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The Mind on Sex

The Use of Pleasure: Volume II of The History of Sexuality

by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley
Pantheon, 293 pp., $17.95


The original French edition of the first, introductory, volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality appeared as long ago as 1976 and the expectations it generated were very high. Here was one of the most distinguished and sophisticated practitioners of the history of ideas and institutions turning his attention to yet another fundamental issue in the development of modern European sensibility. What he had already done for such subjects as madness, the clinic, and the prison, he was now to attempt to do also for “sexuality,” a notion which may seem utterly familiar, but which only becomes explicit for the first time in the nineteenth century.

In each of his major earlier studies he analyzed an idea or an institution which is nowadays often taken very much for granted, investigating its background or antecedents and the ways in which it is validated or legitimated. In the process he demolished or at least undermined many cherished assumptions about the self-evident rationality of Western culture and society. The earlier works on which his brilliant reputation was based had in each case not just suggested a new understanding of the subjects they discussed, but also advocated, and practiced, a new methodology in the history of ideas. The projected multivolume work on sexuality can be seen as, in some respects at least, continuous with some of his earlier pre-occupations. Some brief remarks on those earlier works will serve as a reminder of some of Foucault’s distinctive insights and style and help to locate the starting point for the study of sexuality.

A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason” is the English subtitle and the principal topic of Madness and Civilization, his first major study, in which he pursued the issue of just how the Enlightenment understood madness and treated those it deemed mad. As in his subsequent works, the investigation involved not just the analysis of the changes and interplay of concepts, but more the analysis of the institutions that gave these concepts concrete expression. Among other things, this study showed how in an age of reason, and indeed in the name of reason, confinement came to be used increasingly as a method of dealing with those who were considered not to conform to the norms of rational behavior. Foucault charted, in particular, the foundation and the varying fortunes of the great Parisian asylums, such as the Hôpital Général and La Salpêtrière, and the spread of institutions based on these models—and of course their eventual decline. He analyzed the types of justification put forward by those responsible for setting them up and used by those who ran them—the protection of society, but also often the good of the inmates themselves—and he described the transformations that occurred in the perception of madness once such institutions existed to give, as it were, visible proof of society’s verdict that those confined were mad. Nor did he fail to point to the exaggerations in the idea that no sooner were those asylums closed than a vast improvement occurred in the understanding and treatment of the mad—both issues whose controversiality shows no signs of diminishing today.

Not the least of Foucault’s achievements was to have insisted that a society’s conception of madness cannot be understood in isolation from the political, economic, religious, legal, and philosophical factors that all contribute to the notions of order and normality at work in that society. For example, what types of sanctions are available and used to control deviants, how do expectations about normal behavior vary with the economic status of the people whose behavior is being judged, and what kinds of implicit or explicit beliefs about human nature influence or dictate the assumptions of members of that society about tolerable deviation?

Other similarly wide-ranging studies explored not only those other fundamental institutions of modern civilization, the clinic and the prison, but also the development of the human sciences, such as political economy, and even of science in general. While the starting point, on each occasion, may look easily recognizable as a possible topic of conventional historical study, whether in the history of institutions or in that of ideas, in each case Foucault transformed the problem, notably by insisting on the complex inter-relations of the manifestations of power, on the one hand, and knowledge, on the other. It was, of course, one of Foucault’s major recurrent preoccupations to explore the exercise of power well beyond its more obvious manifestations in, for instance, the domain of politics, including the definition and transmission of what passes for scientific knowledge. Whatever some scientists in the past or today might say, science itself was not a wholly disinterested pursuit of objective truth; no more, to be sure, was education the innocent transmission of such truth; and while others had made similar points about science and education before, no one had drawn attention so emphatically to the varieties of ways in which they acted as the sources of control and influence.

Even when he studied the development of penal law in Discipline and Punish, where others might have taken this as a more or less self-contained subject, Foucault insisted on the larger perspective. The book discussed punitive methods not simply as consequences of legislation, nor again just for what they revealed about social relations, but against the background of his far-reaching notion of power. In that perspective prisons came to be seen as one example, though no doubt a quite distinctive one, of the methods developed in modern times for the control of others. The breadth of the perspective, and the ambition of the project, come out clearly in Foucault’s own statement that his book is a history not just of penal systems, but one

of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientific-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules; from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity.

Conversely, in his investigations of the development of the human sciences, first in The Order of Things and then more clearly in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault dismantled many common assumptions relating to the conduct of the history of ideas. Much conventional intellectual history was flawed, in his view, by a failure to pay sufficient attention to the complex social, cultural, and even political conditions within which ideas are produced. Ideas as such have no history and can be understood in isolation neither from the individuals or groups who proposed them nor from the questions of why they proposed them, how they justified them, and what use they made of them. Foucault investigated three important changes in particular: the way in which natural history was superseded by biology; the way in which the inquiry known as general grammar gave way to philology; and how reflections on wealth and trade came to be supplanted by what we know as political economy. In each case the center of interest was not themes or topics, not even authors or works, but the whole nature of what he called the discourse that constituted a science as it was practiced at particular historical junctures.

For instance, how did those who engaged in natural history construe their inquiry? What types of data were considered relevant? How was the inquiry related to past learning? Or to other genres? Above all, what assumptions were made about the nature of the natural world under investigation? The discourses in question were thus each, broadly speaking, governed by certain sets of conventions or rules, and it was the business of the historian to unearth these in what Foucault came to advocate as a type of “archaeology.” In the process, where many writers had interpreted each of those three changes very much in terms of gradual transitions and continuities, Foucault stressed rather the specific nature of each of the disciplines he compared, and the breaks or discontinuities marking the development of the new human sciences.

This is not the occasion to attempt to summarize the strengths and the limitations of these earlier studies, but certain general observations are in order. First there are important respects in which all his major studies form a continuous whole, though certainly not in the sense that they are a set of investigations planned and predicted at the outset—for that he explicitly and vehemently denied. Yet they are so in the sense that certain problems and preoccupations recur, especially those to do with the complex inter-relations of power and knowledge.

The second point concerns Foucault’s capacity for self-criticism. Like other highly innovative thinkers, he has, naturally enough, attracted his fair share of criticism, for instance from those who have objected to his theses concerning the radical breaks marked by the development of the new human sciences. (Thus the rise of political economy has recently been the subject of sophisticated studies by Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff that modify the picture presented by Foucault.) But so far as the methodology of his investigations goes, he had probably been his own most unsparing critic. Thus the introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge devotes several pages to a radical critique of Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things, criticizing the last of these, for example, on the grounds that at the stage at which it was written he had not made fully explicit the methodology on which the study of the subjects it investigated had to be based. Indeed, what passes for a conclusion to The Archaeology of Knowledge takes the form of an imaginary dialogue in which the very possibility of the investigation it attempts is questioned. With characteristic honesty, even if perhaps with just a touch of disingenuousness, Foucault there expresses the intention of the book as being simply to overcome certain difficulties that are preliminary to his strategic enterprise.

This takes me to the third point. Foucault’s effort to refine the methodology, to probe to the limit the question of just how the subjects concerned can be investigated, to unmask prevailing assumptions about the nature of historical inquiry itself, is surely among the most notable and durable contributions he has made. Whatever we may think about some of his specific conclusions, the type of critical inquiry he engaged in will, or should, never be the same again, not least because of the way he challenged conventional boundaries between disciplines, and demanded methodological self-awareness. He was not the first to make such challenges and demands, to be sure, but by calling attention to the fundamental methodological and definitional problems that need to be solved, his statement of them acquired exceptional force.


These three general points all bear on the project on sexuality. First, however, it should be explained what Foucault intended by this project. He was always scrupulous to define it both negatively and positively, as neither a history of sexual behavior and practices nor a history of the ideas, whether moral, religious, or scientific ideas, that have been used to understand, describe, and explain such behavior and practices. It was to be, precisely, a history of “sexuality” itself, the process by which this familiar notion of twentieth-century Western society came to be the familiar notion it is, invoked repeatedly both in our description and in our understanding of ourselves—both as the objects of the sexuality of others and as subjects possessing such sexuality ourselves—and the topic of much explicit comment, discussion, and theorizing among psychologists, sociologists, sociobiologists, and the like. Foucault rejected the assumption that sexuality is some kind of constant: it is not just that the term itself is an invention of the nineteenth century, but our modern awareness of the issues we discuss under the rubric of sexuality is the outcome of certain historical developments, changes, or transitions that Foucault set out to unearth.

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