Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) is today a popular and well studied thinker in philosophy, history, sociology and political theory, the most famous of the French Nietzscheans and Heideggerians.  He taught psychology, philosophy and “history of thought” in France, Tunisia and in his final years he taught at UC Berkeley.  His books are critical historical studies of social institutions and practices such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, science and sexuality.  Foucault argues that we tend to privilege what is labeled as good while marginalizing and dominating what is labeled as evil, and this has become far more pervasive throughout our lives in modern, scientific times.

Foucault’s father was a brilliant but domineering surgeon who once took his frightened young son to watch a human leg amputation.  As Foucault studied and taught psychiatry, he had a epiphany in 1953 watching Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.  Later that year he went on vacation in Italy, bringing Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations with him, which begins with the essay Schopenhauer as Educator.  Foucault spent most of his vacation reading Nietzsche on the beach, even though some French intellectuals still considered Nietzsche to be a proto-Nazi.  Foucault said he no longer felt mentally trapped after these experiences, and in his first major work, Madness and Civilization (1961), he said he would “conduct all of these inquiries under the sun of the great Nietzschean quest.”  

mental hospital patient

Foucault became fascinated with the complexity of the history of good and evil, ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ in the history of psychiatry, ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ in the history of sexuality, ‘legal’ and ‘criminal’ in the history of justice and prisons, arguing that truth is a struggle between competing forces, institutions and interpretations.  Like Barthes, Foucault argues that truth is complex and historical, but ideology attempts to mask this by presenting clear exclusive divisions between opposites.  Institutions must support binary divisions to maintain power and pronounce themselves objective holders of genuine knowledge and truth.  This bends our view of reality such that the dominant system (religion, science, politics, etc) is simply identified with truth and the messy historical process and evolution of systems of thought is obscured.


On one side, giving an institution the right to distinguish the sane from the insane is quite sane and sober.  On the other, when one looks at the complex history of uses and abuses of these categories, one can find much that is outright insanity.  Are the institutions sane or insane, just or unjust?  How can we know so simply, when these institutions determine their own sanity, their own ability to be good or embody justice and truth?  For Foucault, knowledge is always involved with power, just as for Nietzsche truth is always involved with desire.  We have all heard ‘Knowledge is Power!’ as a good thing, but for Foucault knowledge is not only enabling freedom, it is at the same time domination and control, a contradiction we and the institution would often like to ignore.

foucault and sartre

Truth is not outside power, but is a thing of this world.  We rely on gestures of division to separate the good from the bad, such as presenting college graduates with formal diplomas, but these divisions create zones of transgression, ways that laws and practices can be violated in revolt.  Foucault was fascinated by the work of de Sade and Bataille, two fellow Frenchmen who were obsessed with sexual and violent transgressions as limit experiences.  Modern protocols governing discourse are used to exorcise dangers much as priests once exorcised demons.  Language is a violence and imposition we put on things.  In a 1971 interview, Foucault said:

We must free ourselves from… cultural conservativism, as well as from political conservativism.  We must see our rituals for what they are: completely arbitrary things, tied to our bourgeois way of life; it is good – and that is the real theater – to transcend them in the manner of play, by means of games and irony; it is good to be dirty and bearded, to have long hair, to look like a girl when one is a boy (and vice versa); one must put ‘in play,’ show up, transform, and reverse the systems which quietly order us about.  As far as I am concerned, that is what I try to do in my work.

In Discipline and Punishment, Foucault contrasts the premodern spectacle of the public execution with the modern prison, the first openly displaying power and passion theatrically and the second concealing it clinically.  Nietzsche and Freud both argued that passions that cannot be displayed outwardly in action turn inward on our mentalities.  In all of his work, Foucault argues that our modern cultures of government and science continuously try to impose Apollonian order on top of our underlying Dionysian longings for passion and meaning, and so de Sade and other artists show us what Kant and Hegel leave unmentioned in their studies of reason.  Science and the state impose belief and order, but art and philosophy can inspire doubt and transformation.  Foucault repeatedly referred to the insurrection of subjugated knowledges and the will not to be governed.


Foucault famously uses the image of Bentham’s panopticon, a prison designed so that prisoners are always under surveillance but guards are invisible, and suggests our modern cultures are similarly engaged in “panopticism”.  Our ability to know and order things more than before has created a situation where some things are on display for all to see while other things are completely concealed.  Never knowing when they are being watched, never seeing their observers, the prisoners learn to behave as if they are always being watched, and thus learn to police themselves.  Consider current legal issues with police filming everything but opposed to being filmed themselves.  As Freud argued we internalize our parents as the superego, us Moderns have internalized the voices of government and science, accepting their helpful surveillance within our own minds and lives.  Similarly, we have accepted the universal truth of scientific studies as superior to the personal struggle of the individual.


Foucault is concerned with showing the structures of power at the capillary level, the way that everyday things and actions reinforce how order is enforced.  While Marx and many of his French followers argued that power is oppressive, with those on the top impressing their interests on those beneath them, Foucault turned this around and argued that there is “fascism in all of us”, and that the powers that be could not oppress as they do without our individual participation in them, in our own practices of imposing order on our lives and identities.  Power is not good or bad, top down or bottom up, but everything in all directions.

Thus, Foucault argued against Wilhelm Reich, the 60’s psychoanalyst who called for sexuality to be completely liberated, as Foucault did not believe sexuality could be freed from domination and submission.  Rather, as Foucault saw in the gay leather scene of San Francisco, we can practice sexuality and domination in different ways with no particular way being the single and natural one.  This is one of the things that most impressed Foucault’s French intellectual audience, who assumed with Marx that power works downwards, following authority.  Later, Pink Floyd would say we are all bricks in the wall, man.  A Marxist revolution or sexual revolution reconfigures power and domination rather than overcome them.  We can push for a better society, but it will still be human, all too human as Nietzsche would say.

In 1971, Foucault participated in a famous debate with Noam Chomsky.  The entire debate, as well as particular clips, can be found on YouTube.  Both Chomsky and Foucault are anarchists, who hope that we evolve into a more free and tolerant society, but Chomsky appeals to objective truth, human nature and principles of justice while Foucault dismisses all of these as fictions that mask the imperfect historical struggle.  Chomsky argues that we should try to get rid of the negative aspects of society and humanity, and Foucault says that there is no perfectly just utopia and no human nature that is decent and compassionate as opposed to indecent and cruel.  Afterwards, Chomsky said he had never met anyone who was “so truly amoral,” and that he liked Foucault personally but felt as if he was from a different species, that the two of them did not inhabit the same “moral universe”.  This is another example of the dogmatic-skeptical divide in thought that Hegel tried to systematize, the analytical positivist against the skeptical and pragmatic continental.