The Philosophy of Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was born in Poiters, France, the second child of Anne Malapert and Paul Foucault. It was expected that he, like his father, would study and practice medicine. The Second World War disrupted education in France, however, and both the war and the occupation had tremendous effects on Foucault. As he stated years later, “I think that boys and girls of this generation had their childhood formed by these great historical events. The menace of war was our background, our framework of existence. . . . Maybe that is the reason why I am fascinated by history and the relationship between personal experience and those events of which we are a part” (Eribon, 1991, p. 10). Foucault left Poitiers for Paris in 1945 and entered the École Normale Supérieure the following year, finishing in 1951.


Instead of pursuing an academic career, Foucault took a series of cultural diplomatic posts abroad. His biographer suggests that, as a homosexual, Foucault felt stifled by French customs and culture (Eribon, 1991); whatever the reasons, Foucault had no love for France, asserting that tourists “come to France as painters went to Italy in the seventeenth century, to see a dying civilization” (Foucault, 1997, p. 123). But after the 1968 riots, Foucault returned to France to take a post in the newly created university at Vincennes. He remained there until he was called to the Collège de France in 1970, where he became Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. In 1971, with his life-partner Daniel Defert and several friends, he founded the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons. Thus began Foucault’s involvement in politics. Through the rest of his life his concerns included prison conditions, refugee resettlement, and gay rights.

Scholars usually divide Foucault’s books into two groups, major works and minor works. Minor works include Mental Illness and Psychology; Death and the Labyrinth (on Roussel’s novels); Dream and Existence; This is Not a Pipe (on the painter Magritte); and two “casebooks,” compilations of historical material that Foucault gathered while working on the histories of punishment and sexuality: I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother and Herculine Barbin: being the recently discovered memoirs of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite. These works, while important, are usually not considered crucial to the development of Foucault’s philosophical views. Major works include Madness and Civilization (1961); The Birth of the Clinic (1963); The Order of Things, which catapulted Foucault to fame in 1966; The Archeology of Knowledge (1969); Discipline and Punish (1975); The History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976); and The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (1984), volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality series.

Scholars frequently divide the major works into two groups as well. Those published before 1970 are labeled “archeological” works, or works that exemplify or elaborate upon Foucault’s archeological method of historical and textual analysis, while those published after 1970 are labeled “genealogical” works, or works that exemplify the method of analysis that Foucault adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche (which he describes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”). Foucault’s central concept in his “archeological” works is that of the “episteme,” a broad system of rules for knowledge formation that are immanent, he claims, in all or most of the disciplinary fields of a given historical period. As epistemes shift or break up, it becomes possible to know the world in new ways and impossible to take older ways of conceiving and analyzing the world seriously. Genealogical works, by contrast, do not employ the concept of the “episteme” and do not posit general conditions for all regions of knowledge within one historical epoch. Those works classed as “genealogical” focus on relationships between specific regions of knowledge, institutions, and power. As a result, the genealogical works are less sweeping in their historical and epistemological claims.

Foucault himself does not draw a distinction between “archeology” and “genealogy.” In an interview in 1983, he offers a different framework altogether for understanding his writings. Referring to all his major works as “genealogies,” Foucault asserts that he has always been interested in subjectivity. He classifies his books in relation to three questions. How do people understand themselves as knowers? How are people subjected in power relations? How do people establish themselves as moral agents? (Foucault, 1997). Each book, Foucault says, takes up one or more of these questions in the context of a particular region of thought, such as psychiatry or medicine.

Foucault never assumes that any of our concepts or ways of understanding the world, including ourselves, are universal or perfectly stable through time. Investigation reveals that even the most basic features of our ways of thinking are historically formed, that there was a time before our particular way of thinking existed. We may believe, for example, that disease has always been conceived as an invasion of the body or that sexuality has always been held to be basic to the personality, but Foucault demonstrates otherwise. Still, opponents might say, there are basic features of the world that we apprehend more or less directly – such as the materiality of our own bodies – that inform our thinking and are common across cultures and ages. Foucault disagrees. “Nothing in man, not even his body, is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for selfrecognition or for understanding other men” (Foucault, 1977, p. 153). Foucault’s work on madness, medicine, the formation of social sciences, and sexuality are designed to show that what we take for granted as simple truths about the nature of human bodies, minds, and societies are embedded in complex and historically contingent systems of perception; furthermore, though transformations in the ways people understand themselves can be traced through time, in widely separated epochs the worlds that people experience are vastly different and discontinuous.

Some philosophers have held that, though the world changes drastically through history, the laws of historical change are constant, and they create some kind of progress, a tendency toward greater order or human perfection. Foucault offers no such theory. So-called “laws of history,” he contends, are just postulates, which, like all ways of perceiving the world, are subject to change. There is no reason to assume that either society or individuals are on a path of continuous or even intermittent improvement. Changes occur because of shifts in power arrangements, and while these are understandable in retrospect, they are not scientifically predictable.

Critics argue that Foucault undercuts himself when he says there are no constants in thought and experience. They contend that this renders all knowledge-claims relative to history and power, including Foucault’s own knowledge-claims about knowledge-claims. Defenders answer that Foucault’s general statements (such as the assertion cited above: “nothing . . . is sufficiently stable”) may be epistemologically problematic, but the genealogical works themselves are not. When Foucault claims that sex as we conceive of it today is not a constant feature of human experience, that neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a concept comparable to our notion of sexuality, his claim is specific enough to avoid any problem of self-referentiality. By demonstrating the historicity of so many of our assumptions about ourselves, though, Foucault’s works do support the supposition that there are no universals or constants in human experience.

Foucault is best known for his “analytics of power.” He holds that a thorough understanding of power in our society requires abandoning analytical frameworks – e.g. Liberalism or Marxism – that locate power in state institutions. Power is everywhere, he asserts. To understand subjection as well as resistance and change, we must examine power at the micro-level – relations between boss and worker, therapist and client, teacher and pupil, husband and wife. It is at this level that systems of “power/knowledge” are produced and reproduced and are sometimes disrupted and overthrown. Power is not something that one person or group holds while others lack it; power exists only in relation, only in “exercise.” Power relations must be constantly repeated if institutionalized dominations are to be maintained. Thus power relations are always reversible or alterable, which means that the institutions and dominations they support are always vulnerable. Freedom, Foucault insists, is an ever-present feature of power relations.


Since the mid-eighteenth century, Foucault warns us, however, power relations have intensified. This is the result of innovations in technologies of power through the nineteenth century, the most far-reaching of which Foucault calls “normalization.” As populations grew, functionaries needed techniques for managing large groups of people – workers, soldiers, schoolchildren, etc. At the same time, with industrialization and the invention of the rifle, the tasks these groups of people had to perform became more complex. Gradually the new techniques that various administrators invented came together at a theoretical level in the idea of development. Individuals develop (skills, physical features, etc.) along a continuum in response to set stimuli at measurable rates. This notion gave rise to the idea of norms of development, statistically significant degrees of accomplishment in relation to given tasks. Norms in turn made possible the notion of deviance, statistically measurable differences between people engaged in acquiring a skill or a characteristic. This process of measuring and describing people according to developmental norms created administrative classification systems that interpret variations as deviations and render deviating individuals subject to disciplinary action, therapy, or other forms of forceful intervention. Even those institutions most clearly associated with the state and the law (such as the judiciary, police, and prison system) are not fully explicable apart from this concept of normalization, Foucault maintains. Normalization is the most basic and ubiquitous form that power takes in the modern world.

In his last works, Foucault takes up the question of how people constitute themselves as ethical beings. His focus in these works is sexuality and sensual pleasure. He argues that the current belief that sexuality is a fundamental and inescapable aspect of a human life and that mental and physical health require that one’s sexuality be carefully analyzed, classified, and managed is the product of a series of shifts in relations of power that occurred over the last three centuries. Sexual identities (heterosexual and homosexual, for example) are not natural kinds but are, rather, social phenomena constructed in response to shifts in power arrangements in the nineteenth century. The fact that sexual identities and other important features of our existence are historically contingent does not mean, however, that we can change them at will. Historically constructed objects of knowledge are not illusions. They are reality, since reality itself is historically emergent. But as we come to understand various aspects of ourselves and our societies as historically contingent, the power that our current way of thinking exercises over our lives will lessen somewhat, perhaps making it possible to think differently. Foucault, therefore, is interested in what he calls an “aesthetics of existence,” self-overcoming (as Nietzsche would term it) or self-creation as a way of life. He advocates a perpetual openness toward the future, toward possibilities and differences as one styles one’s existence in accordance with the values and practices one defines at a given moment as beautiful or best. This self-stylization he regards as a kind of self-discipline, which he calls a “practice of freedom.” It can counter disciplines imposed upon us by the forces of normalization that pervade our society.

Further reading

Key Theories of Michel Foucault

Foucault’s Concept of Power

Foucault’s Influence on Postmodern Thought

Surveillance Studies

Eribon, D.: Michel Foucault, trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

Writings Madness and Civilization, trans. R. Howard (New York: Vintage, 1965).
The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970).
The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
The Birth of the Clinic, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1973).
Discipline and Punish, trans. A. M. Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977).
“Nietzsche, genealogy, history.” In D. Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter-memory, Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977).
The History of Sexuality, three volumes, trans. R. Hurley; volume 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1978); volume 2, The Use of Pleasure (New York: Pantheon, 1985); volume 3, The Care of the Self (New York: Pantheon, 1986).
Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. P. Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997).
Arrington, Robert L. The World’S Great Philosophers. 1st ed. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Philosophy

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