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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of Discipline and Punish

Foucault is the single most cited researcher across all academic disciplines today. This is no doubt due to the interdisciplinary nature of his work, which is at once philosophical, sociological, historical and psychological.  When we recognize the central project driving Foucault's life’s work, it becomes clear both why he found this interdisciplinary approach necessary and how Discipline and Punish fits into his corpus.

May 1968, Paris. Photo by Bruno BarbeyMay 1968, Paris. Photo by Bruno Barbey Foucault’s life-long philosophical project was to understand the ideas that shape our present.  In undertaking this project, Foucault extends and transforms central ideas from the Enlightenment era philosopher Immanuel Kant.  In particular, Foucault is inspired by Kant’s definition of “critique” as the investigation of the limits of our human capacities, especially the capacity for reason. Kant sought to uncover the necessary and unchanging nature of our cognition, which makes knowledge possible for us, and to discover the limits of our knowledge.  Foucault turns this effort on its head in seeking to expose the historical conditions that make us the kind of human subjects we are and to uncover the historical and transgressible (that is, unnecessary) limits of what we can be, do and think.  

Foucault’s corpus is traditionally divided into three periods, each of which contributes something different to this project.  His so-called “archaeological” period begins in 1960.  His archaeological work focuses on "discourse," that is, how we think and speak about different domains of inquiry and how this speech and thought changes over time.  For example, Foucault's The History of Madness traces the emergence of the modern concept of "mental illness" (madness conceived of as disease as opposed to madness as demonic possession or as renunciation of reason).  In tracing this history, Foucault reveals that the ostensibly objective and medically neutral labeling of individuals as "mentally ill" is thoroughly infused with the social and ethical commitments of a particular historical context.  Most of Foucault’s works follow a similar pattern by documenting specific transformations in a given area of social life at particular points in history.   

The next period of Foucault's work is at least partially motivated by social upheaval in France.  In May 1968, students occupy universities in protest of capitalism, consumerism and imperialism.  These protests then spread to factories, trade unions, workers parties and lead to a general strike across France.  Ultimately the disruptions of 1968 bring the French economy to a standstill and leave a lasting impression on French society.  By 1970, Foucault is living in Paris and is no doubt inspired by his social context to make his work more explicitly political.  This attempt to move his critique to a more political terrain – directly analyzing existing institutions rather than abstract “discourses” – ushers in a new project, which Foucault calls “genealogy.”

Foucault's "genealogical" period is marked by two major shifts from his previous work.  First, the emphasis on the formation of discourses changes to a focus on the formation of individuals or “human subjects.”  Second, this formation is analyzed not only in terms of what we can say and think, but also in terms of what we do, i.e., our social practices and the implicit norms that inform them.  “Power” is now the term that will come to encompass both these discursive and non-discursive practices in the investigation of our constitution as individuals.  Foucault seeks an explanation of the historical transformations that have led us to be a certain way, to act a certain way, to think a certain way.  This historical project, even if it does not encompass the present period, is motivated by present social and political concerns.  

  Plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary by Willey Reveley, 1791. (Wikimedia Commons) Plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary by Willey Reveley, 1791. (Wikimedia Commons) The word “genealogy” is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and flags Foucauldian genealogy as a similar kind of “history of the present” (as Foucault calls it in Discipline and Punish).  Though inspired by Nietzsche, Foucault’s genealogies are both more limited in their scope and more meticulously historical than Nietzsche’s.  The three essays comprising Nietzsche’s Genealogy focus on different factors that come together in the formation and reinforcement of what he calls modern "slave" morality.  This same weaving together of disparate threads can be seen in Foucault’s genealogies.  However, none of Foucault’s works is so ambitious as to give a general genealogy of morals; instead each of his genealogical works deals with a specific area of inquiry with respect to the subject.  Some of the most notable works of this period are Discipline and Punish, Abnormal and The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.  Respectively, these works trace the emergence of criminality, psychiatric practice and the emergence of “sexuality” as a significant component of individual identity. 

The greatest danger in reading Discipline and Punish in isolation is to think that it offers a general theory of power (what power is and how it operates everywhere and at all times).  Instead, Discipline and Punish offers only a localized account of a specific form of power (disciplinary power) as it operates in a specific historical context (the modern West, or more specifically, France from the 17th Century on).  Foucault's model of disciplinary power is Jeremy Bentham’s now infamous "Panopticon" – a prison whose design allows a single guard to oversee every inmate without their ever knowing whether or not they are being observed.  What Foucault shows us is the extent to which this same model of power prevails within the modern factory and school.  The purpose of discipline, he argues, is to produce self-surveilling individuals who are regular, calculable and easily made to conform to existing social norms.  The point of this kind of power is to measure and evaluate individuals in order to make them homogenous.  And this, Foucault thinks, leads to new forms of domination unseen in previous configurations of power.

Having exposed the various ways in which disciplinary power perpetuates domination, Foucault's genealogical works leave us with the problem of how we might possibly escape. In the final, "ethical" phase of Foucault's work, he explores possible solutions.  One might think of genealogy and ethics as two sides of a coin.  Where genealogy focuses on the ways in which society constitutes individuals, Foucault's ethics focuses on individual capacities for self-transformation and resistance to domination.  

Foucault's ethical period begins by examining models of the subject and concepts of freedom that differ from those we’ve inherited from Kant and the Enlightenment.  Foucault’s late works are especially interested in the ancient Greek ethics of "care of the self" and one of his final interviews alludes to a forthcoming project, which was to be called (in proper Nietzschean form) The Genealogy of Ethics.  Foucault’s death in 1984 put an end to this project and cut short the final "ethical" period of his work.  

As whole, Foucault's ouevre sheds light on problems that had been largely ignored and gave voice to traditionally marginalized groups.  Through his works, readers learn to politically question precisely those institutions and practices that seem "necessary," or above reproach, in order to unmask the hidden political violence within them.  Today, Foucault's legacy continues to inspire philosophical activism in such areas as decolonial philosophy, queer theory, feminism, the philosophy of gender and the philosophy of race.


Written by Katharine M. McIntyre, Core Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University 


Sources Consulted:

"Michel Foucault," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

"Michel Foucault," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy