Foucault: History and Truth


What are we doing this week?

  • This week we turn our attention to Michel Foucault.
  • He is often bundled together with Derrida and others under the label "postmodernism", but as we shall begin to see this week his thought is very different from Derrida's.
  • We will explore together what it is about Foucault's histories that makes them distinctive.
  • We will get to grips with some of the key terms in Foucault's early, "archaeological" period.
  • And we will begin to explore a biblical understanding of history, bringing it into conversation with Foucault's historiography.

The videos

There are five videos this week, three on Foucault's approach to history and two bringing it into conversation with the Bible.

Tip for super-busy people: you can scrape through with just videos 1 and 4 if you only want to learn how Foucault thinks of historical continuity and how the Bible partially agrees with him.


1) Foucault the historian

In this video you'll learn:

  • Foucault's signature move in all his histories.
  • What is distinctive about Foucault's approach to history.
  • How to get a free cup of coffee out of me.


2) Archaeology and epistemes

In this video you'll learn:

  • The meaning of two of the most important key terms for understanding Foucault's history.
  • What Foucault means when he says that truth is produced.
  • How Foucault divides up the history of the West since the end of the medieval period.


3) Madness and Civilization

In this video you'll learn:

  • How Foucault approaches a particular historical phenomenon: madness.
  • Why freeing the mad from their chains was in fact an exchange of one incarceration for another.


4) The Great Reversal

In this video you'll learn:

  • A key motif that structures the biblical storyline and contributes to a biblical philosophy of history.
  • How this motif diagonalizes Foucault's rejection of Hegelian history and his own Nietzschean approach.
  • How Philippians 2 is "v-shaped".

5) Rupture of what?

In this video you'll learn:

  • How to bring the biblical great reversal into conversation with a Foucauldian approach to history.
  • The difference between "secular time" and "higher time" in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.
  • How, in some ways, Philippians 2 accomplishes what Foucault wants his history to achieve better than that history itself.


Supplied readings

1) Foucault on Freud

This extract takes further the sketch of Madness and Civilization in the video above. Foucault sees Freudian psychoanalysis as an extension of disciplinary, normalizing power

2) Charles Taylor on secular time and higher time

As mentioned in the video "Rupture of what?", here is one of the main passages from A Secular Age in which Taylor discusses the differences between, and implications of, secular time and higher time.

Further reading

Lisa Downing, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

  • Perhaps the best short introduction to Foucault. Downing lays stress on the theme of sexuality and has a helpful chapter on the death of man, which I have chosen not to cover in this course.

Todd May, The Philosophy of Foucault (London: Routledge, 2014).

  • Another good introduction to Foucault by one of the best regarded names in contemporary European thought. May helpfully organises his discussion of Foucault around the question "who are we?"

Jonathan Tran, Foucault and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

  • The most comprehensive entry-level discussion of theological themes as they relate to Foucault's thought. Tran argues that Foucault can help Christians think about Christian faithfulness.

James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

  • Smith's chapter on Foucault gestures towards his usefulness for Christians in recognising the importance of patterns of behaviour and what Foucault would call discipline. He seeks to rethink Foucauldian discipline in the context of Christian liturgy. 

Bible passages

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week's material are:

  • Philippians 2:5-11 (the v-shaped, disjunctive account of the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension)