The Foucault Lectures (in English)

Any attempt to understand the work of Michel Foucault requires a circumspective view of the disciplines, the sciences, and the processes of rationality that are characterized and put into operation as forms of knowledge. In the serious work of philosophical analysis, Foucault problematizes the modalities of knowledge in literary, philosophical, political and moral domains, and methodically illuminates contradictions and disputable processes in the discursive formation of the humanities and social sciences. Although Foucault’s work impacts disciplines ranging from political science and cultural geography through sociology, philosophy and literary criticism, the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophers dismisses his work as radical or irrational. It is true he had a propensity for addressing issues in opposition to established historical scholarship but he set for himself the task of examining how forms and processes relate to each other in the formation of scientific domains, political structures, and moral practices.

Clearly, Foucault is intellectually distant to many readers, not because he was trained in the European school of philosophy, situated mostly in the realm of Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche and Merleau-Ponty, but because his mode of expression and style are difficult to comprehend. He is provocative and his deliberate shifts in thinking invite a complex, heterogeneous view without which his readers are often left baffled and simply dismiss or misinterpret his philosophical force. In short, the initial basis for his views derive from the philosophical tradition of Immanuel Kant but not in terms of analyzing errors or misinterpretations; there is something even more serious in his approach. Foucault analyzes the conditions under which certain relations between subject and object are formed, their definition and limitation and how these relations constitute a type of knowledge.

As part of a new series on Perspective in Anthropology, we would like to welcome you to The Foucault Lectures. This series is comprised of five lectures by Foucault himself in the English Language. We hope you will enjoy them.

The basic premises of his ideas are contained in just nine major works. They are:

1) 1965 – Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason;
2) 1972 – The Archaeology of Knowledge;
3) 1974 – The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences;
4) 1976 – The Birth of the Clinic;
5) 1977 – Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison;
6) 1978 – The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, an Introduction;
7) 1981 – Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings;
8) 1985 – The History of Sexuality: Volume 2,The Use of Pleasure;
9) 1986 – The History of Sexuality: Volume 3, The Care of The Self.

Of the one hundred volumes or so that are readily available concerning the work of Foucault, only about a dozen present the core of his ideas. The remaining volumes are either a restatement of his work, collaborations with Foucault, or critiques of his work (some of which are excellent).

Reading only a small portion of Foucault’s work is not sufficient to acquire a good understanding of his most pointed arguments. His sharpest articulations concerning truth, knowledge and rationality, their relationship to power, and the use of disciplinary techniques are challenging and difficult concepts to grasp. The problem, then, is to determine how to approach his work in such a way that is not counterproductive to a clear understanding of Foucault’s thought. It is necessary, then,  to organize Foucault’s work into three major categories; those of his archaeology and genealogical periods of analysis, and those that are directed toward his ideas concerning ethics.

Now, we can characterize archaeology as an inquiry focused on discovering important similarities and establishing links between factors and events that previously were hidden. We can also think of it as seeking to diversify conventional views by yielding new elements to a traditional practice. In the same way, the work of Foucault focuses on discovering the obscure, the overlooked and the displaced and challenges the tradition of established systems of knowledge in a bold fashion presenting a very different view of a discipline, institution, or practice. Armed with meticulous empirical research, he seeks to analyze relations within science, politics or ethics and the processes that interact with one another in their formation. Also, he questions “how” political strategies are able to appeal to the modalities of knowledge and to effectively change or modify them with the use of disciplinary techniques. In other words, Foucault uses an archaeological approach to investigate the basis of knowledge systems in an effort to question their formation and acceptance.

Foucault uses a genealogical approach to focus on the emergence and descent of some of the most fundamental tenets of western culture. His purpose is to lay bare empirical conditions and show factors behind the discourses on subjectivity, objectivity and established domains of what we call truth. The first aspect of Foucault’s analysis is that an individual is a subject in terms of being subjected to some sort of regulation by institutions, laws or other individuals –  that is, determining the subject, what status is accorded to it, and finally the position that it maintains in relation to reality or society. The second aspect is that an individual experiences subjectivity by having their aims, desires or self-images re-conceived in such a way that enables them to be controlled through the re-configuration of their awareness; that is, determining the conditions under which one becomes an object, how one can become problematized as an object, and what selective procedure may be used for subjugation (which is not the same as the former and depends upon the type of knowledge system involved). What is crucial to Foucault’s analysis is that from these concepts, their interconnection and dependence, emerges discourses that have the ability of declaring for us what we consider as true or false. Foucault’s point is that discourse determines what we know as truth and that truth is not a socio-historical product.

In describing truth, Foucault is not interested in ontological issues, metaphysical expectations or semiotics of the mind; rather he seeks to expose the modes by which human beings are made into subjects. Throughout his analysis, often accompanied by intricate historical documentation, he stresses that one must “reverse the philosophical way of proceeding upward to the constituent subject” and “proceed back down to the study of concrete practices” in order to understand the methods and techniques used in the development of truth.  Foucault’s conception of truth is probably one of the most startling propositions of truth since Nietzsche, however many analytic philosophers dismiss his ideas as extremely relativistic. The source of confusion is that Foucault states there are many different types of truth and demonstrates this by defining five separate categories. Yet, Foucault does not attempt to reconstruct the regimes of truth rather he inventories the various uses of truth in an effort to disclose the linguistic nature of truth, the importance of truth to internal discourse, and the significance of discourse to our systems of knowledge.

Lecture – Truth and Subjectivity, University of California, Berkeley, 1980; Open