An Animated Introduction to Michel Foucault, “Philosopher of Power”

Do you still need a working knowledge of the ideas of Michel Foucault to hold your own on the cocktail party circuit? Probably not, but the ideas themselves, should you bring them up there, remain as fascinating as ever. But how, apart from entering (or re-entering) grad school, to get started learning about them? Just look above: Alain de Botton’s School of Life has produced a handy eight-minute primer on the life and thought of the controversial “20th-century French philosopher and historian who spent his career forensically criticizing the power of the modern bourgeois capitalist state.”


Perhaps that sounds like a parody of the activity of a French philosopher, but if you watch, you’ll find highlighted elements of Foucault’s grand intellectual project still relevant to us today. “His goal was nothing less than to figure out how power worked,” as de Botton puts it, “and then to change it in the direction of a Marxist-anarchist utopia.” Even if you have no interest in Marxist-anarchist utopias, you’ll find much to think about in Foucault’s criticisms, summed up in the video, of institutions of power having to do with medicine, mental health, criminal justice, and sexuality — under which we all, in some form or another, still live today.

Once the School of Life has got you briefed on this wealthy altar boy (!) turned widely-polarizing, sexually avant-garde intellectual, you can get into more depth on Foucault right here on Open Culture. We’ve got his UC Berkeley lectures (in English) on “Truth and Subjectivity” and “The Culture of the Self,;” an interview with him long thought lost; a 40-minute documentary on him, and the TIME article and fanzine that got his name spreading around America. You’ll find that, though Foucault himself passed away more than thirty years ago, his observations of modern society still have an impact — and they’ll surely raise an eyebrow or two at the next office party.

Related Content:

Michel Foucault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Documentary Explores the Theorist’s Controversial Life and Philosophy

The 1981 TIME Magazine Profile That Introduced Michel Foucault to America

Hear Michel Foucault Deliver His Lecture on “Truth and Subjectivity” at UC Berkeley, In English (1980)

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lecture “The Culture of the Self,” Presented in English at UC Berkeley (1983)

Watch a “Lost Interview” With Michel Foucault: Missing for 30 Years But Now Recovered

Read Chez Foucault, the 1978 Fanzine That Introduced Students to the Radical French Philosopher

Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Animated Introductions to Heidegger, The Stoics & Epicurus

Nietzsche, Wittgenstein & Sartre Explained with Monty Python-Style Animations by The School of Life

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Dion Dennis says:

    Good Morning:

    Early on. the video argues that Foucault was a Marxist, and interested in a utopia. Having read a good deal of Foucault’s works (and there are several different periods of Foucault’s development), it’s clear, for example, both from the interviews of the 1970s and early 1980s, that Foucault was NOT a Marxist. According to a 1978 interview with Colin Gordon on the Foucault Studies site, Foucault situates a common set of interests (on the market, the commodity form, etc.), but Foucault is no Marxist, per se. (See the citation here: http://rauli.cbs.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/article/view/3894/4239 )

    As for a Utopia, Foucault specifically used the term “heterotopia,” a complex term that was meant, at least in part, as a critique of utopian notions. Here’s the relevant citation: ( http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf )

    These are early, but critical misstatements in the video (Marxist and Utopian) that render the video’s accuracy, at best, as problematic.

  • Thedeer says:

    “I have never tried to analyze anything whatsoever from the point of view of politics, but always to ask politics what it had to say about the problems with which it was confronted. I question it about the positions it takes and the reasons it gives for this; I don’t ask it to determine the theory of what I do. I am neither an adversary nor a partisan of Marxism; I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it.”

    http://foucault.info/foucault/interview.html

  • Nicolás Achkar says:

    To change it in the direction of a marxist anarchist utopia? You got it all wrong!

  • alex stingl says:

    Well, after 36 seconds, I stopped the video. The claim that Foucault worked towards a Marxist, Anarchist Utopia is actively misreading Foucault. It’s not just a matter of different interpretations. This is just flat out wrong.

  • Jo Farrall says:

    I agree, it is wrong. He and Sartre had very open disagreements about Marxism and existentialism. He says that he wrote the Order of Things to escape from the Marxism that was so prevalent in the academy at the time. Sartre took this book as a direct attack on him. (Throughout his work he also says that the past was not superior, nor is the present more progressive than the past. He talks about the past to illuminate the ways discourse works within power relationships. To argue he was for a marxist utopia is to grossly misread his ideas about heterotopia.

  • Adam says:

    I stopped at “Marxist-anarchist”…

  • Morgan says:

    Not a good advertisement for the ‘School of Life’ – Foucault utterly misinterpreted and factually wrong!

  • Zaeem says:

    Unfortunate that some basic misunderstanding of F has led the narrator to claim F was, or was promoting Marxism. F’s most important contribution, in my view, Archealogy of Knowledge, is not mentioned in the presentation. Epistemology & philosophy of power are central to all of F’s work.

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