The Early Foucault – beginning work on a possible book

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When I was in Australia early last year I bumped into Mark Kelly on the University of Melbourne campus. We had a conversation about the work each of us was doing on Foucault, and I said that after I’d finished Foucault: The Birth of Power I thought I might turn to ‘Foucault in the 1960s’. Mark’s reply was that ‘Foucault in the 1950s’ would be the really interesting book.

At the time I replied to say that this would be an incredibly difficult book to write, since there would be so few sources on which to draw. Foucault published only a handful of texts in the 1950s, and these have all been available for some time. They include the short book Maladie mentale et personnalité and the long introduction to the translation of Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, both from 1954, plus a couple of short book chapters published in 1957.  Maladie mentale et personnalité is not available in English translation, though we do have a translation of the revised 1962 version Maladie mentale et psychologie. The two texts are quite different in the first part, and entirely distinct for the second. The Binswanger introduction is in the standard English edition of Binswanger’s text; though the original French is hard to find. This is partly because the translation by Jacqueline Verdeaux, to which Foucault added the introduction and notes, has been superseded by a translation by Françoise Dastur. The original translation sold very poorly, and much of the original print run was pulped. Neither of the two chapters from 1957 are available in English, though they are of course included in Dits et écrits. There are only a couple of other minor pieces published between 1954 and 1961.

So, I thought, not much to draw upon. In the later 1950s Foucault was working in Uppsala, briefly in Warsaw and then in Hamburg. In Uppsala he wrote most of History of Madness, which he redrafted in Poland and completed in Germany, though some of the archival and bibliographical research was conducted back in Paris. There is a long-known story that his attempt to get this work accepted as a thesis in Uppsala was unsuccessful, but a later version was submitted, with Georges Canguilhem’s support, as a doctorat d’état in France. It was this thesis which appeared with Plon in 1961. The four year gap from the two 1957 essays to that book, or the seven years between substantive publications can be explained by the huge amount of work undertaken for the thesis. There are strong indications the 1957 essays, and the 1958 co-translation of Viktor von Weizsäcker’s Der Gestaltkreis: Theorie der Einheit von Wahrnehmen und Bewegen were all completed before he left for Uppsala.  Nonetheless, this was not all he was doing. While in Hamburg he translated Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, which is still the main French translation of that text. When it first appeared in print in 1964 it had only a brief ‘notice historique’, but Foucault’s long introduction, which alongside the translation served as his secondary thesis, has appeared both in French and English translation more recently.

I kept thinking about this period of Foucault’s work, and intended that there would be a discussion of this material, over a chapter or two, in any book I wrote about Foucault in the 1960s. My thinking on this continued to develop though, especially when at IMEC I read the notes Jacques Lagrange took as one of Foucault’s students at the ENS in the early 1950s. These notes covered several courses and single lectures which treated a range of themes in existential psychology, connected to the Binswanger and von Weizsäcker translations and his wider work.

Then in conversations with Daniel Defert and Henri-Paul Fruchaud I learned of the plans to publish some of Foucault’s pre-Collège de France courses, which would include one on ‘philosophical anthropology’ from the 1950s, given in Lille. A related course was given at the ENS. I’ve also looked at some of the boxes at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France that relate to that early period, including the detailed notes on Nietzsche and Heidegger which Foucault talks about in one of his last interviews. There have also been a couple of books published recently which shed some light on this period, and more might come to light.

So I’ve begun to think about whether there might actually be two books to write in order to complete my multi-volume study of Foucault. One, under the working title of ’The Early Foucault’ would look at his work up to and including The History of Madness, a kind of ‘genesis’ of the book on the model of Theodore Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time(That book was very much on my mind as I wrote Foucault’s Last Decade.) I’m quite interested in doing some work comparing Foucault’s translations of German texts with the originals, as well more recent translations into French or English, where those exist. The sources for early lectures are partial at present, but may become more extensive as things are published or the archive further opened up. And the story of the development of History of Madness might be interesting. Second, I could write the book on ‘Foucault in the 1960s’ I’d intended, but by beginning with Birth of the Clinic and continuing to The Archaeology of Knowledge I have a better sense of how to keep that within a single volume. Birth of the Clinic is a relatively neglected work, and the parallel interest in literature might be worth reappraising, especially in the light of some recently published lectures. There is quite a lot of archival material which sheds light on this period, and there are plans to publish a few courses from this era, from Tunisia and Vincennes, too.

There are some good books on Foucault’s early-mid period work, so this project felt it was only worth doing if there was new material which earlier studies – Dreyfus & Rabinow, Lecourt, Gutting, Han, Webb, et al. – had not had access to. I’m now beginning to think this is, or at least will, be the case. But in sketching out how such a study might be undertaken, I’m increasingly clear that it could not be a single volume and that the story could begin a bit earlier. How and when these books might be done will, in large part, depend on the availability of the archive and the publication schedule for these earlier courses. With all, as I’ve made clear, these are not biographies, but intellectual history.

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This entry was posted in Foucault's Last Decade, Foucault: The Birth of Power, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, The Early Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Early Foucault – beginning work on a possible book

  1. Pingback: The Early Foucault update 1: a week at the Bibliothèque Nationale | Progressive Geographies

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