4. Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault and the Critique of Institutions

Paul-Michel (called Michel) Foucault was born in Poitiers on June 15, 1926. His father, Paul Foucault, was a surgeon and professor of Anatomy and his mother, Anne Malapert was daughter of a surgeon from Poitevin, who owned land and farms there as well as in Vendeuvre-du-Poitou.

Associated with the beginnings of the Experimental University Center of Vincennes, he held, from 1970 to 1984, a Personal Chair in “The History of systems of thought” at the Collège de France, Paris. A political activist from the 1970s, he participated in the first movements in support of immigrant workers and founded the Information Group on Prisons to give prisoners a voice on their living conditions.

First associated with structuralism, his work today is considered more related to post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. A key figure of French theory, his work remains influential in the academic world and beyond (art, film studies, sociology, histories and theories of medicine and prisons, gender studies, politics, sub-culture studies etc). The Times Higher Education Guide described him in 2009 as the most cited humanities author in the world.

Foucault is generally known for his critiques of social institutions, primarily psychiatry, medicine, the prison system, and for his ideas and developments on the history of sexuality, his general theories regarding power, and his analysis of the complex relationships between power and knowledge.

He was one of the first public figures to die of AIDS in France on June 25, 1984 aged 58, in Paris.

From 1946-51 he studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where, disturbed by the realisation of his homosexuality, he suffered from severe depression, became very aggressive, (even pursuing a fellow student with a dagger), and later attempted suicide by slashing his chest with a razor. In 1948, following this first suicide attempt, Foucault was treated at the Sainte-Anne hospital and then Ulm infirmary by psychiatrist Dr Gaillot.

Throughout this period though, Foucault worked unceasingly: reading all the classical philosophers from Plato to Kant, but also Hegel, Bachelard, Marx and Freud, as well as Heidegger and Nietzsche, and Kafka, Faulkner, Gide and Genet in literature. At the same time, he developed a keen interest in psychology especially Politzer‘s “Critique of the Foundations of Psychology.”

In 1948 he obtained his ‘license’ (degree) in philosophy at the Sorbonne and in 1949, another ‘license’ in psychology, subsequently encountering Ludwig Binswanger and following the courses of Daniel Lagache, Jean Hyppolite, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose courses on language and the human sciences marked him deeply.

But it was above all Louis Althusser, with whom he quickly became a friend, that became a major influence, persuading him to join the PCF (French Communist Party) in 1950 and influencing his research into societal structures and ideologies. He left the Party in 1953 when news of Stalin’s crimes, particularly the Gulag, began to filter out to the West.

After failing his ‘Agrégation’ exam (for High School or University teachers) in 1950: he was criticised for ‘showing off brilliance instead of answering the question’ – he attempted suicide a second time. Next year he passed, coming second equal to Yvon Brès.


Foucault’s early works were written under the influence of existentialism and Marxism. But he soon turned away quite decisively from both. Like Sartre, Foucault combined a critique of bourgeois society and culture and with a spontaneous sympathy for groups at the margins of social life (artists, prisoners, etc.).

Georges Canguilhem, an historian and philosopher of biology whose work developed from that of Gaston Bachelard, provided a model for Foucault & remained one of his most important and effective supporters. Canguilhem sponsored Foucault’s doctoral thesis on the “History of Madness” and provided Foucault with a strong sense of the discontinuities in scientific history, along with a “rationalist” understanding of the historical role of concepts ; how they came into being and changed over time. Foucault’s interest in the “Marginalisation of the subject” (to be developed later as the “Death of the Author”) developed from Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan’s, notions of the objectivity of systems. Their consistently anti-subjective standpoints provide the context for Foucault in his ‘structuralist histories’, “The Birth of the Clinic” (on the origins of modern medicine) and “The Order of Things” (on the origins of the modern human sciences).

Critique of Historical Reason

Since its beginnings with Socrates, Western philosophy has typically been involved in the project of questioning the accepted knowledge of the day. Indeed this is seen as one of its principal purposes. Kant developed a distinctively modern idea of philosophy as the critique of knowledge. For Kant maintained that the same critique that revealed the limits of our knowing powers could also reveal the necessary conditions for their exercise (their base or ontology). During the investigation of some topic, aspects which might have seemed just contingent (marginal/accidental) features of human understanding (for example, the spatial and temporal character of its objects) turn out, for Kant, to be necessary truths, without which thinking could not occur at all.

Foucault, however, suggests the need to invert this Kantian system. Rather than asking what, in the apparently contingent, is actually necessary, he suggests asking what, in the apparently necessary, might actually be contingent? The focus of his questioning is the modern human sciences (biological, psychological, social). These purport to offer ‘universal’ scientific truths about human nature which are often, for Foucault, mere expressions of the ethical and political commitments of a particular society (i.e.ideology).

Foucault’s “critical philosophy” undermines such claims by exhibiting how they are just the outcome of contingent historical forces, and are not scientifically grounded truths.

The History of Madness in the Classical Age” (1961), was written during post-graduate travels Foucault made between 1955 and 1959 whilst on diplomatic and educational posts in Sweden, Germany, and Poland. This major work analyses the emergence of the modern concept of “mental illness” in Europe and expresses Foucault’s intense anger at what he saw as the moral hypocrisy of modern psychiatry. In the preceding 19th-century, the medical treatment of madness was seen as an enlightened liberation of the mad from the ignorance and brutality by which they were treated in preceding ages. But for Foucault,  the idea that the mad were ‘merely sick’ (“mentally” ill) and in need of medical treatment was not at all clear.

Moreover, the ‘alleged scientific neutrality’ of modern medical treatments of insanity were seen by Foucault as in fact as ‘subterfuges/disguises’ for controlling challenges to a conventional bourgeois morality. Freud too was aware of this dilemma: if early 20th-century Viennese society was ‘normal’ then the psychiatrist’s job was to render those patients who were acting ‘differently’ better able to cope with and adapt to it; but if, on the other hand, it was something in Viennese bourgeois society at large that was causing so many cases of neuroses, then it was this society that needed ‘mending’, not his patients. In short, Foucault argued that what was presented as an objective, incontrovertible scientific discovery (that madness is mental illness) was in fact the product of eminently questionable social and ethical commitments.

The Birth of the Clinic

The Birth of the Clinic” (1963) can similarly be read as a critique of modern clinical medicine. The idea of ‘sickness’ is seen as a social invention which, once created, demands its own hierarchies, structures and specialisms (‘experts’, ‘doctors’,  ‘hospitals). Illness, in the past, was seen as the result of ‘bad omens’ or as a punishment or retribution for sin and error. Now, from the 17th-century, illness starts to be identified as a concrete, alien force, ‘lurking’ in the mechanism of the body which can be ‘attacked’ (with medicines) or ‘excised’ (by surgery). Foucault’s socio-ethical critique is however, muted (because there is a substantial core of objective truth in medicine and so less basis for critique (as opposed to some of the speculations, however effective, of psychiatry). As a result “The Birth of the Clinic” is much closer to a standard history of science, in the tradition of Canguilhem’s history of concepts. It is not so much the claim that illness is just ‘an invention’, but rather the specific ways through which illness has been conceived and structured over the years, that Foucault opens up to scrutiny.

The Order of Things

Foucault’s masterwork, the ‘Archaeology of the Human Sciences” is controversial for its philosophical attacks on phenomenology and Marxism, those areas of thought from which Foucault’s own thinking had evolved. It develops a complex and nuanced critique of the human sciences in their entirety. Foucault makes explicit the historical approach (“archaeology”) he deploys. The premise of this ‘archaeological method’ is that systems of thought and knowledge (‘epistemes’ or ‘discursive formations’, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

Just as, in an archaeological dig, objects found at the same depth from the surface, are probably from the same time frame, even if they seem totally incongruous or unrelated. Transferring this metaphor to other fields of knowledge, Foucault’s methodology suggests that one way to understand a particular phenomenon (e.g. a painting) from a particular period, is to study another phenomenon from the same period, which may seem totally unrelated (a Synchronic approach). For example: The history of plumbing in London in the 19th-century, reveals all sorts of facts about the social and personal life of this time, which afford all sorts of unexpected insights into the novels of Charles Dickens. [cf Ivan Illich, “H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness”, Harmondsworth 1967], By implication, one way (maybe the best way?) to understand the art of a particular period is not to narrowly study just Art History, but to look to the margins of the period and examine some other structure, like medicine, or science which offer insights into the specific culture and society which produced the artwork in question.

Seen in this light, “The History of Madness” can be read as an intellectual ‘excavation’ of the radically different ‘discursive formations’ that governed talk and thought about madness from the 17th to the 19th-centuries.

There are several advantages to this approach: Firstly, Archaeology does not rest on the primacy of the consciousness of individual subjects: it allows the historian of thought to operate at an unconscious level that displaces the primacy of the subject to be found in both phenomenology and in traditional historiography. However, there are also weakness: Since each ‘episteme’ in Foucault’s system (Classical, Modern etc.) is separate, the approach is limited to the comparison of the different discursive formations of different periods. Such comparisons could suggest the contingency of a given way of thinking by showing that previous ages had thought very differently (and, apparently, with as much effectiveness). But it can say nothing about the causes of the transition from one way of thinking to another and thus ignores perhaps the most forceful case for the contingency of entrenched contemporary positions. It creates unbridgeable ‘gaps’ in history rather than explaining the transformation of one period into another.

Foucault’s conception of ‘Genealogy’, (the new method deployed in “Discipline and Punish“), was intended to remedy this deficiency. “Discipline and Punish” (A History of the Prison) is a genealogical study of the development of the “gentler” modern way of imprisoning criminals rather than torturing or killing them, as in the past. Foucault intended the term “genealogy” to evoke Nietzsche‘s ‘Genealogy of Morals’, particularly with its suggestion of complex, mundane, inglorious origins, in no way part of any grand scheme of progressive history. The point of a genealogical analysis is to show that a given system of thought (itself uncovered in its essential structures by his ‘archaeological method’) was the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends. Within a given social structure/ episteme, particular aspects (prisons, hospitals) develop and follow their own internal development, a process which is not determined.

Discipline and Punish

In “Discipline and Punish“, Foucault emphasises how prison reform also became a vehicle of more effective control: “to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better”. This new mode of punishment becomes the model for control of an entire society, with factories, hospitals, and schools modelled on the modern prison. This is not due to the explicit decisions of some central controlling agency but rather it develops internally, following the ‘inner logic’ or ethos driving the particular society.

Foucault sees modern “disciplinary” society as using 3 primary techniques of control:

•hierarchical observation

•normalizing judgment, and

•the examination.

To a great extent, control over people (power) can be achieved merely by observing them. So, for example, the tiered rows of seats in a stadium not only makes it easy for spectators to see the arena, but also for guards or security cameras to scan the audience. A perfect system of observation would allow one “guard” to see everything (a situation approximated in Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ or circular prison). But since this is not usually possible in society at large there is a need for “relays” of observers, (experts) hierarchically ordered, through whom observed data passes from lower to higher levels.

A distinctive feature of modern power (disciplinary control) is its concern with what people have not done (non-observance of ‘the rules’), with, that is, a person’s failure to reach required standards.

This concern illustrates the primary function of modern disciplinary systems: to correct deviant behaviour. The goal is not revenge (as in the case of the tortures of pre-modern punishment) but reform, where, of course, reform means coming to live by society’s standards or norms.

Discipline achieved through imposing precise norms (“normalization“) is quite different from the older system of judicial punishment, which merely judges each action as ‘allowed’ or ‘not allowed’ by the law and does not say that those judged are “normal” or “abnormal”. This idea of normalization is pervasive in our society: e.g., in national standards for educational programs, in medical practice, in industrial processes and products.

Lastly, the examination (for example, of students in schools, or of patients in hospitals), is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normative judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (p. 184). It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behaviour (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).

This relation of power and knowledge is far closer than in Bacon’s engineering model, for which “knowledge is power” (= knowledge is an instrument of power, but the two exist quite independently). Foucault’s point is that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know. The examination also situates individuals in a “field of documentation”. The results of exams are recorded in documents that provide detailed information about the individuals examined and allow power systems to control them (e.g., absentee records for schools, patients’ charts in hospitals). Based on these records, those in control can formulate categories, averages, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. The examination turns the individual into a “case”, in both senses of the term: a scientific example and an object of care; for caring is always also an opportunity for control.

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ (circular prison) is, for Foucault, an ideal architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) whilst at the same time, each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower. Monitors will not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed or not, they must act as if they are always objects of observation. As a result, control is achieved more by the internal monitoring of those controlled than by heavy physical constraints.

“A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspector is concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

  (Jeremy Bentham, “Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts”, London, 1798).

The principle of the ‘Panopticon’ can be applied not only to prisons but to any system of disciplinary power (a factory, a hospital, a school).

In fact, although Bentham himself was never able to build one, its principle has come to pervade every aspect of modern society. It is the instrument through which modern discipline (control) has replaced pre-modern sovereignty (kings, judges) as the fundamental power relation, and its sites are: the Clinic, the Asylum, the School, the University, The Prison etc.

All are places where ‘normalisation’ takes place for the smooth running of the societal ‘machine’. It is the function and duty of intellectuals/ writers/artists, say Foucault, to make apparent and to question these ‘normalisation’ processes.


The main works by Foucault translated into English are:

The Order of Things“, 1976
The Archaeology of Knowledge“, London, 1972.
The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaelology of Medical Perception“, 1973.
Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason“, New York, 1973.
Discipline and Punish“, London 1977.
Language Counter-Memory, Practice“, (ed.) Donald Bouchard, Oxford, 1977.
The History of Sexuality, Vol 1, An Introduction“, NY, 1980.
Power/Knowledge“, (ed.) Colin Gordon, Brighton, 1980.

On Foucault:

Mark Poster, “Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information“, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1984.
Cousins, Mark and Hussain Athar, “Michel Foucault“, London, 1984.
Culler, Jonathan, “Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature“, London, 1973.
Vincent Descombes, “Modern French Philosophy“, Cambridge, 1980.
Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Rainbow, Paul, “Michel Foucault : Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics“, Brighton, 1982.
Lemert, Chales C., and Gillan, Garth, “Michel Foucault : Social Theory as Transgression“, NY, 1982.
Sheridan, Alan, “Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth“, London, 1980.
Smart, Barry, “Foucault, Marxism, and Critique“, London, 1983.
Sturrock, John, (ed.), “Structuralism and Since: From Lévi Strauss to Derrida“, Oxford, 1979.
Wilden, Anthony, “System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange“, London, 1972.