From this note from a clinical psychologist, the Foucault's gaze is described as:

... with this powerful gaze the physician could penetrate illusion and see through to the underlying reality, that the physician had the power to see the hidden truth.

(Source: Shawver, L. Notes on reading the Birth of the Clinic. 16 May 1998. http://www.california.com/~rathbone/foucbc.htm)

My questions are:

  1. What is the difference between a doctor gazing at a patient, and a zoologist observing or experimenting on a bird? Are they the same except for the emphasis on the fact that the doctor necessarily has to impersonalize the patient, and the patient is defined by their illnesses?

  2. Is the act of impersonalizing the patients the same as Buddhist detachment? The detachment "is a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective." So the doctor's attachment to the patient has been overcome.

Also, if possible, can you explain how the gaze is a result of postmodernism? How is it different from simple psychology that you need to get used to it to get your job done?

Other links: The Birth of the Clinic, The Clinical Gaze

  • 1
    I suspect the common factor is the setting-aside of the ego for the sake of a disinterested and transparent approach. This connects the 'gaze' with Buddhist detachment but the latter is a much deeper activity with its roots in experience, cosmology and metaphysics.
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 12:20
  • Can you explain more on how experience, cosmology and metaphysics play in the detachment? What do you think about the scientific investigation?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 12:57
  • Detachment may be a deliberate goal of practice and beneficial as such but it cannot be total until one knows one is detached and sees that detachment is 'what is the case'. With steady practice one may lessen the power of the ego, as would the saint, but the sage discovers its non-existence and then detachment is inevitable. The non-existence of the ego or separate self takes us into metaphysics and the true nature of Reality since one is discovering the nature of consciousness and self. 'Gaze' is a method or approach while true detachment would require knowledge of existential truths. .
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 13:15
  • PS - But what Chris says below is correct. 'Gaze' might be thought of as a first step towards what Buddhists call detachment. It;s just that it cannot be achieved properly while the ego is still king of the castle.
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 13:19
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    I vote for they are NOT the same. The medical gaze is part of a system of power, an assertion of power over the patient and even "violence" a type of violence to the patient in some cases. Certainly the Buddhist would try to avoid even the temptation to attach himself to a system of power and violence. It goes without saying the present population did not invent the system, but our attachments perpetuate it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 18:26

2 Answers 2


Lois Shawver associates Foucault with postmodernism through Lyotard:

Lyotard (1993) defines postmodernism as an incredulity towards metanarratives. A metanarrative is a theory or story that passes itself off as a truth without exception, generalized truths that pretend to be true for all objects in a category, such as all Priests are pure, all people in a certain country think a certain way, or science is the best approach to solving all human problems.

Shawver describes Foucault's view of the doctor's clinical gaze as avoiding "the esotericism of knowledge and the rigidity of social privilege" by being

acquired through his observation of patients. The wisdom was a practical wisdom that was supposedly learned through internships and apprentiseships not by dipping into the texts that told of professional secrets.

This objectivity (detachment) provides the needed isolation from book knowledge and social privilege.

The OP suggests that this clinical gaze is similar to the detachment of Buddhism. There may be similarities, but this gaze is also part of a metanarrative toward which postmodernism wants to take a critical stand. One may have a gaze detached from social privilege without the social acceptance that makes the gaze a metanarrative.

Here are other forms of gazing that would be similar to both the clinical gaze of the doctor at the bedside of a patient or the detached gaze of the Buddhist in meditation.

  1. Consider a priest beloved by his congregation holding up a host during the transubstantiation phase of a Catholic Mass.

  2. A trusted fortune teller gazing (scrying) into a crystal ball or looking at the pattern made by a selection of Tarot cards.

  3. Or, to bring this home, someone thinking about (gazing at) the notion of a "clinical gaze" and writing down those thoughts.

Not all of these are part of modern metanarratives the way Foucault claims the clinical gaze is. What makes the clinical gaze of doctors significant for Foucault is this currently believed metanarrative. If Sawver is correct this is what would make Foucault a postmodernist according to Lyotard's definition.

Shawver, L. Notes on reading the Birth of the Clinic. 16 May 1998. http://www.california.com/~rathbone/foucbc.htm Viewed as http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:lgka_EWO19AJ:postmoderntherapies.com/foucbc.htm+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=vn&client=firefox-b

  • @Gordon I agree that there is a lot going on with these metanarratives. The construction of a metanarrative would be a human individual and social activity that I don't think is well understood. Just identifying their existence may be where we are with awareness of them today. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:44
  • what can be the metanarrative/truth without exception in the doctor - patient relationship? That the doctor has the absolute wisdom? What is the wisdom in Foucault's mind and the wisdom/insight that Buddhism advocates? And how both of these relate to scientific investigation?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 18:26
  • @Ooker The scientific investigator would have the clinical gaze today. Perhaps. the metanarrative, the cultural myth, justifying the scientist's objective gaze at reality is the same. The Buddhist doesn't have the metanarrative (except for those interested in Buddhism). The priest has perhaps lost it (although his parishioners may still participate in it). Foucault, himself, as a thinker may participate in it as well. We could continue this in a chat room, perhaps chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/76868/… Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 18:51

The clinical gaze and detachment are indeed the same. The practising doctor sees so many patients that emotional attachment is worn away quite quickly, and for the good, for a calm steady hand is better with a scalpel, and facts reviewed without bias yield better outcomes.

The near paradox in Buddhism is achieving detachment while maintaining compassion (karuna) - one of the four sublime states. Translating this back to the clinic, this is the calm doctor carrying out the work of caring. Almost caring without caring, demonstrating a higher and lower level of involvement.


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