Michel Foucault


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Foucault, Michel (Paul)

sex: m; b. Oct 15, 1926 in Poitiers, France – d. Jun 25, 1984 in Paris, France; country/nation/culture: French; field of study: history of ideas, history of philosophy, history of social institutions; ref.: BDPh, EB, EHHW, ELiTh, GEHW, GrHMA, HLex, MPhL, PhW, ThTCcontrib.: Ulrich Johannes Schneider


[edit] Main Works

  • Maladie mentale et psychologie, 1954 (Mental Illness and Psychology, 1976)
  • Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, 1961 (Madness and Civilization, 1965)
  • Naissance de la clinique. Une archéologie du regard medical, 1963 (The Birth of the Clinic. An Archaeology of Medical Perception, 1973)
  • Le mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966 (The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970)
  • L'archéologie du savoir, 1969 (The Archeology of Knowledge, 1972)
  • Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, 1975 (Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, 1977)
  • Histoire de la sexualité, 3 vols., 1976 (The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., 1978)
  • Dits et écrits. 1954-1988, 4 vols., 1994

[edit] Biography

Foucault, the child of a provincial surgeon, studied philosophy and psychology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris from 1946 and 1951. Among his teachers were Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Louis Althusser. After a teaching post in Lille, he went abroad and headed, between 1955 and 1959, the French cultural institutes in Uppsala (Sweden), Warsaw (Poland) and Hamburg (Germany). From 1960 through 1966, Foucault lived in Paris and taught at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in central France, before taking up a post at the University of Tunis. After his return to France in 1968 he briefly taught at the newly founded University of Vincennes, near Paris. He was elected professor for 'the history of systems of thought' at the Collège de France, where he lectured between 1970 and 1984 when he died of AIDS. Foucault gave many talks and interviews in Japan, Italy, South America and Germany. In his later years, he also taught part-time in the United States.

[edit] Characterization

Foucault combined philosophical topics with historical investigation. Apart from a literary study of the surrealist writer Raymond Roussel (1963), his early work focuses on the phenomenon of pathology, both medical (Naissance de la clinique, 1963) and psychological or psychiatric (Maladie mentale et psychologie, 1954; Folie et déraison, 1961). What Foucault called 'history of madness' was not meant to be a prehistory of modern psychiatry from the Middle Ages to the medicalization of 'alienated persons' in the nineteenth century. Rather, it was an investigation into social exclusion, internment, and also an analysis of conceptual 'archives' (Foucault's own term) which cast our understanding of what is unreasonable or insane. As in many of his later works, Foucault distinguishes three periods: a first period, in which modern ways of isolating an object (the mad, the sick, or the criminal) find no adequate expression; a second, called 'the classical age' (because largely coextensive with the period of French classical literature from Racine to Diderot), when taxinomical and rational strategies were employed also by scientists; and a third (roughly the nineteenth century) which comes close to symbolizing the modern mind and the complex ('empirio-transcendental') understanding of the world we still share.

In Foucault's Histoire de la folie, the Middle Ages and early humanism made madness (folia, stultitia) look like the counterpart of reason, as in the case of Erasmus. The classical age is typically characterized by René Descartes who dismissed (in his Meditations of 1641) the possibility of madness even for the most doubting mind. (Foucault was contradicted in his interpretation by Jacques Derrida in 1963, and a bitter debate estranged the two thinkers until the mid-70's.) Foucault saw Descartes' rebuttal of madness as contemporaneous with, but not causal of, the internment of mad people in correction facilities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The situation changed completely when, in the early nineteenth century, leading French and English alienists 'freed' the mentally ill from their chains. When the 'mad' were treated as patients, a new era began and a close link was established between medicalization and jurisdiction, between knowledge (of what is not plain reason) and praxis (of any behaviour to be disciplined or punished).

Foucault tried untiringly to undo the common meaning attributed to cultural histories and other stories of 'development'. His 'archaeology' was deliberately arguing for a kind of positivism that registers utterances in 'archives of things said' rather than explaining them through intentions or mentalities. He used this method (which he also called 'discourse analysis') in his famous book Les mots et les choses (1966), which was followed by a critical self-examination: L'Archéologie du savoir (1969). In Le mots et les choses, an inquiry into the human sciences, Foucault shows that the whole modern system of thought or episteme is dependent on the introduction of a subject called 'man'. Foucault's three examples are philology, economics, and biology, for which he gives an archeological history uncovering three layers of 'episteme'. He distinguishes again three periods - of resemblance, of representation, and of the empirical-transcendental – where only in the third instance could one think of 'man' as the subject of knowledge. Hence his famous conclusion that even the 'humanistic conception' of the world is historically limited, and that 'man' would perish as soon as that conception is abandoned.

Foucault continued to work as a historian, investigating the systems of punishment (Surveiller et punir, 1976), in which he revealed modern mechanisms of discipline and demonstrated the limitations of cultural history in explaining imprisonment as the most general form of punishment. He argued that there was actually no theory of imprisonment when this practice was first introduced in the early nineteenth century. In a more philosophical development, he proposed an ontological theory of power which he defended against political activists like Noam Chomsky or his Maoist friends.

His later books analyzed the discursive production of sexuality (La volonté de savoir, 1976). He went back to Greek and Roman times in order to reconstruct ways of self-problematization and self-interpretation (L'usage des plaisir, Le souci de soi, 1984). Foucault's studies in Greek and Roman ethical thought came as a surprise to those who understood him primarily as a social critic of modernity. Foucault's Histoire de la sexualité, although unfinished, opened up a new field of research combining the philosophical construction of subjects with the sociological constitution of the modern individual. His aim was to undermine the belief that we can go back in time and 'find' ourselves, albeit in disguise. It was his belief that philosophy is not about unmasking - of the true self, the right past, the actual presence - but rather about permanent transformation - of the orders of knowledge, of society, and also of oneself.

[edit] Method

The early Foucault refused to be called a structuralist, although he clearly embraced some of its terms (e. g. 'structure', 'system') in earlier works. He criticized philosophical phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism, and fervently opposed Marxism. In positive terms, he coined his own methodology, starting with the (Kantian) term 'archaeology' in the 60's, the Nietzschean term 'genealogy' in the 70's, and 'problematization' in the 80's. His method was to find the event behind a scientific discourse or a social praxis and to determine 'the condition of existence' for modes of thinking and ways of conceptualizing. Foucault refused to be identified with any specific and universally applicable method; he called his books 'tool-boxes' for everybody interested to use.

[edit] Impact

Foucault was very influential in many disciplines, all over the world, most of all among cultural and literary historians who developed his 'discourse analysis' into a general method of textual and cultural investigation. Foucault's idea of power with no agents or instances, although only sketched in various smaller texts, won him many followers among social critics disappointed by Marxist diagnosis. With his method of 'genealogy' and his idea of 'bio-politics' he was considered from the 70's on a major political thinker. Foucault's books have been widely translated, an exhaustive collection of his minor writings was published in 1994 (Dits et Ecrits). His lecture course manuscripts between 1970 and 1984 are still forthcoming.

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