Jonathan Rée, Foucault, put to the question, Times Literary Supplement, 3 December 2014
Review of Michel Foucault, Wrong-doing, Truth-telling. The function of avowal in justice Edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt Translated by Stephen W. Sawyer 344pp. University of Chicago Press.
Throughout his frantic career as teacher, writer and activist, Michel Foucault kept returning to the same old question: what does it mean to think of someone as a “subject”, or in other words as a locus of conscious experience, of knowledge and error, innocence and guilt, or reason and desire? And is the meaning of subjectivity always the same, or does it alter as circumstances change? These were classical philosophical questions and, as a diligent student in post-war Paris, he had grappled with the answers proposed by a succession of master-thinkers from Plato to Descartes, and from Kant and Hegel to Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. But in 1951, at the age of twenty-five, he got a job as an instructor in psychology, and started to dabble in participant observation on the wards of the Hôpital Sainte-Anne, the largest psychiatric institution in Paris. What began as a sideline soon turned into a passion, as Foucault began to suspect that the archives of lunatic asylums might throw more light on the nature of subjectivity than the classics of philosophy ever could, and that philosophical theories of reason were merely the obverse of popular notions of insanity. His first major publication, in 1961 – the monumental Histoire de la folie – was not just an account of the history of madness, but also a challenge to traditional histoire de la philo.