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Je m’en FoucaultVincent Descombes
Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987

Je m’en Foucault

Vincent Descombes

3029 words
Foucault: A Critical Reader 
edited by David Hoy.
Blackwell, 246 pp., £27.50, September 1986, 0 631 14042 5
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by Gilles Deleuze.
Minuit, 141 pp., frs 58, February 1986, 2 7073 1086 7
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In 1980, Le Monde published a series of interviews with French philosophers, one of whom only agreed to participate on condition that he remain anonymous. His interview appeared under the title ‘The Masked Philosopher’. At the time, only expert readers were able to guess that the masked philosopher in question was Michel Foucault. Foucault had no objection to the practice of giving interviews: he gave several under his own name, and they often yielded some remarkably fine texts, which rightfully belong to the corpus of his work. It is significant that he insisted that he not be named on this one occasion – for an interview about philosophy. In many respects Foucault was indeed a masked philosopher. In his writings, his philosophical position usually remains implicit or presupposed. Only in The Archaeology of Knowledge did he attempt to offer a systematic presentation of the principles underlying his method of analysing historical material. Yet most commentators agree that this book fails to define a coherent position. It is only today that we are beginning to consider, not just what Foucault had to say as a leading intellectual, but also the position he embraced as a fully-fledged philosopher.

According to his expositors, Foucault’s writings reflect the stages of his thinking. Foucault I is an ‘archaeologist of the human sciences’ who presented a subversive history of modern ideas about man. Foucault II is a ‘microphysicist of power’ who, after May 1968, examined modern techniques of social control. Foucault III undertook a comparative study of the pagan morality of the Greeks and Christian morality, with the aim of clarifying our own moral assumptions. The stage we seem to be reaching now is Foucault IV, the philosopher whose insights inspired the writings of the three preceding stages. The problem is that there are two candidates for the position of Foucault IV. The first is a French philosopher whose unfinished system is reconstructed by Gilles Deleuze in a very condensed study entitled Foucault. The second is a sort of permanent visiting philosopher in the US: his ideas are discussed by the authors of the essays assembled by David Hoy in Foucault: A Critical Reader. The French Foucault and the American Foucault are not two sides of one and the same thinker: they are philosophers who hold entirely incompatible doctrines.

People have for a long time wondered whether Foucault deliberately left the field of philosophical analysis in order to do intellectual history instead. Clearly, like most ‘Continental’ philosophers, he was above all a commentator on texts. However, he seemed to have chosen to discuss them from the outside, as a historian. Moreover, he became extremely reticent whenever he was presented with openly philosophical questions (something which, in France at least, may only have occurred once, in 1963, at the time of Derrida’s lecture on ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’). His disciples used to explain that Foucault had no reason to engage in philosophical debate in the usual sense of the phrase: his project was ‘different’. Today, the claim seems out of place. Deleuze wrote his book precisely in order to show that Foucault should not be taken for a ‘historian of mentalities’: in his view, Foucault is the author of ‘one of the greatest philosophies of the 20th century’. This assessment leads to the issue of Foucault IV and to the contrast between the Foucault who emerges from the collection edited by Hoy and Foucault in the analyses offered by Deleuze. As I obviously cannot comment on all of the many interesting observations made about Foucault by the authors who contributed to Hoy’s collection, I shall confine my remarks to those aspects which bring out the contrast between the French Foucault and the Anglo-Saxon (and especially American) Foucault. Everyone agrees that Foucault is one of the important philosophers of our time. But what is it that makes him important? It is on this point that opinions are divided.

Is the ‘archaeology’ of Foucault I already an epistemology? Should one, in other words, seek out Foucault’s philosophy of knowledge in his ‘archaeological’ analysis – or rather in the conception of knowledge which this analysis presupposes? Ian Hacking holds that Foucault’s historical construction is in itself Foucault’s philosophy. Certainly it is a study of the ‘conditions of possibility for ideas’, which, according to Hacking, is precisely what we call philosophy. Hacking seems to believe that the use of the expression ‘conditions of possibility’ is enough to turn Foucault into a follower of Kant. Yet historians, too, search for conditions of possibility. They show how certain historical factors ‘made it possible’ for an idea to emerge or a theory to succeed. It matters little whether these conditions are found on the ‘surface’ (histoire événementielle) or at the depths of ‘long-term’ phenomena (archaeology). For the analysis of conditions of possibility to be philosophical, it must seek out conditions of intelligibility and not merely historical factors. For example, a philosophical analysis of the human sciences must show under what conditions the intellectual project of such a science is not just ‘historically possible’ but ‘logically possible’ – i.e. intelligible. It is for this reason that the status of archaeological epistemai must be clarified. If the conceptual schemata which Foucault calls epistemai are archaeological data (in the conventional sense), then they are simply historical facts which are more difficult to obtain than others. One must ‘dig’ into the soil of culture to unearth them. According to this hypothesis, Foucault would indeed be a historian of mentalités. If, however, he is a philosopher, then epistemai must be conceived of as a priori conditions. There is no way that a historical analysis could yield them, even if the historian were to dig very deep. In order to unearth these conditions, one needs something like a ‘transcendental logic’ in the Kantian sense. In other words, the analysis must find the relation, not between ‘superficial’ facts and ‘deep’ facts, but rather between a particular possibility and another possibility logically related to the first (as, to take an instance from Kant, between the possibility of having an objective experience and the possibility of forming a judgment of causality). Between one fact and another, the relation remains contingent or external: between one possibility and another, the relation must be logical or internal. In fact, as Richard Rorty remarks in his contribution to Hoy’s collection, Hacking settles for archaeology in the sense of historical analysis, even though he insists on calling it ‘epistemology’ – that is to say, Erkenntnistheorie. For his part, Rorty welcomes the characterisation of Foucault as a historiographer rather than an epistemologist. In contrast, Deleuze insists that Foucault was a philosopher and not a historian of mentalités. It is for this reason that he attempts to uncover a version of the transcendental logic which Foucault himself never explicitly presented. To do so, he does not hesitate to use a super-Kantian vocabulary (the ‘receptivity of the visible’, the ‘spontaneity of the discursive’, the ‘heterogeneous faculties of the mind’, ‘determinability’ and ‘determinacy’, etc).

One can say the same of Foucault’s ‘microphysics of power’. Foucault illustrated the sort of political history one would write if one exchanged the premises of political reasoning that are generally accepted by leftist intellectuals (be they ‘liberals’ or ‘Marxists’) for other premises. Yet he never made these new premises explicit. Occasionally he gave the impression of practising the petitio principii, of claiming to have obtained results from his archival work which were already there at the outset. Not surprisingly, it is precisely these premises which have been of greatest interest to critical readers. Most of the authors included in Hoy’s book who discuss Foucault’s political thought question how Foucault could define any regime, whatever its nature, as a pure relation of forces, and nevertheless still take a stand against some regimes (but never, admittedly, for other, opposed regimes). If every political regime is a power relation, why should some regimes be considered illegitimate or unacceptable? This is one of the questions raised here by Michael Walzer. Edward Said suggests that Foucault would have been more convincing if he had made a distinction between submitting to a power and following a social convention.

In Deleuze’s analysis, the microphysicist of power need not address the question of why one should resist power given that the very notion of abuse of power has been eliminated. He even considers this question – the question raised by Habermas, Charles Taylor and Walzer – ‘silly’. In his view, Foucault’s real difficulty lay in the fact that the ‘strategic’ analysis of power relations did not allow him to answer a different question: how can one resist force? If you are powerless, you are not capable of resisting: you can only endure. If, however, you are able to resist power, it is because you participate in power: you use power, hence you do not resist it. According to Deleuze, this dilemma explains why Foucault finally turned to the history of the various forms assumed by the ‘self’ over the course of Western history. When Foucault takes up the old theme of the antithesis between the ancient morality of personal happiness and the Christian morality of obedience to divine law, he does so in order to address the issue of the morality which characterises our time – the morality of autonomy. In the last lectures he delivered, Foucault examined both the critical philosophy of Kant and the individualistic doctrines of late Antiquity. In both cases, morality is considered from the standpoint of personal autonomy – that is, without reference to a political or religious community. Autonomy means that our conduct can no longer be governed by motives of the common good of the group or of a sacred law. Yet how are we to conceive of the autonomy of the individual, of his capacity to hold out in the face of external pressure? Should we follow the Kantian route of submission to the law of pure reason? Or should we resort to the ‘pagan’ (one might say, ‘Californian’) precept of caring for oneself? It is precisely at this point that we become interested in Foucault IV. But who is Foucault IV?

Is he the French philosopher whose thinking has been systematised by Deleuze? Or is he the philosopher discussed in the volume edited by Hoy, the philosopher who, as Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow tell us, was able to go ‘beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics’? The purpose of Hoy’s collection is to present the state of the discussion ‘from an Anglo-American perspective’. Some of the essays in this volume criticise Foucault and others defend him against his critics: but all of them, with two exceptions, are written from this Anglo-American perspective, which Hoy defines clearly in his introduction. The first exception is the article by Habermas, the only contribution from Continental Europe. The second is Martin Jay’s extremely interesting study of Foucault’s place in the French tradition of reflection on visual perception. Except for this article, no effort is made to situate Foucault in a French context. In France, Foucault is set in opposition to phenomenology (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty). In the US, he is set against Habermas, so that Habermas himself becomes a major partner in the ‘Anglo-American perspective’. The point of this German-American debate is to determine whether Foucault offered anything resembling a critical theory – a theory that would enable us to take a stand on current issues – without its being Critical Theory in the German sense, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which is best represented today by Habermas.

In their article Dreyfus and Rabinow try to take up Habermas’s criticisms of Foucault. According to Habermas, Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ theory does not allow him to make judgments or take political positions, for it does not wish to acknowledge universal norms. In response to that criticism, Dreyfus and Rabinow suggest that Foucault went much further than other thinkers, both German (‘beyond Hermeneutics’) and French (‘beyond Structuralism’), in elucidating what they call ‘modernity’. By ‘modernity’ they mean, grosso modo, the post-Kantian situation. One is modern by virtue of giving up the search for a transcendent foundation that would justify the beliefs and standards which prevail in one’s culture. On this view, we are modern if we recognise our ‘autonomy’, at least in the negative sense of the term – that is, the sense that each of us in making his judgments is left to his own resources. The modern predicament seems to be that we must choose between two equally disppointing positions. The first is to settle for Critical Theory, which means that we should undertake a quest for an immanent foundation (which must be purely formal), if we want to retain the possibility of judging. The second is advocated by those whom Dreyfus and Rabinow call ‘post-philosophers’ or ‘anti-thinkers’, those who tell us that we must admit that our judgments cannot be founded, that they are inescapably arbitrary. In other words, we must choose between German seriousness and French frivolity. Dreyfus and Rabinow praise Foucault for having opened up a third possibility. In their view, Foucault’s way out of the impasse is to give priority to ‘genealogy’ over ‘archaeology’. Or, to put it differently, he made the relativist component of his method subordinate to a pragmatic thesis which upholds the priority of practice over theory. Foucault’s method allowed him both to relativise our culture and to take our concerns seriously: ‘The archaeological step back that Foucault takes in order to see the strangeness of our society’s practices does not mean that he considers these practices meaningless. Since we share cultural practices with others, and since these practices have made us what we are, we have, perforce, some common footing from which to proceed, to understand, to act. But that foothold is no longer one which is universal, guaranteed, verified or grounded.’ Thanks to archaeology, we understand that the conceptual schema of our culture is not based on a principle situated somewhere beyond this culture. Thanks to genealogy, however, we can do quite well without a universal immanent foundation. Because we belong to our culture by taking part in its practices, we cannot help but take seriously – and from within – the problems which this culture takes seriously. Their reading of Foucault allows Dreyfus and Rabinow to compare him to Heidegger (the author of Being and Time gave priority to practice over theory) and to Wittgenstein (‘To imagine a language is to imagine a culture’). The goal of philosophy is no longer to provide foundations for the truths of our culture, but the seriousness of our problems is not, for all that, diminished. The aim of philosophy is to find a common language suited to mutual understanding: ‘What makes one interpretive theory better than another ... has to do with articulating common concerns and finding a language which becomes accepted as a way of talking about social situations, while leaving open the possibility of “dialogue”, or better, a conflict of interpretations, with other shared practices used to articulate different concerns.’

One might sum up the American Foucault by saying that he sought to define autonomy in purely human terms. From this standpoint, the notion of a universal law, whether transcendent or immanent, is ‘super-human thought’, as the ancient Greeks would have put it. But doesn’t the project of the American Foucault then begin to look ‘human, all too human’? Something is oddly missing in this position: namely, Foucault’s Nietzschean inspiration, the inspiration which lies at the very heart of the thinking of the French Foucault, for whom the project of autonomy requires us to have, as it were, ‘inhuman thoughts’. In other words, one must go not only beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, but ‘beyond good and evil’. Far from allowing itself to be subordinated to something else, the ‘archaeological’ step back from any cultural locus is the very condition of free thinking. In this view, we should have no worry about sharing our beliefs with our fellow citizens. American readers tend to play down the Nietzschean component of Foucault. Rorty considers it a Parisian atittude, and disapproves: ‘much of Foucault’s so-called “anarchism” seems to me self-indulgent radical chic.’ The crux of the matter is to determine whether Foucault’s Nietzscheanism is simply ‘showing-off’, or whether, as he is reported to have said himself, it is the source of inspiration for his thinking. Is it not the project of autonomy which compels us to refuse all cultural identity? Taylor rightly points out that Foucault believed in the possibility of liberating himself from human identity:

Foucault’s monolithic relativism only seems plausible if one takes the outsider’s perspective, the view from Sirius; or perhaps imagines oneself a soul in Plato’s myth of Er. Do I want to be born a Sung dynasty Chinese, or a subject of Hammurabi of Babylon, or a 20th-century American? Without a prior identity, I couldn’t begin to choose ... And indeed in his major works, like The Order of Things and Discipline and Punish, Foucault sounds as though he believed that, as an historian, he could stand nowhere, identifying with none of the epistemai or structures of power whose coming and going he impartially surveys.

Of course, Taylor considers this a serious objection, and according to him, Foucault began to realise as much. For Deleuze, the refusal to let oneself be confined within an identity accorded by culture or tradition is the precondition of authentic thought. For our own thinking to be liberated, we must accept, in Foucault’s words, ‘the death of man’.

The American Foucault does not share the ‘anarchism’ of the French Foucault. It is undoubtedly easier to take seriously a thinker who respects common traditions and laws. The American Foucault is someone whom one would gladly engage in ‘dialogue’. The French Foucault does not believe in ‘dialogue’ (even Dreyfus and Rabinow felt compelled to put the word between quotes). Nor does he seek a ‘common language’ or respect venerable traditions. He does not read Wittgenstein, but rather the Surrealists. The American Foucault may take our concerns and practices very seriously. Yet it may be the ‘anarchist’ Foucault who keeps fascinating his readers.

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Vol. 9 No. 7 · 2 April 1987

SIR: I was very shocked to discover that my piece on Foucault had been printed under the title ‘Je m’en Foucault’ (LRB, 5 March). Such a title may sound funny in English (I am not qualified to say). In French, it is extremely offensive, not to say, distasteful, for obvious reasons. I had entitled my review ‘Foucault, the Masked Philosopher’. I was glad to accept the title that was substituted for it in the proofs – namely, ‘Inhuman Thoughts’. I was not consulted about the title that prevailed, and would like to ask you to make clear to your readers that I had no part in it.

Vincent Descombes
Department of French, Johns Hopkins University

I am sorry that Professor Descombes was offended by this title. Let it be said that it was not gratuitous. It referred to the ‘French’ or ‘anarchist’ Foucault identified in the review – the Foucault who did not ‘respect venerable traditions’. It would appear that Professor Descombes does.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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