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Michel Foucault

A Brief Overview

His Work
His writings have had an enormous impact on
other scholarly work: Foucault's influence extends
across the humanities and social sciences, and
across many applied and professional areas of
Hes well known for his critiques of various social
institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine and
the prison system, and also for his ideas on the
history of sexuality.
His general theories concerning power and the
relation between power and knowledge, as well as
his ideas concerning "discourse" in relation to the

Brief Overview
history of Western thought have been widely
discussed and applied.
Foucault was also opposed to all social
constructs that implied an identity, which included
everything from the identity of male/female and
homosexuality, to that of criminals and political
His work is often described as postmodernist or
post-structuralist by contemporary commentators
and critics.

Brief Overview
During the 1960s, however, he was more often
associated with the structuralist movement.
Although he was initially happy to go along with
this description, he later emphasized his
distance from the structuralist approach, arguing
that unlike the structuralists he did not adopt a
formalist approach.
Neither was he interested in having the
postmodern label applied to his own work,
saying he preferred to discuss how 'modernity'
was defined.

Many thinkers have criticized Foucault, ranging
from Jrgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida to
Slavoj iek.
While each of them takes issue with different
aspects of Foucault's work, all of these approaches
share the same basic orientation:
Foucault seems to reject the liberal values and
philosophy associated with the Enlightenment while
simultaneously secretly relying on them.

They argue that this failure either makes him

dangerously nihilistic, or that he cannot be taken
seriously in his disavowal of normative values and
in fact his work ultimately presupposes them.


Some historians as well as others have also

criticized Foucault for his use of historical
information, claiming that he frequently
misrepresented things, got his facts wrong, or
simply made them up entirely.
Perhaps the most notable of these was Jacques
Derrida's extensive critique of Foucault's reading
of Rene Descartes' Meditations on First
Derrida's criticism led to a break in their
friendship and marked the beginning of a fifteen


It is important to note that there has been

considerable debate over both these sets of
criticisms and they are not universally accepted as
valid by all critics.
on a number of occasions Foucault took issue with
the first kind of criticism noting that he believed
strongly in human freedom and that his philosophy
was a fundamentally optimistic one, as he believed
that something positive could always be done no
matter how bleak the situation.
In relation to the second criticism, Foucault on a
number of occasions refuted charges of historical
inaccuracy particularly in relation to Madness and

The History of Sexuality

Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were
published before Foucault's death in 1984.
The first and most referenced volume, The Will
to Knowledge translated in 1977, focusing
primarily on the last two centuries, and the
functioning of sexuality as a regime of power
and related to the emergence of biopower.
In this volume he attacks the "repressive
hypothesis," the very widespread belief that we
have, particularly since the 19th century,
"repressed" our natural sexual drives.

The History of Sexuality

The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure
and The Care of the Self dealt with the role of
sex in Greek and Roman antiquity.
Both were published in 1984, the year of
Foucault's death, with the second volume being
translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. A fourth
volume, dealing with the Christian era, was
almost complete at the time of Foucault's death,
but there is as yet no indication that it will be

Basic Tenets of Power

The operation of power cannot be separated from
the treatment of knowledge and discourse.
Forms of domination are built into the very
understanding of the common activity or goods
sought or whatever forms of the substance of a
All individuals exercise, and are subjected to
power through a net-like organization.
Power requires the abandonment of the legal
view that defines power as the enforcement of
the law.

How Power is Enacted

The effectiveness of power increases as the
visibility decreases.
Humans are unaware of the extent to which
power affects lives.
Bio-power, a power over life, exerts a positive
influence on life that drives to control it.
Power is productive and creative, not only
repressive or prohibitive.
Power operates as a creative force that facilitates,
produces and increases qualities and conditions.

How Power is Enacted

Opposition to existing order occurs through
the specific intellectual rather than the
universal intellectual.
Specific intellectuals are ordinary people who
have knowledge of their circumstances and
are able to express themselves independently
of the universal theorizing intellectual.
Universal intellectuals is a defender of natural
rights, an advocate of humanity.

How Power is Enacted

Resistance is discourse that both creates
and constrains.
Critique is a major tool of resistance by saying
things are not "right" as they are.
Only through resistance can reform be found
in places where a particular battle needs to be
fought and won.