The Philosophy of Foucault (book review) Todd May

(Continental European Philosophy)


030714: later confusion: discovered an earlier graphic text 'introducing Foucault', source of some of my negative impressions of f- but now, in my reading, able to see that this may's book is the 'why' to read f, macey is the biographical, downing is the linkage apparent between bio and work, merquior is 'critical' but too soon, too simple, too limited in texts, and o'farrell is the 'what' of f, and encouraging 'how'- which is basically: read a lot, read more, read f in native French, read a lot of work by others that he had read- the intro that goes with 'why' already agreed...


first review: i am confused. i am confused in a good way- much i have heard of foucault is contemptuous, if not just angry and dismissive, and i tried to find such received wisdom in this text. instead, i am pleasantly surprised, my thoughts engaged and convinced he is going somewhere. granted, this is not by foucault but on him. may possibly renders his thematic pursuits intelligible, logical, even as he does not shy from critique. he lays out foucault's progression, he allows thinkers who have since followed. may recuperates f's technique and shows his insights not historically voided...


foucault is introduced not by mini bio, but by extracting the major question that persists in all his work, the question: 'who are we now?'. may highlights how this question continues throughout the strategies approaching it, but f never undergoes that typical philosophical 'turn' by which f repudiates his past, eg. nietzsche. f did not live long enough. perhaps f never would have. may represents these strategies as 1) archaeology, 2) genealogy, 3) ethics. i enjoyed this immensely, from the moment these questions are posed, from how f enacts the process of thought, the way f interrogates earlier thinker- particularly descartes, nietzsche, marx, freud, sartre, kant...


foucault is, here at least, sympathetic, nowhere near as the 'everything is power' caricature i had heard. power is indeed a central concern, and power inflects everything but is not everything. f makes great explorations about the way power is embedded in the modern era, by describing the so-called 'liberation' of the mad, which actually works by turning our open society, our individual, our universal, being, into its own jailer. f can sometimes sound obsessive about describing prison, control, restraint, and when later he investigates human sexuality- great quote 'the soul is the prison of the body'- he might seem too biographically partial, to gays, less to women, historically to the horror of the masturbating child. but if we let bio influence who we read, we would not read heidegger...


foucault is not simply about institution, about force, but rather he uncovers 'practices', and describes, i think correctly, the development of ways of thinking that provoke or parallel social changes eg. normative ideals of the 'malthusian family' (man, woman, child) and the modern creation of capitalist society. f does not search for some origin story but only the plausible description of how structures of power dissolve into practices of 'subjectivation' of making the population police itself, of how obvious school resembles factory resembles soldiery resembles prison... great stuff...


foucault is not a democrat, but unlike nietzsche, his sympathies are with the marginalized rather than the resented, tragic, aristocrat. f passed away relatively young for a philosopher, certain thinkers have arisen since who on first glance deny his power, his technique, and yes society, technology, possibilities of electronic media, all have greatly changed since 1984 or particularly his heritage of the 'events' in 1968, but his guiding question still works against those who come after, especially those thinkers grouped as 'postmodernists'- baudrillard, deleuze, lyotard. but perhaps this is their error: while refusing the 'grand narrative' of any tradition- enlightenment, communism, etc.- they might be guilty of imposing their thought scheme in its place. this is a familiar error from those previous thinker eg. marx, where everything is economics. f suggests in retrospect there is possibly a little truth in each scheme...


foucault moves from those previous thinkers but it is an error to cite him as 'postmodern', or as claiming historical societies and ways of thought- eg. sexuality in ancient greece, seen as healthy, seen as a part of life, not an unspoken obsession that identifies some people as entirely their sexuality- are 'better' or even applicable millennia later. critics exaggerate f. it does not seem he overstates his rhetoric for effect. he seems much more measured, and openly acknowledges his openness, his conflicts, his errors. f talks about 'power' as something that comes from below, something dispersed, something of which to be vigilant. but he is more than just 'power knowledge', and certainly never disputes truths of physics. there is much to read here. much to read on him and all those other since...


just thought i should mention: possibly only because i have read so many philosophers, does f work for me. the five star should probably be measured. but this is a good place to start foucault...

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