At 3am magazine – Gutting’s Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason was one of the first books on Foucault I read, in the first year of my PhD.
3:AM: You are well known as an expert on various French intellectuals and philosophers. Michel Foucault has been a thinker that you have found important and interesting. You’ve written extensively about him. So firstly, can you sketch out what you understand Foucault’s central contributions to philosophy to have been, in particular his ideas of ‘discourse’, of an ‘archeology of knowledge’ and a ‘genealogical method’?
GG: I see Foucault as more a philosophically informed and oriented historian than as a philosopher in any traditional sense. He typically writes what he calls “histories of the present”, meaning that he starts from what he sees as an ethically intolerable practice of contemporary life (e.g., the treatment of the mad or the system of imprisoning criminals) that, despite its obvious flaws, we tend to see as necessary given certain general views our society holds (e.g., that madness is a medical condition, that prison is the only humane form of punishment). His histories are genealogies showing that the view allegedly justifying the practice is a contingent feature of our society that does not impose a genuinely normative limit on what we think and do. (A genealogy is a diachronic causal story, usually also accompanied by synchronic archeological analyses of the conceptual structure at various key temporal points.) Foucault’s histories are philosophical in that they require critical discussion of philosophical views, but he does not put forward his own philosophical views in any traditional sense. At most, he sometimes constructs an ad hoc theoretical apparatus (e.g., a “theory” of power) designed to expose the limitations of a view he is criticising. But once the critical points are made, he is happy to abandon the apparatus, which functions like a scaffolding that’s removed when the work is done. Toward the end of his life, Foucault did move toward a conception — akin to that of the ancients — of philosophy as a way of life. But he does not seek a body of theoretical truth.