Ideas of Michel Foucault, by Theme

[French, 1926 - 1984, Born at Poitiers. Professor at the Collège de France, Paris.]

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1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 2. Ancient Thought
Early Greeks cared about city and companions; later Greeks concentrated on the self
     Full Idea: For early Greeks their techné for life was to take care of the city, of companions (see Plato's 'Alcibiades'). Taking care of yourself for its own sake starts with the Epicureans, and becomes very general in Seneca and Pliny.
     From: Michel Foucault (On the Genealogy of Ethics [1983], p.260)
     A reaction: In Aristotle the two strike me as ideally balanced - to become a wonderful citizen by looking after yourself. Presumably the destruction of the city-states by Alexander took away the motive, and the aim became more private.
1. Philosophy / C. History of Philosophy / 4. Later European Philosophy / c. Eighteenth century philosophy
The big issue since the eighteenth century has been: what is Reason? Its effect, limits and dangers?
     Full Idea: I think the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope, remain the question: What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits and dangers?
     From: Michel Foucault (Space, Knowledge and Power (interview) [1982], p.358)
     A reaction: One can hardly deny the fairness of the question, but I hope that won't prevent us from trying to be rational. Maybe logicians do a better job of clarifying reason than the political and historical speculations of Foucault?
1. Philosophy / D. Nature of Philosophy / 3. Philosophy Defined
Critical philosophy is what questions domination at every level
     Full Idea: In its critical aspect, philosophy is that which calls into question domination at every level
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.300)
     A reaction: A very French view of the subject. It is tempting to say that they had their adolescent outburst in 1789, and it is time to grow up. With rights come responsibilities...
1. Philosophy / H. Continental Philosophy / 1. Continental Philosophy
Philosophy and politics are fundamentally linked
     Full Idea: The relationship between philosophy and politics is permanent and fundamental.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.293)
     A reaction: This idea is one of the biggest gulfs between continental and analytical philosophy. Many aspects of philosophy are turning out to be much more social than analytical philosophers might have thought - epistemology, for example.
1. Philosophy / H. Continental Philosophy / 4. Linguistic Structuralism
Structuralism systematically abstracted the event from sciences, and even from history
     Full Idea: One can agree that structuralism formed the most systematic effort to evacuate the concept of the event, not only from ethnology but from a whole series of other sciences and in the extreme case from history.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.115)
     A reaction: 'Abstract' might be a better word than 'evacuate'. In that sense, this at least seems to have it the right way round - that structure can be abstracted, but in no way can a structure be prior to its components (pace Ladyman, Shapiro etc).
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 2. Logos
When logos controls our desires, we have actually become the logos
     Full Idea: Plutarch says if you have mastered principles then logos will silence your desires like a master silencing a dog - in which case the logos functions without intervention on your part - you have become the logos, or the logos has become you.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.286)
     A reaction: If you believe that logos is pure reason, you might be quite happy with this, but if you thought it was a cultural construct, you might feel that you had been cunningly enslaved. If I ask 'what is 7+6?', logos interrupts me to give the answer.
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 7. Status of Reason
Foucault originally felt that liberating reason had become an instrument of domination
     Full Idea: In early work Foucault writes in opposition to the Enlightenment. ..The reason that was supposed to liberate us has itself become the primary instrument of our domination. ..His heroisation of the mad aims to set up an alternative to the regime of reason.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (works [1978]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 7
     A reaction: Adorno and Horkheimer are cited as background. I hear Spinoza turning in his grave, because right reason could never be an instrument of domination.
3. Truth / A. Truth Problems / 4. Uses of Truth
'Truth' is the procedures for controlling which statements are acceptable
     Full Idea: 'Truth' is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.132)
     A reaction: Foucault is not absurdly relativist about this, but I don't think I agree, even in his terms. In a sexually prudish culture, blunt sexual truths are clearly true to everyone, but totally unacceptable. Society shudders when unacceptable truths are spoken.
3. Truth / A. Truth Problems / 9. Rejecting Truth
Truth doesn't arise from solitary freedom, but from societies with constraints
     Full Idea: Truth isn't a reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.131)
     A reaction: This obviously has a degree of truth in many areas of human belief, but I just don't buy it as an account of Newton's researches into optics, or Lavoisier's chemistry. Politics is more involved once big money is required.
11. Knowledge Aims / A. Knowledge / 1. Knowledge
Why does knowledge appear in sudden bursts, and not in a smooth continuous development?
     Full Idea: How is it that at certain moments and in certain orders of knowledge, there are these sudden take-offs, these hastenings of evolution, these transformations which fail to correspond to the calm, continuist image that is normally accredited?
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.114)
     A reaction: The answer is either in the excitement of a new motivation, which may concern power, or may concern pure understanding - or else it is just that one discovery brings a host of others along with (like discovering DNA).
13. Knowledge Criteria / E. Relativism / 1. Relativism
Foucault challenges knowledge in psychology and sociology, not in the basic sciences
     Full Idea: Foucault's project is to question quite specific claims to cognitive authority, made by many psychologists and social scientists. He has not problems with other domains, such as mathematics and the basic sciences.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (works [1978]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 5
     A reaction: Nowadays we describe his target as Epistemic Injustice (see book of that title by Miranda Fricker).
Saying games of truth were merely power relations would be a horrible exaggeration
     Full Idea: When I talk about power relations and games of truth, I am absolutely not saying that games of truth are just concealed power relations - that would be a horrible exaggeration.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.296)
     A reaction: I take this to be a denial of the more absurd forms of relativism. I think there is an interesting convergence between this kind of continental thinking, and the social view of justification found in the later work of Alvin Goldman.
15. Nature of Minds / B. Features of Minds / 1. Consciousness / a. Consciousness
Unlike Marxists, Foucault explains thought internally, without deference to conscious ideas
     Full Idea: Unlike Marxists, Foucault's project is to offer an internal account of human thinking, without assuming a privileged status for the conscious content of that thought.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (works [1978]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 4
     A reaction: His project is historical. Personally I resent anyone who claims to understand my thought better than I do. I suppose my intellectual duty is to read Foucault, and see (honestly) whether his project applies to me.
16. Persons / E. Rejecting the Self / 2. Self as Social Construct
A subject is a form which can change, in (say) political or sexual situations
     Full Idea: The subject is not a substance but a form, which is not always identical to itself. You do not have the same relation to yourself when you go to vote and when you seek to fulfil your desires in a sexual relationship.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.290)
     A reaction: I don't think I believe this. If it were true, the concept of 'sexual politics' would mean nothing to me. A brutal or sympathetic nature is likely to express itself in both situations.
18. Thought / A. Modes of Thought / 3. Emotions / a. Nature of emotions
Feelings are not unchanging, but have a history (especially if they are noble)
     Full Idea: We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the most noble and disinterested, has a history.
     From: Michel Foucault (Nietzsche, Genealogy, History [1971], p.86), quoted by Johanna Oksala - How to Read Foucault 5
     A reaction: This is the sort of remark that makes me think Foucault is worth reading. Aristotle thought you could teach correct feelings. That implies that you can also teach incorrect feelings.
21. Aesthetics / B. Nature of Art / 8. The Arts / b. Literature
The author function of any text is a plurality of selves
     Full Idea: Foucault maintains that for any 'authored' text a plurality of selves fulfils the author function.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (works [1978]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 2
     A reaction: This is a completely different concept of a 'self' from the one normally found in this database. I would call it the sociological concept of self, as something changing with context. So how many selves is 'Jane Austen'?
22. Metaethics / A. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / b. Defining ethics
Ethics is the conscious practice of freedom
     Full Idea: What is ethics, if not the practice of freedom, the conscious [réfléchie] practice of freedom?
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.284)
     A reaction: Makes Foucault sound very existentialist. I'm not sure I understand this kind of remark, given that serial killers seem to be exceptionally good at 'practising their freedom'. However, the idea is akin to Kant's notion of a truly good will (Idea 3710).
22. Metaethics / B. Value / 2. Values / h. Fine deeds
Why couldn't a person's life become a work of art?
     Full Idea: Couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
     From: Michel Foucault (On the Genealogy of Ethics [1983], p.261)
     A reaction: This sounds wonderfully appealing until I try to think how I would implement it. The Augustine move, from sinner to saint, is a possibility, but there is nothing good about sin. The Christian ideal, of colossal self-sacrifice, can be very heroic.
22. Metaethics / C. The Good / 3. Pleasure / b. Types of pleasure
Greeks and early Christians were much more concerned about food than about sex
     Full Idea: It is interesting to see the very slow move from the privileging of food, which was overwhelming in Greece, to interest in sex. Early Christians (and rules for monks) were more concerned with food. Sex only dominates from the seventeenth century.
     From: Michel Foucault (On the Genealogy of Ethics [1983], p.253)
     A reaction: Certainly the Greeks were obsessed with food, and the Sicilian Greeks were notorious for their love of it. Is it simply that food becomes more plentiful, or does female freedom lead to more sex? Puritanism hates the greatest pleasures the most.
24. Political Theory / A. Basis of a State / 3. Natural Values / c. Natural rights
Nature is not the basis of rights, but the willingness to risk death in asserting them
     Full Idea: The decision 'to prefer the risk of death to the certainty of having to obey' is the 'last anchor point' for any assertion of rights, 'one more solid and closer to the experience than "natural rights"'.
     From: Michel Foucault (works [1978], EW III:449)
     A reaction: I recall a group of Afrikaan men going to face certain death, rather than give up apartheid.
24. Political Theory / B. Nature of a State / 1. Purpose of a State
Every society has a politics of truth, concerning its values, functions, prestige and mechanisms
     Full Idea: Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth - the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms for distinguishing; the means of sanctioning it; the values in its acquisition; the status of its keepers.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.131)
     A reaction: [compressed] This idea is appropriately filed under 'society' rather than under 'truth'. Foucault knows there is a genuine truth beneath the complex social story.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 1. Social Power
Marxists denounced power as class domination, but never analysed its mechanics
     Full Idea: Power in Western capitalism was denounced by the Marxists as class domination; but the mechanics of power in themselves were never analysed.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.117)
     A reaction: This seems to pinpoint Foucault's distinctive contribution to political thought, and it makes him one of the most interesting thinkers in the area. It is a good approach to history, but also to the role of power as a background to conventional thought.
Power doesn't just repress, but entices us with pleasure, artefacts, knowledge and discourse
     Full Idea: If power was only repressive, would we obey it? What makes power accepted is the fact …that it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.120)
     A reaction: Once you present 'power' this way, it permeates so deeply into human activity that it is in danger of becoming a mere triviality of social analysis. Is every conversation that ever took place actually a power struggle?
Foucault can't accept that power is sometimes decent and benign
     Full Idea: It became impossible for Foucault to accept that power is sometimes decent and benign.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (Power/Knowledge [1980]) by Roger Scruton - Upon Nothing: Swansea lecture p.12
     A reaction: Actually Idea 7425 suggests that Foucault has no dream of eliminating power, but he does seem to be utterly in favour of maximum autonomy, and to regard paternalism as inherently evil. What sort of parent would Foucault have been?
The aim is not to eliminate power relations, but to reduce domination
     Full Idea: The problem is not to dissolve power relations in a utopia of transparent communications, but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, the morality, the practice of the self, that allows games of power with minimum domination.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.298)
     A reaction: If you are a democrat it is hard to disagree with this, though I am still unclear why being dominated should rank as a total disaster. A healthy personal relationship might involve domination. 'Management techniques' is interesting.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 3. Government / a. Government
The big question of the Renaissance was how to govern everything, from the state to children
     Full Idea: How to govern was one of the fundamental question of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. ...How to govern children, the poor and beggars, how to govern the family, a house, how to govern armies, different groups, cities, states, and govern one's self.
     From: Michel Foucault (What is Critique? [1982], p.28), quoted by Johanna Oksala - How to Read Foucault 9
     A reaction: A nice example of Foucault showing how things we take for granted (techniques of control) have been slowly learned, and then taught as standard. Of course, the Romans knew how to govern an army.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 4. Changing the State / a. Centralisation
Power is localised, so we either have totalitarian centralisation, or local politics
     Full Idea: Foucault's analysis suggests that meaningful revolution, hence genuine liberation, is impossible: the only alternative to the modern net of micro-centres of power is totalitatian domination. Hence his politics, even when revolutionary, is always local.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish [1977]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 8
     A reaction: It is hard to disagree with this.
25. Social Practice / A. Freedoms / 5. Freedom of lifestyle
Prisons gradually became our models for schools, hospitals and factories
     Full Idea: Foucault's thesis is that disciplinary techniques introduced for criminals became the model for other modern sites of control (schools, hospitals, factories), so that prison discipline pervades all of society.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish [1977]) by Gary Gutting - Foucault: a very short introduction 8
     A reaction: Someone recently designed Foucault Monopoly, where every location is a prison. All tightly controlled organisations, such as a medieval monastery, or the Roman army, will inevitably share many features.
The idea of liberation suggests there is a human nature which has been repressed
     Full Idea: I am somewhat suspicious of the notion of liberation, because one runs the risk of falling back on the idea that there is a human nature, that has been concealed or alienated by mechanisms of repression.
     From: Michel Foucault (Ethics of the Concern for Self as Freedom [1984], p.282)
     A reaction: Personally I think there is (to some extent) a human nature, and that it fails to flourish if it gets too much 'liberation. However, the world contains a lot more repression than liberation, so we should all be fans of liberty.
25. Social Practice / D. Justice / 3. Punishment / d. Reform of offenders
Power is used to create identities and ways of life for other people
     Full Idea: For Foucault power is less about repressing people or issuing commands, and more about producing identities and ways of living.
     From: report of Michel Foucault (works [1978]) by Andrew Shorten - Contemporary Political Theory 01
     A reaction: I take this to be the culmination of the Hegelian view of a person, as largely created by social circumstances rather than by biology. I'm beginning to think that Foucault may be a very important philosopher - although elusive.
25. Social Practice / E. Policies / 5. Education / d. Study of history
History lacks 'meaning', but it can be analysed in terms of its struggles
     Full Idea: History has no 'meaning', but it is not absurd or incoherent. On the contrary, it is intelligible and should be susceptible of analysis down to the smallest detail - but this in accordance with the intelligibility of struggles, of strategies and tactics.
     From: Michel Foucault (Truth and Power (interview) [1976], p.116)
     A reaction: I take this to be an essentially Marxist view, in which one teases out the dialectical processes of any period. I can't think of a better way to approach history. The alternative is to only recount one side of the struggle, which must be bad history.