Michel Foucault Essay

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Michel Foucault, French philosopher and intellectual historian, emerged as one of the more controversial thinkers in the Western world during the twentieth century, shaping much of postmodern philosophical thought. Foucault demonstrated the socially constructed and historically contingent nature of both persons and disciplines, including his detailed account of the creation and sexualization of the modern subject. His impact has been palpable in the academy, where his writings are studied in disciplines as diverse as the social sciences, philosophy, psychology, and queer theory.

Foucault’s early works focused on psychology and were influenced by Karl Marx, the existential philosophers, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He was most indebted, however, to Martin Heidegger’s conceptualization that humans have no pre-given essence. Foucault particularly drew on Heidegger’s notion that people self-interpret as they move through the concrete situations of their lives, becoming what they make of themselves.

The more or less standard divisions of Foucault’s works follow from his chosen methodologies: archaeology, which characterizes his work from 1961–1969; genealogy, which forms the basis of his most widely read books and interviews published from 1971–1976; and ethics, which characterizes his last two books, both published in 1984, as well as his last interviews.

Foucault developed his archaeological methods from his studies in psychiatry (History of Madness in the Classical Age, 1961, his doctoral dissertation), medicine (The Birth of the Clinic, 1963), and the social sciences (The Order of Things, 1966). The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) was his reflection on the historical and philosophical importance of the archaeological method.

As developed by Foucault, the archaeological method is a critical inquiry directed at disciplines in the human sciences that seeks to elucidate the ways in which discourse and expert opinion come to constitute what is perceived as learned practice and how that practice, in turn, infiltrates and shapes human behavior. Thus, for Foucault, discourse is more than the singular channels of oral and written communication among experts in a particular discipline. He understood discourse as composed not only of words but also of the disciplinary boundaries that limit what is acceptable within that communication. In other words, discourse, as conceptualized by Foucault, is composed not only of what is said, but also of what is left unsaid—that which the accepted boundaries of the discipline prohibit, dismiss, or leave unquestioned.

The starting point for the archaeologist’s research, then, is anything within the discipline that is considered natural, obvious, or incontrovertible. The goal is not to assess its “truth” or to offer an alternative theory, but to expose the circumstances within which this “truth” was manufactured through discourse. Attentive to confusion, accidents, aberrations, and insurrections, the archaeologist seeks out discourse that has been disqualified, labeled insufficient, or located low in the hierarchy of knowledge in order to include it in the discipline’s history. The archaeological method shows that disciplines are far more randomly constructed and personality-dependent than their practitioners’ scientific posturing suggests.

Foucault’s genealogical method challenged traditional philosophical methods and assumptions by demonstrating how morals, ideals, and concepts that appear to be predetermined and inevitable are formed through conglomerations of blind forces: accidents, petty malice, suppressed deviations, complete reversals, errors, and false appraisals, all of which take place within relationships of power. His conceptions of truth, knowledge, power relations, and the construction of the subject, widely considered to be his greatest contributions to philosophical thought, are raised most definitively in Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Volume One (1976).

Discipline and Punish details how lawful punishment has changed from violent, retributive justice to disciplinary techniques that operate through internalization of norms that operate within power relations. Foucault refused concepts of power that posited a binary structure of dominators and the dominated. Rather, he spoke of a web of relations composed of both power and resistance, a force field that is dispersed, heteromorphous, and multivocal. This web of power relations subjects individuals through normalizing power that “disciplines” individuals to become simultaneously more productive and more docile. Because disciplinary techniques work most effectively when the individual is complicit in the process, the individual must perceive the norms as integral to his or her self-image. The modern “soul” emerges: a creation of discourse, thoroughly imprinted by history, the “interiority” of a disciplined and docile body.

In The History of Sexuality, Volume One, Foucault examined the role played by norm-based sexuality, which came to be regarded as truth about “natural” sexual natures. Foucault’s premise is that power has operated primarily not by repressing sexuality but by creating a proliferation of expert discourse—religious, medical, psychiatric, and governmental—that determined the modern forms sexuality has taken. By creating the dualities of healthy/ill, normal/perverse, and legal/criminal, the terms themselves become an effective means of social control through marginalizing and medicalizing “deviancy.” Hence, individuals internalize the “truths” about sexuality that have been manufactured through the discourse of these various expert groups, understanding themselves in light of those internalized “truths” and despising in themselves anything that contravenes them. One of the most significant philosophical consequences of his genealogical work is this: If a subject cannot be prediscursive, then truth must be a product of history and the forces that have shaped the ideas that come to be known as truth.

In his last two volumes of The History of Sexuality (1984), Foucault shifted his attention from power/ knowledge to ethics, which, for Foucault, meant how the individual constitutes himself or herself as a moral agent. He was particularly interested in creating one’s self as a work of art, rather than conforming to moral codes. Exploring Greek and Roman sexuality and ethics suggested to Foucault that contemporary mechanisms that create and instill norms are culturally specific, creating a gap into which differing conceptions of self-constitution might enter in the future.

Foucault’s work has been difficult to appropriate for education, in part because he said little about it explicitly, except in Discipline and Punish, where he makes a scathing comparison between schools and penitentiaries. As a result, most of what can be said about Foucault and education must be constructed from related analyses of his work. Feminist theorists took the lead in these analyses by producing insightful critiques that not only furthered feminist thought, but served as exemplars for using Foucauldian critique in education.

Philosophers of education have engaged Foucauldian analytics to interrogate the complex power relations pervading educational institutions, professional discourse on educational reform, and the ways in which teachers and students alike are held in the sway of powerful forces like curriculum, evaluation, and assessment.


  1. Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). Paris: Editions Galimard.
  2. Foucault, M. (1976). The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume 1 (R. Hurley, Trans.). Paris: Editions Galimard.
  3. Hekman, S. J. (Ed.). (1996). Feminist interpretations of Michel Foucault. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Prado, C. G. (1995). Starting with Foucault: An introduction to genealogy. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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