michel foucaultOverview

Foucault welded hermeneutics, Freudian psychiatry and Saussurian semiotics into a powerful and idiosyncratic attack on rationalism. Though Foucault overstated the case for political repression through language, metaphor theory has independently developed some of his insights — how language colours and partly controls our outlooks, how social attitudes may be regulated by binary opposites.

His work, which has great brio and belligerence, is very much in the French intelligentsia tradition.


Michel Foucault wrote challengingly on psychiatry, medicine and the human sciences. Despite the width of reference, his subject is discourse, which he regarded as the only reality. His baroque, glittering, and apocalyptic style is unconcerned with referents (the signified) or the usual narrative of explanation. Also immaterial is the author, Foucault himself, who is generally regarded as a Poststructuralist but in fact rejected all such labels. The text writes itself. Driven by the power and sexuality inherent in all human beings, text wells out of any gaps in discourse, creating itself in a free play of words that is only constrained by what society will permit. Society is the law-maker. Its power permeates all levels and all discourse, showing itself in such distinctions as sane-insane, natural-unnatural, sickness-health, truth-error. In Madness and Civilization (1961), Birth of the Clinic (1963) and The Order of Things (1966) Foucault claimed that it was modes of discourse, rather than any interchange between observation and hypothesis, that positioned and maintained these distinctions.{1}

Also important were figures of speech, the tropes that control discourse, which dominated certain epochs of intellectual behaviour. Underlying our historical view of madness we have successively metaphor (resemblance), metonyny (adjacency), synecdoche (essentiality) and irony (doubling). Madness in the sixteenth century loses its sign of sanctity and becomes identified with human wisdom, the Wise Fool. Two centuries later, madness is set against reason, and the insane are incarcerated with paupers and criminals. Come the nineteenth century and madness is regarded as part of normal humanity, a phase in its development, and the insane are given special treatment in lunatic asylums. Today, after Freud, the similarities with the sane are stressed, and the mad are encouraged to understand the sources of illness, under the watchful control of a psychoanalyst.


Though Foucault originally saw sexual desire as a determining feature, he came in his multi-volume The History of Sexuality (1976) to cede priority to power: power of the State and its institutions. If sex is afforded greater metaphysical status in the west than elsewhere, and has spawned a science of its own, sex has now been made desirable by a society that needs to discipline its members. Love in the family can fall into perversion, and then to degeneracy, and so to loss of racial power, wealth and status. The racial conditioning of the Nazis is nothing to the bio-politics that threatens on the horizon. About these, and society in general today, Foucault was gloomy: he had no liking for western civilization, nor anything to put in its place.

Foucault began with hermeneutics.{2} The madness described in Madness and Civilization (1961), was real, but not properly understood, being refracted through contemporary concepts, just as our own must be when we study a period. Then came three books (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, The Birth of a Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception and The Archaeology of Knowledge} which concerned themselves with systems of knowledge. Strictly speaking, this is not Structuralism: Foucault was not interested in sign systems or social codes, nor in myths, kinship patterns or the unconscious. He studied only discourse, and discourse out of context. Moreover, unlike the historian, Foucault did not attempt an exegesis of these ideas, or explain how one led to another. He investigated the structural regularities that underlay them. What are these regularities? Not descriptions simply, said Foucault, but prescriptive rules. Yet they weren't timeless or universal. What then? Foucault didn't say.{3}

In the seventies, Foucault turned to the themes which made his name: sexual repression and the relationship of power to knowledge. His "findings" were very radical. Conventional wisdom saw sexual desire as an inherent but largely negative component of human nature, which social repression is needed to control. According to Foucault, however, western societies have become increasingly obsessed with sex, inciting discussion of it, even if veiling it with secrecy at the last moment. And it is repression that paradoxically creates the sexual obsession, encouraging talk in the interests of liberation and self-understanding, creating new sexual practices and so providing new foci for oppression. {4}

Society is a mosaic of power relationships, with multiple points of resistance and competing strategies of resistance. What these strategies were, Foucault did not explain, though much of his life was spent fighting for various social and political causes.{5}

But power also suppresses truth, or at least controls the truths that we can recognize. Knowledge and power are therefore inextricably enmeshed: truth, like sexuality, is historically conditioned. Hermeneutics returns: there is no privileged position from which to obtain an objective view of truth, and we are inside any society we choose to study. Practices that use truth as a weapon against power — e.g. Marxism and psychoanalysis — should beware: their procedures may be self-defeating. The 1968 students strike in Paris, which brought Foucault to prominence, and bewildered the French Communist Party, showed only that Marxists were no different from the ruling elites in falsely viewing society as one unified whole. {6}


Where was the evidence for such a devastating critique of western society? Foucault didn't provide it. He sought to unsettle, make people think for themselves, transforming themselves in the process. Foucault was a polemicist, a splendid polemicist, and it was change rather than truth he sought.{7}

Of course there were grave weaknesses in Foucault's position. If power subverts everything, even reason itself, what are Foucault's assertions but one more manifestation of power, no more cogent than any other: bourgeois, psychoanalytical or Marxist? Foucault realized this, and accepted that he described society not from the "outside" but from some position within it. But the prize was not deliverance but understanding, ultimately self-understanding and transformation.

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1. Simon Christmas's Michel Foucault in J. Teichman and G. White's (Eds.) An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995) Also H.L. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow's Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. (1982.).and J.G. Merquior's Foucault. (1985).
2. p. 163 of Teichman and White 1995.
3. p. 208 of J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986) and Chapter 13 of Teichman and White 1995.
4. p. 168- 9 of Teichman and White 1995.
5. Ibid, p. 172.
6. pp. 180- 86 of Teichman and White 1995.
7. Ibid, p. 173.

Internet Resources

1. Michel Foucault. Jan. 2004. http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault. Wikipedia entry, with links and brief bibliography.
2. Michel Foucault. Garry Gutting. Apr. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/. Detailed if somewhat uncritical article on Foucault's philosophy.
3. Michel Foucault. Zoran Jevtic. May 2002. http://www.csun.edu/~hfspc002/foucault.home.html. Articles, interviews and listings on site dedicated to Foucault.
4. Foucault. Dec. 2003. http://foucault.info/. Very full resources, including a weblog.
5. Michel Foucault Resources. Patrick Jennings. http://www.synaptic.bc.ca/ejournal/foucault.htm. Sites relating to Foucault and his numerous interests.
6. Michel Foucault resources. http://www.theory.org.uk/foucault/. Foucault and gender theory: short articles and lists.
7. The Foucauldian. Apr. 2003. http://www.thefoucauldian.co.uk/. Online texts and bibliography.