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Brief Lives

Michel Foucault (1926-84)

Roy Williams analyses a notorious yet influential post-modern philosophe.

Paul-Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on October 15th, 1926, to an upper-middle-class bourgeoise family. He excelled in his education yet rejected much of his upbringing. Foucault’s work as a philosopher and historian of ideas radically influenced the historical method as well as many other fields apart from philosophy. The influence that Foucault had upon literature, philosophy, history, and psychology, was groundbreaking, and caused many interdisciplinary changes. While Foucault did not abide labels regarding his philosophy, his work was instrumental in influencing post-modernism and post-structuralism. His central interests were in the understanding power and knowledge. He argued that knowledge is used as a form of social control.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault by Gail Campbell

The History of Foucault

Michel Foucault studied philosophy and psychology at the Ecole Normale Superieure under Professor Louis Althusser, whose students also included Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu. Althusser, a long-time member of the French Communist Party, was influential to a degree upon Foucault; and although Foucault did not remain active in the Party, his ideological bent remained heavily towards socialism. He was also influenced by Marx and Hegel in formulating his historical method of philosophical research. Foucault worked for a time under Professor Georges Canguilhem, who sponsored his doctoral thesis on the history of madness. Canguilhem’s own work on the history of biology stood acted as an example for Foucault’s research.

Foucault’s first book, The History of Madness (1961) analyzed the concept of madness from a historical standpoint. In it he argued that the modern concept of ‘mental illness’ was essentially a means for controlling those who might challenge bourgeois morality and the established power structure.

Foucault’s research was groundbreaking in its attempt to challenge the establishment as it justified the isolation and forced medical treatment of the mentally ill. Foucault viewed the modern medical infrastructure as a societal enforcement of power, with the mentally ill as victims of institutional oppression. In his analysis, Foucault juxtaposed historical interpretation of madness, in which the mad were to a certain extent considered wise in a different manner, with the modern era of mental health treatment. ‘Historiographical methodology’ was employed: The History of Madness sought to analyze the written experience of the past to comprehend how the present situation and attitudes in medicine arose.

Another of Foucault’s works, The History of Sexuality (four volumes, 1976-2018) used a similar argument – that the establishment ultimately uses sexual norms as a form of enforcement and social control. This excerpt captures Foucault’s central argument:

“There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic hermaphrodism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into (the) area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified. There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it. Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.”
(The History of Sexuality, Vol 1, 1976)

From 1969 Foucault worked as a professor of the History of Systems and Thought at the College de France. He was also a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkley.

Over his lifetime he wrote a multitude of books, encompassing a massive field of historical and philosophical research. Some of his most influential include The History of Sexuality, The Birth of Biopolitics, and Society Must be Defended. He used his platform as a writer and a professor to criticize modern societal structures through the lens of historical research. From social constraints on sexuality, to the modern prison structure, Foucault’s central theme of the relationship of power, knowledge, and social control continued through his work. This excerpt from the posthumously-published The Birth of Biopolitics (2008) displays the provocative nature of Foucault’s conclusions concerning the nature of power in relation to politics and government authority:

“The new governmental reason does not deal with what I would call the things in themselves of governmentality, such as individuals, things, wealth, and land. It no longer deals with these things in themselves. It deals with the phenomena of politics, that is to say, interests, which precisely constitute politics and its stakes; it deals with interests, or that respect in which a given individual, thing, wealth, and so on interests other individuals or the collective body of individuals… In the new regime, government is basically no longer to be exercised over subjects and other things subjected through these subjects. Government is now to be exercised over what we could call the phenomenal republic of interests. The fundamental question of liberalism is: What is the utility value of government and all actions of government in a society where exchange determines the value of things?”

Michel Foucault died in 1984 in Paris due to complications from AIDS, at the age of 57.

Evaluating The Evaluator

Foucault’s work stands as an insightful exploration of the relationship between power, knowledge, and the way in which social control is enacted. He insisted on the importance of re-interpreting history in order to understand the perspective of the modern era, and seeing the ways in which previous events and social norms dictate the present. Winning widespread acceptance of the value of this approach was itself a groundbreaking achievement.

While previous models of historical analysis had generally argued that human history had a progressive scheme, or ‘grand narrative’, Foucault like other French post-modern philosophers of his era, believed that the trajectory of history was not one of purpose or inevitability. He argued that both history and the present were heavily influenced by the relationship between power and knowledge. The interests of the state, of capitalism, and of institutional power structures were promoted to exert power over the rest of society but often in subtle and non-obvious ways. By analyzing earlier epochs from the perspective of the present, and comparing contemporary societal norms with those of the early modern and ancient worlds, Foucault was able to establish a radical new way of understanding both history and philosophy.

Indeed, Foucault brought about radical change in multiple disciplines due to his interdisciplinary approach, including psychology, history, science and philosophy. His analysis of the structures of power and knowledge and their relation to control, was capable of extremely diverse application. And though he did not consider himself a post-modernist or a post-structuralist, his works stand as some of the most important contributions in those strands of philosophy.

Foucault’s unique perspective in understanding the relationship between power, knowledge, and control can be utilized in nearly any field. Indeed, his concepts of ‘biopower’, and of the politics of control exerted by the state in determining who may live or die, as well as the fundamental approach of deciding what must live and what must die, relates heavily to my own research. As a genocide scholar, I can well appreciate Foucault’s understanding of the relationship between power, knowledge, and control. Similarly his concept of ‘biopower’ is essential to my own research into the destruction of the North American bison: over the course of the nineteenth century, the United States government and extractive capitalism worked to destroy and subjugate the indigenous people of the plains by eradicating their most important resource, the bison.

Foucault’s legacy as a professor and researcher is as a stunning example of intellectual achievement and discovery, and the interdisciplinary breadth of his intellectual contributions stands as a testament to one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.

© Roy Williams 2022

Roy Williams is a historian specializing in genocide scholarship with an emphasis upon the Armenian Genocide, and the nineteenth century North American destruction of the bison.

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