I have only recently heard about philosophical ideas of Michel Foucault from a friend of mine. His claims, those concerning madness for example, sound iconoclastic to me. After looking up some relevant facts I found that a significant proportion of historical claims he made were based on biased material, which presented information that was only partially accurate. That is to say, some of his assumptions -- assumptions underpinning his historiographical (or genealogical) method -- were NOT true, or, at least, not based on solid enough evidence.

Then why should we pay attention to him? Is it forgivable in philosophy to make statements based on biased premises? (It is not in mathematics, which is my field of study.) If this is not the case then what part of Foucault's work is still relevant to us today?

Note: If this question is deemed inappropriate or in need of appropriation, moderators please do so. I am no expert in philosophy or this website.

  • For a short introduction : Lisa Downing, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (2008). Commented May 1, 2016 at 10:47
  • It is perfectly reasonable to make statements in mathematics based upon biased premises. External reality puts no limits whatsoever on what constitutes interesting mathematics. Whatever the motivation, the math is the math, and it might be worthwhile. Whole realms of mathematics exist only because of chosen biases:
    – user9166
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 16:20
  • At the theoretical extreme people study intuitionism and constructivist mathematics which are highly biased positions attempting to redefine 'true'. Nearer the applied extreme statisticians study 'power distribution' in voting -- where the voting itself is intended to be the power distribution. Only a bias that finds the existing mechanisms of democracy unfair excuses such statistical analysis.
    – user9166
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 16:20
  • All historical claims are biased, its when they're biased towards truthfulness, that we ought to listen. Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 3:34

2 Answers 2


First, let me make some general remarks not limited to Michel Foucault specifically. There is a balancing act in philosophy. On the one hand, it is not mathematics or hard science with clear standards of evidence and methodology, and there is vast ambiguity in most philosophically non-trivial notions and issues. To a lesser extent than poets, but philosophers are generally granted "poetic license". It covers high tolerance for the "sampling bias", to guess at patterns that are currently beyond reliable detection, speculation beyond what evidence might conceivably support, and subjectivity of approach. Philosophy could not play its well-known historical role as an incubator of sciences and generator of scientific hypotheses without such frivolities, and that is just one of its many roles. One person's bias is another person's interpretation. Just think about ancient atomists who certainly had to interpret and speculate a lot to motivate their theories, which nonetheless proved to be fruitful later.

This being said, there is a line beyond which philosophical frivolity collapses into junk science. Actually, let me correct that, there is no such line, there is only a wide blurry strip separating one from the other. Without trying to defend Foucault's "historical psychiatry" I'll point out that modern cognitive science is far from a firm consensus on mental disorders, especially in historical perspective, and was further from it at the time of History of Madness (1961) renamed into Madness and Civilization in 1964. Even Merquior, whose factual criticisms you are alluding to, admits that the point of the book is not historical accuracy but understanding modernity through its history, and "a call for the liberation of the Dionysian id", i.e. a form of cultural/spiritual expression.

Foucault is considered a leading light of modern continental philosophy, and his writings apparently speak to sensibilities and concerns of many people, regardless of the impurities of his arriving at or presenting his ideas about human condition and human nature. In other works he gives interesting historical analysis and critique of Cartesian and Kantian ideas that shaped modern intellectual scene, see SEP entry for a brief review. "Dionysian id" brings up the memory of another who too so speaks, even as his descriptions of history of art and morals, or views about physics for that matter, would elicit a smile today. But even Carnap, a logical positivist representing an extreme of philosophy, where its non-empirical statements were viewed as pseudo-statements, and who called metaphysicians "musicians without musical ability", in a paper titled Elimination of Metaphysics, still grudgingly found a place for him there:

"The (pseudo) statements of metaphysics do not serve for the description of states of affairs, neither existing ones (in that case they would be true statements) nor nonexisting ones (in that case they would be at least false statements). They serve for the expression of the general attitude of a person towards life... Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by... the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche... In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spake Zarathrtstra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry."

  • We don't blame Plato, usually, for using analogies and historical events (even when those events didn't happen, i.e. Atlantis) to explain phenomena. I see the book as an attempt to explain phenomena he was witnessing, and his explaination is very moving: fear of madness is related to our fear of mortality. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 12:49

Do we no longer take Plato seriously because he proposed the celestial spheres? Do we reject Marx on the basis that he reasoned partly from Engels' incorrect anthropology? Do we discard Kant because his psychology does not allow for the current behavior of physicists? To what other philosopher do we apply the standard you propose here -- consigning them to irrelevance because they chose their exposure to science badly?

The standards of philosophy rest on what resonates with human logic, not what caused the thoughts to be put forward. The field lies in the humanities for a reason. Philosophers borrow evidence from all over the place and claim no skill at evaluating its truth. They use science liberally but realize they are not scientists. They argue from history and are not historians. They assemble something that makes sense. And if their sense continues to hold interest and reflect value when their data rots away beneath them, the philosophy remains relevant.

I would not try to impose Conifold's proposed balance. I would leave it to the natural evolution of what cognitive dissonance our collective mind will tolerate.

At some point, good science becomes part of common sense and limits what will be reasonable to use or present in philosophy. But ideas that are of real value either get understood in context or get filtered for what sense they make, and what can be carried forward and re-expressed in less objectionable forms.

Foucault has not reached that point, or you would be seeing people rewriting him, stripping out the nonsense, the way you see secondary treatments of older philosophers that make more sense than the originals. Instead, he is best presented like Neitzche is by Kauffman (or the Gita is by everyone in the West) -- unmodified, but with a huge collection of contextualizing footnotes. We should let him lie there until his lies outweigh what is to be garnered from his consideration of them. (And we should, in fact, honor the power of those lies.)

  • 1
    Plato never stated Atlantis existed, it was an allegory used to prove a point in the Timaeus and Critias. Many accounts made by Plato's dialogs were of people/places that never existed and events that never happened (i.e.the discussion in the Symposium with Diotima). Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 12:58
  • It is clear that lots of the Timaeus is metaphorical, but it is not obvious that Atlantis is meant to be part of that. This is nitpicking anyway, the Celestial Spheres are more than bad enough science to make the point. I will delete the reference, as redundant just not to have a pointless argument in comments.
    – user9166
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 13:39

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