A postmodernist, the recent French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is one of the most influential philosophers of modern times. Foucault was, among many things, a philosophical relativist. Much of his work reveals how “truths” have changed over the centuries, from age to age and culture to culture. Black is white and wrong is right depending on the powers that be of the belief system du jour. He made the claim, through study and research, that there has been very little in the way of Big Picture Truth over the millennia. Foucault was no fan of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, and his great influences were Martin Heidegger and Nietzsche.
Foucault's first influential book was Madness and Civilization, in which he chronicled Western society's changing views toward mental illness over the centuries. Madness was, at one time, given mystical connotations. People were thought to be blessed by the gods, or at least in direct contact with the divine. Foucault argued that with the so-called Age of Enlightenment (which he thought was highly overrated) came the advent of what were then called lunatic asylums or madhouses. He believed that the purpose of these “bedlams” was not to “minister to a mind diseased,” but actually to keep people locked up for study and scrutiny. Foucault also maintained that the creative spirit and the lunatic fringe were not so far apart, and many of the “lunatics” were actually visionaries and societal dissidents, whether active rebels, or simply souls who marched to the beat of a different drum.
On Human Sciences
Foucault's second major work is The Order of Things. This is no less than what its subtitle suggests, “An archaeology of the human sciences.” Human sciences are defined by Foucault as history, sociology, and psychology. Again, he makes the case that “knowledge” means an entirely different thing from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. He pays special attention to the symbols and language of past cultures.
On the Penal System
Foucault's other major work is called Discipline and Punish. Just as he took the psychological institutions to task in Madness and Civilization, he critiques the various penal systems through the ages in this influential book. He makes the case that, in the Western world at least, the employment of torture and physical abuse in modern prison systems has merely switched the destructive emphasis from body to soul. Torture as a means of punishment is still widely practiced in much of the world, but in “civilized” Europe and America, it has been largely eliminated, at least as a state-approved practice.
Nevertheless, it is also generally accepted that prisons do not “rehabilitate” criminals. Incarceration actually throws people into a milieu where the criminal life is reinforced. People emerge from prison more adept criminals rather than converted citizens who have “paid their debt to society” and are ready, willing, and able to begin anew.
Another important idea of Foucault's is his notion of what he called othering. This is something people have always done, and it is something that people will continue to do as part of human nature. Othering means simply making note and being aware of different people, whether they be racially, politically, socially, sexually, or in any other way different from you. For the most part, the person doing the othering considers themselves normal and the other person to be abnormal. But always be aware that someone else is over there othering you.
Foucault's last phase of philosophizing involved a mammoth study of human sexuality. He completed three books in the proposed series: History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction; The Use of Pleasure; and The Care of the Self. Tragically and ironically, this study of sexuality remains incomplete because Foucault's life was cut short by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).