According to the Social Science Research Network, Foucault is the most cited author in the social sciences. He was an intellectual star in France and the United States during much of his life. As a political thinker educated by, but not exactly of the Left, Foucault presents challenges to socialists, Marxists, and Freudians, among others. He also challenges political scientists and constitutionalists, for he argues that modern power relations are more important than the constitutions that are supposed to shape them. A “political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty” is his goal, because “the state and the rights-bearing individual appear as an effect of power rather than as its source.”

Key Concepts

An overview of Foucault’s key political concepts should center on power. Power, for him, is always a cluster of relations, and not something that emanates from a single point, such as the power exercised by the sovereign. A related idea, “Power/knowledge” refers to the lack of separation between “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth,” or to the connection between power and knowledge. In writings from the 1960s Foucault uses the concept, “episteme,” to refer to the historical ground that governs all systems of thought and discursive practices. In the 1970s, he uses the term apparatus (dispositif) to describe “strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge” that are not limited to discourse. With respect to more tangible political power (such as punishment and social control), power has two aspects: “discipline” is the power exerted on individual bodies in order to make them “docile” and machine-like, and “biopower” concerns the species body, or population, and its births and deaths, levels of health, life expectancy, longevity, and sexuality. Both discipline and biopower differ from the sovereign power that normally comes to mind when we think of politics: the power of the sword—the power over life and death. The absence of obvious exercises of sovereign power does not mean that relations of power are absent or inoperative.


Foucault published many interviews, short works, essays, and lectures. Nonetheless, he is known primarily for the books he published in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars divide these books into archaeological, genealogical, and ethical works.

Early Writings and Archaeological Writings

Foucault’s first minor works, dating from his introduction to and translation of a text on dreams by the psychologist Ludwig Binswanger, were commissioned writings that do not necessarily reflect his mature ambitions. Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology (originally titled Maladie mentale et personnalité; then, Maladie mentale et psychologie, 1954; English translation, 1958) was Foucault’s first book, but it was also a commissioned piece. Later repudiating his argument, Foucault rewrote significant portions for the second edition (1962).

Foucault dated his own scholarly career from the publication of Madness and Civilization. Madness and Civilization (Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 1961; translated as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason in 1965) was Foucault’s first major, independent work. It had been accepted as a doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne, and was fairly well received but not widely reviewed.

Madness and Civilization can be taken as a model for Foucault’s works generally. In Foucault’s own words, it is “a structural study of the historical ensemble—notions, institutions, judicial and police measures, scientific concepts—which hold captive a madness whose wild state can never be reconstituted.”

Perhaps Foucault’s most famous insight is that the asylum was born in the classical age (for him, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) in an effort to normalize behavior to conform to bourgeois ideals. The two key events are the “Great Confinement” of the 1650s, when, by royal decree, the mad, among others (including the poor, sick, and idle) are no longer allowed to roam freely, as in the Renaissance, but are isolated and confined; and Philippe Pinel’s unshackling in the French revolutionary period of those committed to asylums. Foucault argues that Pinel transformed the asylum into a juridical space—not of treatment, but of social control. The switch is intended to be humane and enlightened, but the outcome is to segregate and “silence” madness, depriving it of any place within everyday society.

The Birth of the Clinic: The Archaeology of the Medical Gaze (Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard medical (1963; English translation, 1973) is comprised of material that did not go into the book on madness. The space of the hospital, and the conduct of the doctor within it, changes in the early 1800s, thus “determining the conditions of possibility of medical experience in modern times.”

During the 1960s, Foucault also wrote two works that focus on linguistic practices rather than on social practices and institutions. These works intersect with the philosophical movement known as “structuralism” then popular in France, although Foucault denied that he was ever properly a structuralist.

The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines; French publication 1966; English translation, 1970) became a bestseller in France. In it, Foucault analyzes the human sciences whose themes are “life, labor, and language”: biology, economics, and linguistics. He hypothesizes that discourses in the sciences are ordered by rules that can make sense both of their “truths” and of their errors. Unlike the structuralists, who sought to develop a universal theory of discourse, Foucault sought to explain the historical forms of discursive practices. The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969; English translation, 1972) is a supplement to The Order of Things. In it, Foucault focuses on the human sciences as autonomous systems of discourse, without analyzing social institutions.

Read More: Mental Illness, Criminality and Punishment

Discipline and Sexuality: The Genealogical Works

Foucault’s middle period includes the 1970s works on power―its specificity, techniques, and tactics—for which he is best known in the United States. The key text, Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et punir, naissance de la prison), was published in 1975 (English translation, 1977).

Discipline and Punish, which begins with a gruesome description of the execution of the would-be assassin of King Louis XV, Damiens, summarizes one of Foucault’s most well-known and academically influential ideas: theorists can help us to see the scope and extent of the surveillance under which the modern body lives and become docile, or pliant to power. Foucault elaborates a “microphysics of power” that focuses attention on power and incarceration, an empirical endeavor in which Foucault joins other French thinkers such as Tocqueville and Durkheim. Durkheim’s review of punishment argued that there was a gradual quantitative decline in the use of capital punishment, as despotic monarchies became constitutionalized in the eighteenth century, and a qualitative turn from corporal punishment to incarceration. Foucault agrees with Durkheim that one system of punishment has replaced another, but he disagrees with the inference that repressive power in the enlightenment and contemporary world is more mild and humane than in pre-enlightenment society. “Not to punish less, but to punish better”: that, writes Foucault, is the true maxim of modern punishment.

The most famous image from Discipline and Punish is the panopticon. This “model” prison is not a creation of Foucault, but of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who submitted a proposal for a new penitentiary to the French National Assembly in 1791. The panopticon is arranged so that a guard, situated at the center, can observe multiple prisoners, whose cells are situated as a circular periphery, without the inmates’ knowing when and by whom they are observed. For Bentham, the constant surveillance made possible by his design was a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” The panopticon thus combines three elements of Foucault’s disciplinary power: observation, normalization, and examination. Bentham’s panopticon was never built, but many prisons in the United States and other countries have incorporated aspects of Bentham’s design.

In addition to the influence of Nietzsche on Foucault that characterizes this period, we also see that Freud was an influence, as well as a target. In the first volume of the History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Histoire de la sexualité: la volonté de savoir), published in 1976 (English translation, 1978), Foucault explores and rejects the Freudian hypothesis that civilization represses our sexual natures. Instead, the “discursive explosion” about sexuality results in increased sexual incitement. As Foucault asks, “Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, and against ourselves, that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated?” By arguing in this way, Foucault cast doubt on the value of so-called sexual liberation. This work, however, is not only or primarily about sex: Foucault describes the project as a “re-elaboration of the theory of power.”

Read More: Sexuality

The Ethical Turn: Governmentality, Biopolitics, and the Care of the Self

Foucault’s “ethical” works focus in various ways on the workings of civil society. During his visits to the United States in the 1970s, Foucault had discovered the concept of “government,” as opposed to the French concept of the “state.” This became a theme in his lectures of 1978–79, the publication of which further reinforced his prominence in the English-speaking world. The theme of “governmentality” (the power exerted over free subjects, or what Foucault calls “the conduct of conduct”) spans self-government and governing others, and intersects with Foucault’s exploration of liberalism and neo-liberalism in lectures delivered in 1979, where he characterizes the power of the liberal state without either celebrating or condemning it. “Biopolitics” is also a theme of these lectures.

Foucault forbade his estate from publishing further works after this death, so The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self are his final volumes, meant to be a part of the History of Sexuality. These volumes, which were published in 1984 and translated into English in 1985 and 1986, use Greek and Roman texts to look at the individual subject. Foucault analyzes the four different modes of veridiction (truth-telling) practiced by the prophet, the sage, the teacher, and the parrhesiast. The latter figure, the “democratic version of the wise man,” engages in the type of counter-conduct or resistance to power that Foucault finds most fully expressed in the ancient cynics.

To some readers, Foucault’s earlier works describe the self as a product of power relations in a way that is inconsistent with the free care and creation of the self that he develops in his later works. However, Foucault believes that his concern with subjectivity complements his earlier emphasis on individual bodies and institutional discipline and surveillance. It is not power,” he comes to claim, “but the subject, that is the general theme of my research.”

Read More: Biopower

Conclusion: Politics as a “Problem”

Why might those interested in politics read Foucault? One reason is that Foucault explores the rise of the administrative state, which is now a central fact of our lives, but he does so in what he sometimes calls “heterotopias” (“other spaces”) that are at the periphery of life. He finds that “in madness, in derangement, in behavior problems, there are reasons for questioning politics.” This concern with power relations intersects with Foucault’s desire to put enlightenment reason to the test. For him, the main question remains: “What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers?”

In the realm of politics, Foucault is known as a Leftist, but he claims to move beyond Right and Left by “problematizing” or questioning political power simply. Drawing together his themes of power, truth, and the self, Foucault gives an example of his characteristic approach to questioning politics: “to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity. And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality. And, in order to understand what power relations are about, perhaps we should investigate the forms of resistance and attempts made to dissociate these relations.”

Foucault’s own account of power can be problematized in several ways. First, Foucault may not have an overarching theory of power and therefore no practical guidance regarding the good society. Second, power/knowledge may be correct, as far as it goes, and yet misrepresent the permanence of political philosophy’s questions, and in particular our concern with justice. Third, Foucault rejects structuralism and hermeneutics in favor of a hybrid method of philosophical reflection and empirical description that Dreyfus and Rabinow call interpretive analytics. This method may be too much of a compromise, and, in particular, it may sacrifice the hermeneutical rigor of close reading and textual analysis. Finally, Foucault’s aesthetic emphasis on the “art of oneself” may focus attention on the self, the body, and the historical present in a way that displaces rational inquiry.

Applying Foucaultian analysis is difficult. As one writer notes, there are “more books and essays about Foucault than studies which could be called Foucaultian.” But, despite questions from historians and philosophers about his method, and criticism across the political spectrum about his various practical and political views, it can be said that Foucault helped us to think about central modern political concepts (state, sovereignty, rights, civil society, social control, and counter-conduct) in novel ways.

–Essays by Chris Barker