Power/Knowledge is a collection of nine interviews, an essay, and a pair of lectures in which Michel Foucault tries to work out new ways to talk about power. This is one more stage in a remarkable adventure of ideas that began in the late Fifties. “Key words” in Foucault’s work would be, for example: Labor, Language, Life, Madness, Masturbation, Medicine, Military, Nietzsche, Prison, Psychiatry, Quixote, Sade, and Sex. Be neither attracted nor repelled by this adolescent list of topics. Foucault has an original analytical mind with a fascination for facts. He is adept at reorganizing past events in order to rethink the present. He engagingly turns familiar truisms into doubt or chaos. Even though his present thoughts about power and knowledge have not yet matured, they are plainly part of a fermentation worth learning about.

What are the relationships between power and knowledge? There are two bad short answers: (1) Knowledge provides an instrument that those in power can wield for their own ends. (2) A new body of knowledge brings into being a new class of people or institutions that can exercise a new kind of power. These two assertions parallel two opposed theses about ideology: (1) A ruling class generates an ideology that suits its own interests, and (2) a new ideology, with new values, creates a niche for a new ruling class. Virtually nobody likes either side of these simple dichotomies. Foucault is one of many who want a new conception of how power and knowledge interact. But he is not looking for a relation between two givens, “power” and “knowledge.” As always he is trying to rethink the entire subject matter, and his “knowledge” and “power” are to be something else.

Nobody knows this knowledge; no one wields this power. Yes, there are people who know this and that. Yes, there are individuals and organizations that rule other people. Yes, there are suppressions and repressions that come from authority. Yes, the forms of knowledge and of power since the nineteenth century have served the bourgeoisie above all others, and now also serve a comparable class in Eastern Europe. But those ruling classes don’t know how they do it, nor could they do it without the other terms in the power relation—the functionaries the governed, the repressed, the exiled—each willingly or unwillingly doing their bit. One ought to begin an analysis of power from the ground up, at the level of tiny local events where battles are unwittingly enacted by players who don’t know what they are doing.

Now this sort of project is not novel. Foucault’s genius is to go down to the little dramas, dress them in facts hardly anyone else has noticed, and turn these stage settings into clues to a hitherto un-thought series of confrontations out of which, he contends, the orderly structure of society is composed. For all the abstract schemes for which Foucault has become famous, he is also the most concrete of writers. He is a fact-lover. One of the interviews ends on a typical note. He’s asked when bottle-feeding of infants was invented or at least introduced into France. He does not know and is delighted when his interlocutors can tell him, and at the same time curses himself for being so dumb not to have asked the question himself.

Foucault is, then, no spinner of verbal fantasies. I enjoy his long books rather than these short interviews just because the books are denser with facts. The editor of Power/Knowledge is right, however, when he says that the interviews can help us to understand the books. The interview is a French art form used to present work in progress which is destined, at first, for limited circulation, and which is couched in terms suitable for discussion among one specific audience. Hence there is a directness here that is often missing from the long and elaborately constructed books. But Foucault’s notions of power and knowledge are so divorced from common speech that I need to recall how he arrived at them. His sequence of books is, despite its ups and downs, an intellectual progress, and I shall try to describe it by way of explaining the interviews.

Madness and Civilization1 was a somewhat romantic work. It seems to have started with the hesitant belief, never stated, that there is a pure thing, madness, perhaps a good in itself, which is not something that we can capture in concepts. It is certainly not what the sciences of the insane call madness. We classify and treat and put away the mad by systems of our own creation. Our institutions create the phenomena in terms of which we see insanity. This first major book by Foucault hints at an almost Kantian story in which our experience of the mad is a mere phenomenon conditioned by our thought and our history, but there is also a thing-in-itself which can be called madness and which is uncorruptible. Moreover reason is also only a phenomenon whose very existence requires its opposite to define itself against. In English the book is ironically subtitled, “A History of Madness in the Age of Reason.”


By the time that the book had been written it was clear that this romantic conception of a pure and prior madness was a mistake. There could be no such thing as this preconceptual way of being. The book had become a book about something else. What? That was not so clear, at first. “When I think back now,” Foucault said in a 1977 interview, “I ask myself what else it was that I was talking about, in Madness and Civilization or The Birth of the Clinic, but power?”

The plot of the madness book, which is repeated in several of its successors, is plain enough. There are two notable events. First comes “the great exclusion” in mid-seventeenth century: a frantic looking up of deviants and a building of lunatic asylums. Much later, at the time of the French Revolution, there is a spurious liberation, when a new body of psychiatric knowledge invented new ways to deal with the insane. At least in the old asylums, Foucault suggests, the mad were left to themselves in all the horror that implied. Yet the horror was not worse than the solemn destruction of the mad by committees of experts with their constantly changing manuals of nostrums.

Foucault’s stories are dramatic. He presents a reordering of events that we had not perceived before. The effect is heightened by brilliant before-and-after snapshots taken on either side of the great divide during which one tradition is transformed into another. We are given one snippet of description of a brain around 1780 and another twenty-five years later. The very “same” organ on the marble slab plays a role in the later physiology that corresponds to nothing in 1780.

Scholars remind us that the facts are vastly more complex than what Foucault describes. His predilection for French examples projected onto European history leads to mistakes.2 There are two extremes of French historiography. The Annales school goes in for longterm continuities or slow transitions—“the great silent motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events” (to quote from the first page of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge [1969]). Foucault takes the opposite tack, inherited from Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Louis Althusser. He posits sharp discontinuities in the history of knowledge. In one interview he grants that this obsession with breaks creates an account of knowledge that fits some facts, but is not a general model. Now not only do we find that the facts are sometimes not quite right, that they are overgeneralized, and that they are squeezed into a model of brusque transformations; we also find that many of Foucault’s dramas have already been told in calmer terms, by other people.

No matter. His histories stick in the mind. We can add our own corrective footnotes at leisure. These histories matter because they are in part political statements. They are also what I call philosophy: a way of analyzing and coming to understand the conditions of possibility for ideas—not only ideas of disease or insanity or imprisonment but also the traditional concept of epistemology, namely knowledge, and of ethics, namely power.

An exclusion is an exercise of power. It is a putting away. Despite all the fireworks, Madness and Civilization follows the romantic convention that sees the exercise of power as repression, which is wicked. The dramatic and fundamental feature of Foucault’s recent work is the rejection of this idea. But do not turn at once to his writings on power, for it is in his reflections on knowledge that this conversion occurs.

The psychiatrists, hygienists, forensic scientists, theorists of the prison, of education or population that emerge in the nineteenth century form a new band of experts. They had lots of hypotheses and prejudices and tidy theories that were constantly being revised, but which were embedded in an underlying conception of disease or crime or whatnot. Foucault used the French word connaissance to stand for such items of surface knowledge, while savoir meant more than science; it was a frame, postulated by Foucault, within which surface hypotheses got their sense. Savoir is not knowledge in the sense of a bunch of solid propositions. This “depth” knowledge is more like a postulated set of rules that determine what kinds of sentences are going to count as true or false in some domain. The kinds of things to be said about the brain in 1780 are not the kinds of things to be said a quarter-century later. That is not because we have different beliefs about brains, but because “brain” denotes a new kind of object in the later discourse, and occurs in different sorts of sentences.


The knowledge of Power/Knowledge is the savoir I’m calling “depth” knowledge. Maybe no one is conscious of this knowledge. We should expect that Foucault’s “power” will turn out to be some sort of “depth” power that no one wittingly exercises. Foucault’s worries about knowledge and power will not, then, be the important but trite questions about how geneticists or nuclear physicists are to use their new-won surface knowledge for the good or ill of our species.

A new knowledge is involved in the liberation of the insane as they are brought under the care of the medical man. New things are to be said and thought about the mad. Foucault’s book on medicine has a connected story. Laclinique denotes both an institution, the teaching hospital, and the clinical lecture, a way of talking. The Birth of the Clinic (1963) is another book about exclusion and about new candidates for truth-or-falsehood. It is also about the creation of a self-constituting class of experts located within a new knowledge. What makes this development possible? A familiar history of science would tell us a tale of heroes. We would learn of their problems, their goals, their luck, their experiments, their mistakes, their visible and invisible colleges, and their funding. Foucault does not aim at such a history of who said what and why, but a story about the web of specific sentences that were uttered, and a theory, called archaeology, of what made it possible for those sentences to be uttered (largely regardless of who uttered them). This impossible task will produce a bizarre account of what we might call pure knowledge. The first and probably last masterpiece in this genre is The Order of Things (1966).

The Order of Things tells of four epochs. The periodization is already familiar. There is the age of reason, from Descartes to the Revolution. There is a historicist nineteenth century that leads on to the present. There is the predecessor era that we call the renaissance. Finally there is a future, starting now.

“Life, labor and language” are concepts formed in the nineteenth century as the material of biology, economics, and linguistics. These sciences have objects that don’t correspond with or “map onto” their pre-Revolutionary predecessors of natural history, the theory of wealth, or general grammar. Those fields of inquiry have, in turn, no parallel in the Renaissance, says Foucault. Such non-mappings result not so much from new discoveries as from the coming into being of new objects of thought for which new truths and falsehoods are to be uttered. The Order of Things is about how one “depth” knowledge can mutate into another, and with what consequences.

The book is not only a new sort of historical performance. It is also a tract against the human sciences. The American reader should not identify these with the social sciences, for the French classification will include some admixture of psychoanalysis and ethnography, certain kinds of literary analysis and various reflections of a Marxist origin. Foucault’s book is about Man, a figure of less interest for our anglophone culture. “Man” is two-faced, knower and object of knowledge. He was formally announced when Kant one year put a new question into his annual Logic lectures: “What is Man?”

The ensuing philosophical anthropology—it was Foucault who edited a French edition of Kant’s Anthropologie (1964)—generates an illicit way to talk that pretends to look like biology or linguistics. This is not the familiar criticism that says the method of the social sciences is inept. The method is all too well modeled on legitimate science. Foucault is denying that the human sciences have a genuine object to talk about. Luckily, he informs us, Man is on the way out. Discourse is coming in, pure discourse without the knowing subject who utters the words.

Some of this antagonism to the knowing subject is merely typical of Parisian discussions of the day. Phenomenology was detested and despised by figures such as Lévi-Strauss. Foucault’s own literary criticism—some of which can be read in a collection of his essays translated as Language, Counter-Memory, Practice—argues that the concepts of “author” and “oeuvre” must be exchanged for less personal ways of grouping sentences. He also urges that literature is extinct. My very phrase “literary criticism” is a solecism in describing Foucault. So much was the high fashion of the day. But in addition Foucault had, if not a theory, at least a body of speculations that give sense to it. He held that the class of sentences that can be uttered in a specified time and place is not determined by the conscious wishes of the speakers. The possibility of being true-or-false does not reside in a person’s desire to communicate. Hence the author himself is irrelevant to the analysis of such “conditions of possibility.”

Discourse is, then, to be analyzed not in terms of who says what but in terms of the conditions under which those sentences will have a definite truth value, and hence are capable of being uttered. Such conditions will lie in the “depth” knowledge of the time. This vision leads us far from material conditions of the production of sentences. Inevitably The Order of Things looks like an idealist book, reminiscent once again of Kant. Perhaps in self-mockery Foucault briefly accepted the label of “the historical a priori.” Where Kant had found the conditions of possible experience in the structure of the human mind, Foucault does it with historical, and hence transient, conditions for possible discourse.

This obession with words was too fragile to stand. Foucault had to return to the material conditions under which the words were spoken. Not wanting to go back to individual speakers or authors, he at least had to consider the interests which spoken and written words would serve. The illegitimate sciences of Man were not just a lot of talk. They included the legal medicine which in the nineteenth century was busy reclassifying deviants, inventing even the concepts of norm and of pathology, and then allotting them to treatment. This legal reformism devised new architectures of prisons, schools, and hospitals, which are described in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). There are overt forms of power such as the judicial machinery with its new crowd of experts to testify on the mental health of the prisoner. Everywhere discipline is to the fore. It is revealed in the factory as well as in buildings avowedly erected for disciplining. Even the working man’s cottage shall have its rooms divided and allotted to ensure the strictest morality.

Knowledge became power, all right. A new conception of human beings as disciplinary objects means one is to do something new with people. Not that anyone “knew” much that we would now call sound belief. If you read through the volumes of the Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, which commence in 1829, you will give credence to very little except the statistics, but you will be able to dine out for a year on horror stories, especially if you Xerox some of the engravings.

Foucault lifted from these Annales an event of 1835 now published as I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother…(1973). For almost the first time a horde of experts stood about in court theorizing about the supposedly crazed killer. The categories into which they slot him will determine what is to be done with him. That is one small way in which knowledge is power. It is less the facts about Pierre than the possibility of thinking of him in these ways that fixes his fate.

In his interviews Foucault subscribes to the common wisdom that the failed Parisian revolts of May, 1968, jolted him out of a one-sided fascination with discourse and also created a new audience that could discuss knowledge and power. There are also good internal reasons for at the very least expanding the project undertaken in The Order of Things. If you hold that a discourse consists in the totality of what is said in some domain, then you go beyond reading the intellectual highs of the heroes of science and you sample what is being said everywhere—including not only the annals of public hygiene but also the broadsheets of the day. You inevitably have to consider who is doing what to whom.

At that point Foucault makes his fundamental break with tradition. Out with the who and the whom: He is primed by the denial of the knowing subject that I have just described. The old model of repression says there is a who: some identifiable party is organizing the lives of other people; or, as a result we are not allowed to do certain things. Volume I of The History of Sexuality (1976) is a polemic against that model.

This book is, as Foucault remarks in one interview, not about sex. “Sexuality” denotes (in one dictionary definition) recognition of, or preoccupation with, sex. The book is partly about this preoccupation. The French title of Volume I is La Volonté de savoir, the will to knowledge, “depth” knowledge. The will in question is nobody in particular’s will; indeed the title is also an allusion to Schopenhauer. There is a will to create the possibility of saying truths and falsehoods about sex. Unlike the other figures of Foucault’s histories, this will to knowledge turns out to have been around for a long time. Volume II will be a very long book about the confessional, with an emphasis on what leads up to Saint Augustine. It will be no surprise, when the book is published, if we read that Freud appears less as an innovator than as the inventor of one more rite in a roster of confessionals that has endured far longer than a millennium.

Like the prison, sexuality has its own immediate interest, but Foucault’s abiding concerns also call his attention to a certain positive knowledge of populations and what he calls biopolitics. Great webs of bureaucracy evolve endless ways to count and classify people. Birth, death, sickness, suicide, fertility: these inaugurate the modern era, the era of statistical data. There is an avalanche of numbers early in the nineteenth century. I occurs not because people can count better but because new kinds of facts about populations are taken to be the things to find out.

Sexuality for Foucault is not only a preoccupation with sex. It intersects with a larger circle of ideas, of consciousness of the body, of bodies. It has to do with “political technologies of life.” Two axes of sexuality are offered: “disciplines of the body, of harnessing, intensification and distribution of force, the adjustment and economy of energies. On the other hand [‘sexuality’] was applied to the regulation of populations.” Both “an entire micro-power concerned with the body,” and “comprehensive measures, statistical assessments and interventions” aimed at the entire social body: “Sex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.”

We once had a sovereign who exercised power upon subjects. Around the beginning of the nineteenth century there arises what Foucault describes in an interview as “a new type of power, which can no longer be formulated in terms of sovereignty.” It is one of the great inventions of bourgeois society. In one dimension this power is to be called “disciplinary,” but discipline is only one aspect of it. New kinds of truth and falsehood are another. “‘Truth,”‘ Foucault tells us, “is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it.” This “truth” is at one step removed from what we normally understand. It is an abstract underlying element that takes its place with the “depth” knowledge and power. We are specifically enjoined not to think of all this in terms of ideology and Marxian superstructure, i.e., as self-conceptions used after the fact to legitimate an economic arrangement. The truth, knowledge, and power are on the contrary the conditions of possibility for the bourgeois mode.

Most readers have already had a hard time making sense of Foucault’s anonymous knowledge, discourse with a life of its own. Unowned power is even more mysterious. “All the same,” one interviewer begins with a touch of exasperation, “does someone initiate the whole business or not?” Prisons were under discussion. Foucault’s answer goes like this. The new technology of power does not originate with any identifiable person or group. We do indeed get individual tactics invented for particular needs. Prison architecture is modified to make it harder for prisoners to hang themselves—but always with a certain model of how a prison is to be built. The tactics take shape in piecemeal fashion without anyone’s wittingly knowing what they add up to. If we turn to the practice of collecting information about populations, each new classification, and each new counting within that classification, is devised by a person or a committee with a straightforward, limited goal in mind. Then the population itself is increasingly classified, rearranged, and administered by principles each one of which is innocently put forward by this or that technocrat. We obtain “a complex play of supports in mutual engagement, different mechanisms of power.”

Let us not, therefore, ask why certain people want to dominate, what they seek, what is their overall strategy. Let us ask, instead, how things work at the level of on-going subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviors, etc. In other words, rather than ask ourselves how the sovereign appears to us in his lofty isolation, we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects. This would be an exact opposite of Hobbes’ project in Leviathan….

The exact opposite: Foucault is not concerned with how the subjects shall form a constitution determining who or what is Sovereign. He wants to know how the subjects themselves are constituted. Just as there was no pure madness, no thing-in-itself, so there is no pure subject, no “I” or “me” prior to the forms of description and action appropriate to a person. Literary historians have long noted that a person did not conceive of himself as a poet—as that kind of person—before the Romantic era. One just wrote poems. Liberationists urge that the category of “homosexual” (and hence “heterosexual”) did not exist until the doctors of deviancy invented it. There were acts, but not a homosexual kind of person. It is a Foucaultian thesis that every way in which I can think of myself as a person and an agent is something that has been constituted within a web of historical events. Here is one more step in the destruction of Kant: the noumenal self is nothing.

I have just quoted Foucault saying, “Let us not, therefore, ask why certain people want to dominate….” Out of context you might wonder if he is telling us never to ask why Roosevelt, Stalin, or de Gaulle wanted to dominate. Are we not to ask why these very persons had vices and virtues, and how they left their marks upon hundreds of millions of subjects? Foucault implies no such thing. Compare his earlier work. At the height of his enthusiasm for abrupt changes in knowledge, he never denied the importance of the Annales methodology with its search for underlying stability. When he lashed out at the concept of “author” as critical tool, he never lost his affection for his favorite authors and their best books. In short, his own investigations do not preclude others. In context his quotation says, for my purposes, don’t ask why certain people want to dominate.

There are two distinct points here. One is that he is embarking on new inquiries about the constitution of the subject. The other is that the old inquiries, about the power of a particular despot, say, are distorted by the blind conception of power always stemming from above. We may indeed, in a particular story, have a complete causal chain from a directive signed “Stalin” down to a particular victim in a Gulag. But that there should have been a Gulag-type institution is not, according to Foucault, personal or historical caprice. It looks as if this type of evil is inextricably connected with Eastern European socialist states, and its explanation will require an archaeology of communism. I have no idea how Foucault would write one, but there are hints in these interviews. Moreover, to give an archaeological account is in no way to excuse or to fail to make distinctions. Don’t, he urges, fall prey to the rhetoric that says we all have our own Gulags here at our own door, in our cities. That is false, but it is not power exercised from the top that has made it false.

Foucault propounds an extreme nominalism: nothing, not even the ways I can describe myself, is either this or that but history made it so. We may have been led along this route by reflections on knowledge and language, but we should drop the metaphors that they suggest. Instead turn to power, “war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Every new way in which to think of a person—and hence a way in which people can think of themselves, find their roles, and choose their actions—“is the pursuit of war by other means.”

The Order of Things ends by prophesying a new era in which self-conscious discourse is not about Man or the thinking subject but about discourse alone. A good deal of this project remains in what Foucault now calls genealogy: “a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history.” But The Order of Things spoke as if there would be no reflective talk except talk about talk. Perhaps we should not see this book as bringing in a new era of such pure talk, but rather as the final installment in a century or so of philosophical writing obsessed with language. Foucault’s new concern with relations of power, rather than relations of meaning, should lead us away from the escapist metaphors about conversation that flow from a fixation on language.

It is not that language shall be deemed unimportant. Foucault’s forthcoming history of the confessional must among other things be the history of a certain kind of talk. He is likewise still concerned with the project of understanding how certain classes of sentences come up for grabs as true or false, at definite locations in history. Such investigations are now, however, to be embedded in an account of the possibilities of action and the springs of power. The murmuring at the confessional is an “irrigation” (his word) of power. The word “irrigation” bears not only the familiar agricultural sense but also refers to medical hygiene. Perhaps both senses are intended here. Confessions keep the power relation hygienic, and also run channels of water from one area to another so the whole can flourish. Without the performance of the individual acts of irrigation, the power would rot or dry up.

Even such events of pure philosophical inquiry as the introduction of the Cartesian ego into discourse may be seen in this light. The ego collects together a lot of fairly unrelated activities: hoping and hurting and proving theorems and seeing trees. Why should there be one thing—a substance, as Descartes had it—that is the subject of all these predicates? Suppose we guess that the confessional for novitiate monks is the place where people were first made to talk not only about what they have done, but also about what they have felt and thought and seen and above all dreamed. The Rules of Descartes for the direction of the mind, seemingly so purely concerned with the search for, and foundations of, knowledge, may then appear to be one more item in a sequence of monastic regulae, rules in which a very specific type of talking integrates a system of bodily discipline.

Let power and knowledge be something like what Foucault has glimpsed. What then shall we do? We seem led to an immensely pessimistic body of doctrine. The politics of the left is usually founded upon a Romantic conception of getting back to the origin, as in Rousseau, or on to the end, as with Marx. Foucault makes plain that he has been discussing (and detesting) not only the discipline of bourgeois society. There will be an archaeology of Gulags too. In any particular context we can go some way without the romantic illusions of the left, for there remains praxis, Marxist and somewhat Spinozan. We can distinguish the Gulag institution, which like the prison is to be studied and understood by a Foucault-like history, from the Gulag question, i.e., what is to be done about these monsters, at this very moment? The Gulag, as well as being a historical object, is also “a positive present.”

So are French prisons. One may well understand that prison reform is almost coeval with the penitentiary, as if it were an auxiliary to the institution, and still try to make prisons less intolerable, right now. But although prison reform might be a popular front on which many of us can agree, Foucault clearly finds more radical transformations attractive. But if the romantic revolutionary illusion of liberation is in principle abandoned, how is it to be replaced? “It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power…but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.” Liberation is the wrong concept for Foucault, but “detachment” might be possible. Now what is to “detach” truth from present hegemony?

There is published elsewhere a joint interview with Foucault and Noam Chomsky.3 The linguist comes across as a marvelously sane reformist liberal: Let’s get justice working right. Foucault sounds more like an anarchist: destroy the judicial system. Is that a way to “detach” a power of truth from forms of hegemony? Maybe. Power/Knowledge begins with a 1972 interview with French Maoists. At the start of a revolution don’t create peoples’ courts, he urges. Don’t reinstitute precisely the institutions of hegemony used to separate and control the masses. In 1980 the courtroom ironically reopens for the Gang of Four, television rights for $40,000. Foucault is no anarchist, partly because anarchy is impossible. To have a regime for saying true and false things about ourselves is to enter a regime of power and it is unclear that any detaching from that power can succeed.

We might have been content with the thought of replacing our “forms of hegemony” by others so long as we had the Romantic illusion of a true humankind, a true me, or even a true madness. But whatever Foucault means by detaching truth from forms of hegemony, he does not want the comfort of the Romantic illusions. Minute radical acts of protest and reform are not to make sense against a backdrop of progress toward the hopes of the traditional left. That way leads to desolation. Foucault, let’s say, has been completing a dialogue with Kant. Each question of Kant’s is deliberately inverted or destroyed. “What is Man?” asked Kant. Nothing, says Foucault. “For what then may we hope?” asked Kant. Does Foucault give the same nothing in reply?

To think so is to misunderstand Foucault’s reply to the question about Man. Foucault said that the concept Man is a fraud, not that you and I are as nothing. Likewise the concept Hope is all wrong. The hopes attributed to Marx or Rousseau are perhaps part of that very concept Man, and they are a sorry basis for optimism. Optimism, pessimism, nihilism, and the like are all concepts that make sense only within the idea of a transcendental or enduring subject. Foucault is not in the least incoherent about all this. If we’re not satisfied, it should not be because he is pessimistic. It is because he has given no surrogate for whatever it is that springs eternal in the human breast.

This Issue

May 14, 1981