Je m’en Foucault

Vincent Descombes

  • Foucault: A Critical Reader edited by David Hoy
    Blackwell, 246 pp, £27.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 631 14042 5
  • Foucault by Gilles Deleuze
    Minuit, 141 pp, frs 58.00, February 1986, ISBN 2 7073 1086 7

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in