28 May

The Early Foucault

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By Stuart Elden

Foucault published the book best-known by the title History of Madness in 1961. It was his principal doctoral thesis, but the requirements for this were substantially greater than those of a modern PhD. As well as History of Madness, which stretched to almost 700 pages in its published form, Foucault had to submit a secondary thesis, which was a translation of Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, along with a substantial introduction. Foucault was 34 years old when he was examined for this degree, which won the philosophy medal of the French national scientific research centre for the best thesis. It was a book which made his initial reputation.

Studies of Foucault often begin with this book, which was certainly his first major study. But it was not his first book, and he had been working as an academic for a decade. In The Early Foucault I try to tell the story of what Foucault did before the History of Madness, and how he came to write that book.

Foucault certainly published very little before 1961. His first book, Mental Illness and Personality [Maladie mentale et personnalité] appeared in 1954, and was followed by a long introduction to a translation of an essay by the Swiss existential psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger. While Foucault was credited for the introduction and the notes, the translation was attributed to Jacqueline Verdeaux, though her own recollections and correspondence with Binswanger suggests Foucault had a critical role in this work. Two book chapters on psychology – one historical and one contemporary survey – appeared in 1957, but were both written a few years before. A very brief book review notice had recently been added to this short list of early publications. This was published anonymously and was omitted from Dits et écrits, the (nearly) comprehensive compilation of Foucault’s shorter works which originally appeared in four volumes in 1994. And finally, in 1958, Foucault’s co-translation of Viktor von Weizsäcker’s Der Gestaltkreis was published, though again this was completed a couple of years before. Until recently, these were the only written traces of this period.

Foucault had passed the agrégation teaching exam on the second attempt in 1951, and had taught at the University of Lille, and the École normale supérieure in Paris, and then outside of France – from 1955-58 in Uppsala; from 1958-59 in Warsaw, and 1959-60 in Hamburg. By the time of his thesis defence in May 1961 he was teaching at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. In his posts in France he was teaching psychology, though within philosophy departments, and outside of France was teaching French literature, as well as running cultural programmes.

Telling the story of this period would have been very difficult even a decade ago. Foucault’s biographers, especially Didier Eribon and David Macey, give a lot of detail, based on the sources then available and interviews with people who knew Foucault. Foucault was only 57 when he died, and many of his contemporaries still alive when these studies were written in the late 80s and early 90s, as well as many of the older generation of his teachers and mentors. Now very few people who knew Foucault in the 1950s or before are still alive.

But today there is a major source which was unavailable to an earlier generation of researchers – the archive of Foucault’s papers. A massive collection of 37,000 pages of material was sold by Foucault’s partner, Daniel Defert, to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2013, after it had been declared a ‘national treasure’ by the French government to prevent it leaving the country. A substantial deposit of earlier papers from the 1940s and 1950s was made to the same library by Foucault’s nephew, Henri-Paul Fruchaud. These were papers found in Foucault’s mother’s house, likely left there before he moved to Uppsala in 1955.

Together these archival papers contain many crucial texts – the fourth volume of the History of Sexuality is the most famous, published in French in 2018 and translated into English earlier this year. But they also contain teaching materials from early in Foucault’s career, drafts of his books, some correspondence, and his notes from his studies in Paris immediately after the second-world war. The archive for the later 1950s, when Foucault was outside France, is much more limited, but there are still some important traces in Paris and elsewhere, including teaching records from Uppsala and Hamburg.

I used all these materials extensively in this book, which begins with Foucault’s studies, where he attended classes by Louis Althusser, Jean Hyppolite, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl, and other famous figures. Foucault has notes from some of these classes, but given the status of his teachers many courses were also published. Outside the university he attended some early sessions of Jacques Lacan’s famous seminar. Foucault wrote a diploma thesis on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, under the supervision of Hyppolite, which was long thought lost but exists in a typescript. Foucault lectured on phenomenology, psychology and philosophical anthropology, elements of which exist in his own preparatory materials and in the notes of some of his students. Foucault wrote long manuscripts on Edmund Husserl and Binswanger, perhaps intended as theses which were never completed, but which are now currently being edited for publication.

Using these materials opened up new perspectives on Foucault’s early career. It helped me to situate the few things from this period which he did publish in a deeper context, analysing his teaching, his translation work and some practical work he did in French hospitals and prisons alongside Jacqueline Verdeaux and her husband Georges. Foucault’s correspondence with publishers and editors helped to resolve long-standing issues about the dating of material. The research process led me to the archives of Binswanger, in Tübingen, and Binswanger’s colleague Roland Kuhn in Frauenfeld, Switzerland. I spent time in Uppsala, looking at the surviving papers of the cultural programme Foucault directed, where I also found the photograph which is on this book’s cover. There I also consulted the library of medical texts which Foucault said inspired the work on the History of Madness, and which he also used for his next major book, Birth of the Clinic. The Uppsala course catalogues help with the themes of his teaching.

Part of Foucault’s own library, the books which were gifted to him by their authors, with dedications, is at Yale University. So doing this work led me to these and other archives and libraries, on the trail of often the smallest scrap of evidence. Althusser’s notes on his students preparation for the agrégation are in Normandy. A 1957 radio broadcast from Germany was in Berne; while the surviving indications of some of the lectures Foucault gave in Stockholm can be found in the events listings of Swedish newspapers. By using other archives I tried to add depth to the important influence of two men who never formally taught Foucault, but who were crucial mentors and supporters of his career – Georges Dumézil and Georges Canguilhem. I wrote a book on Canguilhem for Polity’s Key Contemporary Thinkers series as a side-project to the research for this book. Foucault’s reading notes help to shed new light on his formative encounters with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

In the final chapters I discuss the writing of the History of Madness and the work on Kant, and then the publication, defence and reception of this work. I close with an analysis of how Foucault rewrote his 1954 book as Mental Illness and Psychology [Maladie mentale et psychologie], which is the version of the book available in English, and how he abridged the History of Madness for a popular audience, which unfortunately was the basis for most early translations of the book. But I hope my book as a whole does not just show how Foucault became the famous or notorious figure known today, but also indicates a number of paths explored but not ultimately taken. Foucault could have easily become a historian of philosophy, with work on Kant, Hegel or Husserl, or a psychology researcher, among other possibilities.

Although I do use a lot of biographical sources, I am clear this book is not a new biography, but rather a work of intellectual history, trying to make sense of this initial phase of Foucault’s career. I largely steer clear of Foucault’s private life, except when this directly relates to his work. So I discuss the intellectual side of his relationship with the modernist composer Jean Barraqué in the mid 1950s, and the scandal that ended his time in Poland prematurely in 1959. But I was principally interested in what could be documented, rather than just what was reported.

While it is chronologically the first, it is the third of what has become a series of books for Polity. I am now working on the final book, on the 1960s, which will bridge the gap between The Early Foucault and the two previous volumes – Foucault: The Birth of Power which appeared in 2017, and Foucault’s Last Decade, which was published in 2016. The order I wrote these books has in large part been dictated by the availability of materials either by posthumous publication or in the archive.

I close this book on The Early Foucault with a story that at the beginning of the 1950s, Foucault used to joke that one day he would be elected to a “Chair of Madness” at the Collège de France. With the publication of the History of Madness in 1961 he was well on his way – he would be elected to a chair there, in the more soberly titled History of Systems of Thought, in 1970. That is the period I am now working on. 1961 then marks the culmination of the early part of Foucault’s career, but also points the way to several of his future concerns.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick. The third book in his eagerly anticipated intellectual histories of Michel Foucault is available in Europe from June 4th and globally from July 30th.