French philosopher and historian of thought. Foucault’s earliest writings (e.g., Maladie mentale et personnalité [“Mental Illness and Personality”], 1954) focused on psychology and developed within the frameworks of Marxism and existential phenomenology. He soon moved beyond these frameworks, in directions suggested by two fundamental influences: history and philosophy of science, as practiced by Bachelard and (especially) Canguilhem, and the modernist literature of, e.g., Raymond Roussel, Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot. In studies of psychiatry (Histoire de la folie [“History of Madness in the Classical Age”], 1961), clinical medicine (The Birth of the Clinic, 1963), and the social sciences (The Order of Things, 1966), Foucault developed an approach to intellectual history, “the archaeology of knowledge,” that treated systems of thought as “discursive formations” independent of the beliefs and intentions of individual thinkers. Like Canguilhem’s history of science and like modernist literature, Foucault’s archaeology displaced the human subject from the central role it played in the humanism dominant in our culture since Kant. He reflected on the historical and philosophical significance of his archaeological method in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).
Foucault recognized that archaeology provided no account of transitions from one system to another. Accordingly, he introduced a “genealogical” approach, which does not replace archaeology but goes beyond it to explain changes in systems of discourse by connecting them to changes in the non-discursive practices of social power structures. Foucault’s genealogy admitted the standard economic, social, and political causes but, in a non-standard, Nietzschean vein, refused any unified teleological explanatory scheme (e.g., Whig or Marxist histories). New systems of thought are seen as contingent products of many small, unrelated causes, not fulfillments of grand historical designs. Foucault’s geneaological studies emphasize the essential connection of knowledge and power. Bodies of knowledge are not autonomous intellectual structures that happen to be employed as Baconian instruments of power. Rather, precisely as bodies of knowledge, they are tied (but not reducible) to systems of social control. This essential connection of power and knowledge reflects Foucault’s later view that power is not merely repressive but a creative, if always dangerous, source of positive values.
Discipline and Punish (1975) showed how prisons constitute criminals as objects of disciplinary knowledge. The first volume of the History of Sexuality (1976) sketched a project for seeing how, through modern biological and psychological sciences of sexuality, individuals are controlled by their own knowledge as self-scrutinizing and self-forming subjects. The second volume was projected as a study of the origins of the modern notion of a subject in practices of Christian confession. Foucault wrote such a study (The Confessions of the Flesh) but did not publish it because he decided that a proper understanding of the Christian development required a comparison with ancient conceptions of the ethical self. This led to two volumes (1984) on Greek and Roman sexuality: The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self. These final writings make explicit the ethical project that in fact informs all of Foucault’s work: the liberation of human beings from contingent conceptual constraints masked as unsurpassable a priori limits and the adumbration of alternative forms of existence.
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