Foucault, Michel (1926–1984)

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Michel Foucault, though trained in philosophy, never considered himself a professional philosopher. Still, his research into the historical formation of truth, power relations, and modes of recognition regarded as self-evident in various disciplinesmost notoriously the figure of manis an important contribution to philosophy and is itself strikingly original philosophical thought. Born in Poitiers, France, Foucault studied at the École Normale Supérieure under Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Beaufret (19071982)Martin Heidegger's major interpreter in Franceand Louis Althusser (19181990). Foucault earned his License de philosophie in 1948 and Diplôme de psycho-pathologie in 1952. He taught in Sweden, Poland, and Germany before his appointment as the head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. After two years in Tangiers following the publication of Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things ) in 1966, Foucault returned to France and the university at Vincennes, France, just after the anti-authoritarian protests of May 1968. Foucault was elected to the Collège de France in the fall of 1970. Though he grew more engaged in political struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his resistance to humanism made him an uneasy participant in organized movements. Still, his activism and writing earned him attention in the United States, where he became a popular lecturer. Foucault contracted AIDS at the outset of the epidemic and died of complications from the disease in June 1984.

Foucault's work is often divided into three periods, the earliest marked by his archaeological approach, the middle by a genealogy of the modern subject and the relation between power and knowledge, and the late identified with his turn to ethics and the "care of the self." This chronology is controversial: though it orients much of the secondary literature about Foucault, its value lies in its convenience more than in its philosophical or conceptual importance. Taken together, Foucault's works pursue critical inquiry into formative, elementary dimensions of knowledge, autonomy, and experience and are an important contribution to a process of critical engagement with the emergence and limitations of dominant forms of power and knowledge. His goal was to analyze the conditions under which forms of self-relation are created or modified so far as these relations constitute possible knowledge of oneself when such knowledge is referred to something other than an essential identity. Through a historical or genealogical approach to these conditions, Foucault challenges the traditional philosophical model of the subject as having a nature or essence associated with ahistorical capabilities.


Folie et déraison (Madness and Civilization ; 1965) is the first of Foucault's archaeological works. At the time it was published, Foucault's thinking ranged from psychology and the human sciences (in relation to Ludwig Binswanger, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem [19041995]) to Friedrich Nietzsche and avant-garde literature. The book is therefore a powerful introduction to the challenge posed to traditional philosophical practice (and the dominance of phenomenology and existentialism in France) by the growing interest in structuralism, psychoanalysis, and postmodernism. Combining a materialist historical approach associated with the Annales group (Ernst Bloch, Henri Lefebvre [19011991], and Fernand Braudel [19021985]) and an ontology of the subject derived from his engagement with literature and his critical approach to psychoanalysis, Madness and Civilization established Foucault as an important philosopher and social critic in France.

The Asylum and the Clinic

Madness and Civilization traces the emergence of a form of reason in reason's encounter with indications of its limits in unreason (in the Renaissance) and later in madness (in the classical agethe mid-seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century). Reason encountered its limits in the course of a transformationat once administrative, moral, and epistemologicalin which the exclusion of madness at the margins of community gave way to its confinement in hospitals and then in asylums. This confinement produced new objects of studyexcluded populations marked by an inability to work, moral weakness, and disorderdisplayed and subjected to emerging forms of knowledge and techniques for the disciplining of disorder and the cure of insanity. On the basis of these practices scientific psychology established the limits of the "normal," themselves a product of a moral, medical, and juridical synthesis made possible by an ascendant administrative capacity to confine populations marked by unreason.

Madness and Civilization comprises an examination of the historical a priori conditions of the emergence of classical reason and an imaginative account of the formation of an experience of reason that defines not only the classical age (particularly René Descartes) but also contemporary thought. Its archaeological approach supposes that discursive formationsstatements that delimit and condition what can sensibly be said of madnessare governed by rules that are not reducible to subjective intentions or consciousness and that also govern what can be said or known. Madness and Civilization can also be understood as a preface to an analysis of discursive practices that produce relations of knowledge and power. It thus introduces readers to themes that traverse Foucault's work: the exclusion of difference in institutional contexts, the formation of knowledge of subjects on the basis of that exclusion, the relationship between knowledge and power, and the possibility of achieving distance from one's judgments, commitments, and philosophical prejudices through critique. Thus, these works are critical in the Kantian sense as Foucault understood it: they allow one to examine and transform the conditions through which the subject becomes an object of possible knowledge.

Foucault pursues a similar archaeological project in Naissance de la clinique (The Birth of the Clinic ; 1963), an account of the formation of a mode of perception that makes possible medical knowledge of the body. Foucault shows that modern knowledge of disease is dependent on changing structures of perception and language that are sustained by practices and powers that inhabit the space of the clinic. Where standard histories of medicine portray medical knowledge as derived from an unstructured gaze and converging on objectivity, Foucault shows that accepted medical practices have their origins in something other than necessities of medical reason (e.g., the practice of the "round") or inference and pure observation in the context of steadily improving methods. The philosophical importance of the book is its analysis of the merging of clinical language and ways of seeinga contingent form of a gaze and its links to institutional powers that sustain itwith the language of rationality.

Words and Things

The most significant work of Foucault's archaeological period is Order of Things, in which Foucault again unearths and articulates the historical conditions for the possibility of knowledge in the human sciences in a given period: those knowledges associated with labor, life, and language. At the same time, Order of Things is a genealogy in an important sense: it traces the emergence of Foucault's own commitments and of the privileges and imperatives that accompany his own discourse. Thus, some critics accuse Foucault of engaging in criticism that leaves him with no standpoint from which to judge structures of power and knowledge that are evidently in question in his work, undermining his own ground and promulgating relativism. Foucault called this charge "intellectual blackmail."

Order of Things is a genealogy of the Same, of the rules and conditions that make possible the perception and knowledge of order. It proceeds by way of an account of two profound breaks in the coherence of knowledge about man and of the way those breaks affect modern knowledge and give it resources with which to freely think new possibilities. The first break occurred between the Renaissance and the classical epistemes. Foucault uses the word episteme to designate the regularities that account for the coherence of knowledge in a given period. The Renaissance episteme was coherentone could speak truly about nature and link one's speech to the worldbecause of its dependence on resemblance and similitude for the organization of what counted as knowledge and true perception. But this understanding of the relationship between language and the world, between the signifier and the signified, is ultimately brokensimilitude becomes deceptive. The subsequent Renaissance episteme is oriented around the primacy of representation: the capacity of language to mirror the world and to correspond to it in a truthful way by virtue of its capacity to organize the multiplicity of identities and differences in a table or grid, making possible a new recognition of sameness. This is the first of two breaks.

Foucault's primary concern, though, is to document the second break, the "profound upheaval" that led to the disintegration of representation at the end of the eighteenth century. This disintegration was prompted in various domains by a growing recognition of the limits of representation, particularly of its ability to account for the act of representing itself and to adequately represent the being who represents. As a result of this disintegration, knowledge in the human sciences becomes an "Analytic of Finitude." Man appears for the first time as both the object of knowledge and the one who knows, an "empirico-transcendental doublet" understood in terms of his labor that can be alienated, his organism that is part of an evolutionary history, or his speaking a language that is no longer controlled by a representing subject but that has its own historicity, rules, and organic structures, while being utterly internal. Knowledge of man as this doublet is thus dependent on being able to account for man's being in those places or regions in which man is absent. One of the consequences of this analysis is that the centrality of the figure man is itself subject to questioning and overcoming, which Foucault hoped his work would both reflect and generate. This project is to a large extent shared by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sigmund Freud.

L'archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge ; 1969) attempts to give a systematic account of his methodological assumptions and procedures in his archaeological works, formulating the rules that operate within a discourse "at a superficial level" and that constitute a discourse's coherence as a "game of truth." Foucault's work after Archaeology of Knowledge is usually understood as genealogical in scope and approach.


The word genealogy is associated with Nietzsche and is understood as a patient tracing of the descent of authoritative discursive practices that structure the application of power to bodies and subjects (e.g., in the school, the hospital, and the prison). Foucault studies dispositifs, practices that exclude and construct forms of experience as abnormal in various ways (e.g., criminality, madness, and sexual deviancy) and that construct forms of subjectivity on the basis of knowledge of normalcy (e.g., the soldier, the student, the guard, or the attendant). He examines practices and texts that are no longer part of received knowledge but that nevertheless were important in the formation of a practice or the exclusion of a form of experience, where genealogy is an attempt to remember those lost experiences and complicated formations. The genealogy of various formations of subjectivation led Foucault to the identification and articulation of forms of power, most importantly the power of surveillancea "microphysics of power"in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish ; 1975).

Discipline and Punish concerns the emergence of the modern power to punish in the prison and of the way in which the prison, through observation, examination, and normalizing judgment, produces the conditions for the recognition of delinquency. Thus, it is a genealogy of the way in which power divides the "normal" from the "incarcerated" and of the formation of self-relation around the axes of normalcy, lawfulness, and the careful monitoring of one's own excesses. Modern power encourages one to correct one's own deviance. The notion of power at work in Discipline and Punish applies to the practices and techniques that operate inside and outside of the prison that discipline subjects who show signs of disorder (e.g., children, soldiers, students, crowds, criminals, and workers). Those techniques aim to produce a moral subject capable of self-discipline and of being aware of the virtues of obedience.

On this conception of power there are no agents in whom power is concentrated, but only techniques, regimens, regulations, and measures that divide the normal or average from the pathological or criminal. This power is not in the service or control of a dominant interest, class, or group, but dispersed throughout the social body and concentrated in various institutions that are simultaneously carceral and clinical. This dispersion makes resistance to power difficult, but Foucault thought resistance was possible by intensifying one's recognition of the intolerability of specific forms of power by attention to voices or discourses that cannot be adequately heard from within dominant regimes. He conceived of his work as tools for use in the strategic interruption of dominant discourses and practices.


While working on his genealogies and occasional politically incendiary essays in the 1970s (including lecture courses on the contemporaneous emergence of psychiatry and racism in Abnormal [2003a] and on discourse of and as war in Society Must Be Defended [2003b]), Foucault assembled his three-part Histoire de la sexualité (History of Sexuality ). La volonté de savoir (An Introduction ; 1976), the first volume, was an analysis of the "repressive hypothesis," the idea that sexual expression went through a period of repression in the Victorian era and subsequently was liberated by an increasing awareness of the naturalness of sex. Foucault argues instead that sex was an important and much discussed issue for the Victorians and that discourses of sexuality and techniques of sexual control and expression are important avenues through which power operates on the body (by encouraging subjects to work on themselves) and are not reducible to a single repressive power. To examine what he called subjectivizing practices at work on the formation of sexuality, he constructs a genealogy of the experience of sexuality. On Foucault's terms sexuality is not a constant, natural feature of human beings, but takes historically singular forms, the emergence of which can be traced through a genealogical account.

L'usage des plaisirs (The Use of Pleasure ; 1984) and Le souici de soi (Care of the Self ; 1984), the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, respectively, were published eight years after the first volume and after considerable revision of his overall project. Foucault turns his attention from relatively recent formations of sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the problem of desire and the desiring subject in ancient Greek and Hellenic thought, though always in relation to the present. He conducts a genealogy of the problematizationsthe ways in which certain practices and forms of knowledge become a matter of concernand practices surrounding the formation of the subjects who can recognize and understand themselves in terms of the techniques, ethical concerns, and political relations that form around men who desire. Use of Pleasure focuses on the ways in which pleasure was a matter of concern for the Greeks and how it played a crucial role in the command that one "know thyself." Foucault then traces a change from a focus on pleasure and its use to a focus on desire and how to protect oneself from its dangers before the emergence of the Christian problematic of pleasure, desire, and ethics. The third volume is a genealogy of the emergence of the modern subject in Hellenic and Roman practices of self-control and asceticism.

Foucault made important contributions to discreet areas of philosophical research, including feminist philosophy and gender theory, social, political and legal philosophy, the philosophy of science, aesthetics, theories of knowledge, and especially ethics, which is a constant concern throughout Foucault's works. While Foucault resisted moral theory and insisted on its danger, and while he resisted the articulation of a solid moral stance on which one could found commitment or advocacy, he nevertheless insisted on the ethical value of his genealogical work. Through the investigation of the conditions under which subjects are formed and modes of recognition are validated or legitimated, Foucault intensified awareness of the subjugating powers that invest the practices and discourses that structure one's understanding of oneself and others and turned that awareness back on itself to promote the exploration of new and singular modes of self-relation.

See also Archaeology; Binswanger, Ludwig; Bloch, Ernst; Descartes, René; Feminist Philosophy; Freud, Sigmund; Heidegger, Martin; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Renaissance; Structuralism and Poststructuralism; Subject.


works by foucault

Mental Illness and Psychology. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. Originally published under the title Maladie mentale et psychologie in 1962.

Birth of the Clinic. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1973. Originally published under the title Naissance de la clinique in 1963.

Madness and Civilization. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Originally published under the title Folie et déraison in 1966.

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1970. Originally published under the title Les mots et les choses in 1966.

The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Originally published under the title L'archéologie du savoir in 1969.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Originally published under the title Surveiller et punir in 1975.

The History of Sexuality. 3 vols. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 19781986. Originally published in three volumes under the title Histoire de la sexualité in 1976 and 1984.

The Essential Works of Foucault, 19541984. 3 vols. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: New Press, 19972000.

Fearless Speech. Edited by Joseph Pearson. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001.

Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 19741975. Translated by Graham Burchell; edited by Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomoni. New York: Picador, 2003a.

Society Must be Defended : Lectures at the Collège de France, 19751976. Translated by David Macey; edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. New York: Picador, 2003b.

The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 19811982. Translated by Graham Burchell; edited by Frédéric Gros. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004.

works about foucault

Bernauer, James W. Michel Foucault's Force of Flight: Toward an Ethics for Thought. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990.

Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Translated by Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Davidson, Arnold I., ed. Foucault and His Interlocutors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Foucault.Info (May 2005),

Foucault Resources (May 2005),

Gutting, Gary. Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Han, Béatrice. Foucault's Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical. Translated by Edward Pile. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Macey, David. The Lives of Michel Foucault: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

McWhorter, Ladelle. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Visker, Rudi. Michel Foucault: Genealogy as Critique. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1995.

Benjamin Pryor (2005)