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Foucault, Michel (1926–84)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD019-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and historian of thought. Although his earliest writings developed within the frameworks of Marxism and existential phenomenology, he soon moved beyond these influences and developed his own distinctive approaches. There is no overall methodological or theoretical unity to Foucault’s thought, but his writings do fall into several main groups, each characterized by distinctive problems and methods. In his early studies of psychiatry, clinical medicine and the social sciences, Foucault developed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ that treated systems of thought as ‘discursive formations’ independent of the beliefs and intentions of individuals. Foucault’s archaeology displaced the human subject from the central role it played in the humanism which had been dominant since Kant. While archaeology provided no account of transitions from one system to another, Foucault later introduced a ‘genealogical’ approach, which seeks to explain changes in systems of discourse by connecting them to changes in the non-discursive practices of social power structures. Like Nietzsche’s, Foucault’s genealogies refused all comprehensive explanatory schemes, such as those of Marx or Freud. Instead he viewed systems of thought as contingent products of many small, unrelated causes. Foucault’s genealogical studies also emphasize the essential connection between knowledge and power. Bodies of knowledge are not autonomous intellectual structures that happen to be employed as Baconian instruments of power. Rather, they are essentially tied to systems of social control. Foucault first used his genealogical approach to study the relations between modern prisons and the psychological and sociological knowledge on which they are based. He next proposed a similar analysis of modern practices and ‘sciences’ of sexuality, but eventually decided that such a study had to begin with an understanding of ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of the ethical self. This study was published in two volumes that appeared just before his death.

Citing this article:
Gutting, Gary. Foucault, Michel (1926–84), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD019-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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