Introduction to the book



Anders Fogh Jensen 


Mellem ting. Foucaults filosofi
Frederiksberg: Det lille forlag, 2005
2. edition.: København: THP, 2012





One day people began to lock each other up. They built houses outside the city and locked troublemakers up out there. After a while some of them were let go again, but the mad stayed. All kinds of things were done to them; they were punished for their madness and they were scrutinised by doctors. This is how one day the mad became insane.

One day people began locking each other up in cells. Rather than working them to death with hard labour or putting them in the stocks in public squares, prisons were built in which all prisoners could be watched from a tower. The prisoners were deprived of their time, watched over and taught how to behave. Things did not always go all that well, but at least attempts were made.

One day people began to cut up bodies. The hand and the knife were given the task of spreading out the organs for the human eye to see the inside of the body. People scrutinised all the organs in order to get to know something about the living body, just as they had questioned the sick to get to know about the healthy.

One day people began to make churchyards. Bodies were no longer thrown into heaps outside the city, now they were fenced in within an area which was divided up into rectangular pieces. Holes were dug out and the dead were put into them with ceremony. Afterwards the holes were covered up again and stones were placed on top with names and a few familiar quotations.

Michel Foucault’s gruesome histories show that one day people began to do things or think about things in different ways. A lot of these histories are about people who are different. Foucault often speaks for the outcasts – for prisoners, the mad, the sick, the perverted; in short, those who differ. Writing the histories of these figures is about how different views of those who differ have evolved – how the other became a different other.

If one imagines a pile of maps of the same piece of land but from different periods in time, they will all look different. The latest maps may be more detailed than earlier maps, either because better measuring instruments have been developed in the course of time or because people have taken the time to explore some of the regions in depth. To write the history of an area may therefore be to write a history of when various borders and demarcations shifted and how new land was reclaimed and cultivated.

Foucault is interested in more than that. He traces the points in time when the various areas change their names and when the meaning of these names changes, how the areas are governed and what the experience is like of living there. Doubtlessly the border between the normal and the mad has shifted, but it is just as important to Foucault that new rulers have come into power in the land of madness and that its name has changed. The land of madness turned into the land of insanity when doctors took over sovereignty. The experience of being mad changed the moment one was treated as insane. It is true that the neighbouring country – the land of the normal – has not changed its name for a long time, but new systems of government have come in place there too. Yet the normal still use banishment as a punishment for deviation, and now and then the land of the insane still receives new inhabitants.

Hence, the history of territories has to be written in terms of the way it has been shaped by shifting modes of organisation. Accordingly, Foucault’s histories of how people began to do things in different ways are, among other things, about how systems of government have changed. The history of how people have governed each other at different points in time may be called the history of systems of governance. The history of systems of governance mixes with a number of greater histories of how people think about the world when picturing its arrangement. If we gather all these histories in one narrative, we may refer to them as the history of systems of thought.

“The History of Systems of Thought” was the title of Foucault’s professorship at Collège de France in Paris from 1970 until his death in 1984. Foucault was born in Poitiers in central France in 1926 and studied philosophy at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Later he went to Uppsala in Sweden where he worked on his great dissertation Madness and Civilization (Folie et déraison) from 1955-58. The dissertation was published the first time in 1961. Yet the turning-point in Foucault’s career was the publication of The Order of Things in 1966. That book is about how people have categorised and ordered the world in different ways at different points in time.

Later Foucault was employed at the University of Clermont-Ferrand (1960-66), inTunisia (1966-68), at the University of Vincennes in Paris (1968-70), before he finally took up the chair at Collège de France. This is where Foucault studied the history of systems of thought and governance while also travelling a great deal, to Brazil, Japan and the USA, among other places, to deliver lectures. Most springs he would give a course of lectures in Paris. At the end of chapter one there is a survey showing the various topics that took up Foucault’s attention at different periods in his life.

Foucault asks questions about the ways in which different systems of thought have ordered things differently in different ages because he wants to keep these orders apart in separate blocks. Foucault’s thesis is that not all questions can be asked at any point in time. Consequently history comes to be seen as a succession of temporal spaces with each their particular logic, rationality and mode of governance.

Foucault approaches history by asking how people have been thinking and doing things within different historical spaces. Sometimes the same kind of practice assumes different meanings. For example, Socrates and Freud both tried to teach us that we must get to know ourselves, but the intentions of their thinking were different. To Foucault the decisive questions is what is thought by the way things are done.

To keep systems of thought apart means to make a conceptual effort to understand that someone were incapable of understanding things the way we do now and then to reconstruct what exactly was understood by them. Accordingly, Foucault’s philosophy is about ruptures between different systems – about the differences between different maps of the social. Any remodelling of the social causes other things and orders between things to appear.

Systems of thought are limited in extent and structure, and the history Foucault writes is about the question of how it became possible to ask certain questions and not others. The system of thought of a given age makes it possible to think something as opposed to something else – it makes it possible to discover something as opposed to something else, because people can ask certain kinds of questions and not others. The history of the systems of thought is about how it became possible to ask certain questions and not others, and how one day it was no longer possible to ask the questions that could once be asked. It is the history of the conditions of possibility as well as it is the history of the conditions of the disappearance of possibility.

We are faced with two concurrent histories with two forms of limitation: the history of systems of thought and the history of systems of governance. Systems of thought limit what can be thought, said and seen at different ages. However, the area of the thinkable, the sayable and the visible is not an open country without any forms; it is a governed land. People are allowed to say some things while they are not allowed to say other things. One has to say certain things if one wants to be successful while other things must be smothered up. Some people have a right to speak, others do not. Even mistakes have their logic within the realm of the sayable. The history about what can be said and done within the thinkable is a history about the regulation of people, about masters and subjects, about doctors and patients, about warders and prisoners, about parents and children, about the normal and the perverted, etc. It is not the history of the same countries expanding or contracting, but about the changing rulers and forms of government within countries.

The history of systems of governance is part of the history of systems of thought because it is about the ways in which the world is thought to be steerable at different points in time. It is a history of how different epochs have arranged matters differently making it possible to govern people in different ways, and about how a particular epoch governs people in the same manner within different areas.

When ruling and regulating a country one discovers new sides to it, and suddenly this engenders new thoughts. When for example one takes the time to enumerate the population, its possessions, its resources, its customs and moral condition, one creates the conditions for new sciences which then proceed to develop thought.

Foucault writes the history of the present in order to be able to comprehend the present. He applies more or less the same method when he turns to history. This is a historical method that he adopts from the epistemological school which we will deal with in chapter two: first, it will be demonstrated that the generally accepted idea of history as continuous progress – e.g. the story of the natural sciences as told by natural science itself as the triumph of an increasingly elaborate body of empirical research – does not hold, because continuous history is interrupted by decisive conceptual breaches and ruptures of thought. For instance, it will be shown that Galilee’s merits in natural science are due to the way he thinks physics in mathematical terms rather than in terms of physical measurements.

At this junction in the analysis of history a number of generally accepted histories that also thematise historical rearrangements often offer themselves. In that case the task is to examine and, usually, to refute such generally accepted histories– e.g. psychology’s story of itself as the confinement of sexuality in the 17th century and the liberation of sexuality by psychology in the 20th century. Such stories fall short because they overlook certain aspects of thought and function. They overlook the fact that functions and thoughts (e.g. the confinement of sexuality) continue to manifest themselves in later ages, just as other functions and thoughts (e.g. the liberation of sexuality) have manifested themselves long before they are usually claimed to do so. In other words, Foucault sets out to demonstrate how remnants of the old is still to be found in the new – e.g. that the old prohibition of speaking about sexuality has been replaced by new prohibitions – the prohibition of keeping silent about it. And he sets out to show how the new was already to be found in the old – e.g. that the prohibition of speaking about sexuality involved an obsession with sexuality that equals that of the present age. Sexuality is an example of a system of thought, a clutter of problems, whose history Foucault wants to reconsider by elucidating its ruptures.

Yet Foucault’s close readings of these ruptures show that each of them consists of a number of smaller rearrangements – that the new does not come about in one day, that it is possible to see it as a gradual development. With this we end up with a history that is a history of continuity like the one that was challenged a moment ago, but this is a history of continuity in an entirely different way because it is a history of continuous transformations.

How did it become possible to think like that? How did it become possible for Foucault to ask questions about which questions it was possible to ask in particular ages?

Foucault was enabled to do so because French epistemology had paved the way. The idea that we have to understand the origin of a thought and the space within which it comes into existence does not come to Foucault via Nietzsche, but from an epistemological tradition whose most important members include Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré and Georges Canguilhem. The supplementary question Foucault asks, which is about who were trying to master whom in the transition from one system of thought to another, is Foucault’s variation on Nietzsche’s question. The second chapter of this book is set aside to French epistemology due to that fact that it has been largely ignored in studies of philosophy, especially within the reception of Foucault. Foucault’s relation to other thinkers will be dealt with as we move along in the various chapters.

In chapter three we shall take a look at how Foucault articulates epistemology in his own way with an eye to the heterogeneity of history: epochs are shown to be heterogeneous in terms of thought, yet marked by certain tendencies towards homogeneity. By way of introduction we will look at how Foucault, like Bachelard, is capable of transferring the appreciation of heterogeneity from time to space in order that he may facilitate a reading of the heterogeneity of space. After this we will move into a closer analysis of The Order of Things to see how Foucault applies the hetero-perspective on the history of the sciences. This is a history of how things were ordered in the course of time which leads us from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and modernity to the structuralist age in which Foucault was writing. When read from front to back The Order of Things is a history of how present ways of ordering things came into being as structuralism. When the work is read back to front it is about the roles of metaphysics and the experimentation of literature in renewing the modern.

The focus of Foucault’s inaugural lecture at Collège de France, “The Order of Discourse”, is the implication of power in structures. This is the text that is usually referred to by discourse analysts who want to invoke Foucault. However, Foucault is not just interested in how speech is structured; he is also interested in the attempts that are made to speak our way out of these structures through, for instance, literature. Both aspects are dealt with towards the end of chapter three.

Chapter four unfolds the history of systems of thought once again, this time in relation to the histories of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, madness and sexuality. In this connection Foucault is influenced by Canguilhem, which is why we will start the chapter with his dissertation on the normal and the pathological. Here Foucault approaches the systems of thought, their ideas and ideologies with the normal and abnormal as a point of departure, in all their different variations, e.g. as the rational and the irrational, the sound and the perverted. The way in which the normal categorises the world involves a normativisation of the world, which is also noticed and felt by the ones who are categorized.

The longest chapter of the book, the fifth, tackles the ways in which the systems of governance are involved with the systems of thought. The chapter starts with some considerations about governmental rationalities, in particular as concerns Foucault’s concepts of “gouvernement” and “gouvernementalité”. If Foucault’s philosophy of government is what interests you the most, you may start here. Next, we will go through the chronological history of government, starting with Antiquity and ending up with the practices of and thoughts on self-government in the Roman Empire. After this we will deal with the government of the herd, i.e. the leadership of the shepherd, which is compared with other types of leadership, e.g. the king and the helmsman. We will follow Foucault through his lectures in the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s as he unfolds the origin, entwinement and passing away of modern rationalities of government. Foucault directs his attention to the way in which people have thought of the world as steerable, i.e. rationalities of government. According to Foucault, institutions and states are consequences of rationalities of government, which may have influenced the development of leadership but are not its source. Foucault sees something else as central: the dispositions that the social has at its disposal to arrange itself in certain ways. Foucault refers to this as a society’s dispositif. There is no equivalent in English that entirely covers the meaning of ‘dispositif’. It refers to ‘mechanism’, ‘construct’, ‘system’, ‘plan’, ‘arrangement’, ‘tendency’, ‘installation’ and is commonly translated to English as ‘apparatus’. However, I prefer to use the term ’system’, which is to be understood both as a very concrete arrangement or device and as an ideological or diagrammatic system. Thanks to Foucault, it has become possible to see the big systems within small installations (arrangements).  

The chapter goes through the history of these arrangements, it goes through the system of the law, the system of discipline, biopolitics, security, economy and insurance – and how these systems, or systems of governance, intertwine with each other as history progresses. Foucault points to decisive factors in the rise, development and entwinement of systems of governance, and even though various systems of governance, as for instance the system of surveillance, have had their architects, such architects must be pictured only as having contributed to the development of systems of governance, they are not the actual helmsmen. No such person exists. And yet humans continue to be governed and steered.

Towards the end of the chapter the lines Foucault draws of future tendencies are extended – among these, the return of the shepherd-function, the transmutation by the system of security of social ties into insurable and contractual ties and the intertwinement of liberal forms of governance with newer and more network-based forms of organization.

Whereas chapter five is about all the things that people are made into, the sixth and last chapter of the book is about all the things that people may do with the things they are turned into. In Foucault’s universe the concept of ‘freedom’ is rather complex. This is because man is turned into an individual in modern society endowed with a kind of freedom that he or she is expected to use more or less rationally. Individual freedom is an instrument of government in the modern system of freedom government. Here humans are not determined as things but as something in-between things, arranging and ordering things and each other. As beings like that, humans may exceed their lot in life as it was determined for them. They may examine the boundaries of what they have been made into – criticise these boundaries – and take the responsibility for them upon themselves. In view of that, the concepts of freedom and criticism are central in the last chapter of the book.

The hermeneutic circle poses the problem that the parts cannot be understood without the whole and that the whole cannot be understood without understanding the parts. In other words, it is impossible to begin with the beginning. Where to begin, then? With the parts or the whole? I choose to begin with the whole as I prefer to begin with definitions and outlines, but the reader may just as well choose to start with chapter two – the conditions of the possibility of Foucault’s philosophy – or with chapter three.

Chapter one offers a number of outlines to understand what Foucault’s concerns are, which problems he wants to examine and how he thinks. It defines a range of concepts and relates Foucault to a number of thinkers, in particular Kant and Bourdieu.

Each of the first five chapters ends with a table that summarises the main points. Naturally, these tables must be read the way such things should always be read, and their place at the end of the chapters is no coincidence in that regard. At the back of the book you will also find a time table and a list of names with basic data.

Handling the material of this book has necessitated a number of prioritisations. I have made the choice of a thematic approach, sorting clusters of problems into chapters. History is of major significance to Foucault which is why the chapters present the historical genesis of these clusters of problems on the way to their contemporary status as problems. In other words, we are breathing over Foucault’s shoulder as he traces how various thematic regions have crossed their borders, transformed their thoughts and their methods of regulation and optimisation – how their names were changed and how they were arranged or shaped in new ways.

The themes have been kept apart in a slightly artificial manner in order to construct a reading track through the entire Foucauldian oeuvre. Needless to say this is not the only possible reading track. Proper philosophy rarely operates with one linear logic and one open door, but with several possible entrances constantly leading to others. Besides, to orient oneself in one of the rooms of thought within philosophy requires that one has been to the others. I will indicate doors that I believe are open wherever we may happen to be in Foucault’s writings, except that they lead into rooms which we will not enter until later or which we have already visited. These doors are indicated in the book by internal page references which may be used as in the kind of children’s books that confront the reader with situational choices whereby the reader may jump between sequences of events, or like the links offered on the Internet. One may also choose to ignore them altogether and join my guided tour.

A proper guide does not only present works but also sources of inspiration. It is important to me to show that Foucault is certainly an original thinker, but that his thoughts do not appear out of nowhere. As we go along, I will point out the various contemporary tendencies that make Foucault a thinker who is typical for his time – e.g. how his philosophy resembles contemporary tendencies within Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s pragmatic philosophy of language or how his analysis of the social is similar to and differs from Bourdieu’s. Likewise, and in addition to the epistemological tradition referred to above, which is dealt with separately, it is important to me to demonstrate how Foucault is inspired by Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular, but also by the political philosophy of the 16th century.

By contrast, Foucault’s personal life is of little significance when trying to understand his world of thought. Possibly, his showdown with medicine may be read as a showdown with his father and his showdown with prisons as a personal breakout, and it is possible that his concern with the history of psychiatry springs from personal experiences too. Yet I think it is too risky to place things like that to the credit account of the origin of thought for the reason that such biographical soup much too easily comes to form the basis of philosophical analyses – a basis that is far too wishy-washy to work with. Consequently, this book is not about Foucault, but about Foucault’s philosophy.

To do justice to history is not to lose sight of the effort it takes to produce new concepts. As we shall see in chapter two, this is the basic view in the tradition Foucault hails from, historical epistemology. Hence, to do justice to Foucault is to show the effort he makes to extend and transform the concepts of this tradition. Yet it may also be to thematise a certain kind of strain within Foucault’s work, to thematise shifts of focus and replacements of concepts and the paths on which he suddenly stops in his tracks. Possibly there is a certain element of justice in exposing Foucault’s development, but to do justice to his development would require that one gives priority to the evolvement of his spirit rather than consistency. The priority in this book is to present Foucault’s philosophy as a consistent set of thoughts, which is why I will offer no phenomenology of the evolution of a supposed Foucauldian spirit.

Avoiding the dead ends Foucault stumbles into, the distinctions he leaves behind, the concepts he redefines, etc, is of course not unproblematic. It might be interesting to trace Foucault’s concepts back to when they were yet to be unfolded, but since our concern in what follows is Foucault’s philosophy as a consistent set of thoughts, it seems more important that we shed light on the concepts in accordance with what they eventually turned into. This is not to deny that there are different periods and irregularities in Foucault’s body of work, e.g. that the use of concepts varies from book to book. My argument is that such shifts and irregularities do not amount to periods that are impossible to bring together. Any irregularities in Foucault’s use of concepts will be elucidated whenever it is important in order to understand Foucault’s line of thought. But just as there is no reason to see the confusion of puberty as an indication of psychosis, there is no reason to be thrown by the fact that Foucault was confused now and again because he was in the middle of his work. One has to exploit the perspective of distance, and we have the advantage of viewing all of Foucault’s work from the distance of decades.

Yet there is another cause for confusion, which arises in particular with the material published in Dits et écrits: Foucault’s comments on and accounts of his own body of work. What kind of status are we to ascribe to the author’s own explanations of his work?

The significance of reflexive explanations is overshadowed by the manner in which they are enunciated. Scholars, including Foucault himself, easily end up positioning themselves in relation to structuralism, Marxism, anti-psychiatry and a long list of contemporary personalities, and, to put it mildly, allowing one’s understanding and presentation of Foucault’s entire body of work to be governed by opinions based on the strategic concerns of Foucault’s contemporaries is a much too negligent approach when it comes to Foucault’s thinking. Whether Foucault is a structuralist or not has nothing to do with the question of whether he sees himself as a structuralist.

In this respect somebody may raise the objection that even when he is not speaking about his own works, Foucault is busy positioning himself in relation to contemporary figures. The reading of Mallarmé’s works, for example, has been a battleground of internal positioning in French philosophy throughout the 20th century. However, in order to avoid forcing philosophy with the crowbar of sociology I will try to draw a line between Foucault’s reflexive statements and statements of a non-reflexive character, and read the latter with reference to their subject matter.

On the other hand, I have invested all of Foucault’s non-reflexive statements with the same level of authority as his reflexive statements. In order to put together a coherent system of thoughts I have arranged Foucault’s works, articles, lectures and interviews in a thematic order, or in clusters of problems, and invested the various modes of enunciation with the same status. The fact that a work like The History of Sexuality amounts to a jumble of different problems owes to the fact that all kinds of things were happening behind the official publication in concurrence with its creation. Since 1994 we have been able to read about this in the articles and interviews in Dits et écrits I-IV, or we could listen to it on tapes at the IMEC-library, 9 rue Bleue in Paris. Fortunately the sands are running out for those tape recordings which were brought to you from the archive by otherwise polite librarians along with a tape recorder of an earlier date. If the idea was not always that clear in Foucault’s lectures, the sound quality of the tapes certainly did not help either. It is quite the opposite with the written sign which will soon and little by little stand out as immediately discernible, black on white. The clattering on the table, the sound that fades, the sound of the window that is opened, these were the sounds of the Foucauldian study  i in-between things, but one would sound like an old ex-serviceman who regrets the end of the war if one refused to appreciate that the clarity of the text compensates excessively for the loss of that kind of aura on the tapes, which itself was already a copy. In order to put all the thoughts together as a whole – a system of thought – I have invested works, articles, lectures and interviews with the same status. What is presented here is but one path through all of Foucault’s works.




My thanks are due to a good handful of people for their criticism. This goes for Carsten Henriksen, Jeppe Ilkjær, Nicolaj Lübecker, Peter Rønhof Sloth, Søren Gosvig Olesen and Ulrik Houlind Rasmussen.

Copenhagen 2005 and 2012

Anders Fogh Jensen