What was Michel Foucault's method for forming his cultural criticism?
Foucault studied institutions and ideas by understanding their histories. In the course of that anthropological "archeology," he often pinpointed the emergence of new forms of human discourse and personal identity. In the case of sexuality, for example, Foucault argued that new forms of power create new forms of sexuality, as do new practices of observation and medical diagnosis.
One of Foucault's most enduring contributions was to demonstrate how many human traits and practices that are believed to be natural are in fact the effects of social and political institutions that exert unexamined power on individuals. At the same time, the individuals are complicit in remaking themselves to conform to institutional expectations. A primary example would be ideas of gender such as athletic ability in women. Before the second half of the twentieth century, women were believed to be unable to participate or excel in sports due to "natural" limitations.
Foucault is famous for having claimed to invert Plato (c. 428-c. 348 B.C.E.), who had said that the soul is imprisoned in the body, meaning that our natural physical needs and desires oppress our higher spiritual selves. Foucault thought that "the soul is the prison of the body," meaning that our ideas shape our physical existence.
How did Michel Foucault's philosophy develop?
Foucault went back to René Descartes (1596-1650) to show that the designation of insanity was the product of an age that valued reason in a certain form. He thought
Who was Nicos Poulantzas?
Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979) developed a nuanced Marxist analysis of social class in late capitalist systems. Building on Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), he argued that elements of the ruling class have made strategic alliances with oppressed classes and successfully secured their ongoing consent, such as with the American New Deal instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt. Poulantzas' major works include Political Power and Social Classes (1968), Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1973), and State, Power, Socialism (1978).
that medical practice in general required a certain kind of seeing before specific pathologies could be detected. In The Order of Things (1966), he argued that part of the development of economics, science, and linguistics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries entailed the invention of the idea of "man" as a universal subject. (Man, the universal subject, was supposed to be always the same and always rational.)
In The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Foucault showed how the sciences themselves are constituted by "discourses," or background ways of forming and transmitting knowledge. Without prior standards that make scientific knowledge acceptable as knowledge, scientific discoveries would have no importance. For example, if we hear that scientists have discovered a gene that predisposes people to a certain kind of cancer, we accept this as true, because we accept the authority of science. Discipline and Punish: The Origin of the Prison (1975) marks the beginning of Foucault's investigation of power. He argued that institutions such as the prison, the army, the factory, and the school wield power through specific techniques in which oppression can coexist with representative democratic political structures.
Was Michel Foucault an existentialist?
Foucault's philosophy was mainly social criticism rather than the theory of self-creation associated with existentialism. However, in his own life, he became notorious for unconventional and spontaneous behavior in ways that the public has associated with existentialism. During the last years of his life, Foucault was active in the world in ways that some found shocking, both politically and personally. In a late interview he said, "Well, do you think I have worked all these years to say the same thing and not be changed?"
Foucault first visited the United States in 1970 to lecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, later visiting the University of California, Berkeley. He took LSD at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, and referred to the experience as life changing in positive ways. In the late 1950s, he went to Iran, and after the revolution he supported the new reactionary government. His essays about
Iran, published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, provoked controversy when they were translated into French and English in 1994 and 2005, respectively.
Foucault was in a committed 25-year relationship with Daniel Defert, a former student. He described it as having lived in "a state of passion," adding that "at some moments this passion has taken the form of love." Much has been said and written about Foucault's exploration of homosexual bars and sex clubs in the Castro district of San Francisco. Foucault died of an AIDS-related infection, although this was not admitted at first, when his death was announced in Le Monde. Before he died, Foucault destroyed massive amounts of his unpublished writings and directed that other manuscripts be destroyed also.