Entry Foucault” in Dictionnaire des philosophes” 1984
Anyway, my per­sonal life is not at all in­ter­est­ing. If some­body thinks that my work can­not be un­der­stood with­out ref­er­ence to such and such a part of my life, I ac­cept to con­sider the ques­tion. I am ready to an­swer if I agree. As far as my per­sonal life is un­in­ter­est­ing, it is not worth­while mak­ing a se­cret of it. By the same to­ken, it may not be worth­while pub­li­ciz­ing it.
— Foucault, Michel. FOUCAULT Translated from Dictionnaire des philosophes, 942-944. Paris, P.U.F., 1984.

To the ex­tent that Foucault fits into the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion, it is the crit­i­cal tra­di­tion of Kant, and his pro­ject could be called a Critical History of Thought. This should not be taken to mean a his­tory of ideas that would be at the same time an analy­sis of er­rors that might be gauged af­ter the fact; or a de­ci­pher­ment of the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions linked to them and on which what we think to­day might de­pend. If what is meant by thought is the act that posits a sub­ject and an ob­ject, along with their pos­si­ble re­la­tions, a crit­i­cal his­tory of thought would be an analy­sis of the con­di­tions un­der which cer­tain re­la­tions of sub­ject to ob­ject are formed or mod­i­fied, in­so­far as those re­la­tions con­sti­tute a pos­si­ble knowl­edge [savoir]. It is not a mat­ter of defin­ing the for­mal con­di­tions of a re­la­tion­ship to the ob­ject; nor is it a mat­ter of iso­lat­ing the em­pir­i­cal con­di­tions that may, at a given mo­ment, have en­abled the sub­ject in gen­eral to be­come ac­quainted with an ob­ject al­ready given in re­al­ity. The prob­lem is to de­ter­mine what the sub­ject must be, to what con­di­tion he is sub­ject, what sta­tus he must have, what po­si­tion he must oc­cupy in re­al­ity or in the imag­i­nary, in or­der to be­come a le­git­i­mate sub­ject of this or that type of knowl­edge [connaissance]. In short, it is a mat­ter of de­ter­min­ing its mode of subjectivation”, for the lat­ter is ob­vi­ously not the same, ac­cord­ing to whether the knowl­edge in­volved has the form of an ex­e­ge­sis of a sa­cred text, a nat­ural his­tory ob­ser­va­tion, or the analy­sis of a men­tal pa­tien­t’s be­hav­ior. But it is also and at the same time a ques­tion of de­ter­min­ing un­der what con­di­tions some­thing can be­come an ob­ject for a pos­si­ble knowl­edge [connaissance], how it may have been prob­lema­tized as an ob­ject to be known, to what se­lec­tive pro­ce­dure it may have been sub­jected, the part of it that is re­garded as per­ti­nent. So it is a mat­ter of de­ter­min­ing its mode of ob­jec­ti­va­tion, which is not the same ei­ther, de­pend­ing on the type of knowl­edge [savoir] that is in­volved.

This ob­jec­ti­va­tion and this sub­jec­ti­va­tion are not in­de­pen­dent of each other. From their mu­tual de­vel­op­ment and their in­ter­con­nec­tion, what could be called the games of truth” come into be­ing — that is, not the dis­cov­ery of true things but the rules ac­cord­ing to which what a sub­ject can say about cer­tain things de­pends on the ques­tion of true and false. In sum, the crit­i­cal his­tory of thought is nei­ther a his­tory of ac­qui­si­tions nor a his­tory of con­ceal­ments of truth; it is the his­tory of veridictions”, un­der­stood as the forms ac­cord­ing to which dis­courses ca­pa­ble of be­ing de­clared true or false are ar­tic­u­lated con­cern­ing a do­main of things. What the con­di­tions of this emer­gence were, the price that was paid for it, so to speak, its ef­fect on re­al­ity and the way in which, link­ing a cer­tain type of ob­ject to cer­tain modal­i­ties of the sub­ject, it con­sti­tuted the his­tor­i­cal a pri­ori of a pos­si­ble ex­pe­ri­ence for a pe­riod of time, an area and for given in­di­vid­u­als.

Now, Michel Foucault did not pose this ques­tion — or this se­ries of ques­tions, which are those of an archaeology of knowl­edge” — and does not wish to pose it con­cern­ing just any game of truth, but con­cern­ing only those in which the sub­ject him­self is posited as an ob­ject for pos­si­ble knowl­edge: What are the processes of sub­jec­ti­va­tion and ob­jec­ti­va­tion that made it pos­si­ble for the sub­ject qua sub­ject to be­come an ob­ject of knowl­edge [connaissance], as a sub­ject ? Of course it is a mat­ter not of as­cer­tain­ing how a psychological knowl­edge” was con­sti­tuted in the course of his­tory but of dis­cov­er­ing how var­i­ous truth games were formed through which the sub­ject be­came an ob­ject of knowl­edge. Michel Foucault at­tempted to con­duct his analy­sis in two ways. First, in con­nec­tion with the ap­pear­ance and in­ser­tion of the ques­tion of the speak­ing, labour­ing, and liv­ing sub­ject, in do­mains and ac­cord­ing to the form of a sci­en­tific type of knowl­edge. This had to do with the for­ma­tion of cer­tain human sci­ences”, stud­ied in ref­er­ence to the prac­tice of the em­pir­i­cal sci­ences, and of their char­ac­ter­is­tic dis­course in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies (The or­der of Things). Foucault also tried to analyse the for­ma­tion of the sub­ject as he may ap­pear on the other side of a nor­ma­tive di­vi­sion, be­com­ing an ob­ject of knowl­edge — as a mad­man, a pa­tient or a delin­quent, through prac­tices such as those of psy­chi­a­try, clin­i­cal med­i­cine and pe­nal­ity (Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish).

Foucault has now un­der­taken, still within the same gen­eral pro­ject, to study the con­sti­tu­tion of the sub­ject as an ob­ject for him­self: the for­ma­tion of pro­ce­dures by which the sub­ject is led to ob­serve him­self, analyse him­self, in­ter­pret him­self, rec­og­nize him­self as a do­main of pos­si­ble knowl­edge. In short, this con­cerns the his­tory of subjectivity”, if what is meant by the term is the way in which the sub­ject ex­pe­ri­ences him­self in a game of truth where he re­lates to him­self. The ques­tion of sex and sex­u­al­ity ap­peared in Foucault’s view, to con­sti­tute not the only pos­si­ble ex­am­ple, cer­tainly, but at least a rather priv­i­leged case. Indeed, it was in this con­nec­tion that through the whole of Christianity and per­haps be­yond, in­di­vid­u­als were all called on to rec­og­nize them­selves as sub­jects of plea­sure, of de­sire, of lust, of temp­ta­tion and were urged to de­ploy, by var­i­ous means (self-examination, spir­i­tual ex­er­cises, ad­mis­sion, con­fes­sion), the game of true and false in re­gard to them­selves and what con­sti­tutes the most se­cret, the most in­di­vid­ual part of their sub­jec­tiv­ity. In sum, this his­tory of sex­u­al­ity is meant to con­sti­tute a third seg­ment, added to the analy­ses of re­la­tions be­tween the sub­ject and truth or, to be ex­act, to the study of the modes ac­cord­ing to which the sub­ject was able to be in­serted as an ob­ject in the games of truth.

Taking the ques­tion of re­la­tions be­tween the sub­ject and truth as the guid­ing thread for all these analy­ses im­plies cer­tain choices of method. First, a sys­tem­atic skep­ti­cism to­ward all an­thro­po­log­i­cal uni­ver­sals-which does not mean re­ject­ing them all from the start, out­right and once and for all, but that noth­ing of that or­der must be ac­cepted that is not strictly in­dis­pens­able. In re­gard to hu­man na­ture or the cat­e­gories that may be ap­plied to the sub­ject, every­thing in our knowl­edge which is sug­gested to us as be­ing uni­ver­sally valid must be tested and analysed. Refusing the uni­ver­sal of madness”, delinquency”, or sexuality” does not im­ply that what these no­tions re­fer to is noth­ing, or that they are only chimeras in­vented for the sake of a du­bi­ous cause. Something more is in­volved, how­ever, than the sim­ple ob­ser­va­tion that their con­tent varies with time and cir­cum­stances: It means that one must in­ves­ti­gate the con­di­tions that en­able peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the rules of true and false state­ments, to rec­og­nize a sub­ject as men­tally ill or to arrange that a sub­ject rec­og­nize the most es­sen­tial part of him­self in the modal­ity of his sex­ual de­sire. So the first rule of method in for this kind of work is this: in­so­far as pos­si­ble, cir­cum­vent the an­thro­po­log­i­cal uni­ver­sals (and, of course, those of a hu­man­ism that would as­sert the rights, the priv­i­leges, and the na­ture of a hu­man be­ing as an im­me­di­ate and time­less truth of the sub­ject) in or­der to ex­am­ine them as his­tor­i­cal con­structs. One must also re­verse the philo­soph­i­cal way of pro­ceed­ing up­ward to the con­stituent sub­ject which is asked to ac­count of every pos­si­ble ob­ject of knowl­edge in gen­eral. On the con­trary, it is a mat­ter of pro­ceed­ing back down to the study of the con­crete prac­tices by which the sub­ject is con­sti­tuted in the im­ma­nence of a do­main of knowl­edge. There too, one must be care­ful: re­fus­ing the philo­soph­i­cal re­course to a con­stituent sub­ject does not amount of act­ing as if the sub­ject did not ex­ist, mak­ing an ab­strac­tion of it on be­half of a pure ob­jec­tiv­ity. This re­fusal has the aim of elic­it­ing the processes that are pe­cu­liar to an ex­pe­ri­ence in which the sub­ject and the ob­ject are formed and trans­formed” in re­la­tion to and in terms of one an­other. The dis­courses of men­tal ill­ness, delin­quency, or sex­u­al­ity say what the sub­ject is only in a cer­tain, quite par­tic­u­lar game of truth; but these games are not im­posed on the sub­ject from the out­side ac­cord­ing to a nec­es­sary causal­ity or struc­tural de­ter­mi­na­tion. They open up a field of ex­pe­ri­ence in which the sub­ject and the ob­ject are both con­sti­tuted only un­der cer­tain si­mul­ta­ne­ous con­di­tions, but in which they are con­stantly mod­i­fied in re­la­tion to each other, and so they mod­ify this field of ex­pe­ri­ence it­self.

Hence a third prin­ci­ple of method: ad­dress practices” as a do­main of analy­sis, ap­proach the study from the an­gle of what was done”. For ex­am­ple, what was done with mad­men, delin­quents, or sick peo­ple? Of course, one can try to in­fer the in­sti­tu­tions in which they were placed and the treat­ments to which they were sub­jected from the ideas that peo­ple had about them, or knowl­edge that peo­ple be­lieved they had about them. One can also look for the form of true” men­tal ill­nesses and the modal­i­ties of real delin­quency in a given pe­riod in or­der to ex­plain what was thought about them at the time. Michel Foucault ap­proaches things in an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent way. He first stud­ies the en­sem­ble of more or less reg­u­lated, more or less de­lib­er­ate, more or less fi­nal­ized ways of do­ing things, through which can be seen both what was con­sti­tuted as real for those who sought to think it and man­age it and the way in which the lat­ter con­sti­tuted them­selves as sub­ject ca­pa­ble of know­ing, analysing, and ul­ti­mately al­ter­ing re­al­ity. These are the practices”, un­der­stood as a way of act­ing and think­ing at once, that pro­vide the in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity key for the cor­rel­a­tive con­sti­tu­tion of the sub­ject and the ob­ject.

Now, since it is a mat­ter of study­ing the dif­fer­ent modes of ob­jec­ti­va­tion of the sub­ject that ap­pear through these prac­tices, one un­der­stand how im­por­tant it is to an­a­lyze power re­la­tions. But it is es­sen­tial to clearly de­fine what such an analy­sis can be and can hope to ac­com­plish. Obviously, it is a mat­ter not of ex­am­in­ing power” with re­gards to its ori­gin, its prin­ci­ples, or its le­git­i­mate lim­its, but of study­ing the meth­ods and tech­niques used in dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tional con­texts to act upon the be­hav­ior of in­di­vid­u­als taken sep­a­rately or in a group, so as to shape, di­rect, mod­ify their way of con­duct­ing them­selves, to im­pose ends on their in­ac­tion or fit it into over­all strate­gies, these be­ing mul­ti­ple con­se­quently, in their forms and their place of ex­er­cise; di­verse, too, in the pro­ce­dures and tech­niques they bring into play. These power re­la­tions char­ac­ter­ize the man­ner in which men are governed” by one an­other; and their analy­sis shows how, through cer­tain forms of government”, of mad­men, sick peo­ple, crim­i­nals and so on, the mad, the sick, the delin­quent sub­ject is ob­jec­ti­fied. So an analy­sis of this kind im­plies not that the abuse of this or that power has cre­ated mad­men, sick peo­ple, or crim­i­nals where there was noth­ing, but that the var­i­ous and par­tic­u­lar forms of government” of in­di­vid­u­als were de­ter­mi­nant in the dif­fer­ent modes of ob­jec­ti­va­tion of the sub­ject.

One sees how the theme of a history of sex­u­al­ity” can fit within Michel Foucault’s gen­eral pro­ject. It is a mat­ter of analysing sexuality” as a his­tor­i­cally sin­gu­lar mode of ex­pe­ri­ence in which the sub­ject is ob­jec­ti­fied for him­self and for oth­ers through cer­tain spe­cific pro­ce­dures of government”.


  1. Michel Foucault, an Interview with Stephen Riggins, Toronto, 1982.
  2. Background Image: French philoso­pher Michel FOUCAULT at home, © Martine Franck/Magnum Photos