This is an entry in FPR’s One Thousand Words series. Over the next few months, perhaps longer, several dozen contributors will tell us what we need to know about a wide variety of figures—some obscure, some not—in one thousand words or less. Forthcoming: posts on Dwight MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Portis, Jane Jacobs, Leo Strauss, Paul Gottffried, Charles Taylor, Irving Babbitt, Bernard Lonergan, Machiavelli, and many more.

Everyone who knows the name “Michel Foucault” has heard some unpleasant things about the man. If his “postmodern” label isn’t enough to kill one’s interest, there are stories about his recklessness (or malice) after contracting AIDS, his frequenting of sadomasochistic gay bathhouses, and so on. Foucault’s hairless face is a twentieth-century icon of perversion and the Nietzschean will to domination.

But he is worth reading for at least two reasons.

First, Foucault’s work has been extremely influential in the American academy. Even though this influence has become less apparent in recent years, as much of the system has moved away from postmodern relativism toward a resurgent anti-metaphysical scientific rationalism, Foucault’s attitudes (toward mental illness, sexuality, fringe identities, power dynamics, and the cultivation of selfhood) are not only becoming more popular, but have even become the norm in much of our society. If Judith Butler is the beating heart of Queer Theory, then Michel Foucault is its spirit. Together, their impulse toward subversion and genealogical deconstruction is probably the key transformative force in the ethical life of private Americans today.

To read Foucault on sexuality and perversion is to see the logical endpoint of the movement for sexual liberation, and to grasp clearly some of its more elusive internal principles.

Second, Foucault is worth reading because on many points he presents something very close to the truth. His analyses of the genesis and transformation of different modes of knowledge, social exclusion, and intellectual behavior often hit the mark. Bracketing his outright rejection of the transcendentals for a shifting ontology of power relations, Foucault’s account of human sociability and the relationship between power and knowledge is extremely apt in a world marred by original sin. He is a fine conversation partner and a versatile critic, and keeping him in mind will help sharpen your own ideas and keep you honest about the roots of your favorite philosophical concepts.

Foucault’s works return frequently to the concepts of power, knowledge, and the formation of order. In his History of Madness, Foucault traces the relationship between madness and varying forms of moral and social order from the fifteenth century to the age of Freud. What makes the work peculiar as a history of psychology is its refusal to privilege later psychological taxonomies and diagnostic structures over those at work in earlier periods.

A further peculiarity is one of the book’s core theses: the claim that madness is not a stable feature of objectively disordered minds, but a shifting set of experiences and structures by which a terminal “other” is divided off from the rest of society so as to make possible society’s own inward ordering. The exclusion and isolation of the mad is a positive and historically contingent process by which reason defines itself. Foucault concludes that in the nineteenth century figures like Sade, Goya, and Nietzsche turned the tables on modern rationality and laid the foundation for a new tribunal in which rationality itself could be brought to trial before the judgment seat of madness.

The idea of madness is a good entry point for the rest of Foucault’s work. Just as in the History of Madness he attempts to find the contingent historical roots of a seemingly objective and universal phenomenon, throughout his corpus Foucault is occupied with the ordering structures and technologies which give rise to systems of knowledge/discourse and consequently the objects with which those systems are concerned. His investigations are largely structuralist in tenor: How do the distinctions and limits within our taxonomies make possible the experiences and objects which populate reality? What alternative sets of differences, what alternative modes of order, are possible? Have existed historically? Might arise out of the collapse of the current system?

Each successive book takes on a particular object of knowledge or political institution (madness, hospitalization, the human sciences, imprisonment, sexuality) and performs an “archaeological” excavation of its historical roots. At first these investigations are largely dominated by quasi-structuralist and quasi-phenomenological modes of analysis—much is made of shifting theories of grammar and taxonomy in The Order of Things, and there are extended discussions of modes of experience in the History of Madness—but as Foucault matures, the influence of the structuralists subsides and is replaced by his true loves: Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Foucault’s famous essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” makes his relationship to Nietzsche clear. Foucault himself described his work as a continuation of Nietzsche’s genealogical project. However, unlike Nietzsche, Foucault rejects all hermeneutics of depth and insists on remaining at the level of the everyday, restricting his analysis to “surface phenomena” without any reduction to a secret will or intention governing history. As in Nietzsche, power is a central concern in Foucauldian genealogy, but here power is not a hidden will to domination. Instead, Foucault defines it as the field of force relations by which order is sustained and transformed, and the compounding of these relations in systems and institutions. Power is not sovereignty, but difference, and the emergence of differences within the field of power relations is what drives change and creates new objects of experience, new struggles, new realities.

Foucault’s conception of power is as much tied to the structuralist vision of the roots of meaning in difference as it is to Heidegger’s understanding of what enables objects to emerge in the concernful everydayness of human existence. Systems of value and concern drive the ramification of distinctions in particular discourses (consider the connection between the requirements for tenured positions and generational shifts in academic research), and ultimately shift the orientation of knowledge in general.

For Foucault, relations of power transform “common sense,” create broad systems of prejudice, and determine the default systems of value and awareness within society. The analysis of power relations and their impact on the formation of discursive structures is Foucault’s greatest philosophical contribution, and he is worth reading—if for no other reason—simply for the species of criticism this mode of analysis makes possible.

A Few Links

I’ll leave the basics of Michel Foucault’s life and career to other sources. The standard English-language treatment of Foucault’s thought is Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. The best (short) firsthand introduction to the man’s work is probably his Preface to The Order of Things. For a good collection of his essays and interviews, there is The Essential Foucault.

If one were to read only one of Foucault’s books, I would recommend the first volume of The History of Sexuality, though his greatest work (in scope) is probably the History of Madness. Foucault’s corpus in English continues to grow as his minor works are translated and published. Picador is still producing a series of his lecture courses. The New Press has a very good multivolume collection of his essays. The standard editions of his major works are published by Vintage, and Routledge has a wonderful edition of the History of Madness, complete with Foucault’s replies to Jacques Derrida from their famous debate.

Elliot Milco is a graduate of Yale University and the Dominican House of Studies.  He currently teaches theology at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL.

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  1. Many thanks to Elliot Milco for this important word regarding Foucault’s work! A good many recent thinkers (notably Foucault and Derrida) still too often get dismissed under headings like “po-mo cultural relativism,” when their nuanced and influential thought deserves careful attention.

  2. Martin, I would actually argue that Foucault’s flirtation with radical Islam, in the form of the Iranian revolution, was that element of his thought which ought to be most important to localist, conservatives, and anyone else who takes culture and religion seriously. Foucault was obvious not any kind of traditional believer, but he rightly recognized in radical Islam a genuine anti-liberalsim, a rejection of and theo-political alternative to the capitalist and pluralist order of Western modernity. Does that mean the Iranian mullahs, or at least as they were presented by Foucault, are actually helpful guides to developing a critique of consumerism and secularism and the corporations and governments which expand under its influence? No, not at all. But in the face of a monolithic liberal order, those of us who challenge it shouldn’t simply dismiss out of hand as “relativists” those who articulate real, philosophically consistent alternatives, however flawed or wicked those alternatives turn out to be.

  3. “………those of us who challenge it shouldn’t simply dismiss out of hand as “relativists” those who articulate real, philosophically consistent alternatives, however flawed or wicked those alternatives turn out to be. ”

    Does this comment mean those of us who challenge his theory should accept his thoughts as probable ways to include the ways of Allah in our own ‘flawed and wicked’ materialistic concepts? Um. I mean….how exactly would that work out for us…which parts of Islamic morality would you think of as ‘ real’ or ‘philosophically consistent alternatives’ except perhaps all those they copied from our own Scriptures that are moral for them as well as for us. None of their laws is consistent with the jurisprudence lined out in Judeo-Christian thought. That’s the reason why so many are putting anti-Sharia laws into their State legislature……there just aren’t any that are compatible with our own.

  4. Foucault was a piker:
    “Las Casas [the Bishop of Chiapas] even went so far as to maintain that the Spaniards had no right to interfere forcibly with the human sacrifices offered by pagan Amerindians, detecting in these, as would Joseph de Maistre two hundred years later, a perverted but profound religious instinct which did not flinch from surrendering to their deities what they deemed most precious!”

  5. Foucault is somewhat close to reality with his view that truth is related to power, though he is among the modern cynics, including Nietzsche, Derrida, Rorty, et all who view truth as fundamentally relative except for their own radical-liberal politically correct views.

    Even allowing for the reality of power in relation to truth, the Western world’s greatest thinkers including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas can hardly be reduced to relativism based on assorted cultural power terms. They, as T.S. Eliot remarked, sought to understand and make careful judgments on Truth.

    On a personal level, Foucault earned the fruit of his radically transgressive view, having viciously and deliberately passed on his AIDS and died from it. He may be a hero to doctrinaire relativists and sexual transgressive s, though in fact, however bright, he has proved to be a malevolent influence on modern life.

  6. Russell, I would also argue that studying the flawed or wicked alternatives to contemporary liberalism is crucial to helping us avoid falling into those same traps as we attempt to imagine our own alternatives.

  7. For me, the book that brings out both the virtues and the deficiencies of Foucault is Hermeneutics of the Subject (a lecture course transcript). He comes across as a pretty good teacher in practice, and makes the important observation (starting from an insightful reading of Plato’s Alcibiades I) that in ancient philosophy (including the Christian tradition), the pursuit of self-knowledge is always explicitly bound up within the imperative to care for one’s soul, whereas in modern thought it becomes a kind of introspective self-consciousness of oneself as object.

    On the other hand, because he understands the way the subject is shaped by practices of care of the self to be a function of power relations, he does not admit the possibility of practical wisdom as a human virtue — which makes him inferior in this respect to Heidegger (even if Heidegger’s understanding or attainment of that virtue is questionable, to say the least). That is, the self as constituted by power relations is in no position to criticize any particular power relations in light of the human good, but only by way of struggle for someone’s preferred alternative. This defect is directly related to the disappearance of the author in Foucault’s hermeneutics. If hermeneutics doesn’t posit an author who makes potentially intelligible choices, then it cannot be a means of cultivating one’s practical wisdom through reflection on the meaning and wisdom of those choices. Both moral and intellectual responsibility become meaningless goals.

  8. A good introduction to Foucault and good thoughts from Russell Arben Fox. Foucault can be useful in a similar manner to Marx– useful for his critiques, not so much for his solutions. Of course, for some jobs you need a hammer, and, for others, you need a screwdriver.

  9. As a self-perceived democracy, a rather laughable conceit at this juncture, Foucault’s ruminations on Power and Transgression should give pause. They speak of the dry rot afoot. Like Marx, as mentioned, he is a better analyst than planner. His remarks on episteme are particularly sharp although we live in a doxa-saturated world and so the pursuit of truth seems passe.

  10. The question for me is So What. what achievement does Foucault’s knowledge produce, what good is it. This would be Nietzsche’smightmare. Nietzsche wanted sacrifice for a possible overman to over come the problems that Foucault Reflects(lets call it sickness, or sickliness), Foucault only shows what Nietzsche thought, It takes a long time for god to die. Nietzshe’s answer is to find new gods, not kill one who is already dead. Foucault doesn’t replace a new myths for dead ones. He just undermines the one which is already suffering, . The question is not the pursuit of truth for Nietzsche, its the creation of a new reality for men to sacrifice themselves for, like Freud’s ‘instinctual renunication” OR Plato’s noble lie, does Foucaual help the matter. Nietzsche’s idea of resentment. Some one must be to blame for my unhappiness, it must be the system, or someone. or something.

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