Michel Foucault’s Interpretive Analytics

The provocative and influential French thinker, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), challenged the fundamental Western liberal assumptions, originating in the Enlightenment, that history is the objective story of society in progress and that mankind can be defined in terms of an unchanging human nature. Since science has been the guarantor of progress in liberalism, Foucault’s work strikes hard at science. Nonetheless, his radically revisionist historiography initially stimulated primarily literary critics and cultural historians, and had only marginal impact on the mainstream practice of the history of science. In the mid 1980s Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (1983, rev. ed., 1989) opened professional history of science to Foucault’s influence. Bowler presented Foucault’s thesis from The Order of Things as a credible interpretation of the pre-Darwinian history of evolutionary ideas. As the most widely used teaching text on the history of evolution, Bowler’s work forced historians of biology to deal with Foucault.

In this brief article, I review eight aspects of Foucault’s work: (1) his general thesis about the history of the West; (2) his interpretation of the history of science; (3) his thesis about power, (4) his vision of society; (5) his methodology; (6) my interpretation of Foucault’s vision of society, (7) the relation of his work to Martin Heidegger’s philosophical project, and (8) a summary characterization of Foucault’s theory. Also, I provide references.

(1) The history of the West. Running through all of Foucault’s books is a large background thesis about the history of the West. Foucault believed that the modality of Being of Western mankind did not remain constant, but changed fundamentally. The most important change came toward the end of the eighteenth century. Western man’s phenomenological horizon ruptured, opening a space in which he constituted his self as a subject of study in a profoundly new way. The novelty of this self-reconstitution had to do with the unprecedented totalization of Western man’s world.

Foucault’s thesis has to be stated in special philosophical language, because more obvious terminology reflects points of view Foucault rejected. For instance, we might gloss Foucault’s thesis as claiming that human nature changed over history and because of history. Foucault rejected talk of human nature, however, because he did not think man had a “human nature.” He rejected the possibility of a philosophical anthropology on which talk of human nature is necessarily based. Foucault also did not derive his thesis from cultural anthropology. As a modern science, cultural anthropology is itself a product of the Western modality of Being as reconstituted in the late eighteenth century. To understand Foucault’s philosophical language, we must learn more about his thesis and its sources.

Foucault’s large background thesis has been obscured for many readers by the provocative and counter-intuitive claims he made in subsidiary theses. At one time or another, he argued, that all social relations are produced by “power”; that classes in power create themselves, and mask their self constitution, by negatively constituting other classes as Other; that science is not an objective study of nature; that the social progress claimed by Western liberalism, such as the advance of individual freedom, has really involved new forms of maintenance of old power relations; that definition of sexuality in terms of two essential genders is distinctly modern and was created as part of social power relations. In employing these theses, Foucault turned upside down treasured, conventional notions of modern bourgeois society. For instance, he argued that the study of “insane mentality” reveals the essence of rationality and that normal sexual behavior is a cloaked version of the “abnormal.” In other words, Foucault collapsed distinctions between normality and abnormality, and between centricity and marginality. Return to Contents Paragraph

(2) The history of science. Foucault’s scholarly project focused on the history of the modern human sciences. His thesis about the pre-Darwinian history of evolution theory (The Order of Things, 1970), particularly engaged mainstream historians of science. He argued that Cuvier, conventionally considered the arch-opponent of transmutation (as evolutionary theory before Darwin was called), was actually the great innovator. Cuvier’s revision of the underlying logic of biological taxonomy and theory of comparative anatomy created an intellectual opening in which Darwinian evolutionary theory could be created. Foucault relegated Lamarck, whom historians considered the most important precursor of Darwin, to a prior era of closed taxonomy out of which true evolutionary theory could not emerge.

Foucault’s argument looked at an underlying, “preconceptual” level of cultural mentality (Archaeology, 60-63), lying beyond the reach of conscious theorizing by scientists. He called this hypothetical construct by different names in different books – “episteme”, “discursive formation,” “conditions of emergence of discourse,” for example. The different names all pointed to a similar idea: that a society in an historical epoch shared an unconscious cultural formation which set up the rules of reasoning of science and the codes of cultural thought. The existence of this formation was not a choice or a fundamental project of the society (Archaeology, 69-70). The logic, the taxonomy, and the theoretical possibility of kinds of scientific theorizing emerged out of this formation. Science could not independently test its own deep assumptions, that is, the assumptions that made science “science” to begin with. Scientists thinking scientific thoughts had a modality of Being in the world just as much a product of historicity as ordinary persons, artists, and politicians.

Furthermore, all scientific investigation and social discussion (“discourses”) about human nature, cultural activity, and social history, emerged from societal agents engaged in processes of social control, that is, of power. Power brought “objective” scientific knowledge into being. “Objectivity” was relative to power. Stabilization of social distribution of power set up long historical epochs when the socially constructed features of knowledge remained frozen in “discursive formations.” Ideas became reified. The social relations of power were masked by canons of legitimacy internalized by persons who accepted – whether they knew it or not – the distribution of power in society. Science was certainly “about truth,” but science was also about power. “Power” produced and controlled the epistemology, theoretic structure, and taxonomy of formal knowledge. Power produced and controlled the cultural codes by which groups acted out their roles. Power produced and controlled the voluble social discourses between diverse ethnic groups and classes of modern society. Foucault’s radical project amounted to the complete historicizing of scientific knowledge and of human cultures. Return to Contents Paragraph

(3) Power.Commentators cannot agree on Foucault’s accomplishment, in part because Foucault spoke elusively about the key concept of his work – his concept of “power.” Also, he rejected the easy interpretations of what he meant by “power.” In this section, I review briefly what Foucault says power is not. I then suggest approaching Foucault’s concept of power indirectly, by examining his vision of society. If we can figure out his vision of society, we might be able to identify the kind of power that existed in such a society and that produced the “problématiques”, whose genealogy Foucault traced.

Foucault said that by “power” he did not refer to the coercion based on police power with which a ruling class suppresses other classes. The employment of court injunctions and militias to break up strikes, often employed by American capitalists at the end of the nineteenth century, the use of legislation to strip one group of the benefits of citizenship, as the Nazi government did to German Jews, the use of the military to destroy rebellion as many European nations did to local opposition to their colonial rule – these are all striking examples of the sordid, point to point, employment of power; but they are not what Foucault meant by “power.” Foucault said that he did not mean by power what is now fashionably called “cultural hegemony” – the use of the law and the legitimating authority of public institutions, such as schools, to inculcate in suppressed groups the false belief that they were not suppressed or that their suppression was in their own interest. Foucault did not mean by “power” the cultural capability of ruling classes or castes to impose cultural norms on subject people, for instance, to convince working classes that repression of libido was morally desirable or that certain proscribed behaviors, such as homosexuality, were “abnormal.” Foucault did not deny many such examples of blatant exercise of power, but he rejected them as not fundamental, because the amount of power they expressed was insufficient to shape or transform society in the ways he perceived “power” as doing. Power had to be positive as well as negative. Power had to create new forms of behavior, new modes of self understanding, and new codes of meaning, as well as restrain behaviors opposed to a ruling class.

Scholars have suggested several interpretations of the generalized, positive social power by which Foucault believed social dominance was maintained. One scholar suggested that “power” was analogous to “social consensus,” a familiar sociological concept in mainstream structural-functionalism in the United States. Foucault rejected this analogy, since it appeared to reduce “power” to a technique of psychological investment. Other scholars suggested that “power” was analogous to Rousseau’s “general will” of the people, in which democratic societies grounded their sovereignty. Foucault rejected this suggestion as tying the concept of power – through the concept of sovereignty – to particular political positions. Marxist scholars suggest that Foucault’s concept of power is analogous to Marx’s concept of “over-determination.” This Marxist concept means that everything in society determines everything else, as society developed according to economic laws. Marxists use the over-determination concept to refute the crude mis-interpretation of Marxist social theory, which says, erroneously, that economic institutions “determine” cultural forms, as if cultural forms had no influence on their own. Foucault allowed that this concept of over-determination was close to how power manifested itself in society, but he rejected the notion of any fundamental economic laws.

In interviews with scholars, eager to make concrete sense of Foucault’s theory of power, Foucault did provide several positive hints as to what he meant. He said that power is like war, and power is like language. By these hints, he appeared to mean that “power” is a generalized social situation of conflict held together or motivated by distinctive rules. I believe that these hints provide unintended insight into the psychological origin of Foucault’s concept of power, as well as to its scholarly meaning in his theory. I wish to approach these hints indirectly by looking at Foucault’s vision of society. Return to Contents Paragraph

(4) Vision of society. Foucault’s work concerns Western culture in four major periods – Hellenic Greece and pre-Christian Classical Rome (two periods that he lumps together as “antiquity”), Seventeenth and eighteenth century France (which he calls the “classical period”), and nineteenth century France (the “modern” period). He is interested in the shift from Ancient to Classical cultures, from the Renaissance to Modern times, and from the pre-French Revolution ancien régime to the post-French Revolution Modern epoch. The French revolution was crucial for Foucault, because it introduced the political mentality of totalization that laid the basis for the reformation of the scientific episteme and the reconceptualization of major scientific and medical phenomena (Birth of the Clinic, 28-31, 38). Foucault also suggested (Order of Things, 385) that the modern era in the study of man was (in the post ww2 era) coming to an end. This thesis that our present era is “post modern” has since become familiar. Except for his last work in which he addressed Greek and Roman cultures of sexuality, Foucault looked at Western history through French history with little detailed attention to English, German, or Italian history. (This focus on French history is distinct from Foucault’s indebtedness to non-French historians and philosophers. Indeed, his largest debt for his historical thesis – the emergence of a new historical mode of Being at the beginning of the modern epoch-is to the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.)

In discussing all of these different periods and culture, Foucault wove his analyses around three social constructs, as if he believed these societies shared some unity: class (or caste), command economics, and the state. He also referenced (though not frequently) the idea that these social constructs reflected the fundamental need of societies to marshal economic resources to keep themselves going. This reference probably grew out of the influence of Marxism on his early writings. Foucault was not a Marxist, however, because he clearly did not think that economic laws drove history. Rather, he thought that power arranged itself socially most efficiently and effectively through classes or castes, using command economics, and by aligned classes with the powers of the state. Marxists believed the free market had the greatest role in driving social change in modern capitalism; Foucault did not.

Using the three concepts of class, command, and state, Foucault characterized different Western societies in similar terms. These features were present all periods, but they became stronger in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All societies have classes (i.e., classes pre-exist the industrial revolution). All societies were hierarchically organized. All states were administrative. All had administrative collective institutions (army, hospitals, etc.) that executed the will of the state. Social behaviors were produced (or generated or proliferated) in institutional settings in which behavior was regulated (by “systems of power”), and in which persons were brought to see themselves as “subjects” of the regulation. The major problem of government was sovereignty and the organization of sovereignty vis a vis the subjects of sovereignty. Foucault saw the “state” as co-extensive with “society.”

Foucault discussed even the Ancient Greek city-state and the Classical Roman state as if city, state, and society were largely one and the same. (Sexuality, II: 121) Ancient Greece did not have a market society, but a command economy; “markets” and “marketplaces” were civic institutions. The model for Greek command economy and command society was the patriarchal household. Social relations were conceptualized by the Ancient Greeks themselves and by Foucault in terms of dominance and subordination. In Ancient Greece, politics was fiat (Sexuality, II:167)

Despite the appearance of some apparently familiar language and concepts in Foucault’s social description, Foucault denied that Western societies were ever what most Western social thinkers have thought they were. Here is a brief recitation. (i) Foucault’s vision of society was not Lockean. Foucault never described society, even when discussing nineteenth century Western liberalism, in terms of voluntarism and the free negotiation of social relations between individuals. He did not use Hobbes’ or Locke’s concepts of contract. (ii) Foucault never characterized Western society after the Renaissance as Weberian. He did not discuss a bureaucratic, collective society with an inherent tendency toward bureaucratic rationalization. (iii) Foucault did not describe modern society in Spencerian terms of free markets of capital and labor. He did not see markets as ruled by the laws of the market. He did not use John Stuart Mill’s language of individualism. (iv) Foucault did not describe social change in William Graham Sumner’s familiar evolutionary language of cultural folkways, of slowly evolving cooperative institutions functionally adapting to a Lyellian natural environment and a Malthusian social environment. He did not see society organically unified in analogy to the biological organism. (v) Foucault did not think that society built itself up from individual role-playing and elementary social institutions on the basis of a consensus of values as did Talcott Parsons, the great American theorist of structural functionalism of the 1950s. (vi) Foucault did not utilize Marxist theory of conflict or contradiction between opposed social-economic classes. Though Foucault acknowledged the social presence of collective institutions, of liberal economic and social forms, of individuals, and of values that bind and interests that divide, of social conflict and contradiction, he rejected all of the major Western traditions of social and economic interpretation of the West of the past three hundred years. Since one or other of these traditions provides the vocabulary that scholars use today to discuss the history of the West, no one has been able to discuss Foucault’s theory except in indirect terms.

Foucault believed that seeing Western society as the product of “power” made it impossible to see the West in terms of freedom. Since all Western social theory has been based on assumptions of the real meaningfulness of freedom, Foucault could not use them. Foucault’s story of the West is not the story of freedom. Return to Contents Paragraph

(5) Methodology. Foucault was not a social theorist. He felt no compulsion to create a social theory that would “explain” or “interpret” the history of the West in terms of “power.” He was not a historian of ideas. He presented himself as an “archaeologist,” who must be content with describing the invisible cultural formations that, he believed, produced the visible social and literary evidence he examined. He sought the conditions of possibility of discourse, the rules which governed the putting together of statements, and the ruptures in formations where novelty could appear. “Archaeology tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules.” (Archaeology, 138) Return to Contents Paragraph

(6) An interpretation of Foucault’s vision of society. We can at most glimpse Foucault’s vision of European society. Foucault’s early works point to what was probably Foucault’s conscious model of power: the ancien régime of the centralized administrative monarchical French state of the 17th and 18th century.

Despite Foucault’s immersion in French history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, however, he had no personal experience of it that might have fostered the intense motivation of rejection of all conventional interpretive models. There was, however, a different “monarchical administrative state” based on power that he did personally experience, though he did not mention it in his scholarly writings. This was Nazi occupied Vichy France of the second world war. Born in 1926, Foucault was thirteen years old when France fell to Hitler’s armies. He grew up during his formative adolescent years, experiencing his intellectual, sexual, and political coming of age, in the occupied provincial town of Poitiers. His family’s Catholic faith, observance of Catholic ritual, and years of schooling in Catholic schools reinforced the atmosphere of coercive administrative regulation that generated Foucault’s personality and self-understanding.

The few known details of Foucault’s life in these years testify to the social mystery of coercive power diffused so completely through society that brutal display of police power by the Nazi occupiers was seldom necessary to compel collaborationist thought and behavior. Foucault remembered himself as a passive observer, witnessing at some emotional distance the appearance and disappearance, flight and arrest, of teachers, town’s people, and relatives in the ruptures and eruptions in the horizon of Nazi authority.

Understanding the psychological origins of theoretical insight does not in any way invalidate (or validate) the insight. It only helps us to understand the nature of the insight. With Foucault’s youthful experience of the Nazi collaborationist state, diffused by coercion, in mind, we can now see what Foucault’s theory of “power” means. Foucault would no doubt object to my psychological reading of his theory; nonetheless, I believe that his theory of power represents a projection of a “hostage” psychology. Several decades of study by experts of terrorists and hostages have convinced them of the reality of a psychological transformation the hostage undergoes during captivity. Studies of the psychology of abused women who remain within abusive marriages have reinforced this portrait. The hostage is taken against her will. Prolonged dependency for survival of the hostage on the will of the terrorists leads to a psychological switch, in which the hostage comes to identify with the captor and with the captor’s perspective. Long term hostages, like abused women, will often try to explain sympathetically their captors’ point of view. In other words, involuntary captivity in conditions of absolute power over life and death often lead to a collaborationist mentality and the concomitant masking of the relationship of power and dependence from the victim’s own perception. Absolute power determines everything about the captivity, but the power is invisible; it is everywhere and nowhere. Return to Contents Paragraph

(7) Foucault and Heidegger’s existentialism. Much of the difficulty with Foucault’s thesis is that it is disguised philosophy. This is clear by examining the relationship between Foucault’s background thesis about the history of the West and Martin Heidegger’s theory of Being. One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Heidegger elaborated a philosophy of “phenomenological existentialism.” Heidegger tried to account for (descriptively, without explaining) the structure of human consciousness – that is, the organization of our conscious experience into, for instance, subject and object (“I” and “you”, “I” and “it”), attention, expectation, memory, the sense of the past, and the sense of the future. Human beings live “in history,” something (presumably) no other organism does. Heidegger did not think that these structures pre-existed experience, but came into existence as experience was generated.

Without going into a detailed explication of a very complicated philosophy, we may jump to Heidegger’s main conclusion. Heidegger believed that one of the major characteristics of twentieth century man’s consciousness is its experience of the world as technology. Modern man experiences himself, his domestic world, and his larger social world as utilities for his needs and purposes. Moreover, this “technologization” of man’s experience is total. Everything about our experience is technological, including our experience of other persons.

Heidegger had a quasi-historical thesis concerning his theory of consciousness. He believed that technological consciousness is not an essential part of being human, but a change from an earlier way of being. Once man experienced the world so that metaphysics was real; now man no longer does. Critics of Heidegger eventually came to see Heidegger’s thesis as a complicated anti-modernism. Heidegger was saying, in effect, that modern man has lost a sense of the sacred – a religious way of being in the world. Technology is a “total” world for modern man, because modern man has relinquished his dependence upon an ultimate “other,” that is, upon God. Without dependency upon God, man is completely inside technology, with no glimpse of any thing or being which he cannot use technologically, such as God. (In Augustinian theology and German Lutheran theology, the two traditions of religious thought present in Heidegger, man has no capability to influence God’s grace; hence man cannot technologize his relation to God.) Heidegger presented his theory as a philosopher, not a historian, and did not seek “historical” evidence for it (which is why I have labeled his theory as “quasi-historical”). Heidegger even claimed, in Being and Time (1927), that historical evidence was irrelevant to it. Nonetheless, his theory clearly implied that historians should find in man’s literary and cultural production some evidence of a changed consciousness, a changed way of being in the world. This is what Foucault looked for.

Foucault’s work can be consistently interpreted as providing the historical evidence of Heidegger’s thesis of a change in man’s Being. Foucault also provided a date for the change: the era of the French Revolution. During that time, Western man’s “world” transformed totally, so that man became the object of technological manipulation and “objective” scientific study; i.e., Western man became technologized, treating himself, as well as other persons, as objects, just as Heidegger described. Return to Contents Paragraph

(8) Summary.We are now, finally, in a position to characterize Foucault’s theory. Foucault’s theory is political. Politics concerns the ultimate operation of power in the distribution of social resources. Foucault’s concerns were ultimately “political” by this definition. Even more, Foucault’s “explanation” of the nature of Western history was also “political.” Foucault saw Western man’s Being as a product of political epochs of history. Economic and social institutions and cultural forms, including technology, were simply characteristic constructions of particular political worlds, just as in Heidegger’s phenomenological theory the “I” and “you” and “it” of experience are constructions of the technological mode of Being of “modernity.” Return to Contents Paragraph

References : Bibliography of Works

James Bernauer and Thomas Keenan, “The Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984,” in James Bernauer and David Rasmussen, eds., The Final Foucault. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988. Return to Contents Paragraph

References: Works in order of original French publication

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. 1961. Softcover edition. New York: New American Library, 1965.

The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Translated from the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith. 1963. Softcover edition. New York: Vintage Books, Inc., 1973.

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Science. A Translation of Les Mots et les choses. 1966. New York: Pantheon Books, 1970.

The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. Translated from the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith. 1969. 1971. Softcover edition. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated from the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith. 1975. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. Translated by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper. Softcover edition. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

The History of Sexuality. Volume I. An Introduction. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. 1976. Softcover edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

The History of Sexuality. Volume II. The Use of Pleasure. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. 1984. Softcover edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

The History of Sexuality. Volume III. The Use of Pleasure. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. 1984. Softcover edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

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References: Biography

David Macey. The Lives of Michel Foucault. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

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References: Studies

Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 1982. Second edition. Softcover edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Gary Gutting, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Softcover reprint. Cambridge, England/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Gary Gutting. Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason. Softcover reprint. Cambridge, England/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.