Michel Foucault Essay - Critical Essays

Foucault, Michel


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."

Roland Barthes

[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 historian here studies an object whose objective character he deliberately puts in parentheses; not only does he describe collective representations (still rarely done in history), but he even claims that without being mendacious these representations somehow exhaust their object; we cannot reach madness outside the notions of men of reason (which does not mean, moreover, that these notions are illusory); it is therefore neither on the side of (scientific) reality nor on the side of the (mythic) image that we shall find the historical reality of madness: it is on the level of the interconstituent dialogue of reason and unreason, though we must keep in mind that this dialogue is faked: it involves a great silence, that of the mad: for the mad possess no metalanguage in which to speak of reason. In short, Michel Foucault refuses to constitute madness either as a medical object or as a collective hallucination; his method is neither positivist nor mythological; he does not even shift, strictly speaking, the reality of madness from its nosographic content to the pure representation men have made of it; he keeps identifying the reality of madness with a reality at once extensive and homogeneous with madness: the couple formed by reason and unreason. Now this shift has important consequences, both historically and epistemologically.

The history of madness as a medical phenomenon had to be nosographic: a simple chapter in the general—and triumphant—history of medicine. The history of reason/unreason, on the other hand, is a complete history which brings into play all the data of a specific historical society; paradoxically, this "immaterial" history immediately satisfies our modern insistence on a total history, which materialistic historians or ideologists appeal to without always managing to honor it. For the constitutive observation of madness by men of reason is very quickly seen to be a simple element of their praxis: the fate of the mad is closely linked to the society's needs with regard to labor, to the economy as a whole; this link is not necessarily causal, in the crude sense of the word: simultaneous with these needs appear representations which establish them in nature, and among these representations, which for a long time were moral ones, there is the image of madness; the history of madness always follows a history of the ideas of labor, of poverty, of idleness, and of unproductivity. Michel Foucault has taken great care to describe simultaneously the images of madness and the economic conditions within the same society; this is doubtless in the best materialist tradition; but where this tradition is—happily—transcended is in the fact that madness is never offered as an effect: men produce in the one impulse both solutions and signs; economic accidents (unemployment, for example, and its various remedies) immediately take their place in a structure of significations, a structure which may well pre-exist them; we cannot say that the needs create values, that unemployment creates the image of labor-as-punishment: rather the two meet as the true units of a vast system of signifying relations: this is what Foucault's analyses of classical society unceasingly suggest: the link which unites the foundation of the Hôpital Général to the economic crisis of Europe (beginning of the seventeenth century), or on the contrary the link which unites the disappearance of confinement to the more modern sentiment that massive internment cannot solve...

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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...

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George Steiner

[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...

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Richard Howard

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...

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Peter Caws

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...

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Maurice Cranston

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...

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Jean Starobinski

[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...

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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...

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Mark Poster

[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,...

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Alan Sheridan

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...

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Flint Schier

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...

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