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Foucault: A Very Short Introduction Paperback – June 16, 2005
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`Review from previous edition 'I can think of nobody in the English speaking world better placed to write a VSI on Foucault than Gary Gutting.''
Simon Critchley (Essex University), author of A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy, on the proposal
`'A first-rate introduction to the work of this difficult thinker, which navigates the complexity of his thought with confidence and clarity''
Professor Todd May, Clemson University, South Carolina
About the Author
Gary Gutting is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century and Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Foucault.
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This is one of the best Oxford Very Short Introduction among the many I have read, which also presents some of Foucault’s ideas which are of profound importance for the challenges facing humankind.
Let me give five examples, adding comments at what I regard as weaknesses of Foucault’s views. As a whole, they should whet the appetite of readers to advance from this introduction to reading some of Foucault’s writing.
1. The concept of “Limit experiences,” which take us to or beyond the limits of intelligibility and propriety” (pp. 15-16). I anticipate that they will characterize unavoidable irruptions accompanying quantum leaps of humankind to novel modes of being. (But, contrary to the view that “‘inexpressible’ limit-experiences, whatever their role in private lives, can have no place in the public forum of political discussion” [p..29], I think that public traumas are of profound significance and must be expected to impact significantly on the future).
2. The inadequacies of our languages for discussing reality- overwhelming new possibilities. This idea fully applied, inter alias, to hair-raising total “biopolitics” related to emerging “human enhancement” technology (ignored by Foucault, who regretfully underrated science and technology as reality-transforming knowledge-power).
3. Foucault made an important distinction between “polemics” and “problematization,” with the very timely directive that “ Political discussions should be driven by the concrete problems that raise our questions, not by the established theories that claim to be able to answer them (page 27).
4. The increasingly valid conclusion that universal systems of morality no longer provide effective responses to social and political problems (also emphasized by Nietzsche), which fully applies to ‘specific intellectual’ (P. 24). But, because of his resistance to “subjectivity,” Foucault neglects the crucial role of political leaders as “strategist of life and death”(p. 24).
5. The overriding idea of “episteme,” which is of cardinal and perhaps fatefl importance not only for understanding the past, but for coping with a radically novel future. As explained succinctly in the book “Foucault begins with the fact that, at any given period in a given domain, there are substantial constraints on how people are able to think……But Foucault’s idea is that every mode of thinking involves implicit rules (maybe not even formulable by those following them) that materially restrict the range of thought…that our own thinking too is governed by such rules, so that from the vantage point of the future it will look quite as arbitrary as the past does to us…individuals operate in a conceptual environment that determines and limits them in ways of which they cannot be aware.. .‘‘constraining’ thought (pp. 32-36). This may well imply that, bound by the contemporary episteme, humanity may be unable to arrive at understanding and “truth.” essential for survival of the human species. But, episteme innovations may meet survival and even thriving requirements – a possibility not provided for by Foucault, who, despite his move from archeology to genealogy. does not provide understanding of the evolution of epistemes.
Let me conclude with a quote from Foucault which also fits my own feelings and motivates me to read even more of his writings, in particular on “Society Must be Defended” (regretfully not adequately discussed in this short introduction). But I transform it in my writings into “The Human Species Must Be Defended Against Self-Destruction,” while adding political leaders, civic activists leaders and grand-policy thinkers to Foucault’s list of prime trargets.
As quoted in the short introduction, Foucault put is as following: “I want my books to be a sort of toolbox that people can rummage through to find a tool they can use however they want in their own domain … I want the little book that I plan to write on disciplinary systems to be of use for teachers, wardens, magistrates, conscientious objectors. I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers” (pp. 112-113).
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
An excellent introduction to Foucault’s work was written by Gary Gutting and is part of the Very Short Introduction series out of Oxford University Press. It is a short work and can be read in a little under three or four hours depending on the pace at which one reads. Though often dense, Gutting’s work is not pedantic and his writing is very clear. He covers the spectrum of Foucault’s thoughts on history, politics, punishment, and even sex.
It is difficult to boil down all of Foucault’s thoughts but there are a few that Gutting gets to that are of interest to me. The first has to do with historical method and the history of ideas and there are two ideas that Gutting discusses as it relates to Foucault: archaeology and genealogy. “Foucault begins with the fact that, at any given period in a given domain, there are substantial constraints on how people are able to think.” (32) Foucault is not simply addressing linguistic or logical concerns but is interested in how ideas that are now considered obvious were once considered unthinkable. There are rules that restrict our range of thought and by uncovering those rules we can then make sense of the constraints on our thinking. (33) Foucault “thinks that individuals operate in a conceptual environment that determines and limits them in ways of which we cannot be aware.” (33)
For Foucault, history should not be thought of in a mere narrative style. It is not a novel with an intentional plot or teleology. Instead, the archaeologist of thought’s job was to see why people thought they way they did and to uncover the systems in place that restrained them. By understanding this we can liberate our own thoughts (to a degree).
A similar idea is that of genealogy by which Foucault meant “a historical causal explanation that is material, multiple, and corporeal.” (47) Foucault’s purpose in his method was to show that our institutions and our practices are thoroughly human. Gutting notes that Foucault is following Nietzsche and points out that the German philosopher’s genealogies differ in some regards but are the paradigm of Foucault’s own method. At the heart of this genealogy is the questioning of the basis for our systems of thought.
Another interesting section of Gutting’s book on Foucault involves his concept of “the mad.” In modern society, the “mad” are known as the “mentally insane” and a variety of clinical diagnoses are available to categorize them and, in many cases, lock them away. In his book HISTORY OF MADNESS, Foucault uncovers the history of what he considered to be a “creditable challenge to normality” (71). In previous societies the mad were “fools” who offered an alternative wisdom that could be appreciated in its own way. But in the modern era we have turned to science to “correct” these poor, degenerate spirits. “His history,” writes Gutting of Foucault’s work, “suggests that the identification was, on the contrary, introduced as a means of legitimating the authority of physicians in the asylum once the idea of a distinctively moral therapy was abandoned.” (74) In other words, this was nothing more than a power play where concentrations of knowledge held inevitable sway, the mad being the victims.
Similarly, the penal system in the West plays on this exact power dynamic. Foucault argued that we assume progress has been made because we no longer execute people in barbaric fashion but that is simply not true. Now, with private prisons, criminals are locked behind closed doors and we cannot see what is happening and what injustices are being perpetrated. Foucault favored the Panopticon, a central tower looking over cells encompassing it all around. This allowed transparency and, per Foucault, induced “in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” (84) This is part of Foucault’s view of “hierarchical observation,” that is to say that we can affect people’s behavior by observing them.
Gutting’s book concludes with two chapters on sex which cover the modern views of sexual norms as well as the contrast between ancient views of sex and Christian ideals. This too is about power and control and Foucault uses his archaeological method to understand it. (104)
Power is at the heart of much of what Foucault wrote and Gutting’s book gives us a glimpse into the Frenchman’s world. If you are interested in a general survey of Michel Foucault, give Gutting’s Very Short Introduction to him a try.