Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault – An In-Depth Explanation In Clear Language

A brief and easy to understand explanation of the thought of French thinker Michel Foucault, one of the most cited figures in the social sciences.

Do Not Ask Who I Am

Michel Foucault, one of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals, has been categorized in a number of different ways, with some calling him a Marxist, a social constructionist, “intellectually dishonest,” a post-modernist, but also one of the greatest thinkers of the last hundred years.

Foucault, unlike Marx and other intellectuals, didn’t come up with a grand theory, a set of truths, or an ideological framework.

Instead, his life’s work centered on the relationship between ethics, politics, the genealogy of truth, and how the processes of these entities may “have interfered with one another in the formation of a scientific domain, a political structure, and a moral practice (3).”

In his book, Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations, Foucault said he had been “situated in most of the squares of the political checkboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as an anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, a technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal, and so forth (2).”

“None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean (2).”

Michel Foucault enjoyed not the individual descriptions and labels prescribed to him by others, but what all of them mean together, at once.

In other words, Foucault was pleased that no one was able to effectively categorize him. It gave him the freedom to breathe, and the freedom to think outside of a predetermined category.

Throughout his career, Michel insinuated and sometimes outright stated that he didn’t enjoy talking about himself, or his personal life.

He once said, “do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” as that was the job of “our bureaucrats and our police” to make sure our “papers are in order (2).”

For Foucault, his writing was a means of escaping fixed identities and norms that are restrictive and oppressive.

His life’s work became increasingly devoted to resisting the prescriptive exclusions that come as a part of civilization and our culture.

Foucault hated norms. He hated the categories used by society to put one into a box, a social role, so they can judge and exclude you in some way or another.

His writing was a way of becoming someone else and avoiding a static identity. Which may seem contradictory because Foucault is a famous writer and thinker, someone with a strong identity as an author and as an intellectual.

However, Foucault would object to being slotted into the “author” category. He voiced his opposition to that concept in one of his most famous essays, “What Is An Author?”

What Is An Author?

It isn’t just someone who writes a novel, because authors also publish poems and short stories as a book, or they even be one of many writers in a text who writes an anthology.

One could say that it’s someone who writes a text, but that’s no good either, considering most of us write texts, whether it be in the form of shopping lists, chores, emails, or text messages sent to others in the classroom (2).

What matters less about an author, is what they have done and written, rather than how society has held them as responsible for that text.

In other words, an author is less about what they’ve done, and more about a social role in which one behaves. An author fulfills a social and cultural role.

Rather than an “author” having a factual relationship with the text, for example, whether they created it or not, the idea of an “author,” is socially constructed. And how we define authors depends on culture and inevitably will vary across time.

Throughout history, we’ve seen different ways of understanding just what an author does. In the ancient world, for instance, someone such as Hippocrates was considered as the author of all medical texts, regardless of the size of each one (2).

While in other periods, stories and tales are meant not to have an author, they’re circulated around anonymously and we never bother to ask who had written it (2).

In his book, The Order Of Things, Nietzche, Mr. Foucault explained, taught all of us the importance to ask: who is speaking? With what authority, and with whose interests in mind?

The Archaeology Of Thought

Foucault’s way of understanding thought-  the archeology of thought – is similar to the modernist idea that language is a source of thought, in its own way, rather than being an instrument of expression of ideas.

At any period of time in history, a civilization in which one lives has constraints on what sort of things they’re able to think.

Every mode of thinking, every way of looking at the world, has implicit rules or a framework in which to think and look at the world.

For Foucault, what’s important is the level of analysis, where we can begin to look at those constraints on the way in which people think, rather than disproving individual theories and facts.

Individual people operate and think within an ideological framework that limits and constrains them while they’re not even aware of it.

For example, Foucault is less interested in what the theories of Descartes mean, rather than the framework in which he thought and understood reality.

In Foucault’s The History Of Madness, he looked at different ways in which society institutionalized and organized those society considered as “mad” or “crazy.”

Some historians criticized him brutally for “historical errors” and “errors of interpretation.” For example, in the 17th century, doctors and specialists began confining those diagnosed with madness, as not having the capability of using reason.

Therefore, because they can’t be reasonable and rational, they had to be confined in a hospital.

Roy Porter, for instance, who specialized in the history of dealing with the mentally ill, pointed out the fact that the vast majority of the “mad” were actually taken care of by their families, rather than living in mental hospitals and asylums (2).

For this reason, Porter thought Foucault had misunderstood and mischaracterized the European history of asylums and madness.

However, Porter missed the point of Foucault’s archaeology of thought. Michel was not making generalizations on how the mad were treated throughout history.

What he was doing was trying to understand the general way of thinking of medical practitioners at the time.

Rather than saying, “this is how things were done in the past,” Foucault said, instead, “this was the ideological framework in which people thought, and these were the constraints and parameters on those thoughts.”

Foucault’s Genealogy

Michel was a big fan of Friedrich Nietzche. In Prison Talk, Foucault stated he was “tired of people studying Nietzche only to produce the same kind of commentaries” as they did on other influential German thinkers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

According to Foucault, his goal was to use Nietzche’s thought, “deform it, make it groan and protest,” and whether anyone criticized him for misinterpreting or being faithful to his philosophy was not in the least important.

While archaeology was capable of comparing modes of thought from different ages, it wasn’t able to explain how or why a framework of thought transitioned from one way to another.

Foucault’s Genealogy was meant to explain precisely how these changes came underway. He used the term, “genealogy,” to utilize Nietzche’s “genealogy of morals.”

The purpose of using a genealogical method was to show that a system of thought was the result of historical changes, rather than the outcome of rational and inevitable trends (1).

Genealogy isn’t meant to be a tool to find absolute truth or the origins of where that truth comes from, and it’s not the outcome of linear philosophical development across time.

Instead, its purpose is to show the way in which power in the past has effected truth. Genealogy breaks down truth, showing that, typically, it’s discovered by chance, and is backed up by the relationship between power and knowledge.

Foucault coined the term, “Power/Knowledge,” which is meant to show the way power’s foundation is accepted knowledge, and also utilizes knowledge.

While at the same time, power reproduces knowledge by creating it in relation to its intention to produce a particular result.

Power and Knowledge

Power can be used to control and define knowledge.

What authorities, scientists, school teachers, and other authority figures say is “scientific knowledge,” is an implicit form of control, while it may not be intentionally made as such.

In his book, The History Of Madness, Foucault wrote about the way in which authorities used the category of mental illness to subjugate and oppress the mentally ill, the sick, and the homelessness.

Society uses the diagnosis, “madness,” to thwart any expressions of individuality deemed as a threat to the structure of society.

Michel chose to ignore individual actors and individual institutions as “instruments of coercion,” and instead, observed all the different ways that power manifested itself throughout human reality (4).

Foucault explained power as diffuse, manifested in discourse, and truth, as only relevant in a particular historical framework.

Power is ubiquitous and spread throughout reality, rather than concentrated in a particular entity, intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, and discursive rather than coercive (4).

Previously, thinkers thought of power as something enacted by an agent, a person, an institution, or a government. But for Foucault, power was “everywhere,” dispersed throughout society.

He called power a “regime of truth,” and these truths are what hold people in place. Power is embodied through knowledge, scientific understanding, and “truth.”

Truth, itself, is a form of power. It distinguishes between what is false and needs to be set aside, and is created “only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint (4).”

Every society and every culture has their own “regime of truth.” It has a “general politic” of truth, the type of conversation allowed and which function as truth (4).

People who state what is “truth,” the truth as it’s accepted in a particular social framework, is given power based on the fact that their utterances of truth are furthering or legitimizing a power structure.

Ideologies, beliefs, faiths, and ideas, are legitimized and backed up throughout society in the form of institutions, teachers, the media, government, and economics.

In Paul Rabinow’s book, he explains Foucault’s understanding of the “battle of truth,” as not a means of discovering or accepting an idea that is 100% correct.

It’s more about the battle for the rules which distinguish between true and false, and how power is attached to what is true, and weakness is attached to what is false (4).

It’s about the “status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” However, power is not only a coercive, repressive, and negative force, that forces us to do things that we don’t want to do.

It’s also a means of enforcing behavior that is productive, useful, and benevolent. Foucault writes, “power produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth (4).”

In his book Discipline and Punish, he pointed out the ways in which power acts as a tool for enforcing social discipline and conformity.

Disciplinary power in the education system and in mental hospitals, as he observed in The History Of Madness, can be observed in the administrative systems and social services.

Individuals learn to discipline themselves and conform to social rules, not because of power enacted on them from an outside oppressor, but as an action that they commit against themselves, on account of a regime of truth that they’ve knowingly and willingly accepted.

These norms and manners of behaving infiltrate every corner of social life, whether they be in regular interactions between friends or in government institutions.

Foucault was very interested in social structures like prisons, schools, and hospitals. He looked at psychology, medicine, and criminology, and how frameworks of knowledge within those disciplines, defined what behaviors and norms were acceptable and unacceptable.

His life’s work centered on the diffusion of power throughout institutions.

Foucault’s thought has been immensely important for showing us how social norms and conforming to behavior patterns are, in some cases, a form of disciplinary action against us that we commit against ourselves.

However, not everyone has been on board with the way Foucault has described power as ubiquitous and commonplace, rather than wielded by individual governments and persons.

Many have criticized Foucault for the way he describes power as diffuse, rather than centralized in an institution, organization, or human being.

If power is so diffuse, it would almost seem like there is no way of stopping the abuse of power because it’s everywhere, and how can you stop something that is all around you at every moment?

In other words, if power is everywhere, rather than just in the hands of an individual or an institution, then it’s nearly impossible to fight against it. It’s diffuse and spread around almost like a God.

Nonetheless, Foucault did believe that resistance and political activism was incredibly useful, and he was an activist himself.

Foucault would probably think of his theories as a toolbox for challenging preconceived notions, oppressive norms, and “regimes of truth.”

Challenging power isn’t necessarily done so by questioning what is “absolute truth.”

We can question hegemony by taking a step outside of our social framework and looking at the ways in which power is executed through our belief systems, whether they’re in the form of social, cultural, or economic structures.

Discourse isn’t just a means of power, it’s also a way of challenging power. A result of Foucault’s thinking, perhaps, is the idea that power structures can be challenged through the change of language, or through the way a classroom is organized.

For instance, students sit in desks, scattered around the room, or sometimes in uniform lines, while the teacher stands at the front of the room.

Through the framework of Foucaultian thought, one could say that a power structure is exerted there, through the way in which the classroom is organized.  Or even the way an employer conducts an interview.

Power is everywhere, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in individual institutions and entities, or in corrupt governments.

It doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be an activist in protest of a tyrannical government. To Foucault, the ways in which we look and understand the world may be oppressive in some ways, in itself.


(1) Stanford 

(2) Gary Cutting – A Very Short Introduction

(3) Michel Foucault – The Foucault Reader – Paul Rabinow

(4) Powercube