The best books on Foucault recommended by Gary Gutting, Interview by Charles J. Styles. Fivebooks.
Editor: There is no date on this interview
Could you start by saying a bit about who Michel Foucault was?
Well, at the beginning of my Very Short Introduction, I pose this question and give Foucault’s own answer from his The Archaeology of Knowledge: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” I think, in fact, that for an intellectual like Foucault, the most important story of his life is the story of the books he wrote.
That story begins—after some initial existentialist stutters that didn’t turn into his true voice—with his great History of Madness, which was followed by a difficult and under-appreciated study of the origin of modern medicine (The Birth of the Clinic). Next, he made his name with The Order of Things, a remarkably ambitious and erudite effort both to rewrite the intellectual history of the West from the 18th to the 20th century and to provide a new way (“archaeology”) to write the history of thought. (The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I just quoted, was a difficult meta-commentary on this new method.) Of these earlier works, the book on madness is the one that I think will best reward most readers coming to Foucault. It’s much more readable than The Order of Things, and far more relevant to Foucault’s later and most influential work on the relation of knowledge and power. The abridged version (translated as Madness and Civilization, with the cuts approved by Foucault) will do well enough if you don’t have the time or patience for the complete text, which runs over 700 pages. This group of books comprises what is often called Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ period, devoted to unearthing the deep structures of past epistemes (roughly: conceptual frameworks).