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Michel Foucault (1926–1984)

Virtually no domain of contemporary humanities and social scientific scholarship remains unaffected by the ideas of Michel Foucault, whose work as a historian and philosopher led to myriad novel ways of thinking about power, knowledge and social institutions. Born to a provincial family in Poitiers, Foucault began his studies in philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in 1946, where he had Louis Althusser as a mentor. (Foucault was briefly a member of the French Communist Party from 1950-53). Very early on Foucault developed a special interest in psychology, and this was the subject he taught in various universities throughout Europe in the 1950s. In 1960, he returned to France and produced his major doctoral thesis, Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961, published in full in English in 2006 under the title The History of Madness). This study was followed by The Birth of the Clinic (1963), which developed the previous work’s theses concerning the exclusionary nature of medical and philosophical knowledge with an inquiry into the ‘human sciences’, Les Mots et les choses (1966, The Order of Things) thereby consolidating his reputation as a leading structuralist, a label he himself disavowed.

After 1968, Foucault taught briefly at the experimental university at Vincennes before becoming elected in 1970 to the Collège de France to a chair in the ‘History of Systems of Thought’. He also became a more engaged intellectual, lending qualified support to the Gauche prolétarienne (the Maoist group which involved many former editors of the Cahiers) and functioning as the motive force behind the Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. Foucault’s practical investment in prison conditions and prisoners’ rights led to his next major work Surveiller et punir (1975, Discipline and Punish). This historical study tracked the intimate relation between power and knowledge in modern forms of social control and led to the concept of governmentality, which Foucault would develop in his teaching at the Collège de France in the late 1970s and at universities in the US around this time. Foucault also embarked on a projected six-volume history of sexuality, in which themes of self-hood and subjectivity were paramount, but the project was cut short by his death in 1984.

Foucault’s contribution to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, which opens volume nine on the ‘Genealogy of the Sciences’, took the form of a response to a series of questions put to him by the journal’s editorial board. Foucault’s exchange with the Cercle d’Épistémologie resulted in his clearest methodological statement, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). The theory of discourse developed in this book makes clear Foucault’s distance from a Lacanian conception of the unconscious and also shows his debts to, and differences from, the French epistemological tradition. The work occupies a turning point in Foucault’s own trajectory in that it is the most abstract distillation of his ‘structuralist’ approach, and the last work of its kind before the more engaged writings of the 1970s. In this regard, Foucault’s trajectory was similar to many of the Cahiers’ editors.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Cercle d’Épistémologie, ‘A Michel Foucault’, CpA 9.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Michel Foucault, ‘Réponse au Cercle d’Épistémologie’, CpA 9.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Cercle d’Épistémologie, ‘Nouvelles questions’, CpA 9.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. Paris: Plon, 1961. The History of Madness, trans. Jonathan Murphy. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Naissance de la clinique. Paris: PUF, 1963. The Birth of the Clinic, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1973.
  • Les Mots et les choses. Paris : Gallimard, 1966. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1973.
  • L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris : Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
  • Surveiller et punir. Paris : Gallimard, 1975. Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Pantheon, 1977.
  • Histoire de la sexualité, 1: La Volonté de savoir. Paris : Gallimard, 1976. The History of Sexuality, volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1978.
  • Histoire de la sexualité, II: L’Usage des plaisirs. Paris : Gallimard, 1984. The History of Sexuality, volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.
  • Histoire de la sexualité, III:Le Souci de soi. Paris : Gallimard, 1984. The History of Sexuality, volume 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1986.