Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Melissa Pawelski, Michel Foucault’s Figure of les corps dociles Following a Critique of the Cartesian Cogito, French Studies Bulletin, Volume 43, Issue 164, Winter 2022, Pages 10–13,
Open access

If we adhere to Michel Foucault’s argument that modern societies are governed by disciplinary power, we must take a critical stance on the Cartesian cogito, which Foucault understands not as a philosophical liberation but as a form of cognitive governance of the body and its senses. Thus the cogito, as a central rationalistic principle, fits within the development of modern discipline. Les Corps dociles are bodily figures modelled by disciplinary mechanisms, which Foucault depicts in the chapter of the same name in his Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison (1975).1 Features such as docility and utility characterize this body, and their development can be traced back to René Descartes:

Le grand livre de L’Homme-machine a été écrit simultanément sur deux registres: celui anatomo-métaphysique, dont Descartes avait décrit les premières pages et que les médecins, les philosophes ont continué; celui, technico-politique, qui fut constitué par tout un ensemble de règlements militaires, scolaires, hospitaliers et par des procédés empiriques et réfléchis pour contrôler ou corriger les opérations du corps. (Œuvres II, p. 400)

This is the only time that Descartes gets mentioned in the book. I shall place my focus on the father of French rationalistic philosophy, leaving aside works such as Julien Offray De La Mettrie’s L’Homme-machine (1748) that Foucault mentions in the quotation above, to examine the way in which the meditative components of Descartes’s method translate into Foucault’s docile bodies. I want to suggest that Surveiller et punir can be read as exposing the political implementation, in part, of the Cartesian understanding of the body in the form of disciplinary governance.


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