‘Before Foucault, political philosophers had presumed that power had an essence’
Foucault remains one of the most cited 20th-century thinkers and is, according to some lists, the single most cited figure across the humanities and social sciences. His two most referenced works, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Volume One (1976), are the central sources for his analyses of power. Interestingly enough, however, Foucault was not always known for his signature word. He first gained his massive influence in 1966 with the publication of The Order of Things. The original French title gives a better sense of the intellectual milieu in which it was written: Les mots et les choses, or ‘Words and Things’. Philosophy in the 1960s was all about words, especially among Foucault’s contemporaries.
In other parts of Paris, Derrida was busily asserting that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, and Jacques Lacan turned psychoanalysis into linguistics by claiming that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. This was not just a French fashion. In 1967 Richard Rorty, surely the most infamous American philosopher of his generation, summed up the new spirit in the title of his anthology of essays, The Linguistic Turn. That same year, Jürgen Habermas, soon to become Germany’s leading philosopher, published his attempt at ‘grounding the social sciences in a theory of language’.
Foucault’s contemporaries pursued their obsessions with language for at least another few decades. Habermas’s magnum opus, titled The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), remained devoted to exploring the linguistic conditions of rationality. Anglo-American philosophy followed the same line, and so too did most French philosophers (except they tended toward the linguistic nature of irrationality instead).
For his part, however, Foucault moved on, somewhat singularly among his generation. Rather than staying in the world of words, in the 1970s he shifted his philosophical attention to power, an idea that promises to help explain how words, or anything else for that matter, come to give things the order that they have. But Foucault’s lasting importance is not in his having found some new master-concept that can explain all the others. Power, in Foucault, is not another philosophical godhead. For Foucault’s most crucial claim about power is that we must refuse to treat it as philosophers have always treated their central concepts, namely as a unitary and homogenous thing that is so at home with itself that it can explain everything else.