Theorist Michel Foucault first “rose to prominence,” notes Aeon, “as existentialism fell out of favor among French intellectuals.” His first major work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, proposed a new methodology based on the “disappearance of Man” as a metaphysical category. The ahistorical assumptions that had plagued philosophy made us too comfortable, he thought, with historical systems that imprisoned us. “I would like to consider our own culture,” he says in the 1966 interview with Pierre Dumayet above, “to be something as foreign to us.”
The kind of estrangement Foucault induced in his ethnologies, genealogies, and histories of Western modernity opened a space for critiques of knowledge itself as a “foreign phenomenon,” he says. Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, and Discipline and Punish examine systems—the asylum, the medical profession, the sciences, and prisons—and allow us to see how ideologies are produced by instrumental uses of language and technology.
Foucault shifted his focus in the last period of his career, after a 1975 LSD trip and subsequent experiences in Berkeley changed his outlook. Yet he continued, in his monumental, unfinished, multi-volume History of Sexuality to demonstrate how modes of philosophical and scientific discourse gave rise to cultural phenomena we take for granted as natural states. Foucault was a critic of the way the psychiatry and medicine pathologized human behavior and created systems of exclusion and correction. In his final work, he examined the classical history of ethical discipline and self-improvement.
We might recognize the remnants of this history in our contemporary culture when he writes, in The History of Sexuality, Volume 3, that “improvement, the perfection of the soul that one seeks in philosophy…. Increasingly assumes a medical coloration.” Foucault described the ways in which pleasure and desire were highly circumscribed by utilitarian systems of control and self-control. It’s hard to say how much of this early interview the later Foucault would have endorsed, but it’s yet another example of how lucid and perceptive he was as a thinker, despite an undeserved reputation for difficulty and obscurity.
He admits, however, the inherent difficulty of his project: the self-reflective critique of a modern European intellectual, through the very categories of thought that make up the European intellectual tradition. But “after all,” he says, “how can we know ourselves if not with our own knowledge?” The endeavor requires a “complete twisting of our reason on itself.” Few thinkers have been able to make such moves with as much clarity and scholarly rigor as Foucault.