10-Minute Talks: The Early Foucault

by Professor Stuart Elden FBA

9 Jun 2021

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Professor Stuart Elden FBA discusses his new book, The Early Foucault.


Hello, my name is Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick. I was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013.

Michel Foucault published the History of Madness in 1961. It was his principal doctoral thesis, but this can be misleading: the requirements for this were substantially greater than those of a modern PhD. History of Madness stretched to almost 700 pages in its published form. He also had to submit a secondary thesis – which was a translation of Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View along with an 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. However, this was not his first book and he had been working as an academic for a decade. In The Early Foucault I try to tell two stories. One, what Foucault did before the History of Madness; two, 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. Foucault was credited for the introduction and the notes, while the translation was attributed to Jacqueline Verdeaux, though her own recollections and correspondence with Binswanger suggests Foucault had a critical role in this work. He also wrote two book chapters on psychology – one of which was historical and one a contemporary survey. Both appeared in 1957, but these texts were written a few years before. A very brief book review notice had recently been added to this short list of early publications.

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. 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.

In May 1961, by the time of his thesis defence, he was teaching at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. One thing which is interesting is that in his posts in France he was teaching psychology, though within philosophy departments; while outside of France he was teaching French literature, as well as running cultural programmes. Telling the story of this period in the way I do would have been impossible even a decade ago. Foucault’s biographers, especially Didier Eribon and David Macey, give a lot of detail based on the published sources then available and interviews with people who knew Foucault.

Because Foucault was only 57 when he died, many of his contemporaries were still alive when these studies were being researched in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So too were the older generation of many of his teachers. Now of course, very few people who knew Foucault in the 1950s or before are still alive. But there is now 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.

There are also 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 there and elsewhere, including in teaching records from Uppsala and Hamburg.

I used these archival materials extensively in this book, which begins with Foucault’s studies in the 1940s.

He attended classes by Louis Althusser, Jean Beaufret, 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 in 1949 on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, under the supervision of Hyppolite, which was long thought lost but exists in a typescript.

He lectured on phenomenology, psychology and philosophical anthropology, some of which exist in his own notes and others of which exist in the notes of some of his students in other archives.

Foucault wrote long manuscripts on Edmund Husserl and Binswanger, perhaps intended as theses he never submitted, 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 he published from this period 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.

Correspondence with publishers and editors helped to resolve long-standing issues about the dating of material. It 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.

Part of Foucault’s own library, the books which were gifted to him by their authors, with dedications, are 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.

A radio broadcast from Germany, from 1957, was in Berne; the surviving indications of some of the lectures Foucault gave in Stockholm can be found in the events listings of Swedish newspapers.

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 mid-1950s. 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 translations of the book until relatively recently.

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. 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 and the scandal that ended his time in Poland prematurely. But I was interested in what could be documented, rather than what was reported.

This book is chronologically on the earliest period of Foucault’s career, but it is the third book I’ve written in what has become a series of books for Polity. I am now working on the final book, on the 1960s, which will cover the period 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 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 – what happened between the defence of his thesis and his election to the Collège de France. While 1961 marks the culmination of the early part of Foucault’s career, it also points the way to several of his future concerns.

This talk originally took place on 2 June 2021, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

"Acid Horizon podcast: ‘Foucault (With Hair)’ – discussion of The Early Foucault" podcast featuring Stuart Elden.

Michel Foucault video profile, The School of Life.

Explainer: the ideas of Foucault, article in The Conversation.

"How Foucault was shielded from scandal by French reverence for intellectuals", article in The Spectator.

Free Thinking, "Foucault: The History of Sexuality 4" episode of Radio 3 programme featuring Stuart Elden.

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