Michel Foucault

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Michel Foucault mural.

Michel Foucault (15 October 192625 June 1984), French philosopher and historian, Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France from 1970 until his death in 1984, revolutionized the academic study of the history of medicine, sexuality, penality, the liberal state and classical ethics, and contributed to the philosophy of language and aesthetics.


Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?
There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine.
  • [T]ruly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.
    • Discourse on Language, Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1970-1971. tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith
  • Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
    • The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon)
  • Quand j’étudie les mécanismes de pouvoir, j’essaie d’étudier leur spécificité… Je n’admets ni la notion de maîtrise ni l’universalité de la loi. Au contraire, je m’attache à saisir des mécanismes d’exercise effectif de pouvoir ; et je le fais parce que ceux qui sont insérés dans ces relations de pouvoir, qui y sont impliqués peuvent, dans leurs actions, dans leur résistance et leur rébellion, leur échapper, les transformer, bref, ne plus être soumis. Et si je ne dis pas ce qu’il faut faire, ce n’est pas parce que je crois qu’il n’y a rien à faire. Bien au contraire, je pense qu’il y a mille choses à faire, à inventer, à forger par ceux qui, reconnaissant les relations de pouvoir dans lesquelles ils sont impliqués, ont décidé de leur résister ou de leur échapper. De ce point de vue, toute ma recherche repose sur un postulat d’optimisme absolu. Je n’effectue pas mes analyses pour dire : voilà comment sont les choses, vous êtes piégés. Je ne dis ces choses que dans la mesure où je considère que cela permet de les transformer. Tout ce que je fais, je le fais pour que cela serve.
    • I try to carry out the most precise and discriminative analyses I can in order to show in what ways things change, are transformed, are displaced. When I study the mechanisms of power, I try to study their specificity... I admit neither the notion of a master nor the universality of his law. On the contrary, I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them. And if I do not say what ought to be done, it is not because I believe there is nothing to be done. Quite on the contrary, I think there are a thousand things to be done, to be invented, to be forged, by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view, my entire research rests upon the postulate of an absolute optimism. I do not undertake my analyses to say: look how things are, you are all trapped. I do not say such things except insofar as I consider this to permit some transformation of things. Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use.
    • Dits et Écrits 1954–1988 (1976) Vol. II, 1976–1988 edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald, p. 911-912
  • [L]'âme, prison du corps.
    • The soul is the prison of the body.
    • Discipline and Punish (1977) as translated by Alan Sheridan, p. 30
  • Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?
    • Discipline and Punish (1977) as translated by Alan Sheridan, p. 228
  • The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one's sex, but, rather, to use one's sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. And, no doubt, homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. Therefore, we have to work at becoming homosexuals.
    • "Friendship as a Way of Life," interview in Gai pied, April 1981, as translated in Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (1994), pp. 135-136
  • I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end. My field is the history of thought. Man is a thinking being.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • I'm very proud that some people think that I'm a danger for the intellectual health of students. When people start thinking of health in intellectual activities, I think there is something wrong. In their opinion I am a dangerous man, since I am a crypto-Marxist, an irrationalist, a nihilist.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • When I was a student in the 1950s, I read Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty. When you feel an overwhelming influence, you try to open a window. Paradoxically enough, Heidegger is not very difficult for a Frenchman to understand. When every word is an enigma, you are in a not-too-bad position to understand Heidegger. Being and Time is difficult, but the more recent works are clearer. Nietzsche was a revelation to me. I felt that there was someone quite different from what I had been taught. I read him with a great passion and broke with my life, left my job in the asylum, left France: I had the feeling I had been trapped. Through Nietzsche, I had become a stranger to all that.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • Qui définit le moment où j'écris?
    • How to define the moment that I write?
    • "Un cours inedit" in Magazine littéraire (May 1984), page 34.
  • One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.
    • "What is an author?" (1984)
  • There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than "politicians" think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.
    • As quoted in Michel Foucault (1991) by Didier Eribon, as translated by Betsy Wind, Harvard University Press, p. 282
  • There is object proof that homosexuality is more interesting than heterosexuality. It's that one knows a considerable number of heterosexuals who would wish to become homosexuals, whereas one knows very few homosexuals who would really like to become heterosexuals.
    • As quoted in Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) by Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon ISBN 041522974X
  • What all these people are doing is not aggressive; they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body — through the eroticization of the body. I think it's … a creative enterprise, which has as one of its main features what I call the desexualization of pleasure.
    • In reference to Sadism and Masochism, as quoted in Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) by Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon
  • There has been an inversion in the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, “Take care of yourself” and “Know yourself.” In Greco-Roman culture, knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of the care of the self. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle.
    • “Technologies of the Self,” Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (1994), p. 228
  • A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest.
    • “Practicing criticism, or, is it really important to think?”, interview by Didier Eribon, May 30-31, 1981, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. L. Kriztman (1988), p. 155
  • My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is danger­ous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apa­thy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.
    • “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.” Afterword, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Massachusetts Press. (1983)

History of Madness (1961)[edit]

  • The gesture that divides madness is the constitutive one, not the science that grows up in the calm that returns after the division has been made.
    • Preface to 1961 edition
  • The constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence.
    • Preface to 1961 edition
  • But what then is this confrontation below the language of reason? Where might this interrogation lead, following not reason in its horizontal becoming, but seeking to retrace in time this constant verticality, which, the length of Western culture, confronts it with what it is not, measuring it with its own extravagance?
    • Preface to 1961 edition
  • In the history of madness, two events signal this change with singular clarity: in 1657, the founding of the Hôpital Général, and the Great Confinement of the poor; and in 1794, the liberation of the mad in chains at Bicêtre. Between these two singular and symmetrical events, something happened, whose ambiguity has perplexed historians of medicine: blind repression in an absolutist regime, according to some, and, according to others, the progressive discovery, by science and philanthropy, of madness in its positive truth. In fact, beneath these reversible meanings, a structure was taking shape, which did not undo that ambiguity but was decisive for it. This structure explains the passage from the medieval and humanist experience of madness to the experience that is our own, which confines madness in mental illness.
    • Preface to 1961 edition
  • Water and navigation had that role to play. Locked in the ship from which he could not escape, the madman was handed over to the thousand-armed river, to the sea where all paths cross, and the great uncertainty that surrounds all things. A prisoner in the midst of the ultimate freedom, on the most open road of all, chained solidly to the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence, the prisoner of the passage.
    • Part One: 1. Stultifera Navis
  • From the knowledge of that fatal necessity that reduces man to dust we pass to a contemptuous contemplation of the nothingness that is life itself. The fear before the absolute limit of death becomes interiorised in a continual process of ironisation. Fear was disarmed in advance, made derisory by being tamed and rendered banal, and constantly paraded in the spectacle of life. Suddenly, it was there to be discerned in the mannerisms, failings and vices of normal people. Death as the destruction of all things no longer had meaning when life was revealed to be a fatuous sequence of empty words, the hollow jingle of a jester’s cap and bells. The death’s head showed itself to be a vessel already empty, for madness was the being-already-there of death. Death’s conquered presence, sketched out in these everyday signs, showed not only that its reign had already begun, but also that its prize was a meagre one. Death unmasked the mask of life, and nothing more: to show the skull beneath the skin it had no need to remove beauty or truth, but merely to remove the plaster or the tawdry clothes. The carnival mask and the cadaver share the same fixed smile. But the laugh of madness is an anticipation of the rictus grin of death, and the fool, that harbinger of the macabre, draws death’s sting.
    • Part One: 1. Stultifera Navis
  • In its most general form, confinement was explained, or at least justified, by a will to avoid scandal. It thereby signalled an important change in the consciousness of evil. The Renaissance had let unreason in all its forms come out into the light of day, as public exposure gave evil the chance to redeem itself and to serve as an exemplum.
    • Part One: 5. The Insane
  • There is little in common between the organised parading of madness in the eighteenth century and the freedom with which madness came to the fore during the Renaissance. The earlier age had found it everywhere, an integral element of each experience, both in images and in real life dangers. During the classical period, it was also on public view, but behind bars. When it manifested itself it was at a carefully controlled distance, under the watchful eye of a reason that denied all kinship with it, and felt quite unthreatened by any hint of resemblance. Madness had become a thing to be observed, no longer the monster within, but an animal moved by strange mechanisms, more beast than man, where all humanity had long since disappeared.
    • Part One: 5. The Insane
  • If our intention now is to reveal classical unreason on its own terms, outside of its ties with dreams and error, it must be understood not as a form of reason that is somehow diseased, lost or mad, but quite simply as reason dazzled.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium
  • To say that madness is dazzlement is to say that the madman sees the day, the same day that rational men see, as both live in the same light, but that when looking at that very light, nothing else and nothing in it, he sees it as nothing but emptiness, night and nothingness. Darkness for him is another way of seeing the day. Which means that in looking at the night and the nothingness of the night, he does not see at all. And that in the belief that he sees, he allows the fantasies of his imagination and the people of his nights to come to him as realities. For that reason, delirium and dazzlement exist in a relation that is the essence of madness, just as truth and clarity, in their fundamental relation, are constitutive of classical reason.
    In that sense, the Cartesian progression of doubt is clearly the great exorcism of madness. Descartes closes his eyes and ears the better to see the true light of the essential day, thereby ensuring that he will not suffer the dazzlement of the mad, who open their eyes and only see night, and not seeing at all, believe that they see things when they imagine them. In the uniform clarity of his closed senses, Descartes has broken with all possible fascination, and if he sees, he knows he really sees what he is seeing. Whereas in the madman’s gaze, drunk on the light that is night, images rise up and multiply, beyond any possible self-criticism, since the madman sees them, but irremediably separated from being, since the madman sees nothing.
    Unreason is to reason as dazzlement is to daylight.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium
  • The circle of day and night is the law of the classical world: the most restricted but most demanding of the necessities of the world, the most inevitable but the simplest of the legislations of nature.
    This was a law that excluded all dialectics and all reconciliation, consequently laying the foundations for the smooth unity of knowledge as well as the uncompromising division of tragic existence. It reigns on a world without darkness, which knows neither effusiveness nor the gentle charms of lyricism. All is waking or dreams, truth or error, the light of being or the nothingness of shadow.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium
  • It is understandable then that tragic heroes, unlike the baroque characters who had preceded them, could never be mad, and that inversely madness could never take on the tragic value we have known since Nietzsche and Artaud. In the classical epoch, tragic characters and the mad face each other without any possible dialogue or common language, for the one can only pronounce the decisive language of being, where the truth of light and the depths of night meet in a flash, and the other repeats endlessly an indifferent murmur where the empty chatter of the day is cancelled out by the deceptive lies of the shadows.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium
  • This is the moment when it becomes clear that the images of madness are nothing but dream and error, and that if the unfortunate sufferer who is blinded by them invokes them, it is the better to disappear with them into the annihilation for which they are destined.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium
  • In the tragedies of the early seventeenth century, madness too provided the dénouement, but it did so in liberating the truth. It still opened onto language, to a renewed form of speech, that of explanation and of the real regained. The most it could ever be was the penultimate moment of tragedy. Not the closing moment, as in Andromaque, where no truth appears, other than, in Delirium, the truth of a passion that finds its fullest, most perfect expression in madness.
    • Part Two: 2. The Transcendence of Delirium

Lectures on the Will to Know (1970)[edit]

  • To sum up all these steps, each of which is very lengthy and complex, we will have put the game of truth back in the network of constraints and dominations. Truth, I should say rather, the system of truth and falsity, will have revealed the face it turned away from us for so long and which is that of its violence.
    • p. 4
  • There is hardly a philosophy which has not invoked something like the will or desire to know, the love of truth, etcetera. But, in truth, very few philosophers—apart, perhaps, from Spinoza and Schopenhauer—have accorded it more than a marginal status; as if there was no need for philosophy to say first of all what the name that it bears actually refers to. As if placing at the head of its discourse the desire to know, which it repeats in its name, was enough to justify its own existence and show—at a stroke—that it is necessary and natural: All men desire to know. Who, then, is not a philosopher, and how could philosophy not be the most necessary thing in the world?
    • pp. 4-5
  • Nietzsche was the first to release the desire to know from the sovereignty of knowledge itself: to re-establish the distance and exteriority that Aristotle cancelled.
    • p. 5

History of Sexuality (1976–1984)[edit]

Histoire de la sexualité
  • Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.
    • Vol I: La volonté de savoir
An Introduction. NY: Pantheon. Translated from French by Robert Hurley. Page 43
  • The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.
    • Vol. I, p. 59
  • Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an origincal affinity with freedom: traditional themes in philosophy, which a political history of truth would have to overturn by showing that truth is not by nature free--nor error servile--but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power. The confession is an example of this.
    • Vol. I, p. 60
  • L’important, c’est que le sexe n’ait pas été seulement affaire de sensation et de plaisir, de loi ou d’interdiction, mais aussi de vrai et de faux.
    • What is important is that sex was not only a question of sensation and pleasure, of law and interdiction, but also of the true and the false.
    • Vol. I, p. 76
  • The appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and "psychic hermaphroditism" made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of "perversity"; but it also made possible the formation of a "reverse" discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or "naturality" be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.
    • Vol. I, p. 101
  • Les discours sont des éléments ou des blocs tactiques dans le champ des rapports de force; il peut y en avoir de différents et même de contradictoires à l'intérieur d'une même stratégie; ils peuvent au contraire circuler sans changer de forme entre des stratégies opposées.
    • Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.
    • Vol I, pp. 101-102
  • Par pouvoir… je n’entends pas un système général de domination exercée par un élément ou un groupe sur un autre, et dont les effets, par dérivations successives, traversaient le corps social tout entier… il me semble qu’il faut comprendre d’abord la multiplicité de rapports de force qui sont immanents au domaine où ils s’exercent, et sont constitutifs de leur organisation ; le jeu qui par voie de luttes et d’affrontements incessants les transforme, les renforce, les inverse ; les appuis que ces rapports de force trouvent les uns dans les autres, de manière à former chaîne ou système, ou, au contraire, les décalages, les contradictions qui les isolent les uns des autres ; les stratégies enfin dans lesquelles ils prennent effet, et dont le dessin général ou la cristallisation institutionnelle prennent corps dans les appareils étatiques, dans la formulation de la loi, dans les hégémonies sociales. La condition de possibilité du pouvoir… il ne fait pas la chercher dans l’existence première d’un point central, dans un foyer unique de souveraineté d’où rayonneraient des formes dérivées et descendantes ; induisent sans cesse, par leur inégalité, des états de pouvoir, mais toujours locaux et instables. Omniprésence du pouvoir : non point parce qu’il aurait le privilège de tout regrouper sous son invincible unité, mais parce qu’il se produit à chaque instant, en tout point, ou plutôt dans toute relation d’un point à un autre. Le pouvoir est partout ; ce n’est pas qu’il englobe tout, c’est qu’il vient de partout.
    • By power… I do not understand a general system of domination exercised by one element or one group over another, whose effects… traverse the entire body social… It seems to me that first what needs to be understood is the multiplicity of relations of force that are immanent to the domain wherein they are exercised, and that are constitutive of its organization; the game that through incessant struggle and confrontation transforms them, reinforces them, inverts them; the supports these relations of force find in each other, so as to form a chain or system, or, on the other hand, the gaps, the contradictions that isolate them from each other; in the end, the strategies in which they take effect, and whose general pattern or institutional crystallization is embodied in the mechanisms of the state, in the formulation of the law, in social hegemonies. The condition of possibility of power… should not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique space of sovereignty whence would radiate derivative and descendent forms; it is the moving base of relations of force that incessantly induce, by their inequality, states of power, but always local and unstable. Omnipresence of power: not at all because it regroups everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced at every instant, at every point, or moreover in every relation between one point and another. Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere.
    • Vol. I, p. 121-122.
  • Il y a des moments dans la vie où la question de savoir si on peut penser autrement qu’on ne pense et percevoir autrement qu’on ne voit est indispensable pour continuer à regarder ou à réfléchir… Qu’est-ce donc que la philosophie aujourd’hui… si elle ne consiste pas, au lieu de légitimer ce qu’on sait déjà, à entreprendre de savoir comment et jusqu’où il serait possible de penser autrement ?… L’ « essai »—qu’il faut entendre comme épreuve modificatrice de soi-même dans le jeu de la vérité et non comme appropriation simplificatrice d’autrui à des fins de communication—est le corps vivant de la philosophie, si du moins celle-ci est encore maintenant ce qu’elle était autrefois, c’est-à-dire une « ascèse », un exercice de soi, dans la pensée.
    • There are moments in life where the question of knowing whether one might think otherwise than one thinks and perceive otherwise than one sees is indispensable if one is to continue to observe or reflect… What is philosophy today… if it does not consist in, instead of legitimizing what we already know, undertaking to know how and how far it might be possible to think otherwise?… The ‘essay’ —which must be understood as a transforming test of oneself in the play of truth and not as a simplifying appropriation of someone else for the purpose of communication—is the living body of philosophy, if, at least, philosophy is today still what it was once, that is to say, an askesis, an exercise of the self, in thought.
    • Vol. II : L’usage des plaisirs p. 15-16.

What is Enlightenment? (1978)[edit]

  • The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.

The Birth of Biopolitics (1978)[edit]

The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France (2004) edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell (2008)
  • The question here is the same as the question I addressed with regard to madness, disease, delinquency and sexuality. In all of these cases, it was not a question of showing how these objects were for a long time hidden before being finally discovered, nor of showing how all these objects are only wicked illusions or ideological products to be dispelled in the light of reason finally having reached its zenith. It was a matter of showing by what conjunctions a whole set of practices—from the moment they become coordinated with a regime of truth—was able to make what does not exist (madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, etcetera), nonetheless become something.
    • Lecture 1, January 10, 1979, p. 19
  • Recalling all the erroneous things that doctors have been able to say about sex or madness does us a fat lot of good. I think that what is currently politically important is to determine the regime of verediction established at a given moment ... on the basis of which you can now recognize, for example, that doctors in the nineteenth century said so many stupid things about sex. ... It is not so much the history of the true or the history of the false as the history of verediction which has a political significance.
    • Lecture 2, January 17, 1979, p. 36
  • The new governmental reason does not deal with what I would call the things in themselves of governmentality, such as individuals, things, wealth, and land. It no longer deals with these things in themselves. It deals with the phenomena of politics, that is to say, interests, which precisely constitute politics and its stakes; it deals with interests, or that respect in which a given individual, thing, wealth, and so on interests other individuals or the collective body of individuals. ... In the new regime, government is basically no longer to be exercised over subjects and other things subjected through these subjects. Government is now to be exercised over what we could call the phenomenal republic of interests. The fundamental question of liberalism is: What is the utility value of government and all actions of government in a society where exchange determines the value of things?
    • Lecture 2, January 17, 1979, pp. 45-46

Security, Population, Territory (1978)[edit]

Security, Population, Territory: Lectures at the Collège de France (2004) edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell (2007)
  • The pastorate was formed against a sort of intoxication of religious behavior, examples of which are found throughout the Middle East in the second, third, and fourth centuries, and to which certain Gnostic sects in particular bear striking and indisputable testimony. In at least some of these Gnostic sects, in fact, the identification of matter with evil, and as absolute evil, obviously entailed certain consequences. This might be, for example, a kind of vertigo or enchantment provoked by a sort of unlimited asceticism that could lead to suicide: freeing oneself from matter as quickly as possible. There is also the idea, the theme, of destroying matter through the exhaustion of the evils it contains, of committing every possible sin, going to the very end of the domain of evil opened up by matter, and thus destroying matter. Let us sin, then, and sin to infinity. There is also the theme of the nullification of the world of the law, to destroy which one must first destroy the law, that is to say, break every law. One must respond to every law established by the world, or by the powers of the world, by violating it, systematically breaking the law and in effect, overthrowing the reign of the one who created the world.
    • Lecture 8 (1 March 1978), p. 195

Quotes about Foucault[edit]

Alphabetized by author
  • [Foucault] has a very good discussion of what the theory of crime—modern economic theory of crime and punishment—has to say. I didn’t have much to disagree with him. I think he was accurate on what it has to say. He goes also into a theory of formation of laws, which I had a lot of sympathy with as well.
    • Gary Becker, in “Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker” (May 9, 2012)
  • A profound shaking had happened in the seemingly smooth greensward of the classical philosophical tradition… faultlines in the ancient world that one had barely dreamed of … A manuscript that moved me deeply.
    • Peter Brown, blurb in Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (2001)
  • And now his own history has been written. What does one learn from these books? Chiefly that Foucault's relativistic outlook can be applied to Foucault himself. He used to say that the 19th century was to Marxism what water is to a fish. Increasingly his own work makes sense only when seen as a product of the Sixties. Not that Foucault would have denied this. He never suggested that he wasn't an interested being too. But one should ask of a body of philosophical work that it has a longer shelf life than a couple of decades. Nine years after his death his achievements, such as they are, are so much historical jetsam, their final worth little more than sweet Foucault.
  • Breitbart also began to reconsider the education that he had received in Tulane’s American Studies department, where, in his off-hours from partying, he had been exposed to critical theory. “I wanted to read Mark Twain and Emerson and Thoreau,” he says. “And I remember moments in class where I thought my head was going to explode, going, What the fuck are these people talking about? I don’t understand what this deconstructive semiotic bullshit is. Who the fuck is Michel Foucault?”
  • I continue to be very strongly influenced by Foucault's History of Sexuality, in which he warns us against imagining a complete liberation from power. There can never be a total liberation from power, especially in relation to the politics of sexuality.
  • Foucault is an interesting case because I'm sure he honestly wants to undermine power but I think with his writings he reinforced it.
  • I openly avow myself the pupil of that mighty thinker Michel Foucault, and even here and there coquette with the modes of expression peculiar to him. But at least for my purposes his useful ideas suffer a certain mystification in his hands: he presents them upside-down, as it were. They must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
  • From a conservative perspective, the great thing about Foucault’s writing is that it is more plastic than Marx, and far less economically subversive. Academics rooted in Foucauldian thought are far more compatible with neoliberalism than the old Marxist academics.
  • Foucault, always focused on the exercise of power and repression, tells his students to read Hayek and crew “with special care.” He found much to commend in their work. First and foremost, true liberalism is “imbued with the principle: ‘One always governs too much.’” As important, it asks (and answers) the question, “Why, after all, is it necessary to govern?”
  • The shortage of public intellectuals (in the English-speaking world) goes back to the decline of the written media: the first TV intellectual was Foucault, who was at home in both media, but his successors and imitators know only the camera.
  • Basically, Foucault was Nietzsche’s ape. He adopted some of Nietzsche’s rhetoric about power and imitated some of his verbal histrionics. But he never achieved anything like Nietzsche’s insight or originality. Nietzsche may have been seriously wrong in his understanding of modernity: he may have mistaken one part of the story—the rise of secularism—for the whole tale; but few men have struggled as honestly with the problem of nihilism as he. Foucault simply flirted with nihilism as one more “experience.”
  • [A] number of points are worth making at once [that challenge Foucault’s Madness and Civilization]: (1) There is ample evidence of medieval cruelty towards the insane; (2) In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the mad were already confined, to cells, jails or even cages; (3) ‘dialogue’ or no ‘dialogue’, even madness during those times was frequently connected with sin -- even in the Ship of Fools mythology; and, to that extent, it was regarded in a far less benevolent light than suggested by Foucault (pre-modern minds accepted the reality of madness -- ‘madness as a part of truth’ -- just as they accepted the reality of sin; but this does not mean they valued madness, any more than sin; (4) as Martin Schrenk (himself a severe critic Foucault) has shown, early modern madhouses developed from medieval hospitals and monasteries rather than as reopened leprosaria; (5) the Great Confinement was primarily aimed not at deviance but at poverty -- criminal poverty, crazy poverty or just plain poverty; the notion that it heralded (in the name of the rising bourgeoise) a moral segregation does not bear close scrutiny; (6) at any rate, as stressed by Klaus Doerner, another of critic of Foucault (Madmen and the Bourgeoisie, 1969), that there was no uniform state-controlled confinement: the English and German patterns, for example, strayed greatly from the Louis Quatorzian Grand Renfermement; (7) Foucault’s periodization seems to me amiss. By the late eighteenths century, confinement of the poor was generally deemed a failure; but it is then that confinement of the mad really went ahead, as so conclusively shown in statistics concerning England, France, and the United States; (8) Tuke and Pinel did not ‘invent’ mental illness. Rather, they owe much to prior therapies and often relied also on their methods; (9) moreover, in nineetenth-century England moral treatment was not that central in the medicalization of madness. Far from it: as shown by Andrew Scull, physicians saw Tukean moral therapy as a lay threat to their art, and strove to avoid it or adapt it to their own practice. Once more, Foucault’s epochal monoliths crumble before the contradictory wealth of the historical evidence.
  • So at bottom Foucault's enterprise seems stuck on the horns of a huge epistemological dilemma: if it tells the truth, then all knowledge is suspect in its pretense of objectivity; but in that case, how can the theory itself vouch for its truth? It's like the famous paradox about the Cretean Liar--and Foucault seemed quite unable to get out of it (which explains why he didn't even try to face it).
  • Foucault annexed history to philosophy. Nobody yet knows for sure which of the two came out more damaged in the process, history or philosophy.
    • J.G. Merquior (1988). "Philosophy of history : thoughts on a possible revival", History of the Human Sciences 1988 1: 23
  • Try teaching Foucault at a contemporary law school, as I have, and you will quickly find that subversion takes many forms, not all of them congenial to [Judith] Butler and her allies. As a perceptive libertarian student said to me, Why can't I use these ideas to resist the tax structure, or the antidiscrimination laws, or perhaps even to join the militias? Others, less fond of liberty, might engage in the subversive performances of making fun of feminist remarks in class, or ripping down the posters of the lesbian and gay law students' association. These things happen. They are parodic and subversive. Why, then, aren't they daring and good? [...] Well, there are good answers to those questions, but you won't find them in Foucault
    • Martha Nussbaum, "The Professor of Parody", The New Republic 22 Feb 1999.
  • The truth is that Foucault knew very little about anything before the seventeenth century and, in the modern world, outside France. His familiarity with the literature and art of any period was negligible. His hostility to psychology made him incompetent to deal with sexuality, his own or anybody else’s. The elevation of Foucault to guru status by American and British academics is a tale that belongs to the history of cults. [...] The more you know, the less you are impressed by Foucault.
    • Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), p. 174 ISBN 9780679741015
  • As a philosopher sympathetic to Foucault recently remarked to me, Foucault failed in each of his major inquiries and, in desperation, went further afield from his areas of expertise. The History of Sexuality is a disaster. Page after page is sheer fantasy, unsupported by the ancient or modern historical record.
    • Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), p. 187 ISBN 9780679741015
  • Foucault, like David Letterman, made smirking glibness an art form.
    • Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), p. 187 ISBN 9780679741015
  • The most serious flaw of Foucault's system is in the area of sex. I view his hurried, compulsive writing as a massive rationalist defense-formation to avoid thinking about (a) woman, (b) nature, (c) emotion, and (d) the sexual body. His attempt to make the body passive property of male society is an evasion of the universal fact so intolerable to him: that we are all born of human mothers. By turning women into ciphers, he miniaturizes and contains them.
    • Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), p. 210 ISBN 9780679741015
  • A proper encounter with Foucault's work permanently changes one's understanding of how people are governed in modern society.
    • Brent Pickett, On The Use And Abuse Of Foucault For Politics (2005), p. 9.
  • Foucault revealed the universal truths hidden in societal extremes.
  • It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The mi­nority view was always that power could be undermined by truth [...] Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is sim­ply an effect of power, you’ve had it. [...] But American de­partments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.
    • Alan Ryan, "Princeton Diary", London Review of Books (26 March 1992)
  • The impression created by these later works is of a Foucault who has been ‘normalized’. His command of the French language, his fascination with ancient texts and the by-ways of history, his flamboyant imagination and beautiful style – all have been put, at last, to a proper use, in order to describe the human condition respectfully, and to cease to look for the secret ‘structures’ beneath its smile. It helps that his subject-matter is the ancient world, and the works of authors who cannot be dismissed or debunked as merely ‘bourgeois’. But it helps too that Foucault had, by this time, been ‘mugged by reality’, and was being cared for in the institution which he had once scoffed at for its habit of confronting its inmates with the ‘truth’ of their condition.
    It was when confronted with the truth of his condition that Foucault at last grew up. He had gone down with Sartre into the hell where the Other resides. But he had recognized his own otherness too, and returned to the real world in a posture of acceptance. And, reading these later works, I was constantly drawn to the thought that Foucault’s belligerent leftism was not a criticism of reality, but a defence against it, a refusal to recognize that, for all its defects, normality is all that we have.
    • Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015), Ch. 3 : Liberation in France: Sartre and Foucault
  • Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida's prose style to me as "obscurantisme terroriste." The text is written so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence "obscurantisme") and then when one criticizes it, the author says, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" ["You did not understand; you are an idiot"] (hence "terroriste").
    • John Searle, "The Word Turned Upside Down", The New York Review of Books, Volume 30, Number 16, October 27, 1983
  • Sequestered in the usual sectarianism of the academic world, no stimulating reading had existed that took into consideration the arguments of Friedrich Hayek, Gary Becker, or Milton Friedman. On this point, one can only agree with Lagasnerie: Foucault allowed us to read and understand these authors, to discover in them a complex and stimulating body of thought. On that point I totally agree with him. It’s undeniable that Foucault always took pains to inquire into theoretical corpuses of widely differing horizons and to constantly question his own ideas.

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