European Philosophy – Foucault & Poststructuralism

Building under construction

For this lecture, read Foucault’s The Subject & Power.

With Hegel, we talked about reality as a social construct.  While Hegel believed that reason could build the objective system as sum of subjective positions, more skeptical thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Wittgenstein argue that our constructed systems are open and evolving.  Today, we will look at Structuralism and Poststructuralism, examining thinkers such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes and particularly Foucault, who are concerned with how and why we construct our reality the way that we do.

Claude_Lévi-Strauss participating in social structures

Structuralism is a movement and method that focuses on social constructs, language games and forms of life, much like late Wittgenstein.  Hegel argues that our thinking is composed in terms of self and other.  Structuralism sought to understand the life of cultures as a construction of language and system of relationships, influenced by Phenomenology and reacting against Existentialism.  Like the Phenomenologists, Structuralists tried to give a scientific account of the human experience.  While Existentialism emphasizes the free individual creation of meaning, Structuralism emphasizes the social determination of meaning, such that the individual is largely, if not entirely, determined by the structures in which they participate.  In France, Sartre and Levi-Strauss’ disagreement over human freedom became symbolic of the fight between Existentialism and Structuralism.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) had a profound impact on Structuralism.  Marxism and Psychoanalysis, which still consider themselves to be sciences, argue that individual life is largely determined by underlying systems, for Marx the economy and modes of production, for Freud the unconscious mind and core drives.  Both Marx and Freud argue, like Structuralists, that individuals are largely unaware of the systems by which their actions are determined, similar to Spinoza who argued that free will is an illusion that arises when we are ignorant of the causes that determine our behavior.

Marx Portrait beard

We will not extensively cover Marxism or Psychoanalysis in this class, but we will consider Marxist and Psychoanalytic concepts that are relevant to Structuralism.  Marx, who took Hegel’s system and turned it upside-down, argued that history is the process of class conflict, of the dialectic between the rich owners and the poor laborers.  Society is largely concerned with protecting the property of the owners and maintaining it through control of the laborers by the middle class.


Freud, who marveled at the similarities between his own work and the work of Schopenhauer, argued that behavior is the process of subconscious conflict, of the dialectic between satisfaction and repression.  The ego, or self, is the result of the conflict between the id, which seeks gratification, and the superego, which seeks to put the id in check and delay gratification.  Both Marx and Freud see a basic opposition painfully and tentatively resolved by a mediating central component, for Marx the middle class who go to college and then work in various careers, for Freud the Ego that forms individual identity by various tactics of compromise.  Like Fichte’s Ich (the I), Freud’s Ego is a negotiation of self-assertion and self-denial, much like Schelling and Hegel’s syntheses as compromise of affirmation and negation.

Ferdinand de Saussure

The third theorist who served as the basis of Structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), the Swiss linguist whose work on Semiology, the study of meaning, became very important for later European thought.  His lectures between 1907 and 1911 were later published as A Course in General Linguistics.   Saussure argued that words are sets of sounds that are defined in terms of difference.  ‘Cat’ and ‘hat’ are very similar words, only one of three sounds being different, but cats and hats are very different.

Romance languages distribution in Europe

Saussure’s major principle is the arbitrariness of the signwords have no resemblance to the things they represent.  The word ‘cat’ is nothing like a cat in shape or sound.  Because words, language, and the things that they signify can change, there is no fully fixed signification.  There are exceptions of signs that are not arbitrary, which Saussure calls ‘motivated’.  Onomatopoeia, words that imitate sounds, are motivated, such as ‘meow’, ‘zip’, and thus ‘zipper’.  In English, letters and words are not presumed to look like what they represent.  English and other Romance languages use an alphabet derived via Roman Latin from the Phoenician alphabet.

phonecian alphabet

While scholars accept that the letters of the Phoenician alphabet are derived from picturing individual things, they are in debate over what things inspired which letters, as the alphabet evolved to the point that many of the original correspondences are long lost.  Some scholars agree that ‘A’ likely came from the head of a cow or ox, and ‘B’ likely came from a house, both significant to early civilization.  Similarly, in Chinese entire words can resemble the things they represent, but like the Phoenician based alphabet ancient Chinese has evolved such that there is often little resemblance that can be recognized easily.  All of this seems to confirm Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness.  Another type of exception of signs that are not arbitrary are portmanteau, words that are composed of multiple words.  While ‘cat’ and ‘nap’ don’t look or sound like cats or naps, a ‘catnap’ does resemble the short naps taken by cats.

Claude Levi-Strauss on the Amazon

The father of Structuralism, however, was not Saussure but the French Anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009), not to be confused with the inventor of blue jeans who shares the same hyphenated last name.  Levi-Strauss said that his three loves were Geology, Marx and Freud.  All three seek the hidden layers below that determine the formations above.  In 1934 Levi-Strauss and his wife became professors in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and he would often venture into the jungle to meet Amazonian tribespeople, finding their cultures to be more elaborate and complex than he had expected.  After the end of WWII, he returned to Paris where he merged the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud and Saussure into a new philosophy of Anthropology he called Structuralism, the search for the universal underlying patterns of human cultural behavior.


Like William James, Levi-Strauss was very much a functionalist, who argued that primitive and modern people share the same mind and behaviors, and that all human behavior is rooted in some utilitarian value.  James is considered one of the founders of Psychology just as Levi-Strauss is considered one of the founders of Anthropology.  However, unlike James, Levi-Strauss argued that there are behaviors which have a symbolic value, the benefits being immaterial and mental rather than material and physical.

tribal family

Levi-Strauss argued that human beings do not establish absolutes, but form relationships.  For example, while a parent might not be perfect or always right, they are in a relationship with a child such that they are in the position of authority.  Levi-Strauss’ work was focused on examining the relationships of relationships.  A family or culture is a relationship of relationships.  While earlier anthropologists argued that identity is a matter of linear descent from a single patriarch, Levi-Strauss argued that identity is a matter of the relationship between families that intermarry, a relationship between two sets of relationships.

levi_strauss-la pensee sauvage

The title of Levi-Strauss’ most famous book, La Pensee Sauvage (1962), is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but in French means “Thinking in the Raw”, or “Raw Thought”.  While many think of primitive people as children who have undeveloped minds, Levi-Strauss argues that primitive tribespeople are capable of sophisticated systematization, and that modern people are quite capable of foolish fetishes and totemism.  Levi-Strauss borrowed Saussure’s conception of the sign, Freud’s conception of the symbolic, and Marcel Mauss’ theory that primitive culture, like modern culture, is founded on gift giving, which is not only practical but symbolic.  Consider the traditional act of a husband giving a diamond ring to his wife, practical as she carries wealth with her on her hand and symbolic as it shows that she is trusted with this wealth.  The symbolic is not impractical, but an extension of the immediately practical into additional cultural significance.


Reacting against Existentialism, Sartre and his circle, Levi-Strauss was joined by Lacan, Foucault and Barthes as Structuralism rose to prominence in French thought.  This was immortalized in a 1967 cartoon, The Structuralists’ Lunch Party, which showed the four philosophers sitting on the ground wearing grass skirts.  The Structuralists, like the Existentialists, were pessimistic about modern society, but rather than escape culture via free individuality, they chose to understand culture and control by studying pre-modern people.  As we turn to Barthes and then Foucault, we will be passing from Structuralism to Poststructuralism, which gave up on discovering universal patterns underlying all cultures but still considers the individual to be a construct of culture.

jacques lacan

Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) studied Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger and Jaspers while studying medicine to be a psychiatrist.  I mentioned that Lacan attended Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel with Bataille and that he tried to systematize Nietzsche using Freud.  Lacan became a psychiatrist in the 1920s, and married Bataille’s estranged wife, while he was involved with the Surrealists of Paris.  His thesis, Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality, was an influence on many Surrealists, such as Dali and Breton, both personal friends of Lacan.  He was also a contributor to Surrealist journals and Picasso’s personal physician.


Lacan is most famous for his theory of the mirror stage, when as toddlers we form a stable image and conception of ourselves by looking at others and our own reflection, then cling to it in the attempt to resolve the flux and contradictions of our thoughts and feelings, and then repress or redirect whatever does not conform to this image.  Lacan’s work centers on narcissism, not merely self-love, as it is often described, but self-obsession.  After the young child forms an image of self and begins to cling to it, the child forms narcissistic complexes, forms of excluding self from other that attempt to establish stability in an inevitably insecure situation.  The ego is an “inauthentic agency”, concealing its own unstable lack of unity.  Note the Heidegger speak about authenticity.  Freud had wondered why narcissism develops early in children but is not present from the beginning, and Lacan believed he had solved this problem with his mirror stage and the formation of self-image.

nazi ss officer

Narcissism fragments the world in attempting to cling to a coherent self, and anxiety becomes paranoia.  Disunity and contradiction are projected onto the world and others, away from the self and social selves with which the self identifies.  The self establishes its place relative to others as “the Real, not the whole of reality, but merely a preferred image which is insecure, just like the self-image situated in the Real.  To use the Nazis as an example yet again, we could suppose that an SS officer is insecure in his individual identity, and so he chooses to subscribe to Nazi ideology and racism in an attempt to secure his own self and its place in the world.  Lacan believed that making this situation transparent to the self is therapeutic, dissolving paranoid narcissistic delusions and obsessions that entrap the static images of self, other and Real, which Heidegger said of thinking.

Roland barthes

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was concerned with the critical analysis of literature, famous for his pronouncement of “the death of the author”, which is also “the birth of the reader”.  Just as Nietzsche argued that life, self and meaning are open matters of interpretation, Barthes argued that texts can be read in any variety of ways, without fixture of its meaning by the author, the text’s authority.  As we read a text, we are not only connecting it to our personal life experience and within our cultural and ideological frame, but we are also critical of the author, reinterpreting their work in light of what we glean about them from the text.

barthes mythologies

Like Foucault, Barthes was a critic of the idea of “the natural”.  Barthes saw in his own day older religious pronouncements about what is “natural” being replaced by political and scientific claims about the “natural”, as well as countercultural calls to return to the “natural” from the modern.  Barthes argued that there are no natural pure states, but networks of signification that can be revealed as historical processes and cultural practices.  Barthes examined “texts” such as advertisements for clothes and food products, noting that certain fashions were meant to signify luxury, happiness or freedom and certain food products meant to signify health, decadence or satisfaction.  Barthes’ book Mythologies (1957) is a short set of critical essays focusing on modern day production of mythology and meaning.  In the first essay, The World of Wrestling, Barthes argues that wrestlers, not athletes but the entertainers derived from Mexican luchadores, are personifications of good and evil, and each wrestling match is a “spectacle of excess.  The crowd wants purified, mythologized justice, and they would rather watch a wrestling match or a detective show than an actual court trial involving a real crime.  The symbolic crime and punishment satisfies the displaced need for justice that is not purely obtainable in society.


In my favorite essay, Operation Margarine, Barthes compares a margarine commercial to propaganda for the French military and colonialism.  Very much like a wrestling match, in which the bad guy cheats and seems victorious, only to be bested by the good guy, successful propaganda often puts criticized faults on display, and then has the faulty triumphantly rise over its faults.  The Established Order (Barthes’ capitalization, what the Frankfurt School called the Establishment, the powers that be) admits to being flawed, but argues that only it can save us all from these flaws.


Barthes is critical of American movies in which the main character, a likable guy with whom the viewer can identify, joins the army or police, rebels against its conformity, but then, against a greater evil, leads it to victory in the name of good.  Only the army can protect us from destruction and war, thus the need for slight confession followed by grand redemption.  Barthes compares this to a margarine commercial, in which one housewife is appalled that another has made a mousse, not with butter, but with margarine, a new product at the time which was trying to gain household acceptance.  The second housewife replies, “Here, try it!”, and the first says, “Wow, that is good!”, clearly rid of her old irrational prejudice, wealthier and wiser for using a cheaper product.


In the final essay, Myth Today, Barthes lays out his theory of modern mythology after summarizing the Semiology of Saussure.  For Barthes, much of the meaning that is circulated in modern times is ideology which can serve as a mask for social contradictions, much as Rousseau wrote that polite society is a mask that conceals brutality and oppression.  As a left leaning intellectual, Barthes was particularly concerned with nationalist messages of peace, freedom and equality that conceal class conflicts and colonial domination.  The famous example is Barthes’ scornful analysis of the cover of an issue of Paris Match, a French equivalent of Newsweek or Time magazine, that he found in a barbershop.  Barthes argues that it is clearly propaganda for French colonialism, the young black soldier’s salute signifying not only loyalty to France, but that the French government and military are loved and supported by Africans, that “all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag”.  The boy’s loyalty signifies the faithfulness of France to liberty, equality and community, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, the national motto.


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.