Foucault: WTF? An Introduction to Foucault, Power and Knowledge | Tom Nicholas

Foucault: WTF? An Introduction to Foucault, Power and Knowledge | Tom Nicholas

Hi, my name’s Tom. Welcome back to my
channel and to another episode of What the Theory?, my ongoing series in which I aim
to provide some sometimes enjoyable but always accessible introductions to key
theories in cultural studies and the wider humanities. Today, we’re taking a
look at the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault; we’re going to take a
look at some of the key terminology and methodologies from his work including
archaeology, genealogy, episteme and power and we’re also going to have a brief look
at some of his key books such as The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish
and The History of Sexuality. As always, if you have any thoughts or questions as
we go along then please do feel free to pop those down below in the comments and,
if you’re new around here and this seems like your kind of thing, then please do
consider subscribing. Finally, if you would like to support my work creating
humanities-based educational content here on YouTube, then please do check out
my Patreon. With that out of the way however, let’s crack on with Michel Foucault:
What the Theory? If we wanted to boil the work of Michel
Foucault down to its most basic insight it would be that human knowledge is
locked in an intimate relationship with power. As Foucault himself writes in the
opening chapter to his book Discipline and Punish: ‘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’. In
short, though we often like to think of knowledge—particularly scientific
knowledge—as operating outside of the more value-driven realm of political,
social and economic power relations, Foucault instead argues that the two are
inextricably linked. He argues that the knowledge that exists at any given time,
the facts that are deemed to be incontrovertible and the discoveries
that it is possible to make are, in fact, heavily influenced by that same era’s
power relations. Now, those of you who have watched a number of my other videos
might be thinking that a lot of this sounds a little familiar. When we looked
at Gramsci’s notion of Hegemony, for example, there was a similar idea
that the culture which exists within capitalist society tends to be
legitimized by—and therefore in turn legitimize—the economic base of that
society. There are a number of ways, however, in which Foucault’s work, though not
entirely disagreeing with that of Gramsci, is pretty distinct from it.
Firstly, in unpacking the relationship between power and knowledge, Gramsci is
pretty much exclusively interested in the power element of that equation.
Foucault, however, takes the opposite approach.
In fact, he writes in great detail about some specific effects which he sees the
power relations of certain eras having had upon specific bits of scientific
knowledge. Furthermore, Foucault’s conception of power is far less centralized than
that of Gramsci. Power, in Foucault’s work, is very rarely a matter of
representative politics, the state or economy and instead tends to be a
question more of the possibilities for
self-empowerment—does the received wisdom of the era in which we live allow
us to have agency, to truly know ourselves and to construct our
identities to our own design, or does it subtly coerce us into appealing to some
kind of “normality”? Now, in seeking to explore such matters, many philosophers
would have taken a very broad and largely theoretical approach. What is
particularly interesting about Foucault’s work, however, is that he is actually
engaged in intricate studies of real world examples of the things that he’s
talking about. Indeed, although many would very broadly conceive Foucault to be a
philosopher or critic of some kind, the vast majority of his books were
histories. As Gary Gutting explains in his overview of Foucault’s life and work, on
becoming a professor of the Collège de France,
Foucault chose to title Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. In works
such as History of Madness, The Order of Things, The Birth of the Clinic,
Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault is thus interested in
how dominant structures of thought or ways of thinking in Western Europe have
changed over time. In particular, he’s interested in how the shift from one
structure of thought to another might have enabled new scientific discoveries,
new medical practices, new punishment systems and new sexual identities to emerge
which would previously have been unthinkable while, at the same time,
stopping other ideas from emerging. All of this, however, may be a lot to take in
all at once. So, let’s slow it on down, take a step
back and start with that very central idea that knowledge, rather than being
universal and incontrovertibly objective, is in fact historically contingent—by
which I mean specific to a particular moment in time. And, in order to best
understand this, I think it’s useful to take a look at one of Foucault’s key
influences: Friedrich Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps most famous for
pronouncing that ‘god is dead’. And with phraseology like that it’s no surprise
that popular understandings of his work tend to be somewhat lacking in nuance.
For instance, though many often assume Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death of
God” to be an attack on a religion, what Neitzche was actually doing there is
reflecting on what consequences the Enlightenment might have for human
morality. See, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a scientific and philosophical
movement which we refer to as the Enlightenment had pretty much seen
theological explanations for why the world is and how the world works
supplanted by ones based in logic, reason and the early scientific method. And a
central theme of Nietzsche’s work was what this metaphorical murder of God by
science might mean for human morality— without an appeal to the divine as an
outside arbiter of what is moral, how would society decide what is good and
what is evil? Nietzsche, however, was not an advocate for
a return to a society under the grip of religion, he was simply interested in
asking what comes next. In fact, the book of Nietzsche’s which perhaps had the
most significant influence on Foucault was On the Genealogy of Morality which
is itself a pretty incisive attack on the church. Within it, Nietzsche sets out
to explore how popular held conceptions of what is good and what is evil had
changed over time. Nietzsche argues that, throughout history, ‘everywhere, “noble”,
“aristocratic” in social terms is the basic concept from which, necessarily,
“good” in the sense of “spiritually noble”, “aristocratic”, of “spiritually highminded”,
“spiritually privileged” developed: a development that always runs parallel
with that other one which ultimately transfers “common”, “plebeian”, “low” into the concept “bad”‘. Nietzsche’s argument that, throughout
history, ideas around what is moral and righteous had largely
been constructed in order to celebrate those who were already powerful and
further marginalize the already disempowered, however, had consequences for more than just the already pretty embattled Church. For, though taking a
more secular approach, the proponents of the Enlightenment—most notably Immanuel Kant—had equally taken it for granted that morality could be universally and
objectively defined. And Nietzsche’s suggestion that this had almost never
been the case in the past raised significant questions about whether it
would be possible in the future. Questions of morality certainly appear
both implicitly and explicitly throughout Foucault’s work. What he takes
most of all from Nietzsche, however, is this notion that ideas, rather than being
universal and objective, are actually quite often historically contingent;
Foucault simply substitutes out post-enlightenment morality for post-enlightenment science. With all its claims to be driven by logic and reason,
Foucault set out to ask whether what is considered logical or reasonable might
also be historically contingent. In arguing that this was indeed the case,
Foucault suggests that each period of history—or, indeed, the present—might have
a corresponding structure of thought or what he calls an “episteme” which he
defines in his book The Archeology of Knowledge as ‘something like a world-view,
a slice of history common to all branches of knowledge, which imposes on
each one the same norms and postulates, a general stage of reason, a certain
structure of thought that the men [sic] of a particular period cannot escape’. An episteme, then, refers to the way in which a society thinks at any given moment. And a shift from one
episteme to another allows new discoveries to be made which
previously would have been seen as entirely illogical, while at the same
time continuing to limit new thoughts from being had. In The Order of Things,
for instance, he delineates between three different episteme in Western Europe
from the 17th century onwards. To foreground just one of these,
he writes that, in what he refers to as the Classical period, ‘the naturalists,
economists, and grammarians employed the same rules to define the objects prior
to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories’. He
argues that, across three distinct disciplines in this period, there was a
tendency to want to classify, group and describe objects of study; whether that
be plants and animals, the workings of the economy or language. While this
certainly enabled new discoveries to be made, in other ways, it limited the
progress of scientific, economic and linguistic thought. In particular,
suggests Foucault, this focus on categorization and definition tended to
ignore the role of time and thus view the world as temporally static he therefore
argues that, with regard to the natural sciences, theories of evolution were
almost unthinkable in this episteme and only became so when the Classical period ‘which
retained a view of a static, ordered, compartmented universe that is subjected
from its very beginnings to the classification table, and the still
confused perception of a nature that is the heir to time’ gave way to a modern
episteme ‘open to the possibility of an evolution’. Foucault refers to the
methodology he uses to identify these episteme as “archeology”. For, just as an
archaeologist, on uncovering a monument, then uses what they learned from that
monument to make broader hypotheses about the society which built it, so too
does Foucault view texts and documents as monuments. He then uses the things which they say in order to make broader hypotheses about the way
in which the society in which they were written was thinking. This approach is
evident not only in The Order of Things but also Foucault’s History of Madness and
The Birth of the Clinic in which Foucault seeks to explore changes in how
French society thought about mental illness and medical practice over time.
What we see in those earlier works far more than in The Order of Things, however,
is the beginnings of an interest in how different episteme might not only mark
out certain ideas as illogical or unreasonable but people. For, in
exploring the limits about what it is possible to know about either mental or
physical health in a given period, there is also an implicit explanation about
what it is possible to know about ourselves, our own minds and bodies.
Furthermore, there are clear implications for power here too. For example, is it me
that decides whether I am ill or not or is that left up to a doctor to decide
for me? Nevertheless, it is only in Foucault’s later
work that the implications for a society’s way of thinking for that
society’s power relations starts to be not only acknowledged but the central
focus of Foucault’s research. In Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality,
Foucault again uses archaeology in order to identify changes in the way that
Western Europe thought about both the penal system and sexuality over time.
Alongside this, however, he also adds a new methodology which he calls, after
Nietzsche, “genealogy”. In common parlance, of course, genealogy refers to the study
of our biological ancestors; it is the process of seeking out who our great
grandmothers and great great grandmothers were in order to gain an
insight into how we came to be the people we are today.
And genealogy, as Foucault and Nietzsche use the term, seeks to pursue a similar
explanation for the present in the past with regard to ideas. Furthermore, as
Nietzsche’s study of morality perhaps indicated, where archaeology took a
slightly more detached approach to viewing the changes in episteme and
that relationship to power throughout history, genealogy is explicitly
interested in how a change in the way in which a society thinks might relate to a
change in its power relations. In The History of Sexuality, then, Foucault is
interested in how contemporary perceptions of sexuality came to be
formed. A key element of his argument is the idea that, although same-sex romantic
and physical relationships have existed throughout history, the concept of homo-
and heterosexuality as distinct ways of being is actually only a late 19th
century invention. Interestingly, however, though acknowledging that the coining of
the terms homo- and heterosexual were part of broader attempts to suppress
non-heterosexual—and, broadly speaking, non-marital sexual and romantic
relationships, Foucault in fact sets out to critique what he calls the ‘repressive
hypothesis’: the notion—still fairly prevalent today—that, from the 17th
century onwards—bourgeois society had largely sought to suppress any
discussion whatsoever of sex. For, as the codification of homo- and heterosexuality
infers, seeking to moralize sexual activity actually involved an awful lot
of discussing it. Foucault therefore argues that, rather than repression, the
(broadly-speaking) Victorian episteme was, instead, characterized by ‘the
proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate
sexualities’. Now, some attempt to characterize Foucault as a constant
pessimist in his conceptualization of power. However what we see here is a
distinctly nuanced argument. For Foucault is arguing that,
yes, the codification and categorization of a notion of homosexuality was part of
an attempt to define homosexuality as some kind of illness yet, as Foucault
writes, it ‘also made possible the formation of a “reverse” discourse:
homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf, to demand that it’s legitimacy or
“naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same
categories by which it was medically disqualified’. Though meant to subdue, the
categorization of homosexuality in this way thus, in some regards, provided a
language for empowerment of those people being subdued. Had he been able to
complete his work on how we think about sexuality, Foucault’s plan was to use the
insight that he’d gained from exploring this particular topic to draw broader
conclusions about how the present episteme governs how we come to know and
come to use our bodies in a study of what he called biopolitics. Just as, in
The Order of Things, he had argued that the classical episteme’s tendency to
want to classify and describe different things was not just present in the
Natural Sciences but also in linguistics and economics, so
too did Foucault think that we might find echoes of the ways in which we
think about sexuality elsewhere in society. Unfortunately, however, he sadly
died before he was able to finish that work. Where we do find a really good and
really finished example of his thinking about one specific topic rippling out
into thinking about society as a whole, however, is in Discipline and Punish.
Like The History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish begins with a very specific
focus. Foucault observes that, towards the end of the 18th century, the manner in
which France punished criminals changed significantly. Previously, the focus had
been on public acts of brutality. Indeed, Foucault opens the book
with a description of the very public drawing and quartering of a man who
would had drawn a penknife on Louis XV. He then contrasts this with the minutely-detailed daily schedule of a prisoner in the House of Young Prisoners in Paris
just 80 years later. He writes that ‘we have, then, a public execution and a
timetable. They do not punish the same crimes nor the same type of delinquents.
But they each define a certain penal style’. Our tendency, of course, is to see
the latter form of punishment as far more humane than the former. And Foucault broadly agrees. However he does suggest that the latter form of punishment is
far more insidious. For, where the first is very public and very chaotic, the
latter both hides the exercise of power from view while also being minutely
detailed. Having studied this shift in episteme as it related to French
society’s ways of thinking about crime and punishment, Foucault then goes on to
consider whether this move away from very public and chaotic exercises of
power towards more private, insidious and details ones might be found elsewhere in
society. See, as Foucault argues, the routine of the prison ‘produces subjected
and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the
body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in
political terms of obedience). Foucault argues however that, since the 17th
century, such practices of instilling obedience through discipline and routine
‘had constantly reached out to ever broader domains, as if they tended to
cover the entire social body’. Schools, hospitals, the military and numerous
other institutions had, in Foucault’s view, come to operate in a very similar
manner and to a similar end. Foucault had always argued that power was diffuse
throughout society rather than centralized, but, here perhaps more than
anywhere else in Foucault’s work, we see quite how true that fact is. What makes
Discipline and Punish a particularly astute example of Foucault’s wider body of
work, however, is that, as well as being an exploration of how structures of thought
or ways of thinking might have shifted power relations in society, the power
that Foucault is exploring being exercised here is also definitively
epistemological. For, this particular form of discipline operates precisely by
limiting the knowledge that we are able to gain about ourselves; the routine
encourages us to want to conform in some way, to try and fit in and therefore
limits our ability to construct our own identities.
Indeed, Foucault argues that the real insidiousness of these forms of
discipline lies in the fact that much of the work is done internally: by ourselves
to ourselves. He uses the metaphor of the panopticon, a form of prison designed by
the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The design features a
central tower from which a single prison officer can see every single cell in the
prison while themselves being obscured by a blindingly bright light. Though the
single officer can only actually be looking in one direction at any given
time, then, the prisoners have no idea whether or not it is they that are
currently being observed. The idea, then, is that the prisoners will be forced to
be constantly on their best behavior whether the prison officer is looking at
them or not because there is always the possibility that they might be. Just as
this leads to a situation in which the prisoners are disciplining themselves as
much as being disciplined by the prison officers, Foucault suggests that we come
to internalize the ways of thinking that we are
routinely forced into through school, workplace or the prison. And, just as a
lack of awareness as to the role of time in nature meant that the natural
scientists of the Classical episteme couldn’t quite get their heads around
the notion of evolution, so too does this limit the knowledge that we are able to
gain about ourselves; it, in some ways, stops us all from being able to form our
identities to our own end and turns us into conforming, docile bodies. So, to
conclude. The central thesis of Foucault’s work is that all human knowledge is very
rarely universal or objective but is, in fact, historically contingent. Through
archaeology and, later, genealogy, Foucault sets out to suggest that each period of
history has a corresponding episteme which certainly allows new discoveries
to be made but also limits in some way what is thinkable at that point.
Initially, Foucault restricts this discussion to the discussion of the
natural sciences and medicine but, in his later work, we really see him start to
expand out into using these ideas to discuss how we might be limited in the
knowledge that we are able to gain about ourselves and our own identities. In
effecting our individual agency in this way and our potential for personal
empowerment or subjection, knowledge thus comes to be intimately associated with
power. And, just as Foucault often sought to explore the diffuse consequences of
power, so too does he often see its source as being diffuse.
For, just as it is not, in the end, the prison officer who is subjecting those
prisoners to their routine but the prisoners themselves, so too do the ways
of thinking in which we have been instructed force us to regulate
ourselves rather than any outside force. Thank you very much for
watching, I hope this has been useful to you if you’re currently trying to get
your head around Foucault’s ideas. If you would like to see me go more in-depth into any of Foucault’s individual books in the future then do let me know.
And, if you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the script for this video with
footnotes and references to mull over to your heart’s content,
then do check out my Patreon. A like down below is always appreciated but,
other than that, thanks very much for watching once again and have a great

36 thoughts on “Foucault: WTF? An Introduction to Foucault, Power and Knowledge | Tom Nicholas

  • Thanks for watching! Really looking forward to your feedback on this one. Do let me know if you'd like me to make some more Foucault videos in the future (maybe going in-depth into some particular books of his)?
    Furthermore, as with the last episode of What the Theory?, if you'd like to get your hands on a copy of the script for this video with footnotes and references, you can sign up to support me on Patreon at

  • Great timing! My girlfriend is studying for her literary theory exam and she's struggling with understanding Foucault.

  • A very short and good intro would be his inaugural lecture at Collège de France: The order of discourse (L'ordre du discours).

  • Fantastic video! Extremely clear and concise!
    I honestly would love to see you go more into depth on Foucault's "History of Sexuality". I've been educating myself on queer history a lot this month, it being pride month, and seeing how Foucault's insights interact with historical narratives is incredibly fascinating.

  • It's amazing how you can somehow manage to create bite sized videos of extremely complex theories.
    Your content are great stimulus for further understandings the works of complex philosophers.

  • Once again an absolutely wonderful, comprehensible and accessible video on complex ideas.

    I always look forward to the notification informing me of a new upload.

    Please consider supporting Tom on Patreon folks, he deserves it. I've just put in my pledge. I see potential for a humanities hub here on YouTube.

    @Tom, perhaps more explicitly (in the title or description) linking social phenomena of today to the ideas of these thinkers might help to make your channel more discoverable to those interested. I discovered your channel via your post-modernism video after I noticed the term being used to explain phenomena I didn't quite understand.

    Whatever you do though, keep it up! 👍🏼

  • i was researching foucault two days ago and stumbled upon ur video on debord, subscribed, and bam! yesterday you post this. brilliant

  • Nice job Thomas 👌 I applied his theories while writing a paper on G. Orwell's 1984 and I had a great time doing that I must say. Keep going 👍

  • Thank you Tom for finally releasing the WTF video about Foucault! Glad you made this, i'm looking forward to the next WTF videos! ☺️

  • I would actually enjoy a more in depth video about one of his books. Maybe "The history of Sexuality", "Discipline and Punish" or "The history of Madness". Though I trust they are all pretty interesting.

  • Thank you so much for this helpful analysis! Can you please discuss Foucault’s archeology of knowledge? Thanks again 🙏

  • This is my first video of philosophy and I love this! This video is interesting and easy to understand. I would love another in depth video of the discipline and punish book of Foucalt or another philosophy video about human moral thinking.

  • It really sucks that you might not be able to share your actual political beliefs and you seem like you have to shroud your own worldview in talking about texts that you have read. If you created a podcast of an explicitly leftist nature your careerist path would be in danger, would it not? Dealing with these personal chauvinistic tribulations weights heavily on the psyche, thanks for doing what you can. The rising fascism and crumbling of global capitalism really does need a strong left presence. In solidarity from Sacramento, thanks.

  • Thanks so much for the subtitles ( and the good work, of course ). This really helps those who speak English as a second language. 🤓

  • He's one of the scholars that had biggest impacts on my worldview. Really glad Youtube suggested your channel to me out of nowhere. Instantly subscribed.

  • Very good Tom, I like how you explore philosophers instead of pop culture that can be interpreted with philosophy.

  • I’m currently needing to write a reflective essay on a transcription of Foucault’s ‘Two Lectures’ on Power and Knowledge. I legit have no idea what he’s saying half the time. So this has been helpful. Thank you. Am subbing from Australia! ((:

  • The right hate Foucault and the alt-right even more, along with the post-modernist period in which he worked. I wonder why?

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