Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Power/Knowledge is a loosely related collection of writings and interviews that cover a crucial transitional period in Michel Foucault’s development as a thinker and theorist of power—his enduring theme. Three distinct periods can be discerned in his work. The first, which begins in the late 1950’s and continues roughly until the late 1960’s, may be called the “archaeological” period—a term that Foucault himself used to characterize his early methodology. The principal book of this phase is his Les Mots et les choses: Une Archéologie des sciences humaines (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970). In this work, Foucault is concerned primarily with the investigation of communities of discourse and the way in which particular languages or disciplinary codes define those communities. This early phase in his work is heavily influenced by structuralism, especially by the structuralist emphasis upon synchronic rather than diachronic modes of analysis. This privileging of space over time, paradigm over progress continues in the second phase of Foucault’s work; however, after 1968 he gradually abandoned his earlier claims for the primacy of discourse.

In the second, or “genealogical” phase, Foucault’s emphasis shifted to an examination of power. The principal book of this second period is Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977). In that work, “genealogy,” as adapted from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, refers to an investigative method that assumes that “truth,” wherever it appears, is always relative to an order of power. Now discourse is but one among an array of social practices that may all be understood as matrices of power.

Finally, in the last years of his life, Foucault did not so much abandon the genealogical method as adapt it for political and moral purposes. This period, which may be termed Foucault’s “ethical” phase, is concerned above all with the modern notion of sexuality and its origins in Christian ideas of the self. The principal work of this final period is Histoire de la sexualité (1976-1984, 3 volumes; The History of Sexuality, 1978-1987). Although most of the interviews and essays in Power/Knowledge focus on the second and third phases of Foucault’s career, the reader will also find useful clarifications of the early research.