Foucault’s work on power matters now more than ever

Colin Coopman in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2638 Mar. 22 19.58Imagine you are asked to compose an ultra-short history of philosophy. Perhaps you’ve been challenged to squeeze the impossibly sprawling diversity of philosophy itself into just a few tweets. You could do worse than to search for the single word that best captures the ideas of every important philosopher. Plato had his ‘forms’. René Descartes had his ‘mind’ and John Locke his ‘ideas’. John Stuart Mill later had his ‘liberty’. In more recent philosophy, Jacques Derrida’s word was ‘text’, John Rawls’s was ‘justice’, and Judith Butler’s remains ‘gender’. Michel Foucault’s word, according to this innocent little parlour game, would certainly be ‘power’.

Foucault remains one of the most cited 20th-century thinkers and is, according to some lists, the single most cited figure across the humanities and social sciences. His two most referenced works, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Volume One (1976), are the central sources for his analyses of power. Interestingly enough, however, Foucault was not always known for his signature word. He first gained his massive influence in 1966 with the publication of The Order of Things. The original French title gives a better sense of the intellectual milieu in which it was written: Les mots et les choses, or ‘Words and Things’. Philosophy in the 1960s was all about words, especially among Foucault’s contemporaries.

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