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Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who wrote widely on the history of thought. His influences include philosophers of science, such as his mentor Georges Canguilhem, but also Maurice Blanchot and Friedrich Nietzsche, from whom he derived his influential methodological notion of genealogy. Though Foucault’s oeuvre treats seemingly disparate historical topics ranging from psychiatry to structuralism and on from sexuality to liberalism, a concern with the issues of knowledge and power as they constellate around the formation of subjectivities forms a constant, discernible thread.
Foucault’s first major works are studies of psychiatry and mental illness. In Madness and Civilization (1961), Foucault examined how madness, the classical age inverse of reason, was systematized into the modern psychological category of mental illness. The Birth of the Clinic (1963) marks the beginning of Foucault’s archaeological period, and examines the development of the perceptive apparatus of modern medicine. His attention to clinical confinement is demonstrative of his concern with dividing practices that progressively split certain individuals off from the social body.
The subsequent Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Foucault’s only methodological treatise, draws on the broad-sweep historiographical innovations of the Annales School to elaborate discursive formations as an analytical frame. In his archaeology of structuralism, The Order of Things (1966), Foucault historicized these discursive structures into distinct epistemes, which serve as the “condition of possibility” for knowledge. Tracing epistemic transformations in thought from the classical to the modern age, Foucault scrutinized the rise of man as the subject of the human sciences.
In his later work, Foucault shifted his approach to a process he called genealogy, which explicitly linked his analyses of knowledge to social structures of power. He argued against a purely repressive notion of power, elaborating instead on his oft-quoted maxim that “power is productive.” In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault developed an explicit relationship between forms of knowledge of the body and the evolution of the modern prison system; disciplinary power, Foucault argued, arrays and organizes bodies into “analytical space,” producing a logic that generalized itself from its application in concrete technologies such as the nineteenth-century Panopticon penitentiary to the level of society. In the first volume of his three-part History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault characterized disciplinary power as an anatomo-politics that operates on the level of the body, and juxtaposed it to its complement, bio-politics, which functions on the level of a population whose life forces it seeks to optimize. These populations, Foucault argued, are constituted in part via discourses about sexuality. In the second two volumes of his History, The Use of Pleasure (1984), and The Care of the Self (1984), Foucault turned to the processes of self-constitution in Greek and Roman sexual practices. The planned fourth and fifth volumes of the series remained unwritten upon Foucault’s premature death at the age of fifty-eight.
Foucault’s activism often related to the themes of his work. He advocated for penal reform and gay rights, and was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement. In his interviews and lectures, particularly those delivered at the Collège de France from the 1970s to 1984, Foucault reformulated many of the themes of his books into analyses applicable to the contemporary political situation. He responded to the ascendance of neoliberalism in the 1970s by refining his concept of bio-politics into that of governmentality, a governmental rationality operating in the realm of political economy.
Several scholars argued with Foucault over issues of historical accuracy, while others have contended that his attempts to transcend reason as the grounds of the subject’s constitution remain methodologically fettered because they presuppose the existence of that self-same subject. Nevertheless, Foucault’s many anglophone interpreters have ensured the profound methodological and theoretical impact of his work in many disciplines, including anthropology, gender studies, history, literature, postcolonial studies, and sociology.
- Foucault, Michel. . 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel.  1994. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel.  1994. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel. . 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.
- Foucault, Michel.  1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel.  1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel. . 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel. . 1988. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. Trans. David Macey. Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Picador.
- Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Faubion, James D. 2000. Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984. New York: New Press.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1985. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Rabinow, Paul. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.
- Steiner, George. 1971. The Mandarin of the Hour—Michel Foucault. New York Times Book Review 8: 23–31.
- Stone, Lawrence. 1982. Madness. New York Review of Books 29 (20): 128–136.
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