Foucault, Michel

views updated May 17 2018

Foucault, Michel 1926-1984


Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who wrote widely on the history of thought. His influences include philosophers of science, such as his mentor Georges Canguilhem, but also Maurice Blanchot and Friedrich Nietzsche, from whom he derived his influential methodological notion of genealogy. Though Foucaults oeuvre treats seemingly disparate historical topics ranging from psychiatry to structuralism and on from sexuality to liberalism, a concern with the issues of knowledge and power as they constellate around the formation of subjectivities forms a constant, discernible thread.

Foucaults first major works are studies of psychiatry and mental illness. In Madness and Civilization (1961), Foucault examined how madness, the classical age inverse of reason, was systematized into the modern psychological category of mental illness. The Birth of the Clinic (1963) marks the beginning of Foucaults archaeological period, and examines the development of the perceptive apparatus of modern medicine. His attention to clinical confinement is demonstrative of his concern with dividing practices that progressively split certain individuals off from the social body.

The subsequent Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Foucaults only methodological treatise, draws on the broad-sweep historiographical innovations of the Annales School to elaborate discursive formations as an analytical frame. In his archaeology of structuralism, The Order of Things (1966), Foucault historicized these discursive structures into distinct epistemes, which serve as the condition of possibility for knowledge. Tracing epistemic transformations in thought from the classical to the modern age, Foucault scrutinized the rise of man as the subject of the human sciences.

In his later work, Foucault shifted his approach to a process he called genealogy, which explicitly linked his analyses of knowledge to social structures of power. He argued against a purely repressive notion of power, elaborating instead on his oft-quoted maxim that power is productive. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault developed an explicit relationship between forms of knowledge of the body and the evolution of the modern prison system; disciplinary power, Foucault argued, arrays and organizes bodies into analytical space, producing a logic that generalized itself from its application in concrete technologies such as the nineteenth-century Panopticon penitentiary to the level of society. In the first volume of his three-part History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault characterized disciplinary power as an anatomo-politics that operates on the level of the body, and juxtaposed it to its complement, bio-politics, which functions on the level of a population whose life forces it seeks to optimize. These populations, Foucault argued, are constituted in part via discourses about sexuality. In the second two volumes of his History, The Use of Pleasure (1984), and The Care of the Self (1984), Foucault turned to the processes of self-constitution in Greek and Roman sexual practices. The planned fourth and fifth volumes of the series remained unwritten upon Foucaults premature death at the age of fifty-eight.

Foucaults activism often related to the themes of his work. He advocated for penal reform and gay rights, and was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement. In his interviews and lectures, particularly those delivered at the Collège de France from the 1970s to 1984, Foucault reformulated many of the themes of his books into analyses applicable to the contemporary political situation. He responded to the ascendance of neoliberalism in the 1970s by refining his concept of bio-politics into that of governmentality, a governmental rationality operating in the realm of political economy.

Several scholars argued with Foucault over issues of historical accuracy, while others have contended that his attempts to transcend reason as the grounds of the subjects constitution remain methodologically fettered because they presuppose the existence of that self-same subject. Nevertheless, Foucaults many anglophone interpreters have ensured the profound methodological and theoretical impact of his work in many disciplines, including anthropology, gender studies, history, literature, postcolonial studies, and sociology.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Habermas, Jürgen



Foucault, Michel. [1961]. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1963] 1994. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1966] 1994. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1969]. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. [1975] 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1976] 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1984]. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. [1984]. 1988. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 19751976. Trans. David Macey. Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Picador.


Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Faubion, James D. 2000. Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 19541984. New York: New Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1985. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Steiner, George. 1971. The Mandarin of the HourMichel Foucault. New York Times Book Review 8: 2331.

Stone, Lawrence. 1982. Madness. New York Review of Books 29 (20): 128136.

Krista Hegburg

Foucault, Michel

views updated May 18 2018


Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who was born in Poitiers, France on October 15 and died in Paris of AIDS on June 25, was a controversial philosopher whose interdisciplinary work has important if indirect implications for science, technology, and ethics. His research often changed directions—archaeology and genealogy as ideas, history of the present, problematization, and modes of subjectification were prominent. In his final years he viewed these directions as theoretical tools to examine three perennially related but distinct relations: to truth, to power, and to self. Foucault was sufficiently intrigued by various sciences and technologies to devote much of his work (and personal involvement) to analyzing and questioning how they increasingly engage formative and dangerous aspects of human life.

Four themes with ethical implications highlight this intrigue. They are space, vision, biopolitics, and art of the self. Among humans space is seldom only a natural given. People instead design, build and defend, or violate a variety of spaces. Some illuminate ideals (utopias), many are ordinary (common domains), while others are designed for extraordinary times or unfamiliar figures (heterotopias). Asylums, hospitals, schools, and military camps are built to distinguish rituals and events (treating the mentally ill or sick, transforming adolescents or enlistees) that specifically aim to change our body, conduct, and self-understanding. Foucault studied how these spaces emerged, but also questioned their effect on human freedom, individuality, and justice.

Related to the technology of space are innovative kinds of vision. Obviously instruments such as the microscope introduce surprising ways to diagnose the body. Institutions repeatedly introduced strategies for observing the human body. Employing these different visions has two effects. First it renders individual subjects silent, because they are observed at a distance while their own words are discounted. Second this distance ushers in an allegedly more scientific understanding of human beings.

These effects are strikingly presented in the 1975 landmark book, Discipline and Punish. The book opens by juxtaposing an elaborate torture spectacle in 1757 Britain with a prison scene in 1838 France. A sign of moral progress in modern Europe? Not entirely. While English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's (1748–1832) design of an ideal prison, the Panopticon (literally, all seeing) was itself a practical failure, it paved the way for a radical shift from punishing the criminal to focusing on potentially deviant or abnormal persons—anyone, in principle. The result is a disciplinary society, one bent on surveillance and control. With typical rhetorical flair, Foucault asked, "Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?" (Foucault 1977, p. 228) Foucault acknowledged, however, that his portraits of modern society were occasionally hyperbolic.

The formation of new kinds of knowledge and their cultural effects has extensive political repercussions and culminates in what Foucault called biopolitics. This term refers to a political rationality in which specific knowledges and administrative technologies are used by a government to understand and regulate not only individuals but also groups or populations. Hence the ongoing links between, say, longevity and social security, health and insurance, risky behavior and family assistance, or poverty and education programs. Ian Hacking, an insightful extender of Foucault's approach, describes these relations as having looping effects, loosely but evidently intertwined in terms of a development of an expertise and its gradual influence on how human beings subsequently understand (accepting or resisting) new ideas about themselves.

During work on The History of Sexuality (1978–1984), Foucault began focusing on technologies of the self. Here technology is not so much about instruments or tools, but it is more a craft or care for oneself insofar as one uses available knowledge and experiences (such as diet, love, physiology, dream analysis, and structure of home life) to practice a moral life. While his scholarly attention surprisingly turned to texts of the early Greeks and Christians, Foucault cautioned against emulating them. Address the possibilities, he argued, rather than succumb to one's own blind spots.

Foucault was reluctant to spell out a theory of normative ethics. Not only was such an endeavor impossible for modern thought (see Order of Things, p. 328), he believed intellectuals should be wary of imposing solutions for those involved in specific struggles. In this light Paul Rabinow nevertheless identifies a four-fold of Foucault's ethics as comprising a will to truth, stylization of one's self, critical thought, and a telos or purpose that involves a dissembling of the self. Be prepared, in other words, that leading an ethical life amid scientific and technological changes will not confirm your identity, but transform you.

The work of Michel Foucault is daring in its range and depth. Although he builds on the approaches of phenomenology, Marxism, and existentialism, he takes the twentieth century European intellectual tradition into a new historical critical phase. As different strains of scientific discovery and technological innovations continue to emerge, his conceptual tools demand that one ask: How is it true? Where is its power? How might it change individuals and their relations to others?


SEE ALSO Regulation;Monitoring and Surveillance;Science, Technology, and Literature;Space.


Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds. (1991). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Connolly, William. (1999). Why I Am Not A Secularist Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Uses Foucault's style of analyzing discourses to examine controversies of contemporary politics. Connolly undercuts familiar oppositions—such as religion versus secularism, liberalism versus conservatism—to present new options in political pluralism.

Donzelot, Jacques. (1979). The Policing of Families, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Dumm, Thomas (2002). Michel Foucault and the Politics of Freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Eribon, Didier. (1991). Michel Foucault, trans. Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. The most thorough and balanced treatment of Foucault's personal life and intellectual development. Recounts philosophical and political climate of his life, interviews numerous associates and friends, and carefully describes his books and projects.

Foucault, Michel. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. (1978–1984). The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley. 3 vols. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. (1997). Essential Works: Volume I—Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press.

Fraser, Nancy, and Mary Gordon. (1997). "Genealogy of Dependency in Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State." In Justice Interruptus, by Nancy Fraser. New York: Routledge. Insightful and concise application of Foucault's genealogy. Fraser and Gordon discuss how changes in the definitions of dependency correlate with cultural shifts (from benign to negative) on the value and status of being dependent.

Hacking, Ian. (1995). Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Investigates the emergence or discovery of contemporary pathologies in light of popular perceptions, scientific analysis, and the growing prominence of psychology.

Hacking, Ian. (1999). The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sometimes playful but always enlightening discussion of how specific ideas and discourses arise and the disputes they foster among various political and scientific representatives, particularly those who claim to ground their views either in natural kinds or social construction.

Martin, Luther; Huck Gutman; and Patrick Hutton, eds. (1988). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar With Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Collaborative project among scholars during Foucault's visit to University of Vermont. Historians, religious scholars, and philosophers develop their own themes sparked by Foucault's work. He has an essay and an interview with the hosts.

Michel Foucault

views updated May 18 2018

Michel Foucault

The French philosopher, critic, and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was an original and creative thinker who made contributions to historiography and to understanding the forces that make history.

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Pottiers, France, the son of Paul (a doctor) and Anne (Malapert) Foucault. He studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure and at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, where he received his diploma in 1952. He served as director of the Institut Francais in Hamburg and held academic posts at the Universities of Clermont-Ferrand and Paris-Vincennes. In 1970 he became professor and chairman of the History of Systems of Thought at the College de France. A creative thinker, Foucault made substantial contributions to philosophy, history, literary criticism, and, specifically, to theoretical work in the human sciences. Often depicted as a "structuralist," a designation he disavowed, Foucault had something of a following among French intellectuals. He died from a neurological disorder on June 25, 1984, cutting short a brilliant career.

Foucault was known for tracing the development of Western civilization, particularly in its attitudes towards sexuality, madness, illness, and knowledge. His late works insisted that forms of discourse and institutional practices are implicated in the exercise of power. His works can be read as a new interpretation of power placing emphasis on what happens or is done and not on human agency—that is, he sought to explore the conditions that give rise to forms of discourse and knowledge. Foucault was particularly concerned with the rise of the modern stress on human self-consciousness and the image of the human as maker of history. He argued that the 20th century is marked by "the disappearance of man" because history is now seen as the product of objective forces and power relations limiting the need to make the human the focus of historical causation.

Throughout his studies Foucault developed and used what he called an "archeological method." This approach to history tries to uncover strata of relations and traces of culture in order to reconstruct the civilization in question. Foucault assumed that there were characteristic mechanisms throughout historical events, and therefore he developed his analysis by drawing on seemingly random sources. This gives Foucault's work an eclecticism rarely seen in modern historiography. His concern, however, was to isolate the defining characteristics of a period. In the Order of Things (1971) he claimed that "in any given culture and at any given moment there is only one episteme (system of knowledge) that defines the conditions of the possibility of all knowledge." The archeological method seeks to "dig up and display the archeological form or forms which would be common to all mental activity." These forms can then be traced throughout a culture and warrant the eclectic use of historical materials.

Foucault's archeological method entails a reconception of historical study by seeking to isolate the forms that are common to all mental activity in a period. Rather than seeking historical origins, continuities, and explanations for a historical period, Foucault constantly sought the epistemological gap or space unique to a particular period. He then tried to uncover the structures that render understandable the continuities of history. His form of social analysis challenged other thinkers to look at institutions, ideas, and events in new ways.

Foucault claimed that his interest was "to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects." By this he meant the way in which human beings are made the subjects of objectifying study and practices through knowledge, social norms, and sexuality. Thus he applied his archeological method to sexuality, insanity, history, and punishment. Just prior to his death, Concern for the Self, the third of his projected five volume History of Sexuality, was published in France. The first two volumes—The Will to know (published in English as The History of Sexuality Volume I, 1981) and The Use of Pleasure (1985)—explored the relation between morality and sexuality. Concern for the Self addresses the oppression of women by men. In these studies, as in his Discipline and Punish (1977) about the rise of penal institutions, Foucault isolated the institutions that are images of the episteme of modernity. His conclusion was that modernity is marked not by liberalization and freedom, but by the repression of sexuality and the "totalitarianism of the norm" in mass culture.

Foucault's work continues to have significance for historical, literary, and philosophical study. In his later years Foucault wrote and spoke extensively on varying topics ranging from language to the relations of knowledge and power. In the span of a short career Foucault had considerable impact on the intellectual world. Yet given the complexity, subtly, and eclecticism of his style, the full impact of his work has yet to be realized.

Further Reading

Foucault is included in Contemporary Authors (volumes 105,113). Obituaries can be found in Newsweek (July 9, 1984) and TIME (July 9, 1984). For helpful works on Foucault see Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth (Tavistock, 1980) and Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabbinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1982).

Additional Sources

Macey, David, The lives of Michel Foucault: a biography, New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Eribon, Didier, Michel Foucault, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. □

Foucault, Michel

views updated May 23 2018

Foucault, Michel (1926–84) A controversial French post-structuralist philosopher, professor of ‘the history of systems of thought’, who had a pronounced (some say unfortunate) impact on sociology from the mid 1970s onwards. His work defies easy description and characterization. The one major intellectual influence on his work was probably Nietzsche.

The most straightforward way to approach Foucault's work is to read his case-studies of madness, medicine, prisons, and sexuality. In Madness and Civilization (1961), he charts the emergence of a world of reason and unreason, symbolized in the segregating asylum and the birth of psychiatry. The book spans the period that was Foucault's principal concern: the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to the Modern Period starting with the early nineteenth century. In The Birth of the Clinic (1963) he charts the shifts from the anatomo-classical method to modern scientific medicine. As ‘the gaze’ shifts from outside the body to inside it, medicine becomes the founding science of humanity, and the human being becomes an ‘object of positive knowledge’. In Discipline and Punish (1975) Foucault examines changes in penal regimes, the ‘micro-physics of power’ from the public execution of the classical era to the timetable of the modern prison, from the regulation of the body to the regulation of the soul. The strategies of confinement in the prison eventually become the model for the whole of modern society: a regime of observation, surveillance, classification, hierarchy, rules, discipline, and social control. The History of Sexuality (vol. i, 1976) was to appear in six volumes but was uncompleted at the time of Foucault's death. It is in this work that Foucault's much debated account of power is most clearly stated in the proposition that ‘discursive formations’ (structures of knowledge or epistemes) both constitute and exert power over social objects (including human bodies).

These four studies are probably the most accessible to students. However none can be seen as a straightforward history of progress. Rather, Foucault's aim is to demonstrate major shifts in the discourses through which such topics become constituted: to show how new ‘regimes of truth’ order our knowledge, our categorization systems, our beliefs, and our practices. Foucault's work therefore moves well beyond the case-study to broader theoretical speculations, about the organization of knowledge and power in the modern world, and the implications of particular discursive formations for social control (see especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969, and The Order of Things, 1966

Foucault's writing has been described both as profoundly original and hopelessly opaque. It achieved enormous popular status and some of his studies became best-sellers. There has also developed a substantial industry of critical commentary and analysis. Alan Sheridan's Foucault: The Will to Truth (1980) provides probably the most systematic, sympathetic, and accessible overview of the literature. In 1991 the first of probably many biographies was published— Didier Eribon's Michel Foucault–which situates his life and ideas in their intellectual milieu.

Foucault, Michel

views updated May 29 2018

Foucault, Michel (1926–84) French philosopher and social historian. Foucault was professor of the history of systems of thought at the Collège de France (1970–84). He examined the social and historical contexts of ideas and institutions, such as school, prison, police force and asylum. For Foucault (like Nietzsche), social scientific knowledge and power are inextricably linked. His main theme was how Western systems of knowledge (such as psychiatry) have changed humans into subjects. His works include Madness and Civilization (1961), Discipline and Punish (1975), and The Order of Things (1966).