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Foucault: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Foucault: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Foucault in just one hour.The French philosopher Michel Foucault set about his task rather like a historian. After painstaking research, he concluded that knowledge and power were intimately related throughout history. He illustrated this central idea of his philosophy through studies of madness, sexuality, and discipline and punishment, arguing that there is no such thing as absolute truth, only different truths about reality at particular moments – truths that fulfil the needs of power.Here is a concise, expert account of Foucault’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Foucault’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Foucault in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u00e570dc-727a-5115-89c9-6ac41e96648a)

Title Page (#u25eeee78-6fd0-5548-8c07-60fbb879c0b2)


Foucault’s Life and Works

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

By and About Foucault: Some Quotes, Criticisms, and Ideas

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates

Chronology of Foucault’s Life

Recommended Reading

About the Author


About the Publisher

Introduction (#u4eb05703-aca0-5c71-8cb8-9a0c1d2dba17)

Foucault was not a philosopher in the classical tradition. Even so, at one stage in his life he was regarded in some quarters as the new Kant – an absurdly overblown estimation. But this was hardly Foucault’s fault (even if he did little to discourage such opinions). It was also hardly his fault that the very possibility of being a classical philosopher was completely beyond him. This is no mere intellectual judgment. The fact is, Wittgenstein had to all intents and purposes brought philosophy in the classical tradition to a close. Wittgenstein had insisted there was no longer any such thing as philosophy – just philosophising. Most major philosophical questions were the result of linguistic errors. Untangle the mistake, and the question simply disappeared. And any remaining questions were simply unanswerable (or, more correctly, unaskable).

But a variant of the classical philosophical tradition did persist in continental Europe, in the work of Heidegger. This claimed to operate beyond Wittgensteinian realms, beyond the reach of logic, analysing the very grounds of our thought and apprehension. Foucault was heavily influenced by this tradition. It led him to uncover how philosophy, and indeed all ‘knowledges’, arrive at their versions of the truth. He showed that such ‘truths’ depended largely upon the assumptions, or mind-set, of the age in which they were promulgated.

Foucault set about his task like a historian rather than a philosopher. Painstakingly he researched original documents from the period he was investigating. These revealed firsthand the society, knowledge, and power structure of the age in question. Foucault concluded that knowledge and power were so closely related that he collated them in his term ‘power/knowledge’. This was the central issue of his philosophy. But in reaching it, and investigating its implications, he covered a wide range of often sensational material. Madness, sexuality, discipline and punishment – the history of such topics was considered essential to his argument. Add to this the relation of these topics to his personal life, and you have the most sensational philosopher of modern times.

Yet how much of actual philosophical worth was contained within all this sensationalism? Nearly twenty years after his death, reactions to this question remain sharply divided. Philosophical oblivion is easily attained: the fact that Foucault is still being discussed at all is recognition of a sort. How much longer this state of affairs will continue is up to us to decide.

Foucault’s Life and Works (#u4eb05703-aca0-5c71-8cb8-9a0c1d2dba17)

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, at Poitiers, 250 miles south of Paris. His family were well-to-do bourgeois in a town that has remained a byword for French provincialism. His father was a surgeon, taught at the local medical school, and ran a prosperous practice. His mother was a strong-minded woman who managed her husband’s finances, helped administer his practice, and daringly drove an automobile.

Besides their town house in Poitiers, the family owned a small manor house in the country. During Paul-Michel’s childhood they also built a seaside villa on the Atlantic coast at La Baule. This was large enough for a family of five and servants. Here the family spent their summer holidays amidst the pine trees overlooking a long curve of sandy beach. Father was kindly but stern, mother was efficient but concerned. For Paul-Michel, life at home with his older sister and younger brother was the epitome of normality. Such was the standard background of so many intransigent French intellectuals who have revolted against all forms of authority and bourgeois behaviour. (Although he would strive to rebel against so much else, Foucault would not be able to avoid conforming to this Gallic stereotype, which had held sway from Voltaire to Sartre).

At school young Paul-Michel was weedy and shortsighted. As a result his schoolmates soon corrupted his name to Polchinelle (the French equivalent of the hunchbacked figure of fun we know as Punch). Freudians will be intrigued to know that he dreamed of becoming a goldfish. Such fishy ambitions were reflected in his academic performance. Although evidently bright, he never excelled. Even at his favourite subject, history, he only finished second.

World events impinged little on sleepy Poitiers or Foucault family life. The seaside villa was built during the early years of the depression; Hitler’s posturings on the newsreels were dismissed with sophisticated ridicule in the press; and the blandly debonair records of Maurice Chevalier spun on the phonograph.

When he was ten, young Paul-Michel saw the first refugees from the Spanish Civil War tramping through the streets of Poitiers. Three years later Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II, and the family drove back from their summer holiday at La Baule for the last time. By the time Foucault was fourteen, the Nazis had invaded France, the French army was retreating in disarray, and even Poitiers was in turmoil. With the unbending ineptitude of an operating-theatre martinet, Dr. Foucault supervised the setting up of emergency medical units in the town. In the background his wife painstakingly smoothed ruffled feathers and efficiently ensured that things got done. Now wearing glasses, but still in short pants, young Paul-Michel looked on in bewilderment. That summer his exam results plummeted.

Mother pulled strings to have him transferred to another school, whereupon the academic ugly duckling turned into a swan. This was to become something of a pattern. Foucault was to under-perform at important exams but then shine when he took them a second time. At the age of twenty, on his second attempt, Foucault gained a place at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. This was the intellectual hothouse where the crème de la crème of France’s students were put through their paces. To be a ‘normalien’ marked one as a superior species for life. Normality has always been exceptional in France, and the superintellectual ‘normaliens’ were often a fairly odd lot. But even here Foucault soon stood out.

By now the Punch of the school playground had developed into a decidedly prickly character. During the previous year or so he had gradually become aware that he was homosexual. Such a thing was not only illegal at the time; in Poitiers it was unthinkable. Paul-Michel couldn’t even turn to his beloved mother for guidance and reassurance. And by this stage he had also fallen out heavily with Papa. The adolescent Paul-Michel refused to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor. He just wasn’t interested in medicine, and that was that. He would stamp upstairs to his room, slam the door, and bury his head in yet another volume of history. By the time he took the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure for the second time, there was no doubting that here was an intellectual thoroughbred. (He finished fourth in the entire country). But there was also no doubting that he had the unpredictable temperament of a thoroughbred.

In Paris he took to calling himself plain Michel (dropping Paul, his father’s name). Michel Foucault’s first years at the ENS were to be a litany of incidents. On one occasion he slashed his chest with a razor; on another he had to be restrained while chasing a student with a dagger; and on another he nearly succeeded in committing suicide by taking an overdose of pills. He drank heavily and occasionally experimented with drugs (very much a minority pursuit in those far-off days). Sometimes he would disappear for nights on end, afterwards slumping back hollow-eyed and haggard into his dormitory with depression. Few guessed the truth. He was tortured with guilt over what had occurred on his lonely sexual expeditions.

Foucault was unable to live with himself, and none of the students in his dormitory wished to live with him. They looked upon him as mad and dangerous, qualities that only seemed to be exacerbated by his evident brilliance. Fiercely aggressive in intellectual argument, he was not above resorting to violence. His fellow students shunned his company, and he began developing psychosomatic illnesses. Long bouts in a solitary bed in the sanatorium spared him from the communal existence of his dormitory, and here he read voluminously, even by ENS standards.

Foucault’s somewhat haphazard enthusiasm for history now found cohesion. He began reading the nineteenth-century German philosopher Hegel, whose philosophy insisted on the coherence and meaning of history. The purpose of history was its long progress toward the ultimate reality of reason and self-consciousness. According to Hegel, ‘All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational.’ Below the surface of events, history had its hidden structure. ‘In history we are concerned with what has been and what is; in philosophy, on the other hand, we are concerned not with what belongs exclusively to the past or even the future, but with what is, both now and eternally – that is, with reason.’ History and philosophy became one, a unity that had immediate relevance to the present.

From Hegel, Foucault progressed to the twentieth-century German philosopher Heidegger, who saw the human predicament as determined by deeper elements than mere reason. ‘My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger,’ Foucault would later write. The excitement of first encountering Heidegger’s thought is best conveyed by his student Hannah Arendt: ‘Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak, in the course of which it turns out that they propose things altogether different from the familiar worn-out trivialities they had been presumed to say.’ The past was alive in the present, and how we understood the past showed how we could understand the present. History was not recording the truth of the past but revealing the truth of the present. Such was the drift of Foucault’s thought.

At the time, Heidegger’s philosophy was a matter of deep debate in the cafés of Left Bank Paris. Postwar disillusionment and a despair with traditional values had led to a widespread enthusiasm for the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, who had himself been heavily influenced by Heidegger. Sartre’s existentialism was highly subjective and believed in ‘existence before essence’. There was no such thing as an essential humanity or subjectivity. This essence we ourselves created by the manner in which we existed, made our choices, and acted in the world. Our subjectivity was likewise no constant element, open to static and limiting definition. It was continually being created, constantly evolving as a result of the life we led.

Foucault was to absorb many ideas from Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre. Yet equally significant were the ideas he rejected. In an important way he formed himself in reaction to these philosophers, especially Sartre. As a personality and a thinker, Sartre dominated the Parisian intellectual scene and would remain a constant presence almost throughout Foucault’s life: an example and a goad to his aspirations. Sartre’s ideas would perform a similar role. Foucault was temperamentally averse to remaining in anyone’s shadow for long. He not only had ambition but also sufficient contrariness to strike out on his own – even though his reactive impulse often outran his ideas. There would be no father figures for Foucault; one had been enough.

The young man was maturing at an exceptional rate, both academically and personally. His increasing intellectual assurance was matched by his emotional self-understanding. He was learning to accept his homosexuality, and the violence in his character was subsumed by occasional sado-masochistic role-playing.

By now Foucault’s intellectual abilities were beginning to attract the attention of leading figures attached to the ENS, who would discuss their ideas with him. Foucault’s former examiner Georges Canguilhem was developing an entirely new structural history of science. In his view, science did not progress by some gradual and inevitable evolution. The history of science involved a number of distinct discontinuities, where knowledge would take an unprecedented step forward into some new realm. (Einstein’s relativity is perhaps the best-known example in this century). Canguilhem was unusual in having qualifications in both philosophy and medicine. This enabled him to ask, with some acumen, ‘What is psychology?’ Ironically he attacked psychology on the very ground that it saw as its function and strength: knowledge of self. What was the basis of psychological knowledge? What precisely was it doing, or trying to do? Such questions were of particular interest to Foucault, whose earlier erratic behaviour had brought him into firsthand contact with institutional psychiatry. He had been temperamentally averse to the role of patient, and disillusioned with the psychology behind the treatment offered him. This had prompted him to ‘forget the whole thing the moment my shrink went on holiday’. Now here was Canguilhem articulating what he had instinctively felt was wrong with psychology – its lack of self-knowledge about what it was and what it was doing.

Foucault also attracted the attention of Louis Althusser, who was then a young instructor at the ENS. During the war Althusser had survived five years in concentration camps, and as a result had become a convinced Marxist. He was now developing Marxist theory in what would later be seen as a structuralist direction. In reading Marx, he argued, one had to look beyond the surface text. It was necessary to be aware of the ‘horizon of thought’ that limited Marx’s language and concepts to his particular historical period. One had to try to understand the fundamental problems that Marx was actually dealing with (even though he may not always have been aware of them himself). Althusser persuaded Foucault to become a member of the French Communist Party (PCF). Despite its Stalinism, the PCF remained a major political force in France, largely as a result of the heroic role it had played in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation. But Foucault felt ill at ease with the party and attended few meetings. Having come to terms with his sexuality and accepted its centrality in his life, he was not enamoured to hear homosexuality dismissed by the party as mere ‘bourgeois decadence’. (Althusser was to remain a leading Marxist influence on students at the ENS for well over thirty years, until he strangled his wife in 1981. As a result, he spent his last decade confined in an asylum, where he wrote a brilliant autobiography in which he confessed how little Marx he had actually read).

In 1951 Foucault took his final exams, achieving a brilliant result – as usual, on the second try. He was now faced with the prospect of military service. His record of ‘depression’, however, together with what appears to have been some family string-pulling, ensured that he was excused this waste of two years. He now continued working as an instructor at the ENS, specialising in philosophy and psychology. His interest in the latter led him to become a frequent visitor to the psychiatric unit at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. Here he soon came to be regarded as virtually an unpaid member of staff, and was even allowed to deal with patients in a clinical capacity. Back at the ENS he became renowned for giving students Rorschach association tests ‘so I can know what’s on their mind’.

But all this was more than just inkblot tests on good-looking students, and a former patient helping run the asylum. Foucault was now beginning to ask serious questions about psychology, questions that went beyond the promptings of Althusser. How could one study ‘experience’ scientifically? Human existence was not amenable to objective study: it must be approached by way of its humanity. This could be done by studying the very concept of humanity and how it had evolved.

Foucault now discovered the philosopher who was to transform his entire understanding. Chronologically Nietzsche had preceded and heavily influenced Heidegger; it was as if Foucault was discovering the very roots of his own thinking. Through the long hot August of 1953 Foucault lay on the beach at Civitavecchia (the ancient port of Rome), avidly absorbing the message of the ‘philosopher of power’. Nietzsche held up the example of ancient Greece, where the self-destructive forces of Dionysian frenzy achieved both power and beauty when they were contained within the clear, clean discipline of Apollonian form. Both were equally necessary, and this applied to the individual as well as the work of art. The truth about oneself was not ‘something given, something which we have to discover – it is something we must create ourselves’. Even humanity itself was simply a social structure, created by changing and contingent cultural forces. This was just the message that Foucault had been waiting to hear. Before reading Nietzsche, he said he had the feeling he ‘had been trapped’. Now he understood that he was free to create himself as he saw fit.

But there were wider lessons to be learned here. Just as Foucault had suspected, humanity could be studied only by tracing the history of its development. It was as if his subjective existence and his understanding of humanity itself had suddenly come together. He read: ‘Man needs what is most evil in him to achieve what is best in him…. The secret of harvesting the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from existence is – to live dangerously.’ Indeed, it was the erotic that drove one to the limits of possibility. Despite such bravado, Nietzsche had almost entirely repressed his own sexuality. But Nietzsche’s message was music to a sadomasochist’s ears. And from here it was just one step to the larger picture: Nietzsche’s stress on the central role of power in all human activity struck Foucault like a thunderbolt. This was how the world worked!

Life wasn’t all philosophy, of course. Foucault was, after all, living in Paris. The up-and-coming young psychologist-cum-philosopher had now begun to socialise in the intellectual cafés of the Left Bank. One night he struck up a conversation with a young composer named Jean Barraqué. Foucault enjoyed contemporary classical music, without fully comprehending its technical complexities. Yet he soon decided that Barraqué was ‘one of the most brilliant and underrated composers of the present generation’. (Besides being a classic example of psychological self-displacement, this also turned out to be a unique judgement of great foresight, to be confirmed only after both men were dead).

Barraqué was two years younger than Foucault, an intense, highly strung artist who wore glasses to counteract his frowning shortsightedness. He drank heavily, but his powerful modernist music was suffused with clarity and formal precision. He too was a fervent admirer of Nietzsche. Foucault and Barraqué were instantly attracted to each other and were soon passionately in love. Intense philosophical discussion, alcoholic abandon, sado-masochistic sex – such were the intoxicating ingredients of their frenzied affair. Foucault was utterly absorbed; Barraqué both gave, and possessively demanded, everything. For Foucault, his life had invaded his thought, and his thought had invaded his life. For both men, music and philosophy became one. Barraqué’s Séquence, which contains a Nietzschean text suggested by Foucault, has the lines: ‘Must we not hate ourselves if we are to love ourselves…. I am your labyrinth.’ The sexuality that was sublimated in Nietzsche was lived by Barraqué and Foucault. At the same time the character of this music was to be uncannily prescient where Foucault’s historical and philosophical understanding was concerned. Another piece of Barraqué’s music from this period was described as ‘a summit of agonizing grandeur; the relentless process is coming to an end now, and Music cracks under the inhuman strain, disintegrates and is sucked into the void. Whole slabs of sound crumble and vanish beneath the all-engulfing ocean of silence.’ Not only music but history and truth could be like this, Foucault was beginning to realise. And so could love.

But no relationship could last at such a frenzied pitch. Barraqué’s possessiveness developed into a paranoid jealousy; Foucault’s wayward independence was beginning to feel stifled. And both men were aware that their drinking was getting out of hand. After one particularly volcanic row, they decided that a cooling-off period might be advisable. In August 1955 Foucault accepted a junior post at the University of Uppsala in southern Sweden. Although both men promised otherwise, their relationship would not survive the long separations they now experienced. (Barraqué continued to compose, but never again at such a pitch. His behaviour became increasingly erratic, and he died in 1973 of alcoholism).
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