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The Thought of Michel Foucault

Lecturer: Jon Roffe

Originally Taught: Summer School 2005

Michel Foucault was one of the great thinkers of self and society in the 20th century. However, in part because his work has been reduced to a number of clichés, which means that few of the more fundamental ideas in his work are dealt with, his work seems to have lost the level of interest that it had (justifiably) enjoyed. This course aims to counter this trend by providing a solid understanding of Foucault’s key texts and major themes, as they are found throughout his work.

Monday – Introduction/Madness and Civilisation

After introducing the course, this first lecture will examine the earliest part of Foucault’s work, including the Heideggerian introduction he wrote for the French translation of Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, and the two versions of Mental Illness and Psychology. In contrast to these, we will turn to Madness and Civilisation, Foucault’s doctoral thesis, which is the first of the great works he would become well known for.

Tuesday – On the archaeology of knowledge

We will examine on the second day the two key texts in Foucault’s earlier work, The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge. Of key concern for us will be the relationship between what Foucault calls discourses and the various regimes of knowledge, his analyses of Kant’s philosophy, and the infamous thesis of the “death of man”.

Wednesday – Literature

In the early part of his writing career, Foucault engaged in a number of fascinating studies of literature, culminating in his book on Raymond Roussell, Death and the Labyrinth. We will look at this text, but also his pieces on writers as diverse as Jules Verne, Blanchot, Holderlin and Bataille. What is at stake for Foucault is not just an expansion of his earlier analyses of knowledge, but in a certain sense an "ontology of literature”.

Thursday – Power/knowledge

The fourth day of the course will be devoted to what are perhaps the most well-known of Foucault’s themes and texts: the treatment of power and of sexuality in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. This lecture will however try to demonstrate the level of theoretical bravura engaged in by Foucault, the complexity of the philosophical claims, in these works. It is not just the claim that ‘power is not repressive’ (as the catch-cry goes) that Foucault is arguing for, but an alternative conception of both self and society, and of the relations between them.

Friday – The care of the self

This final lecture will treat some of the topics that Foucault was to turn to in the last years of his life: the relationship to oneself, the fashioning of character, the hermeneutics of the self, the elaboration of different sexual ethics from the Greeks through to early Christianity, and the connection between the self and telling the truth.

Suggested introductory readings

The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow

"Truth, power, self: an interview with Michel Foucault” at (a source of some other interesting and surprising texts of Foucault's)