Discipline and Punish Summary
by Michel Foucault

Start Your Free Trial

Discipline and Punish Summary

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was written by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. It was published in 1975 and is an examination of the penal system in the West, in particular in France and England. The book is split into four parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison.

Download Discipline and Punish Study Guide

Subscribe Now

In the first two parts, Torture, and Punishment, Foucault examines the transition from torture and execution as a mean of punishment, to imprisonment. Up until the late 1700s, punishment was public torture or public execution. These were usually carried out by the monarch of the country, as a crime was seen as a direct attack against them. In the early 1800s, punishment started to shift towards imprisonment—taking the criminal away from the public rather than displaying them to the public. Reform rather than retribution.

In part three, Discipline, Foucault looks at methods of discipline, not only in the prison system but also in schools and in military units. There was a belief that if people think they are being observed, they will behave correctly. The prison system adopted the panopticon design—an architectural idea developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon design comprised a central tall tower that looked over the prison cells which were laid out in a circle around it. A guard would be in the tower watching the prisoners at all times, but the prisoners would not be able to see them.

In part four, Prison, Foucault examines the emergence of the prison system as the main form of punishment. He also looks at "delinquency," criminals as objects, and prison as a way of controlling crime rather than reducing it. He notes that this control can also be seen across other social institutions. He claims that we now live in a carceral society that targets people who vary slightly from what is considered normal, and that the differences between prison and the outside world are very slim.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a critical philosophical history of the modern prison and its attendant institutions. Foucault considered the work to be more than the reporting of history; he believed it to be an archaeology of history, the uncovering of social forces and relations that shaped history. The book comprises ten chapters divided into four main parts that examine torture, punishment, discipline, and the prison.

Chapter 1, “The Body of the Condemned,” opens with an account of a public execution in France in 1757. Foucault then cites a mundane prison timetable from 1837 to show how quickly the attitudes toward punishment changed. By beginning his work with a depiction of death, Foucault immediately subverts the title of the book, which contains the word “birth.” In addition, the unspeakably gruesome and horrifying narrative of the execution shocks the reader into opposing physical torture as a mode of criminal punishment. Foucault, however, is teasing the reader. Although he opposes torture, he quickly reveals that his purpose in Discipline and Punish is not to argue against torture in favor of prison as a better method of dealing with criminals; rather, his purpose is to critique the modern penal system and its underlying philosophy. This penal philosophy, he argues, pervades society outside the prison.

Foucault argues that the move from torture to incarceration has not made punishment more humane; it only transferred the locus of the punishment from the body to the soul. Punishment no longer addresses a criminal act; instead, it addresses criminal motives and abnormality, aspects of the soul that are judged by mental-health experts. Delinquents are now a class of individuals who are created by the penal system.

The first chapter also introduces Foucault’s methodology. His work is a “correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge” that proceeds according to four rules: Situate the study of punishment within the larger social system, view punishment as the exercise of political...

(The entire section is 1,920 words.)