Michel Foucault’s Philosophy: The Modern Lie of Reform

Frenchman Michel Foucault looked into the past to understand where we stand in the present as a society. He concluded that we’re more oppressed than ever.

Oct 24, 2021By Monisha Choudhary, BA Art History

michel foucault philosophy chirico piazza arianna


Michel Foucault was born in the 20th century, the era of logical positivism, poststructuralism and existentialism, among other prevalent schools. While classical thinkers expressed their concerns about the shifting paradigms in thought and perception in contemporary philosophy, Foucault sought to explain it. The central questions that loomed in Foucault’s philosophy were the operation of institutions in society, how ideas were constituted, how they changed, and what was changing about how we perceived the world. He answered them, generally speaking, from a Marxist-anarchist and genealogical perspective.


Foucault on Power: Departing from Contemporary Philosophy

Michel Foucault, by Martine Franck, in Foucault’s house, Ile de France, 1978, via


The Enlightenment streamlined rationality into conventional philosophical thought, paving the way for greater progress, development, and in many ways, emancipation. An optimism accompanied the Enlightenment’s success.


However, philosophers like Marx, Durkheim, and Weber were concerned that the Enlightenment had a darker underbelly: that great structures of oppression, control, discipline and surveillance would see the light of day because of it. Foucault further substantiated his predecessors’ predictions. He was intent on reinforcing that there was, indeed, a darker side to the Enlightenment.


Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, by Pietro Perugino, 1481, via the Sistine Chapel, Rome


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However, interpreters of Foucault press that he furthered his scholarship when he broke away from the philosophy of his predecessors, especially with his understanding of power. Power, for Marx, was in the hands of the capitalists, while for Durkheim it was in social facts, and for Weber in rationality. Their philosophies diverged from the mutual agreement that power centralizes itself in a particular group of people, an institution or an agent.


Foucault’s understanding of the nature of power challenged their agreement since Foucault was intent on the idea that power is not wielded by people or groups of people by ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination or coercion (Foucault, 1998, 63). Instead, he believed power was productive, dispersed and pervasive:


“Power is everywhere and comes from everywhere, so in this sense, it is neither an agency nor a structure. Instead, it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society, and which is in constant flux and negotiation.
(Foucault, 1998, 63)


While Foucault argues that power is not centralized in a particular agent, he adds that power can be possessed by an agency or structure and that this possession is always in flux. Under this definition, humans are both subject to and agents of power. This is an important distinction made by Foucault.


Moreover, Foucault thought that the ruling class possesses a part of it, but not power itself, in its entirety; institutions possess some of it, while other agencies are also capable of possessing power. This ‘capability’ arises from the dominant discourses in a society, those adopted by the ruling classes.


Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that both are closely interrelated. Those who had knowledge and education could gain power, or more precisely, a large portion of it: educated people, present and future, are substantial holders of power because of their knowledge.


Discourse: Tackling Change and the Idea of Truth

Philosopher Michel Foucault with André Glucksmann (left) at a philosophy conference in West Berlin, 1978, via la Repubblica


A structuralist in theory, Foucault left behind a philosophy that posits that the circumstances in which ideas are constituted are integral to our understanding of them.


Ideas in important areas of society such as art, literature, science, and education had been developing rapidly since the Enlightenment. He assigned this shift to a change in discourse. Discourses, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity, and power relations within a society at a certain time, constitute knowledge itself. Knowledge is the way of speaking, learning and understanding at a given time in history.


When discourse changes, new ideas in areas ranging from pedagogy to jurisprudence are given force, overtaking old ‘legacy systems’ with earth-shattering and often regular success. Another tenet inherent in the justification of this change was the operating of institutions, including those of a medical kind, and the penal and education systems. Foucault advocates for the view that the operation of institutions is contingent on ideas, meaning that any flux in the general set of ideas in a society at a given time would transform the mechanisms of these institutions.


As his work continually stresses, Foucault found changing discourse to be at the heart of societal change, both institutional and perceptual.


Emile Durkheim. Portrait of the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917).


Foucault’s philosophy chimes with that of Émile Durkheim’s; it considers what is pathological versus what was considered psychologically and socially ‘normal’ in a society. Durkheim argued that dominant ideas and patterns of society are normal, and anyone who rebels against such patterns is labelled a deviant. He called these ideas social facts.


Foucault says that discourses define these dominant ideas of a given society. ‘Subjects’, i.e. people, are socialized into (unwittingly) accepting these discourses, thus perpetuating their influence. Sociologists generally argue that early on, we learn in such a way that we are not aware of our learning. Language and gestures, connected to discourse, are learnt subconsciously through everyday interactions and are embedded in our persona.


Foucault also observes how all that is learned, consciously and subconsciously, becomes a social fact. As mentioned earlier, these social facts are the products of contemporaneous discourses. Ultimately, we are constrained and disciplined from the very day we’re born because we are forced to learn how to manoeuvre within a structurally complex, historically and culturally specific set of social norms.


Scold’s Bridle Medieval Torture Device, used on gossiping women or women who were thought to be witches, Universal History Archive.


He speaks more to the concept of ‘constraint’, as he adds,


“… truth is the thing of this world; it is produced only by the virtue of multiple forms of constraint and it induces regular effects”
(Foucault, 1975, 27). 


The truth, as Foucault proposes, is simply what people believe to be the truth.


“A society has its own ‘regime of truth’ and ‘general points of truth’: the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, how each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth, the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true”
(Foucault, 1975, 29). 


Those possessing power decide what is true, false, normal, abnormal, pathological, and deviant. Having prescribed the general politics of truth within a particular discourse, institutions and governments reinforce and reproduce them.


Consequently, one is helplessly born into such a climate of constraint. One then adjusts their behaviour and becomes, as it were, a docile body that inevitably adheres to the current discourse. Foucault calls this a method of disciplining, i.e. the socialisation of individuals according to current discourse, and greatly emphasizes this point throughout his work, from the Histories of Madness and Medicine to Discipline and Punish.


Governmentality: Shaping of the Self and Subjectification

Art vs Capitalism, artist unknown, photo by Peter Yee, 2015.


Foucault holds that discourses and other practices of power regulation, such as practices of government and one’s method of managing oneself, shape a person’s subjectivity.


He calls this process ‘governmentality’. The relations of individuals to themselves can be controlled and twisted to mobilize social movements. Censorship boards, educational programs, and health facilities, among other public services and enterprises, encompass entire masses of people and can dictate aspects of the consumption patterns and circumstances of others. It is within such structures of power that values of the right and the wrong get instilled, or rather, installed, furthering the notions of truth, justice, and defining the boundaries of the ‘self’ or the individual.


Foucault accentuates the influence of neo-liberal governments in this context, positing that the likelihood of social critique and progress is seriously hampered by the process of subjectification. In a neoliberal government, as contrasted with the welfare state, the market is instrumental to the provision of distributive justice. By embracing the motto that the free market rewards the most ‘worthy’, the government can shift the burden of allocation of resources from itself to its people, in effect using individuals within the neoliberal ideological framework.


The repetitive conception of material ‘success’ and ‘entitlement’ undermines any possibility for discussion about the social capital that goes into the making of a subject. Eventually, in neo-liberal societies, we as subjects begin to believe that we are ‘successful’ because we have ‘worked for it’ and ‘deserve the success’, while losing sight of the dynamics of power at play therein.


Toronto Pride Parade, 2017, via @craebelphotos


Foucault’s approach to subjectivity is correlative with the study of the ‘techniques of the self’. His use and study of this ‘technique’ is most developed in Discipline and Punish, where he states that the techniques of the self propel neoliberal organizations.


The act of taking a selfie, as interpreters today often describe, is a reflection of the obsession with capturing the self as an isolated unit. Another example could be found in homosexuality, or the sculpting of the self, i.e. surgery. When one performs such an adjustment, it is accompanied by the narrative of choice, that we are free-willed individuals, and have every choice over ourselves. We fail to acknowledge, according to Foucault, that this narrative itself falls within the set of imperatives or discourses at play in our society. The power and coercive force of these discourses work in the shadows and are invisible to us.


It is in this manner that governmentality gains control over our ability to think, interact, and engage; everything including the social circumstances surrounding us is enforced while we remain unaware of them as ‘dominant ideas/patterns in society’ and simply consider them as norms.


Panopticon: The Underlying Architecture of Modern Power

The Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham, an architectural form for a prison, 1791.


Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and 18th-century jurist is well-known for his Utilitarian principles in philosophy, law, and economics. One of his lesser-known contributions was the Panopticon, which Foucault wrote about extensively in the twentieth century (Foucault, 1975, 272). Interestingly, the name ‘panopticon’ comes from the mythological Greek giant Argus Panoptes who had a hundred eyes on his body. Unfortunately for Bentham, the Panoptican was contrary to core aspects of his general philosophy, which strongly advocated individual liberty and franchise.


Bentham’s Panopticon is essentially an architectural layout for a highly effective prison. The prison is circular in plan: there is a central watchtower surrounded by a doughnut-shaped building that contains the prisoners’ cells. The structure is designed so that the person in the watchtower can look into each cell, being equipped with one-way glass or blinds which allow the watchers on each floor of the tower to remain unseen.


Bentham also proposed that to discipline or regulate a person, their body needn’t be tormented through physical coercion or violence. The mind can be controlled with much less explicit tactics, and the Panopticon finds its structure with the imperative that it is to require the least amount of effort, while simultaneously being the most effective.


The prisoners, albeit relieved from the constant threat of physical punishment, are haunted by the awareness of someone looking into their cell from the tower at any time. This particular awareness, according to Bentham, is hyper efficient in forcing the prisoners to behave themselves at all times, regardless of whether they’re being watched or not. Furthermore, a panopticon could be run privately, i.e. to turn a profit. The profit would come from engaging prisoners in productive activities, the only alternative being to sit in their prison cells and eat bread.


The Stateville Correctional Center in the U.S. state of Illinois by Mary Evans, built on the Panopticon model, 1925.


Foucault pointed out that the structure of the Panopticon itself was coercive, and that just by being there, it affects social control. He found that this structure is more than an embodiment of power: it is formed out of a set of principles, which can be loosely broken down into:


  1. Pervasive Power: The tower sees into every cell and sees everything so it can regulate everything. This is consistent with his idea that power is pervasive, and in this case, everywhere too.
  2. Obscure Power: The tower sees into the cell, but the cell cannot see into the tower, meaning prisoners have no way of knowing when or why they are being watched.
  3. Structural Violence: (or direct violence made structural) Bentham proposes that coercion is absent (physical/direct), but the structure of the Panopticon itself induces censorship and adjustment in the behaviour of the prisoners.
  4. Profitable Structural Violence With private enterprises running such a structure and prisoners having jobs in the name of recreation, this intricate structure of violence is made profitable.


Foucault does not stop at the claim that the Panopticon is a hyper-efficient means of mental coercion in the penal system only, he applies it to all modern institutions, saying that agents of power apply this model more broadly. There are panoptic schools, panoptic hospitals, even the prospect of a panoptic state was not far off.


Crime, Punishment, Health: The Modern Mask of Reform

Public execution of Robert-Francois Damiens, would-be assassin of LOUIS XV, by ‘quartering’, 1757.


An unconventional historian, Foucault employed archaeology and genealogy in his study of social interactions and changing thought processes. For him, archaeology is about examining the traces of the past. It is used to understand the processes that have led to what is today. Genealogy, on the other hand, is a type of history and what he calls an effective history. Genealogical history seeks to deconstruct what was regarded as unified and what was understood as history emanating from an all-determining point of departure.


Foucault unearths that how societies have treated its criminals speaks directly to the power relations of that society. He illustrates this with the example of the Frenchman Damiens, who attempted to assassinate Louis XV, in 1757 A.D (Foucault, 1975, 3). Damiens, after his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Louis XV, was taken through Paris holding a burning stick of wax. Flesh from his arms, chest, thigh and calves were torn with red hot pincers and molten lead. Boiling oil and resin were poured on his wounds, after which he was quartered by four horses in the Place de Grève. Similar public executions that were issued in previous eras were reflections of power in those societies. The rulers and administrators made public exhibits of their superiority and dominance in this way, and the human body was brutally punished in public.


Michel Foucault is facing police by Elie Kagan, 1972.


In the Modern Age, however, the penal system and structures of power are designed to keep criminal punishment behind closed doors (Foucault, 1975, 7). Penal structures have undertaken ‘reformative’ strategies to prevent crimes from happening. However, these reformative undertakings do not include public executions, but instead solitary confinement. They are mostly aimed to segregate criminals from conventional ways of society, because criminals, as we are made to believe, are abnormal and incapable of living in society.


Foucault tells us that this is not just a matter of reform, but rather it shows which social norms or punishment methods are prevalent today, and how power exists in our society. Power in the modern age, unlike a very public corporal punishment-centred judicial system in Medieval Europe, is private; it enforces norms while segregating, subjectifying, and most importantly, does so behind closed doors, in the shadows.


“Prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them… it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection.”
(Foucault, 1975, 272)


Mural for Karreenga Correctional Facility, Australia by SonsieStudios, to humanize the experience of prisoners, 2016.


A stark example of power relations in modern societies is the maltreatment and underpayment of employees by companies. In most legally robust jurisdictions, the most severe punishment contains a penalty on the company and the director of the company. However, if an individual were to steal the same amount from a company, it would result in penalties and imprisonment. The same is true for demonstrations and protests staged against governments globally. While law enforcement officers and institutions manifest discourses, anyone who does not feed into these narratives is subject to coercion.


The methods of punishment, as prevalent today in the United States, are primarily solitary confinement and productive jobs (in prisons), both of which are privately run. Profitable prisons, although questionable, are prevalent. Within the modern narrative of reform, prisoners are treated in specialized systems for deviants – far from any social methods of living. Solitary confinements are used as methods of coercion, where prisoners are sent to ‘reflect’ on their actions as a form of punishment within punishment. The prisoners are further engaged in jobs of construction, embroidery, etc. and the products are to the profit of the private enterprises that run them.


The narrative of reform, as adapted by criminal justice systems today, is but a deception. What it is, according to Foucault, is a method of segregating the people who no longer serve the ruling class, through mental subjection and indirect application of violence. This power then seeps into every aspect of the lives of the prisoners, which again, for Foucault, is to the advantage of those in positions of power.


Foucault on Medicine and Surveillance as Norm Enforcement

A drone view of students at a California school in El Dorad. photo by Tomas van Houtryve, via Reuters


Mental health care is another instance of today’s power structure, according to Foucault. It normalises the idea that the mentally ill are social outcasts or deviants, whereas they are merely different in their capacities, but nonetheless still a part of society. Yet, contrary to the Enlightenment’s humane and democratic ideals, the mentally ill are ‘treated’ in isolated settings using segregational policies, when instead they should be included in society in more civilized ways.


Similarly, with any other kind of medical treatment seen in the modern age, medical conduct is obscure, anonymous and loaded with scientific jargon. While we’ve come a long way in the development of human and social sciences, the methods deployed in the sciences are by nature hyper-specialised and thus segregational.


Kindred to the Panopticon is modern surveillance. The use of CCTV has become an ordinary affair today. The rationale behind surveillance centres around the prevention of deviance from the norm above all else. This extension of power and regulation is equally capable of deterrence as it is of social control. The very awareness that someone, from somewhere, is watching at all times, was the founding conception of the Panopticon and is also the principle of surveillance. We know we are being watched, so we behave ourselves at any given time. Other examples of the Panopticon-style power structure include Stop and Search policies and Big Data.


This picture is from the funeral of Berkin Elvan, who was killed in Istanbul during anti-government demonstrations. The girl in the picture was injured by police officers during clashes with protesters. Author: Bulent Kilic, News Category, Reuters.


In Foucault’s analysis of discourses and structural imperatives, we find that institutions reproduce these discourses in panoptical structures for the purpose of serving those in power. Beneath the canopy of reform a multitude of institutions pervade our social spheres, restraining us as we morph to fit their requirements.


Foucault’s philosophy unearths an omnipresent and potentially omniscient structure of power and subjugation. It substantiates the suspicion surrounding the darkness of the enlightenment.


The relevant question to ask then is this: Someone watches from the panopticon at all times, with the implication that we are prevented from doing anything against the prescribed norms. But what happens when this person has unjust biases? What if they who are watching are not politically neutral, but sexist, homophobic or racist? Is it the structure that enables bias, or the person watching who perpetuates bias?


Throughout his work, Foucault urges us to realize that when we see power, as in Big Data, surveillance cameras, and in the judiciary and legal structures of a society, we must always recall, in the back of our minds, that power is not neutral. His ideas are more resounding today than ever; the more power sees, the more it knows.


Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish. Editions Gallimard.

Foucault, M. (1998). The History of Sexuality (4th ed., Vol. 8). Editions Gallimard.

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By Monisha ChoudharyBA Art HistoryMonisha is a researcher, writer, and artist pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and in Law from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been engaged in performance arts, as a performer and a facilitator; and takes a keen interest in philosophy and politics.