Michel Foucault

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Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 - 25 June 1984), French philosopher and historian, professor at the Collège de France (Histoire des systèmes de pensée) from 1970 until his death in 1984, revolutionized the academic study of the history of medicine, sexuality, penality, the liberal state and classical ethics. Subsidiary contributions to the philosophy of language and aesthetics.


  • Quand j’étudie les mécanismes de pouvoir, j’essaie d’étudier leur spécificité… Je n’admets ni la notion de maîtrise ni l’universalité de la loi. Au contraire, je m’attache à saisir des mécanismes d’exercise effectif de pouvoir ; et je le fais parce que ceux qui sont insérés dans ces relations de pouvoir, qui y sont impliqués peuvent, dans leurs actions, dans leur résistance et leur rébellion, leur échapper, les transformer, bref, ne plus être soumis. Et si je ne dis pas ce qu’il faut faire, ce n’est pas parce que je crois qu’il n’y a rien à faire. Bien au contraire, je pense qu’il y a mille choses à faire, à inventer, à forger par ceux qui, reconnaissant les relations de pouvoir dans lesquelles ils sont impliqués, ont décidé de leur résister ou de leur échapper. De ce point de vue, toute ma recherche repose sur un postulat d’optimisme absolu. Je n’effectue pas mes analyses pour dire : voilà comment sont les choses, vous êtes piégés. Je ne dis ces choses que dans la mesure où je considère que cela permet de les transformer. Tout ce que je fais, je le fais pour que cela serve.
    • 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.
    • Dits et Écrits 1954–1988 (1976) Vol. II, 1976–1988 edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald, p. 911-912
  • The soul is the prison of the body.
    • Discipline & Punish (1977) as translated by Alan Sheridan, p. 30
  • 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.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • I'm very proud that some people think that I'm a danger for the intellectual health of students. When people start thinking of health in intellectual activities, I think there is something wrong. In their opinion I am a dangerous man, since I am a crypto-Marxist, an irrationalist, a nihilist.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • 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.
    • Truth, Power, Self : An Interview with Michel Foucault (25 October 1982)
  • Qui définit le moment où j'écris?
    • How to define the moment that I write?
    • "Un cours inedit" in Magazine littéraire (May 1984), page 34.
  • One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.
    • "What is an author?" (1984)
  • There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than "politicians" think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.
    • As quoted in Michel Foucault (1991) by Didier Eribon, as translated by Betsy Wind, Harvard University Press, p. 282
  • 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.
    • As quoted in Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) by Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon ISBN 041522974X
  • 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.
    • In reference to Sadism and Masochism, as quoted in Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) by Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon

History of Sexuality (1976 - 1984)

Histoire de la sexualité
  • Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.
    • Vol I: La volonté de savoir
An Introduction. NY: Pantheon. Translated from French by Robert Hurley. Page 43
  • The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.
    • Vol. I, p. 59
  • 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.
    • Vol. I, p. 60
  • L’important, c’est que le sexe n’ait pas été seulement affaire de sensation et de plaisir, de loi ou d’interdiction, mais aussi de vrai et de faux.
    • 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.
    • Vol. I, p. 76
  • 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.
    • Vol. I, p. 101
  • Par pouvoir… je n’entends pas un système général de domination exercée par un élément ou un groupe sur un autre, et dont les effets, par dérivations successives, traversaient le corps social tout entier… il me semble qu’il faut comprendre d’abord la multiplicité de rapports de force qui sont immanents au domaine où ils s’exercent, et sont constitutifs de leur organisation ; le jeu qui par voie de luttes et d’affrontements incessants les transforme, les renforce, les inverse ; les appuis que ces rapports de force trouvent les uns dans les autres, de manière à former chaîne ou système, ou, au contraire, les décalages, les contradictions qui les isolent les uns des autres ; les stratégies enfin dans lesquelles ils prennent effet, et dont le dessin général ou la cristallisation institutionnelle prennent corps dans les appareils étatiques, dans la formulation de la loi, dans les hégémonies sociales. La condition de possibilité du pouvoir… il ne fait pas la chercher dans l’existence première d’un point central, dans un foyer unique de souveraineté d’où rayonneraient des formes dérivées et descendantes ; induisent sans cesse, par leur inégalité, des états de pouvoir, mais toujours locaux et instables. Omniprésence du pouvoir : non point parce qu’il aurait le privilège de tout regrouper sous son invincible unité, mais parce qu’il se produit à chaque instant, en tout point, ou plutôt dans toute relation d’un point à un autre. Le pouvoir est partout ; ce n’est pas qu’il englobe tout, c’est qu’il vient de partout.
    • 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.
    • Vol. I, p. 121-122.
  • Il y a des moments dans la vie où la question de savoir si on peut penser autrement qu’on ne pense et percevoir autrement qu’on ne voit est indispensable pour continuer à regarder ou à réfléchir… Qu’est-ce donc que la philosophie aujourd’hui… si elle ne consiste pas, au lieu de légitimer ce qu’on sait déjà, à entreprendre de savoir comment et jusqu’où il serait possible de penser autrement ?… L’ « essai »—qu’il faut entendre comme épreuve modificatrice de soi-même dans le jeu de la vérité et non comme appropriation simplificatrice d’autrui à des fins de communication—est le corps vivant de la philosophie, si du moins celle-ci est encore maintenant ce qu’elle était autrefois, c’est-à-dire une « ascèse », un exercice de soi, dans la pensée.
    • 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.
    • Vol. II : L’usage des plaisirs p. 15-16.

Security, Population, Territory (2007)

  • Let us sin then, and sin to infinity.
    • 1st March 1978, Security, Population, Territory: Lectures at the Collège de France, 2007, Ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell


  • 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).
  • LSD reveals this whole univocal and a-categorical mass to be rainbow-coloured, mobile, asymmetrical, decentered, spiraloid and resonating.
  • Cocaine de-anatomizes the sexual localization of pleasure - which is now everywhere in the body.

Quotes about Foucault

  • And now his own history has been written. What does one learn from these books? Chiefly that Foucault's relativistic outlook can be applied to Foucault himself. He used to say that the 19th century was to Marxism what water is to a fish. Increasingly his own work makes sense only when seen as a product of the Sixties. Not that Foucault would have denied this. He never suggested that he wasn't an interested being too. But one should ask of a body of philosophical work that it has a longer shelf life than a couple of decades. Nine years after his death his achievements, such as they are, are so much historical jetsam, their final worth little more than sweet Foucault.

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