Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

Michel Foucault

French Philosopher, Social Theorist and Historian of Ideas

"The problem of the truth of what I say is a very difficult one for me; in fact, it's the central problem. That's the question I still haven't answered. And yet I make use of the most conventional methods: demonstration, or, at any rate, proof in historical matters, textual references, citation of authorities, drawing connections between texts and facts, suggesting schemes of intelligibility, offering different types of explanation. There is nothing original in what I do. From this standpoint, what I say in my books can be verified or invalidated in the same way as any other book of history."

"The proper name and the author's name are situated between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link."

"The Sirens are the elusive and forbidden form of the alluring voice. They are nothing but song. Only a silvery wake in the sea, the hollow of a wave, a cave in the rocks, the whiteness of the beach - what are they in their very being if not a pure appeal, if not the mirthful void of listening, if not attentiveness, if not an invitation to pause?'"

"The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body."

"The State does not have an essence. The State is not universal, the State is not in itself an autonomous source of power. The State is nothing other than the effect, the outline, the moving cross section of a perpetual process of State formation, or perpetual processes of State formation ... The State is nothing other than the changing effect of a multiple regime of governmentalities... It is a matter of... undertaking the investigation of the problem of the State starting from practices of governmentality.'"

"There is an optimism that consists in saying, "In any case, it couldn't be any better." My optimism would consist in saying, "So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contingencies than to inevitable anthropological constants.""

"There has been an inversion in the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, ?Take care of yourself? and ?Know yourself.? In Greco-Roman culture, knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of the care of the self. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle."

"The very definition of an intellectual comprises a person who necessarily is entangled with the politics and major decisions of his society. Thus, the point is not whether or not an intellectual has a presence in political life. Rather, the point is what should the role of an intellectual be in the present state of the world, in order that he or she would reach the most decisive, authentic, accurate results."

"The term 'folklore' is nothing but a hypocrisy of the 'civilized' who won't take part in the game, and who want to hide their refusal to make contact under the mantle of respect for the picturesque."

"There is a very tenuous "analytic" link between a philosophical conception and the concrete political attitude of someone who is appealing to it; the "best" theories do not constitute a very effective protection against disastrous political choices: certain great themes such as "humanism" can be used to any end whatever - for example, to show with what gratitude Pohlenz would have greeted Hitler."

"To become a bourgeois intellectual, a professor, a journalist, a writer, or anything of that sort seemed repugnant. The experience of the war had shown us the urgent need of a society radically different from the one in which we were living, this society that had permitted Nazism, that had lain down in front of it, and that had gone over en masse to de Gaulle. A large sector of French youth had a reaction of total disgust toward all that. We wanted a world and a society that were not only different but that would be an alternative version of ourselves: we wanted to be completely other in a completely different world."

"There is object proof that homosexuality is more interesting than heterosexuality. It's that one knows a considerable number of heterosexuals who would wish to become homosexuals, whereas one knows very few homosexuals who would really like to become heterosexuals."

"This notion of the government of men by truth... Elaborating this notion means displacing things a little in relation to the now over-worn and tired theme of power-knowledge. For the history of thought, my analysis was more or less organized, or revolved around, the notion of dominant ideology. If you like, there are in general two successive displacements: then, from the notion of dominant ideology to that of power-knowledge and now, a second displacement from the notion of knowledge-power to the notion of government by the truth... Discarding the notion of knowledge-power the same way as I discarded the notion of dominant ideology. Well, when I say that, I am perfectly devastated (detruite) because it is obvious that you don't discard something you thought yourself in the same way as you discard what others have thought. As a consequence, I will certainly be more indulgent with the notion of knowledge-power than with that of dominant ideology, but it is up to you to criticize me for that."

"These differences may result from the fact that an author's name is not simply an element in a discourse (capable of being either subject or object, of being replaced by a pronoun, and the like); it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function."

"Thought is not to be sought only in theoretical formulations such as those of philosophy or science; it can and must be analyzed in every manner of speaking, doing or behaving in which the individual appears and acts as subject of learning, as ethical or juridical subject, as subject conscious of himself and others. In this sense, thought is understood as the very form of action - as action insofar as it implies the play of true and false, the acceptance or refusal of rules, the relation to oneself and others. The study of forms of experience can thus proceed from an analysis of "practices" - discursive or not - as long as one qualifies that word to mean the different systems of action insofar as they are inhabited by thought as I have characterized it here."

"To admit that writing is, because of the very history that it made possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent, in transcendental terms, the religious principle of the hidden meaning (which requires interpretation) and the critical principle of implicit signification, silent determinations, and obscured contents (which give rise to commentary)."

"Truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom."

"Unreason is in the same relation to reason as dazzlement to the brightness of daylight itself."

"Truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us."

"Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing."

"We can say that today's writing has freed itself from the theme of expression. Referring only to itself; but without being restricted to the confines of its interiority, writing is identified with its own unfolded exteriority."

"We have now got in the habit of perceiving in madness a fall into a determinism where all forms of liberty are gradually suppressed; madness shows us nothing more than the natural constants of a determinism, with the sequences of its causes, and the discursive movement of its forms; for madness threatens modern man only with that return to the bleak world of beasts and things, to their fettered freedom."

"We have to rid ourselves of the prejudice that a history without causality is no longer history."

"We understand that the tragic hero?in contrast to the baroque character of the preceding period?can never be mad; and that conversely madness cannot bear within itself those values of tragedy which we have known since Nietzsche and Artaud."

"We are doomed historically to history, to the patient construction of discourses about discourses, and to the task of hearing what has already been said."

"We demand that sex speak the truth ... and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness."

"What bothers me is the quality of French television. It's true! It is one of the best in the world unfortunately!"

"What bothers and irritates me horribly in France, is that you are obliged to look at the program in advance to know what you can't miss, and you have to arrange your evening as a result."

"What all these people are doing is not aggressive; they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body ? through the eroticization of the body. I think it's ... a creative enterprise, which has as one of its main features what I call the desexualization of pleasure."

"What appears to me to be indispensable is respect for the reader... I dream of books which would be clear enough about the way they go about things for others to use them freely, but without trying either to blur or hide the original sources. Freedom of use and technical transparency are linked."

"What defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions. A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks, it destroys, or it closes off all possibilities."

"What desire can be contrary to nature, since it was given to man by nature itself?"

"What I wanted to do was in the order of philosophy: can one reflect philosophically on the history of knowledge as historical material rather than reflecting on a theory or a philosophy of history. In a rather empirical and clumsy fashion, I envisaged a work as close as possible to that of historians, but in order to ask philosophical questions, concerning the history of knowledge. I hoped for the good will of historians."

"What is constitutive is the action that divides madness, and not the science elaborated once this division is made."

"What is peculiar to modern societies is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret."

"What is important is that sex was not only a question of sensation and pleasure, of law and interdiction, but also of the true and the false."

"What is serious, is that, as you continue to write you are no longer read at all and readers going from one distortion to another, reading books on the shoulders of others end up with an absolutely grotesque image of your book."

"What is philosophy if not a way of reflecting, not so much on what is true and what is false, as on our relationship to truth? ... The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusions, one detaches oneself from what is accepted as true and seeks other rules - that is philosophy."

"When I say that I am studying the "problematization" of madness, crime, or sexuality, it is not a way of denying the reality of such phenomena. On the contrary, I have tried to show that it was precisely some real existent in the world which was the target of social regulation at a given moment."

"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?'"

"When I speak of a 'disciplinary' society, I don't mean a 'disciplined society'. When I speak of the spread of methods of discipline, this is not a claim that 'the French are obedient'! In the analysis of normalising procedures, it is not a question of a 'thesis of a massive normalisation'. As if these developments weren't precisely the measure of a perpetual failure."

"What is to be understood by the disciplining of societies in Europe since the eighteenth century is not, of course, that the individuals who are part of them become more and more obedient, nor that all societies become like barracks, schools or prisons; rather, it is that an increasingly controlled, more rational and economic process of adjustment has been sought between productive activities, communications networks, and the play of power relations."

"When man deploys the arbitrary nature of his madness, he confronts the dark necessity of the world; the animal that haunts his nightmares and his nights of privation is his own nature, which will lay bare hell's pitiless truth; the vain images of blind idiocy?such are the world's Magna Scientia; and already, in this disorder, in this mad universe, is prefigured what will be the cruelty of the finale."

"When I was a student in the 1950s, I read Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty. When you feel an overwhelming influence, you try to open a window. Paradoxically enough, Heidegger is not very difficult for a Frenchman to understand. When every word is an enigma, you are in a not-too-bad position to understand Heidegger. Being and Time is difficult, but the more recent works are clearer. Nietzsche was a revelation to me. I felt that there was someone quite different from what I had been taught. I read him with a great passion and broke with my life, left my job in the asylum, left France: I had the feeling I had been trapped. Through Nietzsche, I had become a stranger to all that."

"Where can an interrogation lead us which does not follow reason in its horizontal course, but seeks to retrace in time that constant vertically which confronts European culture with what it is not?"

"When, with Rousseau and Pestallozzi, the eighteenth century concerned itself with constituting for the child, with educational rules that followed his development, a world that would be adapted to him, it made it possible to form around children an unreal, abstract, archaic environment that had no relation to the adult world. The whole development of contemporary education, with its irreproachable aim of preserving the child from adult conflicts, accentuates the distance that separates, for a man, his life as a child and his life as an adult. That is to say, by sparing the child conflicts, it exposes him to a major conflict, to the contradiction between his childhood and his real life. If one adds that, in its educational institutions, a culture does not project its reality directly, with all its conflicts and contradictions, but that it reflects it indirectly through the myths that excuse it, justify it, and idealize it in a chimerical coherence; if one adds that in its education a society dreams of its golden age [...] one understands that fixations and pathological regressions are possible only in a given culture, that they multiply to the extent that social forms do not permit the assimilation of the past into the present content of experience."

"When one undertakes to correct a prisoner, someone who has been sentenced, one tries to correct the person according to the risk of relapse, of recidivism, that is to say according to what will very soon be called dangerousness ? that is to say, again, a mechanism of security."

"Writing unfolds like a game [jeu] that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears."

"You may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he."

"You must not attribute to me the idea that "Muslim spirituality will advantageously replace dictatorship". Since there have been demonstrations and people have been killed in Iran in the name of "Islamic government", it is an elementary duty to ask what content has been given to this term and what animates it... The Islamic problem as a political force is an essential problem for our times and for the years to come. The first condition for approaching it with some measure of intelligence is not to start with hatred."