What I Learned from Reading Foucault’s Early Work

Until recently, I hadn’t reflected on the fact that what we read for class is carefully curated. As we all know, our professors dedicate immense amounts of time to selecting and refining the list of readings for our courses. Ideally, these readings reflect the essential sources on a particular subject. However, as with any selection process, the developing syllabus is filtered through certain ideological and methodological biases, not to mention the practical constraints of the course.

In my experience, professors tend to be transparent with their students about this curatorial process. In class, we often discuss why certain scholars were selected over others, and receive recommendations for further reading. Yet, I don’t often reflect on these selected works of scholarship in the context of their authors’ personal intellectual evolution.

A young Michel Foucault

When selecting secondary sources, professors typically choose a scholar’s most established works and arguments. With such limited time to cover material, our semesters only have space for “greatest hits.” These works tend to articulate coherent ideas, argue something new and critically important, and reflect a consistent methodology. Often, they’re masterpieces of scholarship.

Though obviously beneficial to the course, this high quality standard creates an unattainable norm for our own academic writing. We don’t remember that behind every successful argument are dozens of weaker siblings – sometimes published, sometimes buried in manuscripts or deleted computer files. We don’t see the rough drafts, or the dead ends, or the failed arguments. As a result, it can be hard to find relatable academic role models, especially for us undergraduates.

This semester, I am taking a class called “Foucault, Power, and Knowledge.” In the course, Professor Catherine Clune-Taylor of the Gender & Sexuality Studies Department is leading us chronologically through Michel Foucault’s published writing – beginning with his doctoral dissertation. Through this chronological approach, we encounter the Foucault that existed before his greatest hits.

Though Foucault ultimately proved to be one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, I was disappointed in his early works. In general, the ideas that will propel him to fame haven’t quite crystallized and his writing is difficult to follow (at least for me). Expecting to encounter his groundbreaking theory of biopower from the start, I was frustrated with the convolutions and abstractness of his early ideas. For example, in The Order of Things, he dedicates nearly an entire chapter to reinterpreting Don Quixote as an allegory for scientific knowledge in the Renaissance. According to Professor Clune-Taylor, not even Foucault scholars are entirely sure what to make of this. At other times, he makes grand historical claims — like dismissing the significance of Marxist theory — without much evidence to support him.

In any event, most of his early work went way over my head. Though reading these early works has felt grueling and unrewarding, the experience is helping me appreciate not only his later work, but also the process of scholarly growth and experimentation.

Even the greatest of thinkers need time to develop their ideas. Reading only their most well-regarded works can distract from the mistakes and failures that led them to where they are. As we learn in Writing Seminar, writing is a tool for thinking through ideas. Every argument is an experiment. It took Foucault years to arrive at his groundbreaking theory of biopower — not just years of thinking, but also writing and publishing.

In young Foucault, I’ve found a (somewhat) relatable intellectual role model. Through his earlier works, I am reminded of just how difficult it is to craft a scholarly masterpiece. In order to progress towards stronger arguments, I have to be willing to embrace the process of experimentation. Every project — whether successful or not — can lead me towards a new question or approach. Expecting to discover something extraordinary on my first draft undermines this beautiful process of development and experimentation. Even the masters don’t expect to produce syllabus-ready papers on their first draft — or even their first published books. If Foucault didn’t have it all figured out, then there’s certainly room for me to get it wrong too. 

— Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent