Summary of "Foucault: a very short introduction" by Gary Gutting

Abstract, 2017

6 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Summary of the book “Foucault: A very Short Introduction.”

The book “Foucault: A very Short Introduction.” written by Gary Gutting and published in 2005 deals with the work and life of Foucault. The book is subdivided into ten chapters mostly telling the reader about the thoughts and opinions Foucault had on different topics and regarding to that his books are discussed and analysed. Foucault’s main focus is the relationship between knowledge and power especially concerning societal institutions like psychiatry and jail. With his point of view Foucault had a big impact on the academic world and most likely on the field of cultural studies.

The first Chapter “Lives and Works” tries to point out how Foucault became the critical thinker he was. But Foucault did not want other people to relate his life to his books so that there are different views on his life. One story is about the exemplary student of a successful doctor father who spent some “Wanderjahre” around Europe while finishing his dissertation. After his dissertation he got a series of professorships and also engaged in political actions, while he was writing his other books. Another story tells about a man who was motivated to discover breakthroughs, suffered from his homosexual orientation and was protracted to drugs, unusual sex practices and in the end died from AIDS before he reached the age of 60. The third story is about Foucault as an activist, where he has risen to a hero of the anti-psychiatry movement, of prison reform, of gay liberation and much more. Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) was the first writer Foucault has been attracted to. Roussel was a writer who did megalomaniac writing with lack of success and who was diagnosed with mental illness. Foucault has always been interested in people who do not comply with the mainstream standards. What Foucault likes about Roussel’s writings is the exclusion of human subjectivity and the absence of the author’s subjectivity, which is consistent to a quote from Foucault: “write in order to have no face”.

The second chapter is titled “Literature” and outlines some of Foucault's works in detail starting with his best-known essay: “What Is an Author?”. According to Foucault the role of an author is socially and culturally defined relating to the author’s text. The author is the one being judged for his work. In his pursuing work “The Order of Things” he argues that the self-expressive author itself is ‘dead’. The function of an author is rather to reveal language itself by pressuring it to its limits creating experiences of violation and transgression. Georges Bataille is a writer who managed to shock his readers by his pornographic writing. His readership is pressured to go beyond their self set limits extending their knowledge and capacity of expression. According to Foucault Bataille replaced the subject by language itself “in its attentive and forgetful being, with its power of dissimulation that effaces every determinate meaning and even the existence of the speaker”. (S.18)

“Politics” is the title of the next Chapter of the book and from the beginning it points out that Foucault is also hard to label as a political person. Although he wanted to stay faceless in his political opinions, his work after 1968 had a kind of political direction and Foucault developed to a political activist, suggesting to be everything from an anarchist, leftist to a Marxist, a new liberal and many more. Eventhough Foucault got influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre through his time as an activist, he has always been sceptical concerning Sartres ethical and political beliefs. He developed the concept of the ‘universal intellectual’ (with a view to Sartre) and defined it as “the spokesman of the universal, speaking in the capacity of master of truth and justice”.1 According to Foucault’s point of view universal systems of morality cannot solve our social and political problems anymore, but a so called ‘specific intellectual’ could, because he was completely involved in the detailed problems of society. Nevertheless Foucault saw himself as a ‘critical intellectual’, who has awareness of strategic and tactical possibilities to influence politics and society in a positive way. Concluding his ideas Foucault trusted the judgement of people who experienced a situation directly in contrast to the observing authorities from the outside.

The fourth chapter is called “Archeology” and names one approach Foucault uses to characterize his special work on history. Later he refines this approach and calls it ‘genealogy’, which also is the title of the following chapter. Although many people saw Foucault as a philosopher, social theorist or cultural critic, he saw himself as a historian, which is proven by the titles of his books “History of Madness”, “History of Sexuality” and also by his chair at the Collège de France “Professor of the History of Systems of Thought”. In his work as a historian his main proposition is that in any period of time, people have limited possibilities of thinking. Therefore the archaeologist in the sense of Foucault tries to see the documents as monuments. For instance they take the works of a few philosophers from the same period and after that they create a system of how the people thought and wrote during that specific time. His idea of archaeology as a historiographical method is described in detail in “The Archaeology of Knowledge”, but was developed step by step in the 1960s in “The History of Madness”, “The Birth of the Clinic” and “The Order of Things”. Even though Foucault’s method had verifiable historical results it could not be seen as a general epistemological theory. Foucault does not want to make empirical generalizations about people’s thoughts and actions in a given period of time, but instead wants to work out the general mode of thinking from a time period.

As already stated, the fifth chapter deals with the advancement of the term archaeology and is called ‘genealogy’. Foucault studied Nietzsche’s book “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and wrote an essay about it disagreeing in two major points. On the one hand he does not agree with Nietzsche’s claim that feelings and intentions of subjects are the driving force of the history of thoughts, on the other hand he also denies that degeneracy in the 19th century is the reason of racial mixing. Despite Fouccault’s general theorizing his methods should always be dealt with caution and rather be seen as tools for some specific purpose. The only book in which he uses a clear genealogy method is “Discipline and Punish”. In “History of Sexuality” he wanted to introduce a series of coming genealogy studies, but these books have never been written. In “The Archaeology of Knowledge” Foucault emphasizes four key archaeological categories: “Imprisonment constitutes delinquents as a new class of objects, characterized by the concepts distinctive of the criminal character; moreover it distinguishes various modes of authority and alternative lines of strategic action.”2 Archaeology is capable of describing concepts, which form a system of power, but it is not able to go beyond that. In his book “Discipline and Punish” he goes beyond that and states, for example, how a new kind of rifle and new teaching methods for children pushed our society in a new system of social control. Although Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s genealogies seem quite different, they both state that there is a tie between knowledge and power. According to Foucault 'knowing' did not mean to be affected by power but vice versa it did not mean that 'knowing' goes in hand with an escape of power relations either. Power is not only something negative by eliminating knowledge, but also something positive by creating new knowledge. He proofs his claim with the example of classical economics, which is a socio-economical system grown out of capitalism. The main distinction between these two theorists is that Nietzsche just sees the negative effects of power and he drifts into a metaphysical world with his concept of will-to-power (expresses pure, objective knowledge), while Fouccault refuses this concept. Nevertheless he adopted Nietzsche’s approach to look behind the power structures of our society.

The sixth chapter deals with Fouccault’s claim not to be labelled as a philosopher and therefore is named “The masked philosopher”. Since Kant philosophy is established as an own autonomous theoretical branch of science. In the year of Fouccault’s death he wrote an essay to discuss Kant and modern philosophy titled like Kant’s essay he wants criticise: ‘What is Enlightenment’ (‘Was ist Aufklärung’). Enlightenment was a modern movement to free mankind from the powers of intellectual, religious and political authorities and let people think for themselves. Kant wanted to reflect what philosophy has done in the past and where the difference to the present is which for Foucault is an important development. In his opinion, as in Kant’s, some perennial philosophical questions should be put aside and it should be focused on our current situation instead. What bothers Foucault about Kant’s philosophical project is the searching of pure philosophical truth which “delimits necessary conditions on thought, experience, and action”3. Summarizing this, it can be said that Foucault’s methodology (archaeology and genealogy) and his lack of interest in the post-Kantian debates made him just a good philosopher in the sense of a philosophical critic.

“Madness” is the name of the seventh chapter and makes mental illness the subject of discussion, although mental illness has long been taken for some kind of possession by god or the devil. Samuel Tuke built the Quaker asylum in England with a halcyon setting for the mad while always monitoring them and recording every unconventional behaviour of the patients. These observations in connection with the asylum as the teaching place of social morality and the fact that Tuke had religious and not scientific motivations, lead to Foucault’s opinion that asylums are just places of power where a mental ill person is accused, judged and condemned at the same time. For Foucault madness in general is a creditable challenge to morality and there might be something besides beyond the pale. He argues in his book “History of Madness” how history shaped our cultural view on madness. While the mad are excluded for centuries from the community, the modern therapeutic view of madness is that they join the community as moral offenders again. All in all Foucault’s fascination of the mad might have developed from his idea that “probing the limits of reason will reveal truths that are not rationally accessible.”4

“Crime and Punishment” is the name of Gutting’s eighth chapter, where Foucault’s book “Discipline and Punish” is the subject of discussion. Through history society learned “not to punish less, but to punish better.” For that reason Foucault outlines four contrasts between modern and pre-modern approaches of punishment. First of all punishment is no longer a public display but something discrete behind closed doors to preserve the public order. Secondly, compared to the past, the criminal is rather punished than the crime itself. The law cared more about what led the criminal to do his crime. The third contrast is that judges no longer decide about the duration of the punishment but the ‘experts’, like psychiatrists or social workers do. The last transition is the rehabilitation of the criminal, rather than retribution against the criminal. The shift from the past to the present shows a clear switch from brutal, physical punishment to intrusive psychological control. For modern prisons there is a simple way in controlling inmates just by observing them, which is called ‘Hierarchical observation’ and is one out of three distinctive features of modern disciplinary control. For that reason Jeremy Bentham designed a prison for maximizing the power over prisoners with a minimal staff. In the so-called ‘Panoptic’ prison the cells are distributed in a circle around a tower where the staff was able to look into every cell. The principle of observation works just because there is the possibility of observation, so the criminals can never feel safe. The second distinctive feature is the ‘Normalizing Judgement’, where individuals are judged in comparison to other members of society. Norms can define others as “abnormal” and make other people socially unacceptable. The third distinctive feature is the ‘examination’, which combines the hierarchical observation and the normative judgement. Detailed information is gathered about individuals, like patients’ charts in hospitals, so that the people in charge can formulate categories, averages and norms. With this categorization it is possible to control the people and what is taken as “socially normal”. Concluding Foucault’s argumentation in “Crime and Punishment”, it can be said that what he does in this book for the criminals, he previously did for the mad in “History of Madness”.

The penultimate chapter of the book covers the subject “Modern Sex”, which could be seen as a personal enterprise for Foucault since he was homosexual and suffered from the outrageous view French society had on homosexuals. In Foucault’s book “History of Sexuality” he begins with a ‘repressive hypothesis’ which means that the primary attitude of society toward sex is a negative one. According to Foucault modern power is not primarily exercised through repression of the sexually different orientated, rather he thinks that modern power itself created different forms of sexuality making discourses about it. In this book Foucault draws parallels to his work on prisons. Following that, he argues that modern sciences of criminology define categories of social dysfunction, just like modern sciences of sexuality define categories of sexual dysfunction, which in both cases is a power/knowledge construct regarding to Foucault. In addition to that he develops the notion of ‘Biopower’, which views the individual as a subject to standards concerning biological normality. Biopower has the ‘task of administering life’ and operates on two levels: “On the level of individuals, there is an ‘anatomo-politics of the human body’; on the level of social groups, there is a ‘bio-politics of populations’”.5 From that point on his history of modern sexuality emerged to a ‘history of modern biopower’, which led him to reconsider his views on the history of medicine and psychiatry. Furthermore Foucault created on that basis the ‘history of the subject’, which states that we are not only controlled by objects of disciplines with expert knowledge about us, but also controlled as self-scrutinizing and self-forming subjects of our own knowledge. In the end Foucault decided that he has to study the views of ancient Greek and Roman societies on sexuality and the self, which is part of the following chapter.

The last chapter “Ancient sex” deals with the ethical formation of the self and the assumption of Foucault that power relations are penetrating the interiority of our personal identity. This could be the reason why he did not want to have a fixed identity. An autonomous choice of identity could be just an adaption of social norms, so he preferred to stay faceless. Like Foucault states there can be just some kind of illusion of self-creation, because freedom in his sense is defined as an internalization of the constraints of power relations. A key concept of Foucault’s later work is ‘problematization’ which “formulates the fundamental issues and choices through which individuals confront their existence”.6 The individual’s life is determined by problematizations from social power relations and it responds in his own historical embedded way to the issues. There is an implied contrast between problematization and marginalization: Foucault problematized the free Greek men’s life and not the lives of marginalized groups like women and slaves. Revolutionary movements proof that marginalized groups are not completely determined by society’s power structures, although they can just define themselves using the struggle with these structures. Foucault acknowledges that the ‘mainstream’ members of society were able to lead a relative free and self-created life. Problematization could be seen as Fouccault’s third historical method, which accomplishes a switch from marginalized to problematized individuals. Comparing the ancients to the Christians on moral codes and conducts, he claims that there are just a few differences but concerning the formation of an ethical subject he recognizes big differences. So being sexually aroused was seen to be evil and at worst could disrupt and control people’s lives in the Christian way of thinking. The ancients thought it was our destiny to end like the Christian’s feared to end. Monogamous marriage was the primary goal of the Christian’s subjection to a code of sexual ethics. For the Greek and Romans it was important to explore their sexual desires in any way they want to. According to the ancient code of sexual behaviour they tried to achieve self-mastery about themselves, while the Christian’s saw Satan as the evil talking somebody into a desire. Foucault highlights that this is the distinction between self-mastery in the ancient sense and self-denial in the Christian sense.

At the end of Foucault’s life his genealogy had become some kind of philosophy and he wrote in the preface of “The Use of Pleasure” (a final overall characterization of his work) that he had been developing a ‘history of truth’ all the way long. For him philosophy was rather a way of life than a search for theoretical truth and ‘history of truth’ is rather a tool for telling the truth than some kind of philosophy. His goal in life was to transform a body of theoretical knowledge in some kind of ‘living the truth’. Following his argumentation with the ancient Greek, there are two alternatives: “truth as the product of individual self-creation on analogy with art; and truth-telling as a social virtue.”7


Gutting, Gary. Foucault: A very Short Introduction. OUP, 2005.


1 Gutting S. 23

2 Gutting S. 45

3 Gutting S. 60

4 Gutting S. 75

5 Gutting S.95

6 Gutting S.103

7 Gutting S. 110

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Summary of "Foucault: a very short introduction" by Gary Gutting
University of Paderborn
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Foucault, Postmodernism, Summary
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Oskar Cylkowski (Author), 2017, Summary of "Foucault: a very short introduction" by Gary Gutting, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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