Foucault’s early work took shape in a philosophical atmosphere charged with radical newness. Phenomenology, a new philosophical method which set out to study only experience itself, had a strong effect on Foucault during his college days; he initially conceived of his historical project as a kind of history of experience. Heideggerian phenomenology, which sought to describe Being itself rather than mere subjective experience, had a particular impact on Foucault at this stage, pushing him toward a phenomenological psychology that set the tone for his early work on the history of psychology.

But the most profound intellectual influences on the young Foucault came from the newly charged debates on the study of history. Hegelian thought, which approaches history through the lens of rational metaphysics, was enjoying a resurgence (in connection with Marxism), and the traumas of the two World Wars had lent a good deal of urgency to the question of whether history was chaotic or meaningfully ordered. Foucault studied briefly under Jean Hyppolite, a Hegelian who showed Foucault the closeness of philosophy and history.

Foucault also studied under the historian of science Georges Canguilhem, whose work revealed the conditions and structures which sciences like psychology depend on but take for granted. Foucault would base his own work on this approach, attempting to reveal the “conditions of possibility” of scientific discourses which had previously been taken as transparently true. But he would also spend a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate the distinctness of his work from that of philosophers of ideas like Canguilhem (as he does in Part IV of The Archeology of Knowledge).

Madness and Civilization dived simultaneously into the debates over phenomenology and the debates over the history of ideas. Foucault’s “history of experience” brought history and metaphysics together in an explosive mix that sought to trace the history of madness not as a clearly extant thing, but as an “experience” that is constituted as a thing by certain forms of discourse. Birth of the Clinic took a similar approach, this time with less of a phenomenological tone. Foucault was beginning to practice what he called “archeology,” uncovering the conditions of clinical knowledge as those conditions take shape in discourse. These books were popular and controversial, and they made Foucault quasi-famous. It was at this point that some critics began to formulate the most long-lived (and perhaps easiest) critique of Foucault: he shows knowledge (in this case psychiatric knowledge) to be contingent, but he doesn't take the contingency of his own theories into account.

The Order of Things was even more successful, largely because many took it to be a tour de force for the new method of structuralism (whose chief exponent was the anthropologist Claude Lèvi-Strauss). But Foucault himself never accepted this label. Although The Order of Things seemed structuralist in its attempt to show the dependence of forms of knowledge on various prior factors (discourses and institutions), Foucault never claimed that these factors represented some kind of universal, “truer” structure. Rather, his method sought to describe the full range of contingency and variation in the history of the knowledge of words and things. Foucault devotes part of the Conclusion to The Archeology of Knowledge to refuting claims that he is a structuralist.

Foucault’s later career saw him adjusting his historical project from considerations of discourse and knowledge to the more specific realm of the self as it is policed under the interdependent systems of knowledge and power. He marked this shift with the respective terms “archeology” and “genealogy.” Genealogy seeks, like archeology, to produce a history of discourse, but it also returns Foucault to his original field of interest: the human subject. Genealogy specifically seeks to describe discourses of knowledge in their emergence as systems of authority and constraint and seeks to describe the set of intersecting but fractured identities that such systems formulate. 

This is the method that gave rise to Foucault's later works on prisons and sexuality. Foucault is probably best known for this later work. Although Foucault’s oeuvre (a term he rejected) is not really generalizable to a single project, the successive stages of his work do depend to some extent on each other. Thus, his late work on sexuality and the self (in the published volumes of The History of Sexuality) emerges from his mid-career considerations of the relationship between power and knowledge, which in turn work off of his early “archaeologies” and their revision of knowledge as something enabled by discourse.

However, questions of metaphysics and history generally gave way, in the later years of Foucault’s life, to questions of identity politics, sexuality, and power (a shift for which Foucault himself is perhaps most responsible). Thus, critics of the later Foucault tended to frame their critiques in terms of the political practicability of his assertions about discourse, knowledge, and power.

Such critics included the otherwise totally disparate thinkers Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard, both of whom took Foucault to task for theoretically undermining any rationale for radical political action. The concern here is a modification of the earlier assertion that Foucault’s work leaves us no firm ground of knowledge to stand on (including Foucault’s own ground): if “we” are defined by our position within a network of discursive power-relations, how can we ever extricate “ourselves” from that network? How can we fight for liberty when “liberty” is already a contingent object of oppressive discourse?

These questions continue to surround Foucault’s work, even as that work continues to support a massive range of criticism and scholarship. It is difficult to gauge the influence of Foucauldian analysis on the humanities today, but the endless stream of analyses with titles in the form of “The Construction of X” are only the most visible trace of his influence (albeit often in a rather watered-down form) The Archeology of Knowledge is not the most widely read or discussed of Foucault’s works, but it is a rigorous statement of many of the ideas and methods that made his other, properly historical works so influential.

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