Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Michel Foucault

French Philosopher, Social Theorist and Historian of Ideas

"I believe that the political significance of the problem of sex is due to the fact that sex is located at the point of intersection of the discipline of the body and the control of the population."

"Truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctions; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true."

"People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what they do does."

"Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting."

"The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."

"But the guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment. For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty."

"Where there is power, there is resistance."

"The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play)."

"If you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing."

"It's my hypothesis that the individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces."

"What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?"

"What is true for writing and for love relationships is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know where it will end."

"The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them."

"The intellectual was rejected and persecuted at the precise moment when the facts became incontrovertible, when it was forbidden to say that the emperor had no clothes. "

"The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines."

"The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is the phenomena of the library."

"Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable."

"Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions."

"A way of life can be shared among individuals of different ages, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be "gay," I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try and define and develop a way of life."

"The appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and "psychic hermaphroditism" made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of "perversity"; but it also made possible the formation of a "reverse" discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or "naturality" be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified."

"The necessity of reform mustn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell one: “Don’t criticize, since you’re not capable of carrying out a reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, “this, then, is what needs to be done.” It should be an instrument for those for who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in a programming. It is a challenge directed to what is."

"Perhaps [transgression] is like a flash of lightning in the night which, from the beginning of time, gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies, which lights up the night from the inside, from top to bottom, yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation, its harrowing and poised singularity."

"But let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that a real man, the object of knowledge, philosophical reflection or technological intervention, has been substituted for the soul, the illusion of theologians. The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection more profound than himself. A 'soul' inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body."

"Because they claim to be concerned with the welfare of whole societies, governments arrogate to themselves the right to pass off as mere abstract profit or loss the human unhappiness that their decisions provoke or their negligence permits. It is a duty of an international citizenship to always bring the testimony of people's suffering to the eyes and ears of governments, sufferings for which it's untrue that they are not responsible. The suffering of men must never be a mere silent residue of policy. It grounds an absolute right to stand up and speak to those who hold power."

"It is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that transverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge."

"Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society."

"The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ''social worker'' -judge."

"In its function, the power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating."

"Chance does not speak essentially through words nor can it be seen in their convolution. It is the eruption of language, its sudden appearance. It's not a night twinkle with stars, an illuminated sleep, nor a drowsy vigil. It is the very edge of consciousness."

"Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write."

"The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ''outlaw,'' the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order."

"The soul is the prison of the body."

"Freedom of conscience entails more dangers than authority and despotism."

"I try to carry out the most precise and discriminative analyses I can in order to show in what ways things change, are transformed, are displaced. When I study the mechanisms of power, I try to study their specificity... I admit neither the notion of a master nor the universality of his law. On the contrary, I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them. And if I do not say what ought to be done, it is not because I believe there is nothing to be done. Quite on the contrary, I think there are a thousand things to be done, to be invented, to be forged, by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view, my entire research rests upon the postulate of an absolute optimism. I do not undertake my analyses to say: look how things are, you are all trapped. I do not say such things except insofar as I consider this to permit some transformation of things. Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use."

"Between these two unique and symmetrical events, something happens whose ambiguity has left the historians of medicine at a loss: blind repression in an absolutist regime, according to some; but according to others, the gradual discovery by science and philanthropy of madness in its positive truth. As a matter of fact, beneath these reversible meanings, a structure is forming which does not resolve the ambiguity but determines it. It is this structure which accounts for the transition from the medieval and humanist experience of madness to our own experience, which confines insanity within mental illness. In the Middle Ages and until the Renaissance, man's dispute with madness was a dramatic debate in which he confronted the secret powers of the world; the experience of madness was clouded by images of the Fall and the Will of God, of the Beast and the Metamorphosis, and of all the marvelous secrets of Knowledge. In our era, the experience of madness remains silent in the composure of a knowledge which, knowing too much about madness, forgets it. But from one of these experiences to the other, the shift has been made by a world without images, without positive character, in a kind of silent transparency which reveals— as mute institution, act without commentary, immediate knowledge—a great motionless structure; this structure is one of neither drama nor knowledge; it is the point where history is immobilized in the tragic category which both establishes and impugns it."

"I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end. My field is the history of thought. Man is a thinking being."

"We must not understand it [madness] as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled."

"From the discovery of that necessity which inevitably reduces man to nothing, we have shifted to the scornful contemplation of that nothing which is existence itself. Fear in the face of the absolute limit of death turns inward in a continuous irony; man disarms it in advance, making it an object of derision by giving it an everyday, tamed form, by constantly renewing it in the spectacle of life, by scattering it throughout the vices, the difficulties, and the absurdities of all men. Death's annihilation is no longer anything because it was already everything, because life itself was only futility, vain words, a squabble of cap and bells. The head that will become a skull is already empty."

"By power… I do not understand a general system of domination exercised by one element or one group over another, whose effects… traverse the entire body social… It seems to me that first what needs to be understood is the multiplicity of relations of force that are immanent to the domain wherein they are exercised, and that are constitutive of its organization; the game that through incessant struggle and confrontation transforms them, reinforces them, inverts them; the supports these relations of force find in each other, so as to form a chain or system, or, on the other hand, the gaps, the contradictions that isolate them from each other; in the end, the strategies in which they take effect, and whose general pattern or institutional crystallization is embodied in the mechanisms of the state, in the formulation of the law, in social hegemonies. The condition of possibility of power… should not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique space of sovereignty whence would radiate derivative and descendent forms; it is the moving base of relations of force that incessantly induce, by their inequality, states of power, but always local and unstable. Omnipresence of power: not at all because it regroups everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced at every instant, at every point, or moreover in every relation between one point and another. Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere."

"There are moments in life where the question of knowing whether one might think otherwise than one thinks and perceive otherwise than one sees is indispensable if one is to continue to observe or reflect… What is philosophy today… if it does not consist in, instead of legitimizing what we already know, undertaking to know how and how far it might be possible to think otherwise?… The ‘essay’ —which must be understood as a transforming test of oneself in the play of truth and not as a simplifying appropriation of someone else for the purpose of communication—is the living body of philosophy, if, at least, philosophy is today still what it was once, that is to say, an askesis, an exercise of the self, in thought."

"The pastorate was formed against a sort of intoxication of religious behavior, examples of which are found throughout the Middle East in the second, third, and fourth centuries, and to which certain Gnostic sects in particular bear striking and indisputable testimony. In at least some of these Gnostic sects, in fact, the identification of matter with evil, and as absolute evil, obviously entailed certain consequences. This might be, for example, a kind of vertigo or enchantment provoked by a sort of unlimited asceticism that could lead to suicide: freeing oneself from matter as quickly as possible. There is also the idea, the theme, of destroying matter thorough the exhaustion of the evils it contains, of committing every possible sin, going to the very end of the domain of evil opened up by matter, and thus destroying matter. Let us sin, then, and sin to infinity. There is also the theme of the nullification of the world of the law, to destroy which one must first destroy the law, that is to say, break every law. One must respond to every law established by the world, or by the powers of the world, by violating it, systematically breaking the law and in effect, overthrowing the reign of the one who created the world."

"All human behavior is scheduled and programmed through rationality. There is a logic of institutions and in behavior and in political relations. In even the most violent ones there is a rationality. What is most dangerous in violence is its rationality. Of course violence itself is terrible. But the deepest root of violence and its permanence come out of the form of the rationality we use. The idea had been that if we live in the world of reason, we can get rid of violence. This is quite wrong. Between violence and rationality there is no incompatibility."

"Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an origincal affinity with freedom: traditional themes in philosophy, which a political history of truth would have to overturn by showing that truth is not by nature free--nor error servile--but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power. The confession is an example of this."

"Everyone has their own way of changing, or, what amounts to the same thing, of perceiving that everything changes. In this matter, nothing is more arrogant than trying to dictate to others. My way of no longer being the same is, by definition, the most unique part of what I am . Yet God knows there are ideological traffic police around, and we can hear their whistles blast: go left, go right, here, later, get moving, not now... The insistence on identity and the injunction to make a break both, and in the same way, feel like abuses."

"Nothing is fundamental. That is what is so interesting in the analysis of society. That is why nothing irritates me as much as these inquiries - which are by definition metaphysical - on the foundations of power in a society or the self-institution of a society, etc. These are not fundamental phenomena. There are only reciprocal relations, and the perpetual gaps between intentions in relation to one another."

"But then, what is philosophy today - philosophical activity, I mean - if it is not the critical work of thought on itself? And if it does not consist in the endeavour of knowing how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, rather than legitimating what is already known? There is always something ludicrous in philosophical discourse when it tries, from the outside, to dictate to others, to tell them where their truth is and how to find it, or when it presumes to give them naively positivistic instruction. But it is its right to explore what might be changed, in its own thought, through the practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it. The "essay" - which should be understood as the test by means of which one modifies oneself through the play of truth and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication - is the living body of philosophy, at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an "ascesis", an exercise of the self, in thought."

"Thought does exist, both beyond and underneath systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives everyday behaviors. There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To practise criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy... [A]s soon as people begin to no longer be able to think things the way they have been thinking them, transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult and entirely possible. "

"I think it is us who make the future. The future is the way we react to what is happening, it is the way we transform a movement, a doubt into truth. If we want to be masters of our future, we must fundamentally pose the question of what today is."

"The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential problem for our time and for the years to come. The first condition in approaching it with anything resembling intelligence is to not to start with hatred."

"We can see, then, how vain and idle are all those wearisome discussions as to whether such and such forms of knowledge may be termed truly scientific, and to what conditions they ought to be subjected in order to become so. The 'sciences of man' are part of the modern episteme in the same way as chemistry or medicine or any other such science... But to say that they are part of the epistemological field means simply that their positivity is rooted in it, that that is where they find their condition of existence. They are not, therefore, merely illusions, pseudo-scientific fantasies motivated at the level of opinions, interests, or beliefs. They are not what others call by the bizarre name of 'ideology'. But that does not necessarily mean that they are sciences. "