The Passion of Michel Foucault
To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life
When Michel Foucault died in June 1984, he was the most famous intellectual figure in the world. It was, one might say, a title he had inherited on the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in April 1980. This was not because his intellectual stature was uncontested—rather the reverse: admirers thought him a genius, detractors thought him a charlatan, and the precariousness of his reputation added to the excitement. His French colleague, the philosopher Gilles Delcuze, declared that this would be “the century of Foucault,” while English and American critics were prone to accuse him of “diffusing his meaning very thinly through an immense verbal spate,”1 and of rendering entirely opaque issues that were intrinsically merely very difficult.
The fame of Foucault’s ideas rests on what makes them hard to accept—his talent for stating them in such extreme terms that they were literally incredible. Thus The Order of Things (1966) claimed that biology did not exist in the eighteenth century because “life itself did not exist,” while the same text announced “the death of Man,” and described the individual as merely a “rift in the order of things.” None of these claims is exactly plausible. Does he really mean there was no life in the eighteenth century? How could personal identity be just an illusion?
When they are made plausible by paraphrase, the claims lose their fizz. It may be that until the rise of modern biology, nobody thought of a science of life—but that is a plausible point about the use of “life” as an organizing concept, not a discovery about life itself. Foucault’s announcement of the “death of Man” offers the view that nineteenth-century theories of human nature, and political theories built around the idea of liberating that “human nature,” are obsolete or incoherent; mankind as such is left in much the same state as before. Once again, plausible claims about concepts and theories have been set out in a misleading fashion as if they were claims about the world.
The reduction of individuals to mere rifts in the order of things seems to boil down to the claim that individual thinkers and actors matter less to the “archaeology” of ideas than the systems of description and explanation and justification that they employ. But Foucault’s program for intellectual archaeology amounts to a process of uncovering and describing systems of ideas with little or no reference to the role of individuals in their creation; it was not a discovery but a prior (and highly contestable) methodological decision that there was no room for individuals in this inquiry. The views that most of us entertain of ourselves are left entirely untouched.
A different implausibility infects Foucault’s moral positions. Madness and Civilization (1961) characterizes the humane reforms of nineteenth-century psychiatrists as retrograde, and claims that we treat the insane more cruelly than ever because we try to work on the souls of the mentally ill, and treat their strangeness as a moral offense. Discipline and Punish characterized the reformative aims…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.