Michel Foucault Offers a Clear, Compelling Introduction to His Philosophical Project (1966)

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 Thingsand 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.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Michel Fou­cault Tripped on Acid in Death Val­ley and Called It “The Great­est Expe­ri­ence of My Life” (1975)

Hear Hours of Lec­tures by Michel Fou­cault: Record­ed in Eng­lish & French Between 1961 and 1983

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self (UC Berke­ley, 1980–1983)

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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