Foucault the Power

By Felicity Sharpe

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) not a philosopher in the normal sense. Even so, at once stage, he was called ‘the new Kant’ –  a very large estimation. Foucault was born in France to very upper-middle class parents, his father was a doctor and put a lot of pressure on to him to study to become a doctor but Foucault had other plans- this caused some unrest in the family.

Foucault started his work as a historian rather than a philosopher, This changed the nature of his work, he saw history and his task was to show the reader of his work that maybe the ‘it’s better now’ understanding of history is wrong and a person needs to look for history’s sake rather than modernity vs the past.

Many college students like to read his ideas because he writes with an ease that makes the reader think as they read his work.

This essay will talk about Foucault’s main ideas, they’re as follows, discourse, power and its structures and the change in the mental health practice.

Foucault had an idea of discourse, he believed that how we use media (talking, writing, sharing etc) impacted on how we saw ourselves and others. Discourse is everything and is everywhere, from watching the news, to how chatting with friends changes on who you’re chatting with, Foucault looked at the ways that people use communication and how that communication is used to control something.

He wrote “Freedom of conscience entails more dangers than authority and despotism”(Madness and Civilization) He believed in free thought and how that free thinking posed a massive problem for those who control discourse. Discourse is controlled in so many ways, in Australia, there was a debate about law 18C and how the law is anti-free speech, one side of the debate said it was an important law as it protected groups in society that could be a target for ‘hate speech’ . The other side of the debate said that it was not needed as free speech is one of the most important parts of living in a free society and that personal feelings do not matter.

The discourse was that ‘ freedom goes before personal feelings’ on one side and the opposite for the other side of the date, either way, the Government is controlling discourse and one has to question why? Why do the Govt need to control discourse in any way apart from making sure people obey? Power is another interest of Foucault.

The power he saw was a structure that was all around us, rather than a top-down approach. Unlike other theorists, like Karl Marx who saw two classes, Foucault saw that everyone is under some oppression, this was a new view at the time. He did not see it was important that there was ‘a oppressor and an oppressed’ because of how the system is even the ‘top guy’ is oppressed by the person above him.

Power is everywhere. In his third book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ he says this

“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” He saw that power is even in how we are thinking.

In a sense, he is able to suggest that people that control power also control how people see that power, of course, the police will say that police are doing great things because they control their power and how they in force the law. Of course, Governments will say they’re good because they’re talking about themselves.

He also looked at how the ways of punishing people have changed from far more public forms of control things like hanging now the punishment is done behind closed doors, he questioned why that is and how that has changed the nature of how crime is seen.

Because of Foucault’s very ‘unwell’  teenage years, he was very interested in how people who are seen as mentally unwell are looked at, also the history of how madness was looked at. He in his historical work noticed that in history people who were seen as ‘mad’ were often just accepted and seen to have ‘special skills’ and were respected in being just them. Nowadays we want everyone to be the same. and this makes pressure on the individual as they see themselves as sick.

In his book ‘The Birth of the Clinic’ he says this ” Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.”  he was almost in a romantic relationship with death, because he saw that death was life in the sense that everyone dies.

He also saw that doctors see a person as a ‘check list’ that when the person is at the doctor the doctor sees the person as a group of problems rather than a whole person. He called this ‘the medical gaze’.

There were many people who disagreed with Foucault’s view , but it can be argued they only disagreed with him because he questioned them too, also he wrote in a new way that the intellectuals disagreed with at the time – he was a historian and approached his writing in such a way, rather than seeing his view as ‘theory’ he was just revising how the reader can look at history.

Also, it could be said that because he had a very non-normal lifestyle he was gay and into sadist experiences, the criticalness of other writers may be because they disagree with his lifestyle.

When I walk around campus there is a lot of discourse on so many security cameras and this has an effect on how students feel. Personally, I see no need for them. It creates a discourse that ‘students’ can’t be trusted and if the university can not trust it’s own students then what hope do we have being in the working world. It’s said that we have been treated in such a way.

Overall, Foucault looked at three main ideas, the discourse and how discourse controls people. He looked how the prison system has changed and how it has become far worse for crime and he looked at the health system and how that has changed. This essay analyses in-depth these areas and poses some questions.


Foucault, M. (1973). The birth of the clinic. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M., Rabinow, P. and Faubion, J. (1997). The essential works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. New York: New Press.

Strathern, P. (2000). Foucault in 90 minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

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