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Michel Foucault, born Paul-Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984), was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought," and also taught at the University at
Buffalo and the University of California, . Berkeley
In his methodological work Archaeology of knowledge, Foucault begins by questioning the various categories that are commonly used to organise written material, namely the author, the ‘work’ and the book. These categories might appear to be obvious, but on closer examination, this is far from being the case. For instance, are novels, a mathematical text book, or a road map all the same kind of object? Can we simply lump together texts which have been published by an author under his own name, under a pseudonym, or his collected works published after his death, his laundry lists or his insane jottings after he has gone completely mad? By drawing attention to these kinds of uncertainties and the fluidity of categorisation, Foucault aims to demonstrate that the categories we take for granted could quite well be replaced by others based on different organisational principles and assumptions.
In this book, Foucault examines how it is that madness comes to be defined as an illness. He argues that organic pathology and mental pathology form two separate orders and the attempt to reduce them to the same thing poses a number of significant problems. He briefly examines the social functioning of madness in non-Western societies, and offers a historical account from the Middle Ages to the present of the Western view of madness. He also addresses the relation between madness and truth in Western history. The characterisation of madness as ‘mental illness’ is a phenomenon, he says, that dates only from the nineteenth century. In many ways Mental Illness and Psychology provides a very useful potted summary of Foucault’s much longer and more elaborate work on madness published in 1961.
Madness and civilisation:
Foucault examines the ways in which a certain experience of the limits of human experience – namely madness – has been given cultural form from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century in European history.
He deals with the economic, institutional, medical, philosophical, ethical, political, literary and artistic practices which have helped define madness as a cultural and social category and also as an object of knowledge and science.
Foucault argues that during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, madness formed a kind of general conduit for what he terms the ‘tragic experience’ (MC: 31) – namely an awareness of death, truth, other realms and the general fragility of ordinary everyday life. People who were mad were as a consequence granted a kind of grudging respect.
However, this was to change in the seventeenth century with what Foucault terms the ‘Great Confinement’, a movement across
Europe which saw the establishment of institutions which locked up people who were deemed to be ‘unreasonable’. This not only included mad people, but the unemployed, single mothers, defrocked priests, failed suicides, heretics, prostitutes, debauchees – in short anyone who was deemed to be socially unproductive or disruptive.
Foucault nominates 1656, the date of the decree which founded the Hôpital Général in
, as a symbolic landmark date to indicate this general movement of confinement. He then traces the gradual separation of mad people from other ‘unreasonable’ populations and the final emergence of madness as an object of science towards the end of the eighteenth century. By this stage, madness is no longer a voice reminding all people of the frailty of human existence, but is the silent object of medical science shut away and invisible in institutions. No longer madness, but mental illness. In Foucault’s account, if the avowed aim of psychiatrists and others was to render the treatment of mad people more humane, in removing the physical chains, they merely substituted the far more insidious chains of science and moral training. Paris
Like many of Foucault’s other writings on literature in the 1960s, it is more notable for its poetic rather than its explanatory value. The same themes emerge in The Birth of the Clinic (BC) and if this book on the whole lacks the gothic attractions of Madness and Civilisation, opting for a more restrained approach (notwithstanding a few notable literary outbursts), it has also become a standard text in the history of medicine.
The Birth of the Clinic traces the origins of modern clinical medicine in
at the end of the eighteenth century during the period 1769–1825. Traditional histories of medicine have argued that at this time dubious medical practices based on superstition, magic and a blind reliance on ancient texts were replaced by an enlightened empirical science based on the observation of the real world and data to hand. Foucault, however, provides a different account. What changed, he says, was both how illness and how the doctor were defined and how these two terms were related. It was not that the new doctor suddenly saw what had been invisible to those blinded by superstition and an over reliance on ancient texts, rather, the new doctor started looking in a different way at a differently constructed object of scientific knowledge, namely illness. France
If, in Madness and Civilization, Foucault focuses primarily on the changes in the way a particular object (madness) is historically constructed, in The Birth of the Clinic, he also focuses in addition on the way knowers (that is doctors) are constructed. He traces this transformation by examining medical theories and practices as well as political, institutional and social changes in Revolutionary France.
In parallel to his examination of the formation of medical knowledge, Foucault also looks at the political, social and institutional changes which occurred at the same time. It is important to emphasise that in Foucault’s analysis it is not a question of one set of changes ‘influencing’ or ‘causing’ others, but of a complex series of interactions which allow the production of possible objects of knowledge. For example, although institutional and funding structures might favour the development of a particular type of research, these structures in themselves do not determine the eventual research findings. The political and economic situation in
at the end of the eighteenth century produced a radical change in the general social and political status of medicine. From being ‘“The dry and sorry analysis of millions of infirmities” the dubious negation of the negative’ (BC: 34) medicine became linked to the positive political task of establishing a population and a nation State, healthy and productive in mind, body and behaviour. These were themes that Foucault was to develop at length in his work during the 1970s. France
Illness is a disorder, a dangerous limit to everyday orderly existence. Science attempts to deal with this disorder by making illness and those who are ill the object of orderly categories of knowledge. Foucault had earlier described an identical process in relation to madness which became the foundation of a new science of psychiatry which also sought to reduce the dangers such limit-experiences represented.
The key term that commentators and researchers have retained from The Birth of the Clinic is ‘the gaze’, a notion that resonates with Foucault’s later popular idea of a society centred around surveillance. In clinical medicine, knowledge was ordered around visible structures. Illnesses displayed themselves in concrete physical symptoms that could be observed and read by doctors who had been taught how to read them. ‘The gaze’ at the end of the eighteenth century was aimed at revealing what had hitherto remained hidden and unseen not only in the physical body but also in the social and political body. Visibility could dissipate both disease and political and social tyranny.
It emerges in a time when French structuralism is full fledged developed theoretical paradigm and this work is hailed by the media as a major contribution to that theory. Being one of the most difficult books by him, it deals with the history and pre-history of the modern disciplines of linguistics, biology and economics from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, with a concluding chapter on the human sciences which include history, sociology, psychoanalysis and ethnology. Foucault was to say later that the book was aimed at a specialist audience of historians of science and scientists (1974e: 524. Cf. 1980e: 267, 270) and there is no doubt that it is hard going for non-specialists – but it was not his specialist findings that made the book famous.
Using historical analysis, he launched a full-scale attack on established post-war philosophies namely humanism, Marxism, phenomenology, existentialism and scientific rationalism. He caused a media storm by declaring that ‘man was dead’ and that Marxism was a mere storm in a children’s paddling pool (OT: 262). As a further aggravation, in the later foreword to the English edition, Foucault heaped scorn on those ‘half-witted “commentators”’ in France who had tried to explain his outrageous critiques of so many ideological icons as one of the hallmarks of ‘structuralism’ (OT: xiv).
In more specific terms, Foucault focuses on the historical transformations affecting three areas of knowledge which up until the end of the eighteenth century were described as general grammar, the analysis of wealth and natural history. He argues that in 19th century these areas were crystallised in philology, political economy and biology. These very diverse areas were organised in very similar ways at the same points in history, and also underwent major reorganisations at roughly the same points in history. Foucault argues that until the end of the sixteenth century in
Europe, it was the notion of resemblance that structured knowledge. So, in medicine for instance, if a plant (such as aconite) looked like an eye then this was a sign that it was good for diseases of the eye, just as walnuts which looked like brains were good for head wounds and the brain (OT: 27). All of nature was one huge book which could be read and interpreted by those who knew how to decipher the signs and marks God had left in nature. The scriptures and the books left by Antiquity were on an equal footing with the Book of Nature (OT: 33–4). This structure of knowledge which required people to seek out signs and resemblances and then to interpret them, was replaced by a different system in the seventeenth century which ordered things into tables and compared and measured them against each other. Identity and difference, rather than resemblance, became the way of relating different objects to each other.
If the Renaissance had seen the whole world as a kind of primary language which needed to be made to speak through the secondary languages of commentary and exegesis, the Classical Age which followed it, did away with this ‘massive and intriguing existence of language’ (OT: 79). Hence, argues Foucault, language is no longer a secondary commentary on a primary text, instead it becomes discourse, a way of speaking, arranging and presenting representations of the world in a logical order.
Another shift occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century and history became the new principle of ordering knowledge, and ‘science’ started to come into its own. Foucault’s discussion of this new configuration is difficult and complex. Knowledge was organised on the principle of stripping away the history that hid its true origins. At the centre of this knowledge was the essence or nature of ‘man’ which could gradually be uncovered by science. The problem with this, Foucault says, is that the idea of a human nature or essence is a metaphysical one – a belief – yet at the same time it has been set up as the object of empirical knowledge – a fact. Foucault argues that because the human sciences rest on this shaky foundation, they are fundamentally flawed in their approach to knowledge. He maintains that another break in knowledge is occurring in the contemporary era and the essence of man as the centre and foundation of all knowledge is dissolving.
After Order of things Foucault produces his archaeology which is a must read for people interested in historiography and method. Foucault describes traditional ways of organising ‘discourse’ such as the work, the author, the great man, the unifying universal subject, cause and effect, and influence, and then systematically takes these categories apart and proposes alternative methods of organisation. He also advocates a principle of discontinuity, by which he means that difference at every level in history should always be drawn attention to, not explained away.
In 1970, upon appointed as a Chair to College de France, Foucault delivered his inaugural lecture, known as Order of Discourse, published in 1971. This short work is usually recognised as the text that marks the transition between Foucault’s works on ‘discourse’ and those on ‘power’. Once again, it is a methodological work and continues Foucault’s attack on traditional ways of writing history. It deals with the way discourse is controlled, limited and defined by exercises of power and draws attention to the way boundaries between the true and the false are erected within this context. The idea of a link between knowledge and power (or various political, economic and institutional arrangements) had always been a theme in Foucault’s work even if it is not overtly stated, but this text marks his first extended use of the word power.
His next major work Discipline and Punish (DP) draws indirectly on his experience in this domain and famously opens with a lurid account of the torture and execution of the regicide Damiens in 1757.
This is followed by a far more sedate description of a prison timetable in 1838. Foucault’s point is that in the intervening period, spectacular corporal punishment disappeared to be replaced by new forms of punishment in the shape of imprisonment and the deprivation of liberty. Traditionally, historians have argued that this change occurred because people and society had become more humane and ‘civilized’. Foucault rejects this kind of explanation and suggests instead that the old methods of punishment had simply become inefficient. Too many wrongdoer were escaping the arm of the law and public executions were no longer acting as a salutary warning to the rest of the populace. Instead public executions were actually inciting people to crime and public disorder, providing the occasion for riots, and all sorts of other minor crimes such as pick-pocketing.
Foucault argues that prison was chosen as the preferred method of punishment in Western Europe, not because it was the most effective means of punishment, but rather because it fitted in best with the emergence of what he describes as a ‘disciplinary society’. By this, he means a certain way of acting upon and training the body and behaviour so that the individuals who make up populations could be easily controlled. This training was enforced and practised through a number of institutions, many of which appeared at the same time as the prison – namely schools, military training institutions, factories, hospitals and so on. The smooth functioning and enforcement of this ‘disciplinary society’ was guaranteed by a system of social surveillance. Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s model prison, the Panopticon, to serve as a metaphor for the way this system of surveillance operated and continues to operate within the social body.
Foucault’s book appeared on the scene in the context of severe unrest in prisons in a number of countries, and also amidst intense theoretical discussion focussing on both power and the body – it made a key contribution to these debates. If the book concludes its history in 1840 with the official opening of the model prison camp of Mettray in
, it was read as a damning indictment of the contemporary social order. As Foucault said himself five years after its publication: ‘the research ends in the 1830s. Yet … readers, critics or not, saw it as a description of contemporary society as a society of confinement’ (1980e: 243–4 mod.). France