important works include Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) and Histoire de la sexualité, Volume 1: La volonté de savoir (1976; The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction). Discipline and Punish is a study of the development of the French penal system in which Foucault reasserts a basic premise introduced in Madness and Civilization: that it is essential to the fortification of a social order that aberrant "others" be isolated. For many critics it is the most accessible of Foucault's arguments. In The History of Sexuality Foucault focuses on the progression of the discourse on sexuality. He is especially intrigued by the changes that occurred when this discourse became scientific with the emergence of Sigmund Freud's theories and the practice of psychoanalysis.
Because of the density of his prose and the complexity of his theories, Foucault is often charged with having written works which are inaccessible. Among academics, however, Foucault has a considerable following, and many critics agree that he is a major influence on contemporary French thought. As Edith Kurzweil has written, "Foucault's own marginality, objectively assessing and 'transcending' all of philosophy and knowledge, turning back upon itself with irony, avoiding oversimplification and reduction, marks him as one of the giants of our time."
[The collection from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in 1964 under the title Essais critiques.]
[In Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, Foucault] has not written the history of madness, as he says, in a style of positivity: from the start he has refused to consider madness as a nosographic reality which has always existed and to which the scientific approach has merely varied from century to century. Indeed Foucault never defines madness; madness is not the object of knowledge, whose history must be rediscovered; one might say instead that madness is nothing but this knowledge itself: madness is not a disease, it is a variable and perhaps heterogeneous meaning, according to the period; Foucault never treats madness except as a functional reality: for him it is the pure function of a couple formed by reason and unreason, observer and observed. And the observer (the man of reason) has no objective privilege over the observed (the madman). It would thus be futile to try to find the modern names for dementia under its old names.
Here is a first shock to our intellectual habits; Foucault's method partakes at once of an extreme scientific discretion and of an extreme distance with regard to "science"; for on the one hand, nothing happens in the book which is not nominally given by documents of the period;… and on the other hand, the...
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R. D. Laing
[Madness and Civilization] is a work of such distinction that it takes some time to accustom one's self to its sustained intensity and verbal momentum, before one can begin to come to terms with the measure of its truth, as total picture or in terms of its constituent elements.
Foucault's overall plan is to excavate the sane perception of madness (la folie) of the 17th and 18th century in Europe, and France in particular. He lays before us the archaeology, as he puts it, of the broken dialogue between reason and unreason: he reveals by a phenomenological method the history of how the theoretical, experiential and practical connotations of madness (as error, blindness, animal innocence and human culpability, derangement of reason and monstrous freedom) came at the beginning of the 19th century to be imprisoned in the medical theory and practice of pathology.
He shows clearly how, in the 17th century, a movement spread all over Europe to confine by a massive police operation what to us appear as a heterogeneous set of people, but who were perceived then in terms of some synthetic unity we can surmise without fully recapturing—the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers, vagabonds, the poor and the mad. Within a few months one in a hundred of the inhabitants of Paris found themselves imprisoned thus. These people were a danger to the State, a threat to family life, exemplars of the...
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[Foucault's] name carried a deepening, though esoteric, resonance throughout the early sixties. But it was with "Les Mots et les Choses," published in Paris in 1966 and now published here as "The Order of Things," that Foucault assumed his current eminence.
[An] honest first reading produces an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance and obscure platitude. Page after page could be the rhetoric of a somewhat weary sybil indulging in free association. Recourse to the French text shows that this is not a matter of awkward translation. The following is a crucial but also entirely representative example:
"Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist, in the space they left blank, in the deep gaps that separated their broad theoretical segments and that were filled with the murmur of the ontological continuum. The object of knowledge in the nineteenth century is formed in the very place where the Classical plenitude of being has fallen silent. Inversely, a new philosophical space was to emerge in the place where the objects of Classical knowledge dissolved. The moment of attribution (as a form of judgment) and that of articulation (as a general patterning of beings) separated, and thus created the problem of the relations...
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In 1965 I translated Foucault's earlier book Madness & Civilization, a work which presented me, my editor, and the reviewers … a great many problems of diction, phrasing and even, ultimately, sense. The Order of Things, which is an echo of Foucault's undertaking to write a history of madness in the Classical age, might be said not only to present but to absent (since no names are mentioned) a great many more such problems, for whereas in the history of madness Foucault was investigating the way in which a culture can determine the difference that limits it, he is concerned here to observe how a culture experiences the propinquity of things, how it establishes the tabula of their relationships and the order by which they must be considered. He is concerned, in short, with a history of resemblance….
In his archeology of labor, language and the science of life which was not yet called biology, Foucault dramatizes man's existence, or rather man's invention, between two modes of discourse; that of the Classical period (post-Renaissance to Romantic) and that of our own…. I believe it is possible to read these many difficult pages to great advantage, though I do not want to pass over the difficulties without a sample, for … the difficulties are part of the way Foucault has found to free his mind of what is not difficult, of what is in fact easy and therefore, merely, known. A mind released from facility...
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Michel Foucault is one of a handful of French thinkers who have, in the last 10 years, given an entirely new direction to theoretical work in the so-called "human sciences," the study of language, literature, psychiatry, intellectual history and the like. He is best known for "The Order of Things" ("Les Mots et les choses"), a rich and controversial work in which he introduced an "archaeological" method of great originality and, I believe, importance. This method, or rather its presuppositions, is the subject of "The Archaeology of Knowledge."
It involves an attempt to decide just what it is about certain utterances or inscriptions—real objects in a real world which leave traces behind to be discovered, classified and related to one another—that qualifies them as "statements" (énoncés) belonging to various bodies of knowledge (biology, economics and so on). What is the reality of such bodies of knowledge? How do we arrive at them from the "statements"? How do these bodies of knowledge change over time? By Foucault's own admission his method is more an exploratory series of questions and reflections than a finished theory; its usefulness lies in its opening up a rather chaotic domain and in its implicit challenge to the neat but abstract categories of the history and economy of ideas.
This usefulness, however, is seriously damaged by a kind of conspiracy of unreadability between author and translator [A....
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Michel Foucault has for some years been the most prominent French practitioner of the history of ideas….
Foucault, who is in his forties, has always wanted to make a break with the preceding generation of fashionable French intellectuals, led by men like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, with their Germanic love of total metaphysics, and their austere rebarbative styles. Foucault has restored pleasure to French philosophy: what he has failed to restore is clarity. One thing, indeed, which he has never hitherto made clear is the nature of his own activity as a theorist. He does not like to be called a historian: and his own word for what he does is "archaeology." His latest book [The Archaeology of Knowledge], ably translated into English by Alan Sheridan Smith, is an attempt to explain what this peculiar kind of archaeology is.
It is a less interesting and attractive book than Foucault's earlier ones, if only because its subject matter, the methodology of history (or archaeology) is much more dry and technical than history (or archaeology) itself: and Foucault's virtuosity and panache is not much help to him in working over ground which has already been cultivated by such scholarly philosophers of history as Croce, Collingwood, Lovejoy and Oakeshott. Those philosophers have challenged the popular conception of history as a true record of the past, and each has offered an alternative interpretation of what historical...
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[The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception] is a description of the changes in the language of medicine, particularly French medicine, between 1794 and 1820. It is therefore in the first place a work of history, concerned with a specific problem during a specific period. But it is also an experiment in a new way of writing the history of science, a testing ground for a radically redefined historical epistemology and methodology. Hence the double appeal of this book, which will be read not only by those who are interested in this seminal period of medical history but also by those who are dissatisfied with the traditional procedures of intellectual history and would like to see historians of ideas rethink their objectives and their methods.
The Birth of the Clinic, published in France in 1963, came after Foucault's Histoire de la Folie (Madness and Civilization, 1961) and preceded his Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things, 1966). Together these works make up a trilogy in which the author is successively a historian of psychiatry and psychopathology, of medicine, of natural history, of economics, and of grammar. This ambitious enterprise has not only yielded positive results of great value, it has also led to an important theoretical advance. Foucault's latest book, L'Archéologie du Savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge), may be seen as the methodological postscript to his...
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In Discipline and Punish [Foucault] is back asserting some by now familiar Foucaultisms. "Man" as an individualistic, psychological entity is an invention, and not a very good one, of the last two hundred years ("A meticulous observation of detail … a political awareness of these small things, for the control of men…. From such trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism is born"). Institutions, for all their rationalism, create what they pretend to perceive ("We must cease … to describe the effects of power in negative terms…. Power produces … domains of objects and rituals of truth"). And, most centrally, the modern, ritualized institutions of order are hazardous to your health ("At the heart of all disciplinary institutions functions a small penal mechanism"). But this time around the assertions sound, if anything, more ringingly convincing than before. Because this time he is writing about the most outside of outsiders, the most publicly reviled of exiles from the norm, the prisoner.
In fact, the birth of the prisoner, not the birth of the prison, is Foucault's real subject, and that is an important difference. Rather than deal primarily in the hard, statistical data of the rise and diffusion of penal institutions, Foucault here as usually relies on the ideas of institutions as articulated by the reformers, philosophes, and early liberals. Especially important for his argument is Jeremy Bentham's...
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[In The History of Sexuality] Foucault has attempted to redefine completely the question of sexuality by removing it from the paradigm of repression. Instead, sexuality for him must be considered in terms of concepts of knowledge and power. In this manner Foucault places sex in relation to the emergence of the administered society of the twentieth century. He challenges both Marx and Freud by shifting the grounds of the debate: the concepts of labor and repression no longer serve in the critical comprehension of history; the privileged places in social theory and social life are no longer the factory and the unconscious. Foucault suggests nothing less than a basic reconceptualization of the logic of history, one that promises to revitalize critical theory.
Before analyzing The History of Sexuality I shall situate Foucault's thought by suggesting some principles of interpretation that apply to all his main works. Foucault is first a critic of Marxism. In The Order of Things he diminishes the stature of Marx's thought by placing it in the context of an earlier paradigm…. Foucault's accomplishments undercut the privileged place of labor as developed by Marx. Foucault's books analyze spaces outside of labor—asylums, clinics, prisons, schoolrooms, and the arenas of sexuality. In these social loci Foucault finds sources of radicality that are not theorized by Marx and Marxists. Implicit in Foucault's work is an...
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Foucault begins where all truly original minds begin, in the present. Such minds are not ahead of their times; it is the rest of us who are dragging our feet. His passion is to seek out the new, that which is coming to birth in the present—a present that most of us are unable to see because we see it through the eyes of the past, or through the eyes of a 'future' that is a projection of the past, which amounts to the same thing. Foucault's interest in the past is guided by that passion: there is nothing of the antiquarian about it. 'Why am I writing this history of the prison?', he asks in Surveiller et punir. 'Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present.'… [This] explains Foucault's early rejection of an academic career in philosophy, his exile and his silence. When Histoire de la folie was published in 1961, Foucault was thirty-five. He could already have been the respected author of three or four works of philosophy. He chose silence until such time as he could hear the voice of the present. (pp. 195-96)
[His] life's work has been an attempt to catch what the present was telling him over the din of the past still echoing in his ears.
Such a position bears a superficial resemblance to that of the dominant philosophical movement of his youth. What may broadly be termed...
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It's a pipe, a palpable pipe: not a painterly pipe, not an abstract pipe. Lord knows, it's not an Expressionist pipe; it isn't even a Freudian pipe. Beneath it in the obsequious copybook scrawl of a child, the subversive caption reads, "This is not a pipe." It is signed "Magritte." Here is paradox enough to sate the most perverse appetite. And in the French philosophe Michel Foucault, himself no mean practitioner of the oddball, Magritte's looking-glass pipe has found its Lewis Carroll, as the reader of ["This Is Not a Pipe"] will discover.
Doing a double take, one realizes that, of course, this is not a pipe; it's a picture of a pipe. Our philosophe is able to detect some significance in this precious banality, for does not Magritte's statement that the painting is not a pipe disturb the very illusion of presence that "realistic" representation pretends to effect?…
Anyone familiar with Mr. Foucault's influential work, especially "Les Mots et les Choses" …, will immediately see that Magritte's work has everything to recommend it to a writer of Mr. Foucault's sensibility. Throughout a lifetime of philosophical labor, Mr. Foucault has been engaged in "excavating" the shifting notions of representation in the history of Western culture. The very distinction between representation and world (a distinction that supplants the one between self and world for Mr. Foucault) has been given many different...
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