Michel Foucault: key concepts
This page offers brief definitions of some of the key concepts in Foucault’s work. For a more complete list which also includes extensive details of where these concepts can be found in Foucault’s work please see Appendix 2: ‘Key Concepts in Foucault’s work’ in my book Michel Foucault (London: Sage, 2005). The list below places more emphasis on definitions, whereas the list in the book provides a detailed structure of references for users of Foucault’s work.
If there are any key concepts that are not on this list but that you would like to see here send me an email and I will see what I can do.
© Clare O’Farrell 2007-2021
Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body. The original French term dispositif is rendered variously as ‘dispositif’, ‘apparatus’ and ‘deployment’ in English translations of Foucault’s work
‘Archaeology’ is the term Foucault used during the 1960s to describe his approach to writing history. Archaeology is about examining the discursive traces and orders left by the past in order to write a ‘history of the present’. In other words archaeology is about looking at history as a way of understanding the processes that have led to what we are today.
archaeology versus genealogy
Foucault’s remarks on the difference between archaeology and genealogy are generally rather vague and confusing. The tools Foucault uses to practice both methods are to all intents and purposes the same. But, if archaeology addresses a level at which differences and similarities are determined, a level where things are simply organized to produce manageable forms of knowledge, the stakes are much higher for genealogy. Genealogy deals with precisely the same substrata of knowledge and culture, but Foucault now describes it as a level where the grounds of the true and the false come to be distinguished via mechanisms of power.
This is a technical term Foucault uses in The Archaeology of Knowledge. It designates the collection of all material traces left behind by a particular historical period and culture. In examining these traces one can deduce the historical a priori of the period and then if one is looking at science, one can deduce the episteme of the period. None of these concepts has predictive value – they are all descriptions of limited historical orders.
the arts of existence (life as a work of art)
Foucault defines ‘techniques of the self’ or ‘arts of existence’ as ‘those reflective and voluntary practices by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make of their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria’.
Foucault (1992) . The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. Tr. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, pp. 10-11.
Foucault described traditional notions of the author as being restrictive. The author is a category or way of organising texts which has a history and needs to be challenged. For example, the psychological entity of the author and the use of the author as a way of organising texts are two different things and need to be treated separately.
Foucault argues that biopower is a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations. It incorporates certain aspects of disciplinary power. If disciplinary power is about training the actions of bodies, biopower is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population.
Foucault is particularly concerned with the relations between political power and the body, and describes various historical ways of training the body to make it socially productive. The body is an element to be managed in relation to strategies of the economic and social management of populations.
Foucault says that the religious practice of confession was secularised in the 18th and 19th centuries. People were incited to confess to their innermost desires and sexual practices. These confessions then became data for the social sciences which used the knowledge to construct mechanisms of social control. Thus Foucault argues that modern confession acts as a form of power-knowledge.
In History of Madness Foucault describes a movement across Europe in the seventeenth century which saw the establishment of institutions which locked up people who were deemed to be ‘unreasonable’. This included not only mad people, but the unemployed, single mothers, defrocked priests, failed suicides, heretics, prostitutes, debauchees in short anyone who was deemed to be socially unproductive or disruptive. He labels this movement the ‘Great Confinement’. He continues his study of confinement in his history of the birth of the prison Discipline and Punish.
Foucault describes culture as ‘a hierarchical organization of values, accessible to everybody, but at the same time the occasion of a mechanism of selection and exclusion’.
Foucault (2001). L’hermeneutique du sujet. Cours au Collège de France, 1981-1982. Paris: Gallimard Seuil, p. 173.
Foucault was opposed to the death penalty and expressed his views on this issue in the public media on a number of occasions.
Discipline is a mechanism of power which regulates the behaviour of individuals in the social body. This is done by regulating the organisation of space (architecture etc.), of time (timetables) and people’s activity and behaviour (drills, posture, movement). It is enforced with the aid of complex systems of surveillance. Foucault emphasizes that power is not discipline, rather discipline is simply one way in which power can be exercised. He also uses the term ‘disciplinary society’, discussing its history and the origins and disciplinary institutions such as prisons, hospitals, asylums, schools and army barracks. Foucault also specifies that when he speaks of a ‘disciplinary society’ he does not mean a ‘disciplined society’.
Foucault continually uses the principles of discontinuity, break and difference in his analyses, in order to undermine philosophical notions of unchanging essences in history. These essences include the ‘Man’ and ‘human nature’ and ‘great man’ of humanist philosophies. Discontinuity also challenges notions of cause, effect, progress, destiny, tradition and influence in history.
Discourse is as Foucault admits himself a rather slippery notion in his work but at the most basic level he uses the term to refer to the material verbal traces left by history. He also uses it to describe ‘a certain “way of speaking”‘.
Foucault (1972) . The Archaeology of Knowledge. Tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock, p. 193.
For yet another definition of discourse as a strategic element in a generalised social battle see « Le discours ne doit pas être pris comme… », Dits Ecrits, Tome III Texte n°186
The discursive formation is roughly equivalent to a scientific discipline.
This term refers to a historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on people’s thought, rather it is a matter of rules which, a bit like the grammar of a language, allow certain statements to be made.
This term, which Foucault introduces in his book The Order of Things, refers to the orderly ‘unconscious’ structures underlying the production of scientific knowledge in a particular time and place. It is the ‘epistemological field’ which forms the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place. It has often been compared to T.S Kuhn’s notion of paradigm.
Ethics concerns the kind of relation one has to oneself. The essential condition for the practice of ethics is freedom, the ability to choose one action, not another. Foucault makes a distinction between moral codes (which are simply collections of rules and precepts) and ethics. He suggests there are four aspects to how the individual constitutes him/herself as the moral subject of his or her own actions. The first aspect relates to the part of the individual which acts as the focus of moral conduct. The second aspect concerns what makes an individual recognize their moral obligations. The third aspect relates to the means by which individuals transform and work on themselves. The fourth aspect concerns what sort of person an individual might want to be.
Foucault, in spite of the accusations levelled against him of political and ethical nihilism, had firm views on the kind of ethical approach that he wanted to take in his work. He argued that he wanted to render certain taken-for-granted exercises of power ‘intolerable’, by exposing them to scrutiny. He argues that the exercise of power only remains tolerable by covering up its tracks. He saw it as part of his task, to make people aware of how intolerable some previously taken-for-granted exercises of power actually were and show them that things could be different.
An event is something that has a beginning and an end. Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analyzed as an event or as a series of events. Foucault uses the event as a way of arguing against universal metaphysical essences in history.
For a definition by Foucault see first paragraph here
exclusion (of individuals and groups)
The examination of the situation of people existing on the margins of society is one of the mainstays of Foucault’s work. His analysis focuses on the ‘negative structures’ of society or excluded groups, as opposed to more traditional approaches which focus on the mainstream.
Foucault defines an experience as an interrelation between knowledge, ‘types of normativity’ and subjectivity in a particular culture at a particular time.
(Foucault (1992) . The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. Tr. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, intro.
On a number of occasions Foucault describes his work as ‘fictions’. By this he does not mean that what he is saying is not true, rather that his writings are constructed ‘stories’ about the real, not transparent representations of what is really out there.
Foucault often argues against the idea that there is a single foundation for knowledge or a single explanation for all human activity and social organization. There is no one principle which explains everything else. Instead it is a question of the interrelation of a complex and multilayered range of elements.
Foucault notes that he believes ‘solidly in human freedom’. He also argues against nineteenth century and existentialist views of an abstract freedom and a ‘free’ subject, and says that freedom is a practice rather than a goal to be achieved. Knowledge starts with rules and constraints, not freedom. Freedom is also a condition for the exercise of power.
This is a term that Foucault introduces in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic. The French word ‘le regard’ poses difficulties for translation into English as the translator Alan Sheridan notes. It can mean glance, gaze, look which do not have the abstract connotations that the word has in French. Foucault uses the word to refer to the fact that it is not just the object of knowledge which is constructed but also the knower. Clinical medicine at the end of the eighteenth century set much store on visibility – on looking and seeing and on visible symptoms
Genealogy is the term Foucault uses to describe his historical method during the 1970s. See also archaeology vs genealogy
Foucault originally used the term ‘governmentality’ to describe a particular way of administering populations in modern European history within the context of the rise of the idea of the State. He later expanded his definition to encompass the techniques and procedures which are designed to govern the conduct of both individuals and populations at every level not just the administrative or political level.
‘Heterotopia’ is a word coined by Foucault to mean a space which is outside everyday social and institutional space, for example trains, motels and cemeteries.
historical a priori
This is the order underlying any given culture at any given period of history. Foucault also uses the phrase the ‘positive unconscious of knowledge’ to refer to the same idea. The episteme which describes scientific forms of knowledge is a subset of this.
history and historiography
Foucault’s entire philosophy is based on the assumption that human knowledge and existence are profoundly historical. He argues that what is most human about man is his history. He discusses the notions of history, change and historical method at some length at various points in his career. He uses history as a means of demonstrating that there is no such thing as historical necessity, that things could have been and could be otherwise.
history of the present
Foucault describes his work on a number of occasions as the history or the diagnosis of the present, as the analysis of ‘what today is’. He notes that our own times and lives are not the beginning or end of some ‘historical’ process, but a period like, but at the same time unlike, any other. The question should simply be ‘how is today different from yesterday?’
humanism and the death of man
During the 1960s, Foucault was noted for his critiques of humanist philosophy, which is founded on the belief that something called ‘human nature’ or ‘man’ is at the centre of all knowledge and morality. Foucault also linked the death of man to the death of God.
Generally, Foucault did not find the notion of ideology to be a particularly useful one and when he does refer to it, it is usually to criticize it, arguing that the notion (1) presupposes a ‘truth’ to which ideology stands in opposition, (2) implies that it is secondary to a material ‘infrastructure’ and (3) proposes a universal subject.
Although Foucault’s work is often hailed as one of the inspirations for various identity movements, Foucault himself favours the dissolution of identity, rather than its creation or maintenance. He sees identity as a form of subjugation and a way of exercising power over people and preventing them from moving outside fixed boundaries.
individuals and individualization
Foucault argues that the individual is not something that needs to be liberated rather the individual is the closely monitored product of relations between power and knowledge.
Foucault notes that institutions are a way of freezing particular relations of power so that a certain number of people are advantaged.
interpretation, commentary and hermeneutics
Foucault, on a number of occasions, draws attention to and criticizes the practice of ‘interpretation’ which endlessly searches for the ‘hidden meaning’ and ‘truth’ behind texts and for what they ‘really mean’. Rather than looking for ‘hidden depths’, Foucault advocates the treatment of texts as flat surfaces across which one can discern patterns of order.
In 1978, Foucault wrote a controversial series of reports on the Iranian revolution. Foucault was particularly interested in the notion of a ‘political spirituality’ which he saw emerging in relation to events in Iran. He defines ‘political spirituality’ as the will to create a new division of the true and the false via a new government of self and others. For a very useful discussion on this notion and the misconceptions of contemporary critics in response to Foucault’s term see Michel Foucault and Farès Sassine, There Can’t Be Societies without Uprisings, Foucault Studies, Translation by Alex J. Feldman, No. 25, October 2018, 324-350, DOI: 10.22439/fs.v25i2.5588
Marx and Marxism
Foucault is well known for his controversial statements in 1966 that ‘Marxism exists in nineteenth century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else’ and that it was a mere ‘storm … in a children’s paddling pool’ (The Order of Things,, Tavistock, 1970, p. 262). For a brief period after 1968 Foucault’s comments on Marxism as a form of political activity became more favourable. He subsequently returned to his earlier views on the historical specificity of Marxism and to criticisms of the inflated claims made by Marxists in relation to Marx’s work.
morality and moral systems
Foucault defines morality as a set of values and rules for action which are proposed to individuals and groups by diverse institutions such as the family, education systems or churches. He argues that ‘the good’ is something that is practised, not discovered.
In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault lists non-discursive practices as including ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes’ (p.162). He also argues that discourse does not underlie all cultural forms. Forms such as art and music are not discursive. He also notes: ‘there is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me’.
Foucault (1967). On the ways of writing history. In (1998). Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Two. J. D. Faubion. (Ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, p. 284.
normal and the pathological, normalization
Foucault argues that contemporary society is a society based on medical notions of the norm, rather than on legal notions of conformity to codes and the law. Hence criminals need to be ‘cured’ of a disease not punished for an infraction of the law. There is a insoluble tension between a system based on law and a system based on medical norms in our legal and medical institutions.
Panopticon, panopticism and surveillance
The Panopticon, was a design for a prison produced by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century which grouped cells around a central viewing tower. Although the prison was never actually built the idea was used as a model for numerous institutions including some prisons. Foucault uses this as a metaphor for the operation of power and surveillance in contemporary society.
For Foucault’s own definitions of parrhesia see Foucault, The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia in Discourse & Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia, 1999
Foucault argues that if phenomenology seeks to discover an authentic, founding subject through the analysis of everyday life, he, on the other hand, is aiming at the dissolution of notions of a fixed subject, so that he and others can always be different.
Foucault changed his mind many times about the role played by philosophy and the philosopher or intellectual. One thing that remained constant however, was that philosophy should be firmly rooted in a historical context. Foucault frequently emphasized that philosophy should deal with the question of what is happening right now. He also defines the task of philosophy as being not a way of reflecting on what is true and what is false, but instead a way of reflecting on our relations to truth and how we should conduct ourselves.
postmodernism and modernity
Foucault did not comment on the term ‘postmodernity’ beyond saying how vague and imprecise it was, making a subtly ironic reference to ‘an enigmatic and troubling “postmodernity”‘. He says that he prefers to discuss how ‘modernity’ has been historically defined.
Foucault argues a number of points in relation to power and offers definitions that are directly opposed to more traditional liberal and Marxist theories of power. It is important to note that Foucault refined his definitions of power over time and his views are not homogeneous.
- power is not a thing but a relation
- power is not simply repressive but it is productive
- power is not simply a property of the State.Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.
- power operates at the most micro levels of social relations. Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.
- the exercise of power is strategic and war-like
types of power
Sovereign power involves obedience to the law of the king or central authority figure. Foucault argues that ‘disciplinary power’ gradually took over from ‘sovereign power’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even now, however, remnants of sovereign power still remain in tension with disciplinary power.
disciplinary power see discipline
The modern State, Foucault argues, consists of the convergence of a very particular set of techniques, rationalities and practices designed to govern or guide people’s conduct as individual members of a population and also to organize them as a political and civil collective in the same way as a shepherd who cares for his flock from birth to death. This idea of politically organizing the day to day conduct of the population is borrowed from the metaphor of the care of a shepherd for his flock and originated in Egyptian, Assyrian, Mesopotamian and Hebrew cultures.
One of the most important features of Foucault’s view is that mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge which collate information on people’s activities and existence. The knowledge gathered in this way further reinforces exercises of power. Foucault refutes the idea that he makes the claim ‘knowledge is power’ and says that he is interested in studying the complex relations between power and knowledge without saying they are the same thing.
Foucault notes that he is interested in analyzing ‘regimes of practice’, not institutions, theories or ideologies.
problematizations/ the history of problems
Foucault explains that he is more interested in writing a history of problems rather than a history of solutions or in writing the comprehensive history of a period or an institution. He describes the history of thought as ‘the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience or set of practices which were accepted without question… becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behaviour, habits, practices and, institutions’.
Foucault (2001), Fearless Speech, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), p. 74
For a good discussion of problematization see this article by Clive Barnett
Reason, rationality and irrationality
Foucault criticizes the notion that Reason is synonymous with truth and that it offers the solution to all social problems. He notes that repressive systems of social control are usually highly rational. The notions of rationality and irrationality, as they were posed by the Frankfurt School, became a fashionable topic of discussion in the late 1970s. In this context Foucault notes the dangers of describing Reason as the enemy and the equal danger of claiming that any criticism of rationality leads to irrationality.
regimes of truth
Foucault defines ‘regimes of truth’ as the historically specific mechanisms which produce discourses which function as true in particular times and places.
If Foucault’s discussions on ‘sprirituality’ (self-transfomation) are well-known, it has often been calimed that he seldom discusses organized religion at any length. However, recent publications of his lectures reveal fairly developed accounts of the history of Christianity both as a social institution (Church) and in terms of its internal conceptual apparatus (sacraments, the division between clerics and the laity and so on). Foucault also examines resistances to the pastoral power exercised by the Church such as mysticism, asceticism, and various Gnostic and other heresies.
resistance to power and the limits of power
Foucault suggests that there are a number of ways in which the exercise of power can be resisted. He argues at one point that resistance is co-extensive with power, namely as soon as there is a power relation, there is a possibility of resistance. If there is no such thing as a society without relations of power, this does not mean that existing power relations cannot be criticized. It is not a question of an ‘ontological opposition’ between power and resistance, but a matter of quite specific and changing struggles in space and time. There is always the possibility of resistance no matter how oppressive the system.
A scientific practice, in Foucault’s account, is a particular set of codified relations between a precisely constructed knower and a precisely constructed object, with strict rules which govern the formation of concepts. Foucault was interested in science for a number of reasons. One of these was that ‘science’ had set itself up as the ultimate form of rational thought. With the Enlightenment, scientific reason became the privileged way of accessing truth. According to this view for knowledge to acquire value as ‘truth’, it had to constantly strive to become ‘scientific’, to construct and organize concepts according to certain rigorous criteria of scientificity. Foucault argues that scientific knowledge is not inherently ‘superior’ or more ‘true’ than other forms of knowledge.
self, techniques of
See arts of existence and ethics
In the first volume of The History of Sexuality Foucault notes that according to current received wisdom, the end of the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a repressive regime of censorship and prudishness with regards to sexuality. Reversing this argument he suggests instead that never before had there been so much attention focused on sexuality and the nineteenth century in fact saw the emergence of an enormous proliferation of knowledge and the development of multiple mechanisms of control in relation to sexuality.
Foucault defines ‘spirituality’ as the methods the subject uses to transform him or herself in order to gain access to the truth. He describes the conflict between spirituality and theology as being the important historical issue rather than a conflict between spirituality and science. Foucault also recasts the standard Church versus State opposition as instead an opposition between pastoral and sovereign forms of power. Foucault notes a number of differences in the ways pre-Cartesian and post-Cartesian systems approached the problem of acquiring knowledge and the notion of self-transformation. He describes this as the difference between the ‘spiritual exercises’ and ‘intellectual method’.
Foucault argues that the State is a codification of relations of power at all levels across the social body. It is a concept which provides a ‘scheme of intelligibility for a whole group of already established institutions and realities’. Further, ‘the State is a practice not a thing’. Foucault emphasizes that the State is not the primary source of power.
Foucault (2004) Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978. Paris: Gallimard Seuil, pp. 294, 282.
Structuralism was a philosophical movement which achieved its heyday in the 1960s. Styles of thought characterized as structuralist were notable for the fact that they adopted linguistics in the form developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who died in 1913 as a methodological model, and applied it to a very diverse range of disciplines.
Much has been made of Foucault’s protests that he was not a structuralist, but up until the late 1960s, he was quite willing to identify himself with the movement. There is no doubt that Foucault was, and in fact, always remained, closely aligned to the structuralist movement, if we define ‘structuralism’ as a movement focused on the examination of the relations between things and their structures at every level of culture and knowledge, as opposed to attempts to describe things in their essence. Structuralism also rejected the whole notion of an unchanging and universal human subject or human nature as being at the centre and origin of all action, history, existence and meaning. But where Foucault parted company with the structuralists, and one of the major reasons for his insistence that he was not associated with the movement, was his rejection of the ahistorical formalism often adopted by those espousing structuralist method.
The subject is an entity which is self-aware and capable of choosing how to act. Foucault was consistently opposed to nineteenth century and phenomenological notions of a universal and timeless subject which was at the source of how one made sense of the world, and which was the foundation of all thought and action. The problem with this conception of the subject according to Foucault and other thinkers in the 1960s, was that it fixed the status quo and attached people to specific identities that could never be changed.
technology, technique, techne
Foucault defines the Greek word techne as ‘a practical rationality governed by a conscious aim’. Foucault generally prefers the word ‘technology’, which he uses to encompass the broader meanings of techne. Foucault often uses the words techniques and technologies interchangeably, although sometimes techniques tend to be specific and localized and technologies more general collections of specific techniques.
Foucault’s comments on this subject have lost none of their relevance today. He argues that terrorism is counter-productive even on its own terms, since it merely entrenches those attacked further in their own world view. He also notes that one of the reasons terrorism is so unsettling is that it undermines the citizens’ faith in the capacity of the State to guarantee their security. Those who govern, likewise unsettled, then have an excuse to introduce stricter social and legal regulation as a result.
Truth is a major theme in Foucault’s work, in particular in the context of its relations with power, knowledge and the subject. He argues that truth is an event which takes place in history. It is something that ‘happens’, and is produced by various techniques (the ‘technology’ of truth) rather than something that already exists and is simply waiting to be discovered. Foucault argues that ‘the effect of truth’ he wants to produce consists in ‘showing that the real is polemical’. Foucault further notes that he is not interested in ‘telling the truth’, in his writing; rather, he is interested in inviting people to have a particular experience for themselves.
Foucault was firmly and consistently opposed to the notion of universal categories and essences, ‘things’ that existed in unchanged form in all times and places such as the State, madness, sexuality, criminality and so on. These things only acquire a real (and changing) existence as the result of specific historical activities and reflection.
Foucault argued that designing a social system to replace the current one merely produced another system which was still part of the current problem.
women and feminism
Foucault is often criticized for his lack of interest in the situation of women. When he does mention the feminist movement, however, it is usually to express his support. He also states very clearly that if there should be freedom of sexual choice, freedom of sexual acts such as rape should not be permitted. Foucault criticizes Ancient Greek ethical systems in relation to women and their exclusively male-centred approach describing them as an ‘ethics of men made for men’.