Foucault’s university education was a mixture of philosophy and psychology. He combined this with strong interests in aesthetics, social history, and the history of culture and discourse to produce a rich body of work, which evolved through a number of stages, covering many issues and having an enormous influence across disciplines. His work is present in philosophy, cultural studies, art history, literary studies, and everywhere in the humanities, as well as the social sciences. His work is hard to define as a whole; he wished to challenge boundaries in thoughts. The title of his last academic post, Chair in the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France, clearly cuts across the disciplines.
Foucault’s first really influential work was Madness and Civilisation, which looks like empirical social science but also contains his other constants of an implicit engagement with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger; an implicit engagement with the classics of social theory; and a commitment to the aesthetic expression of reality. He argued that there was a major shift from a premodern to a modern view of madness, in which the modern view was not an obvious improvement. The premodern view gave some of truth to madness, allowing it to confront the sane in the open. The modern view of madness rested on the institutional confinement, “the great confinement” of the “mad,” who were now defined clinically instead of with reference to the possible insights of those who stand aside from apparent rationality. The premodern world defined the mad as other and separated them from the sane, just as the modern world did, but the consequence was not to hide them or to deny the value of all they said.
Through many shifts in Foucault’s work, a position emerges that always remains. Social distinctions and discourse are inseparable. What we call knowledge rests on that interweaving. Power is inseparable from the way our social reality is created. Institutions can be understood only as expressions of this unity of power, knowledge, discourse, and social distinctions. Institutions can be studied as paradigms of that unity. There is a break between the modern and premodern periods, with a possible transition in the “Classical Age” (the French 17th century) and the Enlightenment. The modern period claims to be more humane than the premodern period but is not necessarily the case. The premodern period has manifest systems of separating and controlling what is “other” to normality; the modern period hides others and denies them any voice. The premodern period is aesthetic and openly agonistic; the modern period is rational and conceals conflict behind apparent the normality of universal values. Individual consciousness should be defined in terms of social structures and constraints, including those imbedded in our values and discourse.
Madness and Civilisation belongs to an “archaeological” period in Foucault’s thought, where madness, hospitals, knowledge, and discourse are studied in terms of conceptual oppositions and discourse abstracted from everyday reality. A later stage of power/knowledge and the disciplinary can be established with reference to Discipline and Punish (1975). As in Madness and Civilisation, Foucault contrasted the premodern and modern periods with reference to institutions, social relations, discourse, and power. However, he now emphasized that power and knowledge were inseparable and their point of union was in violence on the body. Power/knowledge exists not in terms of abstract theory or the legal sovereignty of the state, but in the networks of power that coerce the body. Power/knowledge exists in a dispersed way in local tactics of physical force, which precedes any discussion of beliefs and consciousness.
Foucault associates the premodern world with power, which exists as spectacular punishments. He begins the book with a notoriously distressing account of the truly spectacular cruel torture and execution of the would-be regicide Damiens, in 18th-century France. For Foucault, that execution marked the end of the Ancien Régime in the broadest sense, as it marked the end of a whole history of spectacular punishment. Foucault challenges the idea that spectacular punishment was less humane than modern disciplinary punishment, where we are placed under observation in prison. Spectacular punishment offers the opportunity for the victim and the crowd to resist the sovereignty of power that guides the drama of execution. The discipline of the modern era turns the prisoner into a normalized passive individual, produced by supposedly humane practices such as prison psychiatry, which are in reality just another violence on the body. For Foucault, the prison is the paradigm of the modern institution: factory, school, hospital, army. There is a very specific paradigm offered of Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon.” Bentham’s design for a perfect prison is one in which cells are arranged around a central observation tower so that all prisoners can be observed but none of them know at which moments they are under observation. In the panopticon, everyone is potentially under constant surveillance and disciplinary control. Before the full emergence of this paradigm, Foucault sees it as anticipated in early modern “cameralist” theory, which defines state functions as branches of the police.
The next main phase of Foucault’s thought concentrates on the aesthetic and ethical aspects of the body and individual autonomy. The three-volume History of Sexuality (1976—) is the most systematic product of that final phase, interrupted by Foucault’s death. Here Foucault offers a classical model of self-perfection, defined through the erotic, as a guiding principle. He denies the existence of sex or sexual categories such as “homosexual,” the status of trans-historical truths. What we now call “sex” was known as “the flesh”; “homosexual” is a recently invented word with no direct earlier equivalents. Sexuality arises in various ways in which pleasure is enhanced through the frustration of pleasure. Repression produces pleasure, there is no pleasure without frustration, and the history of sexuality is the history of different ways in which this happens. We should avoid the assumption that any one age is more “liberated” or “repressed” than any other. The History of Sexuality suggests an aesthetic ethic of hedonistic-libertarian-ism, but only on the condition of forms of self-discipline and self-perfection. These claims should be compared with the lectures he gave at the Collège de France, where he moves away from defining the modern era as purely disciplinary on the cameralist model. He distinguishes between a modern approach of state control and the tradition of political economy and civil society. In the latter tradition, the state can successfully limit itself to enable individual and economic freedom.
Foucault seems to evolve from an earlier sympathy for Marxism to a later sympathy for Classical Liberalism. However, deducing consistent political conclusions from Foucault’s work is notoriously difficult. What is consistent is a strong libertarianism in which Foucault analyzes the sovereignty of power and discourse, while trying to find forms of autonomy that can successfully resist them. This was also a personal commitment for Foucault, who campaigned for the rights of prisoners, psychiatric patients, and gays (he was an out gay himself who died as the result of AIDS, while still working on The History of Sexuality).
- Foucault, M. (1988—1990). The history of sexuality (3 vols.). New York: Vintage Books/Random House.
- Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish. New York: Vintage Books/Random House.
- Foucault, M. (1998). Madness and civilization. New York: Vintage Books/Random House.