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Paul Royall reviews Didier Eribon’s new biography of an anguished French genius.
Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France in 1926, the second child of a wealthy family. His life was extraordinary, perhaps one which is hard to empathise with. Foucault, living his life like a ‘work of art’, flitted from a zest for life to melancholy and suicide attempts. He appears to have constantly forged unique relationships while at the same time infuriating established friends. He was, for a while, a Marxist, then a Maoist, yet his radical politics did not prevent him occupying one of the premier posts of French education at the College de France. A homosexual, Foucault’s death was one of the first blows by AIDS to the intellectual and artistic community.
All the characteristics of a tortured genius are found in Eribon’s account of Foucault. Along with Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Jean Baudrillard, Foucault came to prominence during the twilight years of existentialism. He was, and still is, held in varying esteem.
Maurice Clavel, in the 60s and 70s the star columnist of Le Nouvel Observatives wrote:
“My monomania with regard to Michel Foucault is well known. I consider him to be Kant, the man after whom it is impossible to think as before. And more than that, I think I have shown that Kant fell back asleep, whereas Foucault has never stopped sharpening our waking state, keeping us awake with ever-increasing jolts.” (pp.254-255)
Foucault constantly elicits such admiration yet at the same time contemporaries such as Baudrillard advise we should “oublier ” Foucault.
Eribon points out that it was studying Hegel which inspired Foucault as a student. Primarily interested in history, Foucault found “philosophy providing the narrative of history, recording its patient progress towards the advent of Reason.” (p.17)
A contemporary of Foucault, Jean d’Ormesson recalls the impact of philosophy:
“It was 1945, immediately after the war, and for several years thereafter, philosophy carried incomparable prestige. I don’t know if I can describe, now, at this distance, what it represented for us. The nineteenth century was, perhaps, the century of history; the mid twentieth century seemed dedicated to philosophy … literature, painting, historical studies, politics, theatre and film were all in philosophy’s hands.” (p.17)
Of course, Foucault was not regarded by everyone as a philosopher. His historical inquiry, his fascination with psychology and literature meant that Foucault was referred to as a historian of ideas, a sociologist, and most enigmatically, a discourse theorist.
Encouraging eclecticism, Foucault said: “You know, philosophers are, in general, extremely ignorant of any discipline which is not their own.” (p.164)
In France, Foucault was, and still is, considered a philosopher. Yet Eribon’s biography illustrates the problem of attaching any kind of label to Foucault. Foucault is seen refusing to systematise and organise his theoretical position and declining to put his vast array of work into easily-definable categories. And as Eribon shows, Foucault’s choice of subject matter was wide and ambitious; The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality are examples of this.
From early in his academic career Foucault attacked philosophical orthodoxy. Inspired by Nietzsche (Foucault was ‘smitten’ by Nietzsche – see p.62) and his critique of the pretensions of rationalism, Foucault liked to mock the idea that philosophy might provide a wondrous and privileged access to fundamental truths.
He told friends he did not spend time speculating over “what is Truth? What is the surest path to Truth?”, but instead asked – “what is the history of this will to Truth? What are its effects?” (see Power/Knowledge ed. Colin Gibson)
Eribon acknowledges that Foucault eschewed the philosophical canon when writing his books and instead liked to nose around in police files or reformist projects. Foucault said to Le Monde in 1975: “It is not in Hegel or Auguste Comte that the bourgeoisie speaks openly.” (p.236)
Foucault’s oeurve, as Eribon calls it, clearly rejects the notion that the philosopher has a charmed route to interpretation and the Truth. Furthermore, knowledge cannot be obtained independently of relations of power. Foucault clung to this notion long after he had left the Communist Party. The human sciences, including philosophy, must take account of the background human activities which make the disciplines possible. Thus the philosopher and philosophy are not politically neutral and above the maelstrom of ideological struggle. The rational exercise of thought and production of theory are implicated in the omnipresent problem of domination.
When considered a structuralist Foucault said:
“Structuralism…would concern our own culture, our present-day world, the practical or theoretical relations…This is where structuralism has value as a philosophical activity, if one acknowledges that diagnosis is the role of philosophy.” (p.168)
Foucault wanted to replace “man with system…to substitute for the primacy of a lived, or reflected consciousness, the primacy of concept, system or structure.” (p.165)
Foucault’s confidence in his ideas makes it difficult to remember that he had no desire to produce ‘total’ theory. Yet despite the attention afforded to Foucault’s work, Eribon makes it clear Foucault had no wish to totalise or monopolise truth claims and see them turned in to universal pronouncements.
Imitating his subject, Eribon announces his biography is not a complete account:
“I have not attempted to reveal the truth about Foucault. No doubt there are several Foucaults – a thousand Foucaults, as Dumezil said.” (p.xii).
Foucault came up with the claim that “I have never written anything other than fictions” (quoted in Michel Foucault: Power, Truth Strategy ed. Morris and Patton) and the idea is that his investigations of modern society are not meant to provide a prescriptive analysis but rather, to lay bare a version, one story about the mechanisms of power. Possible truth value is not the issue but the power effects of knowledge, a true relativist, post structuralist quest.
Foucault was preoccupied with textuality, a problem the philosopher cannot escape. Representing a truth-claim in writing is not invalid but Foucault acknowledged that the process involved includes an active manipulation of materials.
Such a ‘meaningless’ outlook alienates many people and it is not uncommon to hear complaints about Foucault’s lifelong nihilism. Some students have been further put off by his ‘excruciating’ writing style but I am certain this biography goes a long way towards clarifying Foucault.
At the same time the unhelpful cult of personality which still surrounds Foucault is put in to some sort of perspective. Genius as he was, parental money was in easy reach and played its part in his exceptional role in intellectual history.
I believe the ideas of Foucault are useful for an explanation of what is going on around us and the reader will not be daunted by this valuable study. Read it together with some transcripts of interviews with Foucault and a firm foundation will be laid in the quest to fathom his ideas. Of course though, don’t go looking for the truth!
Michel Foucault, by Didier Eribon, trans. Betsy Wing, Faber and Faber (1991)
© Paul Royall 1993
Paul Royall is a journalist and has been on Foucault’s case for a long time.