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Michel Foucault and the history of economic thought

Michel Foucault et l’histoire de la pensée économique
Nicolas Vallois
p. 461-490

Résumés

Michel Foucault a consacré une partie importante de ses travaux à l’étude de l’économie politique. A la fin des années 1980, ces analyses suscitent l’intérêt des historiens de la pensée économique (Amariglio, 1988, 1990 ; Birken, 1990). Cet article vise d’abord à proposer une vue d’ensemble de la réception de Foucault chez les spécialistes de la théorie économique. La lecture et l’interprétation de Foucault soulèvent cependant d’importantes difficultés. En effet, Foucault a toujours refusé de se considérer lui-même comme un « auteur », qui serait caractérisé par une approche unique et cohérente. Nous montrerons pourtant que Foucault a bien élaboré une méthode historiographique, que nous caractériserons comme « journalisme politique ». Les principes de cette méthode nous permettront d’identifier deux confusions fréquentes chez les interprètes de Foucault en économie. Tout d’abord, les défenseurs de Foucault en histoire de la pensée économique ont souvent lu ce dernier comme un économiste « hétérodoxe », qui serait opposé à un courant « dominant » de l’économie. Mais Foucault ne critique pas les théories économiques dans ce sens. La seconde confusion consiste à interpréter Foucault comme un sociologue du pouvoir, alors qu’il rejette en fait les approches contextualistes. Au bout du compte, nous suggérons que Foucault a davantage été lu comme un philosophe « postmoderne » que comme un historien de la pensée économique. A cet égard, l’association de la théorie foucaldienne avec le postmodernisme a été un biais important dans sa réception parmi les historiens de la pensée économique.

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1The analysis of economic thought concerns two main and distinctive aspects of Michel Foucault’s work. In his early writings, Foucault focuses primarily on classical economics. Notably, in The Order of Things, Foucault considers classical economics as embedded in what he calls the “modern épistémè”, which rests on three “fundamental modes of knowledge”: Labor, Life, and Language (Foucault [1966] 1994, 265). According to Foucault, modern political economy emerged at the end of the 18th century, with economists such as Adam Smith, and especially, David Ricardo considering Labor as an entirely new empirical domain.

  • 1 All translations of Foucault’s writings and interviews are the author’s, with the exception of The (...)

2 In his later works, Foucault proposed a very different perspective on economic thought. This difference is related first to the authors and historical periods that Foucault elected to study. Foucault analyzes Smith, Ricardo and Marx but also includes a diverse group of economists, from Physiocrats to contemporary Chicago School economists. More importantly, Foucault analyzes these authors in different ways. Foucault acknowledges that The Order of Things was “a kind of formal exercise”1 (Foucault, 1980-b, 886): it was an internal analysis of theoretical knowledge and its production, independent of its social context or how it could be applied. In the 1970s, Foucault (1978-b, 533) maintained that “the development of scientific knowledge” must be related to “changes in the ways power operates”, and specifically, that “the typical case would be the one of economic analysis”. Thus, in his later his works which include lectures delivered at the Collège de France, he understands political economy not just as “discourse” or theoretical knowledge. He considers economic theories to be linked to various practices of intervention, regulation and control of economic behaviors.

  • 2 The terms “discourse”, “knowledge” and “thought” can be understood as synonyms in Foucault’s termin (...)

3 Despite these differences in Foucault’s thinking there is still continuity. His interest throughout is in the “history of thought”: there is not, “on one side, the analysis of behaviors, and on the other side, the analysis of ideas; according to us, there is thought everywhere” (Foucault, 1982-c, 1170). Foucault is consistent in considering political economy as “discourse”, “knowledge”, or theoretical “thought”2. Consequently, his work on economic theory cited above can be regarded as belonging to the history of economic thought. These analyses share a common method, dictated by Foucault’s original historiographic principles.

4 At the end of the 1980s, Foucault’s work on political economy began to attract the interest of historians of economic thought (Amariglio, 1988, 1990; Birken, 1990). This paper is intended primarily to provide a survey of Foucault’s influence on the history of economic thought. We show that the reception of Michel Foucault’s work by historians of economic thought led to very heterogeneous developments. It inspired studies in various fields including economic theory in particular but also organizational theory (Topp, 2000; Jones, 2002; Carter, 2008), management (Mollona, 2009; Le Texier, 2011), accountability (Burchell, Gordon and Miller, 1991; Gendron and Baker, 2001), and marketing (Skalen, 2009). Foucault’s critical stance has been interpreted in divergent and occasionally contradictory ways: some regard Foucault as a supporter of “heterodox economics”, as opposed to “mainstream economics”, while others suggest that Foucault succumbed to a “liberal temptation” (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1182).

5 As we show in more detail below, these interpretative problems can be explained by the rather ambiguous Foucauldian vocabulary and style of writing and by Foucault’s position and reflections on his own production. Foucault considers his books to be “toolboxes” (Foucault, 1974-a, 1975-b, 1977-e, 1978-a). According to this metaphor, any interpretation of his works is legitimate if and only if these “tools” are useful to the individuals employing them. This pragmatic proposition has, paradoxically, proven self-destructive: numerous opposing and rival research programs can now legitimately claim to adopt a “Foucauldian” approach, but no one can describe this approach precisely.

6Despite what Foucault would suggest, not every reading of his works is equally legitimate or appropriate. This paper tries to identify the methodological and historiographical principles of Foucault’s approach to enable certain recurring mistakes and confusions in the interpretations of Foucault by specialists in economic thought to be highlighted. The paper is structured as follows. Section 1 addresses general problems concerning the interpretation of Foucault. Section 2 defines the Foucauldian approach to the history of economic thought as what shall be labelled “politically engaged journalism”. Sections 3 and 4 discuss Foucault’s reception among specialists of economic thought. Each section identifies a frequent bias or a misuse of his works. Section 5 proposes an explanation of these misconceptions, suggesting that Foucault has been read much more as a philosopher than a historian; what has been called “Foucauldian theory” should be seen as a middle ground between “postmodernist philosophy” and the history of economic thought.

1. Problems Related to Reading Foucault: Is There a User Guide?

7The mere attempt to interpret Michel Foucault raises an important problem. It is difficult to treat Foucault as an “author”, whose texts can be considered as the subject of an exegesis or a critical explanation. Foucault supports total freedom for his exegetes and interpreters; he had no desire to found a new school of thought and refused the following of orthodox “Foucauldian disciples”. This problem emerges clearly through a recurring metaphor in Foucault’s interviews: that of the “toolbox” (Foucault, 1963, 1974-a, 1975-b, 1977-e, 1978-a). In 1963, Foucault claims that his works should “be used by the greatest number of people” and that his writings provide “instruments that they [can] use then in their fields, whether they are psychiatrists, psychologists, educators or anything else” (Foucault, 1963, 63). In 1974, Foucault states that his books are “a kind of toolbox” (Foucault, 1974-a, 1391).

8This metaphor challenges the traditional figure of the author (philosopher or theorist) who speaks to an audience of readers, interpreters and exegetes: “I do not write to a public, I write to users, not to readers” (Foucault, 1974-a, 1391). These “users” need not search for unity and coherence in Foucault’s thinking, or attempt to define its main principles. For instance, History of Madness has been used as a toolbox by “anti-psychiatrists” such as R.D. Laing and David Cooper in England, and some aspects of The Order of Things have exploited by the biologist François Jacob in France. These users “searched, found a chapter, a type of analysis, something that has been useful to them subsequently” (Foucault, 1974-a, 1391).

9 Therefore, reading or “using” Foucault, therefore, implies a search for local, particular and applied analyses. Foucault also admits that the uses made of his texts do not correspond to what he envisaged when writing them: “A book is made to be used in ways that were not defined by the one who wrote it. The more new, possible, unpredicted uses [of my own writings] there will be, the more satisfied I will be” (Foucault, 1975-b, 1588). For this reason, Foucault “does not think that there is a conservative philosophy or a revolutionary philosophy”. For instance, Nietzsche has been “used” by Nazis but also by left-wing thinkers. This process of political distortion is absolutely normal for Foucault, and it would be absurd to attempt to stop it: “there is no reason to write not only the book but also the law of the book”, which establishes how to read the book; “the only law is: all readings are possible” (Foucault, 1984-b, 1554).

10Foucault’s position on his work complicates the task of its interpretation, which is precisely the attempt to deduce, from his entire body of work, a coherent method or a set of theoretical principles. For example, it is perhaps contradictory to treat “Michel Foucault” as an author since he rejects this title: “The only law I would like to be established would be the prohibition of using the same author’s name twice, with the right to remain anonymous and to use a pseudonym, so that each book would be read for itself” (Foucault, 1984-b, 1553-1554). Also, the idea of a “Foucauldian method” for studying the history of economic thought appears to contradict another thesis frequently attributed to Foucault: that of lack of method. Foucault assumes the empiricist character of his approach when, in a 1980 interview, he claims: “I do not have a method that I would apply in the same way for different fields […] I do not have a general theory and I do not have guaranteed instruments”. Foucault occasionally proposes “methodological reflections in papers and interviews”, but such reflections are merely “some kind of scaffoldings that serve as the bridge between a work that is being achieved and some other work. This is not a general method, which would definitely be valid for others and for me. What I wrote is never prescriptive, either for me or for others. It is at most instrumental and dreamy” (Foucault, 1980-b, 861).

  • 3 A famous text entitled “What is an author?” (Foucault, 1969), which Foucault changed slightly when (...)
  • 4 “Freudian-type analyses are currently so prestigious that historical analyses of texts very often p (...)

11Keeping in mind the warnings above, the objective of the present paper is to identify the methodological principles followed by the “author” Michel Foucault in studying the history of economic thought. There are two arguments which enable pursuit of this goal and provide a more nuanced understanding of what has been described above. First, the “death of the author” theme had a substantial influence on the readings of Foucault in English-speaking countries but should not be overestimated, and must be understood from Foucault’s particular viewpoint.3 In the 1960s and 1970s in France, this theme was directed against the psychological, and especially psychoanalytical, analyses employed by other authors.4 In his own analyses, Foucault observes that strategies of power explicitly claim what they intend and are not concealed behind the mask of ideology. This is why “the logic of the unconscious has to be replaced with the logic of strategy” (Foucault, 1975-b, 1587-8). Thus, the “disappearance of the author” theme indicates merely that historians should focus on what texts say explicitly instead of investigating the personalities of their authors; however, this is not to imply the dislocation of personal work. According to Foucault, it is appropriate to consider the works of Adam Smith, Ricardo and Gary Becker as coherent systems.

12 Second, the “blind empiricist” which Foucault claims to be (Foucault 1977-d, 404) does not entail a complete lack of method, or what Paul Feyerabend (1975) calls “epistemological anarchism”. It is true that Foucault, unlike structuralist thinkers, does not define a general method that could be applied to a range of objects including language, myths, architecture, religion, etc. What interests Foucault is a much narrower problem, namely, “the truth/power, knowledge/power relationship”. According to Foucault, these objects are poorly defined, and do not preexist current research. Thus, Foucault attempts simultaneously to elaborate a method and constitute an object: “I grope around, I make […] instruments that are designed to make objects appear. These objects are somewhat determined by the more or less adequate instruments I am making”. The method followed by Foucault is therefore modified by each new analysis but this does not mean that its role is diminished. On the contrary, his method makes objects appear—namely, the relationship between knowledge and power—which previous methods employed by other authors have been unable to discover. Foucault’s empiricism is not a confession of weakness or modesty; it is in some sense rather presumptuous, as he acknowledges: “I am behaving in an unreasonable and pretentious manner, while looking modest on the outside, because it is pretentious […] to speak of an unknown object with an undefined method” (Foucault, 1977-d, 405).

13 Foucault’s works contain a strong proposition about how the relationship between knowledge and power should be analyzed. Foucault refers frequently to his lack of method at the beginning of a project: “When I begin writing a book, not only do I not know what I will think at the end, but I do not know very clearly which method I will apply. Each of my books is a way to cut out an object and to forge an analytical method”. However, the outcome of the writing process is a theory of the relationship between knowledge and power. There is method in Foucault’s writings even though this method is constantly enriched and modified throughout the project:

Once my job is done, I am able, in a retrospective look, to extract from the experience I have just made a methodological reflection that elaborates the method that the book should have followed. Hence, I alternately wrote books I would call ‘explorative books’ and methodological books. Explorative books: History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic, etc. Methodological Books: Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault, 1980-b, 861).

2. The Foucauldian Approach as Politically Engaged Journalism

14Foucault’s work on political economy converges in a coherent set of methodological principles. This “toolbox” image (see above) does not imply that one can use it in any manner whatsoever. Even if not defined a priori, we can describe the kind of discourse elaborated by Foucault as politically engaged journalism. It is based on two strong historiographical principles: a privilege of “economic discourse” over power and social relations, on the one hand, coherently associated with a personal political engagement, on the other hand.

15Foucault’s “toolbox” concept is constrained by a very important condition: He assumes his readers have critical and subversive objectives. In 1975, he describes his books as tools akin to a “wrench”, which are designed to “short-circuit, disqualify, and break systems of power” (Foucault, 1975-b, 1587). It is the reason why the use of these critical tools must also be limited to individuals who are able to read and understand Foucault’s writing properly. For instance, The Order of Things is “a book that has been read by a large number of people, but poorly understood. It was directed at historians of science and scientists, it was book for two thousand people” (Foucault, 1974-a, 1391).

16Therefore, an important characteristic of Foucault’s approach is its political engagement. For Foucault, a book is successful if it has political effects: “I hope that the truth of my books is in the future” (Foucault, 1978-a, 805). A Foucauldian history of knowledge should create interferences between our past history and reality (Foucault, 1978-a, 805). For instance, History of Madness changed how individuals perceived psychiatry, while the publication of Discipline and Punish was followed by protests in French prisons.

  • 5 See also Foucault (1977-a, 236): “I realize quite well that I have never written anything other tha (...)

17To satisfy this criterion, the historian cannot remain objective and impartial; history must be conceived as a type of “political fiction”. In 1978, Foucault confessed: “I am simply not a historian. And I am not a novelist. I am practicing a kind of historical fiction” (Foucault, 1978-a, 805).5 The notion that history is fictionalized suggests that historians have a degree of liberty in defining their area of study: they must indeed raise problems from the past on the basis of real struggles they observe in their present situation and in which they participate. Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish because in the 1970s prisons had become a major political issue in France. He was also involved in the “Groupe d’information sur les Prisons” (GIP), which diffused testimonies about prison conditions (Brich, 2008).

  • 6 This expression was contributed by the author and was not found directly in Foucault’s writings. Ho (...)
  • 7 On this matter, see also the “ethical position” defended by Nikolas Rose in Governing the Soul (Ros (...)

18It is in this sense that Foucault conceives of the history of economic thought as politically engaged journalism.6 Some critical remarks are in order regarding this conception of History as politically oriented journalism. It does not imply that the historian has a moral role in the sense that he must tell the people what they should do. Foucault’s history is “a genealogy of problems, not solutions” (Foucault, 1983-a, 1205). His critique does not define the new laws and rules that the society should obey. This is the reason that Foucault wants to silence “spokesmen”, “legislators” and “prophets”: there is a profound indignity in speaking in the name of others (Foucault, 1980-b, 906). Foucault’s writings must not be understood as “prophetic words”: unlike other politically engaged thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Foucault does not believe that intellectuals should educate and enlighten the masses.7

19Of course Foucault knew that such a position was controversial. Since his works do not clearly prescribe solutions to practical problems, they have been criticized as “unconstructive” or as having an “aesthetic effect”. For Foucault, there is no contradiction here: “The critique need not to be the premise of an argument that would end with all that is left for you to do. Do not listen to those who say: ‘do not criticize if you are not able to make a reform’. These are the words of ministerial Cabinets” (Foucault, 1980-a, 850-851). Foucault’s critique is meant to provoke questions, discussions and experimentations: these are real and practical effects, even if they were not consciously and previously planned. Foucault also avoids any normative tone and passes no judgment on whether these effects are in a supposedly “right” or “wrong” direction. For instance, History of Madness had a strong influence on the anti-psychiatry movement in England; this practical use of the book satisfies Foucault, but he refuses to say that anti-psychiatry was better than the former asylums (Foucault, 1983-a, 1205).

20The second important requisite of Foucault’s method concerns his conception of knowledge and power. Foucault’s history is meant to have political and practical effects; therefore, it is not strictly speaking “a history of ideas” (Foucault, 1988, 1597). However, Foucault also maintains a strict autonomy and privilege of knowledge over power relations. As we shall see later in greater detail, this is why Foucault rejects social history and context-based approaches: his work “does not aim [to be] a history of institutions”. Foucault seeks to find a third way to conceptualize the relationship between knowledge and power: “between social history and formal analyses of thought, there is a way, a—perhaps very narrow—path, which is the one of the historian of thought” (Foucault, 1988, 1597).

21 Foucault’s objects of study are supposedly located between theory and practice. In the analyses on liberalism, he uses the term “technology” or the Greek word technê to refer to this particular level of reality: “I have to say that what interests me the most is to study what Greeks used to call technê, i.e., a practical rationality driven by a conscious goal” (Foucault, 1982-b, 1104). As the word technê suggests, Foucault appears to be closer to practice than to theory: “I tried to analyze ‘liberalism,’ not as a theory or an ideology, and even less, obviously, as a way in which ‘society’ ‘represents itself,’ but as a practice, that is to say, a ‘way of doing things’ directed towards objectives and regulating itself by continuous reflection” (Foucault, 1979-b, 819).

  • 8 “Political economy is […] a type of knowledge […] which those who govern must take into account. Bu (...)

22This is how Foucault conceives of liberalism. He does not actually study liberalism but rather the authors—chiefly economists—who wrote about and conceptualized liberalism. Within liberalism, economic knowledge offers “a form of critical reflection on governmental practice” (Foucault, 1979-b, 819). This expression clearly indicates that economic thought is independent of “governmental practice”; this point is further stressed in the Birth of Biopolitics.8 Economic knowledge is not linked to power in the sense that economists explicitly claim to model reality according to their theories; it is precisely because this knowledge appears as purely theoretical that it is paradoxically able to “reflect governmental practices”. Thus, economic theories pave the way to the policies and practices of intervention and regulation. For instance, Foucault demonstrates that Gary Becker’s theory changed the conception of punishment and repression of criminality (Foucault [1979] 2008, 248-260). One can imagine other examples of that approach to contemporary economic thought. For instance, behavioral economics as knowledge could be related to the political debate on “libertarian paternalism”. The Foucauldian perspective would not consist of contending that behavioral economists actually control, orient, or dictate individual behaviors, but rather raise new problems concerning how economic policies should be implemented.

23A Foucauldian history of economic thought must fulfill two conditions: It is meant to have political effects, but it focuses solely on abstract discourse. Economic knowledge is independent of practices of power and does not manipulate behaviors, yet it indirectly changes the way people think about their behavior. Therefore, writing a theoretical history could be seen as subversive. The next sections analyses the way historians of economic thought interpret Foucault as a critique of political economy.

3. Michel Foucault and the Critique of Political Economy

24Foucault’s writings on political economy began to interest historians of economic thought towards the end of the 1980s (Amariglio, 1988, 1990; Birken, 1990). Foucault was a source of inspiration and generated debate and discussion: there was a “Foucault effect”, as suggested by a book dedicated to the study of governmentality (Burchell, Gordon and Miller, 1991). This had a paradoxical effect. Foucauldian and anti-Foucauldian thinkers in the history of economic thought proposed very different readings and comments. Some interpretations directly contradict Foucault’s approach. This section focuses on a frequent bias regarding Foucault, among historians of economic thought. Early readers considered him a heterodox author challenging “mainstream economics”. However, Foucault’s position was not critical in this sense. To avoid any confusion, here we determine precisely the meaning of Foucault’s stance on political economy.

25 The first part of Foucault’s writings (see the introduction to this paper) were frequently understood as radical critique of classical economics. From this perspective, Foucault was seen as dismantling the “modern épistémè” in The Order of Things and revealing the “humanist” presuppositions of classical economics (including Marxist economics). In his famous conclusion to The Order of Things Foucault envisages “the death of Man”, which could be understood as announcing the imminent “death” of modern economics. The first paper on Foucault by Jack Amariglio which was published in a review on the history of economic thought in 1988, is quite representative of that interpretational perspective. Amariglio aims to provide “economists [with] an introduction to the work of Michel Foucault” (Amariglio, 1988, 584). Amariglio considers Foucault an “antihumanist”. However, Foucault would not have revealed the new “postmodern épistémè” (Amariglio, 1988, 600). According to Amariglio, Foucault would have nonetheless indicated what economists should do to break with “mainstream” humanism. Foucauldian-inspired economics should share “the same postmodern concerns and features: a strong antihumanism, a desire to decenter economic analysis, a rejection of the primacy of anthropocentric categories of analysis, a refusal of historicism, and a denial of epistemologies that rely on a subject/object distinction” (Amariglio, 1988, 601).

26 Thus, Amariglio’s goal is to directly apply certain theses in economics that he attributes to Foucault. Two main features characterize this type of interpretation. First, reading Foucault is supposed to arouse the critical consciousness of economists. Amariglio admits that Foucault’s recommendations are rather disorientating and poorly operational, partly because of his complex terminology and style of writing; nevertheless, this disorientation “may prove to be productive of a self-consciousness” among economists (Amariglio, 1990, 584). These individuals should devote more vigilant attention to Foucault (Amariglio, 1990, 584). In a more recent paper, Serhat Kologlugil conceives of Foucault’s writings as a “postmodern critique of theoretical humanism” (Kologlugil, 2010, 10). This paper is “an invitation for economists to take Foucault more seriously” (Kologlugil, 2010, 23). According to Kologlugil, Foucault influenced and will influence more reflexive, open-minded and less orthodox economics (Kologlugil, 2010, 1).

27 The promoters of Foucault are also characterized by their normative tone: they intend to judge whether certain streams of economic thought are good or bad, depending on their supposed “humanism” or “postmodernism”. In a debate with Lawrence Birken, Amariglio suggests, for instance, that the homo oeconomicus of neoclassical economics belongs to the modern épistémè (Amariglio, 1990, 564), whereas postmodernism includes rather post-Marxist economists (Amariglio 1990, 569)—a conviction shared by Kologlugil (2010, 15)—or heterodox economists such as Michel Aglietta (Amariglio, 1988, 601). In a 2003 paper, Amariglio and Ruccio offer a “postmodern” interpretation of Keynes (Amariglio and Ruccio, 2003).

28 Historians of economic thought primarily have focused on the first part of Foucault’s body of work. For instance, in 2010, Iara Vigo de Lima published a book entitled Foucault’s Archaeology of Political Economy, which is dedicated entirely to the analyses developed in The Order of Things and the Archaeology of Knowledge (Vigo de Lima, 2010). Nonetheless, the second part of Foucault’s work has been interpreted also as a critique of political economy, whose specific targets are neoliberalism and contemporary streams of economic thought such as the Chicago School. Studies of governmentality in Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics have inspired economists and historians, who have suggested certain further developments concerning recent economic theories. Yahya Madra and Fikret Adaman, for instance, employ Musgravean public economics as a case study of neoliberal governmentality (Madra and Adaman, 2010). Their paper is characterized also by a normative tone: Madra and Adaman “argue that public economics needs to move beyond neoliberalism” (Madra and Adaman, 2010, 1098). On a different theoretical matter, Thibault le Texier analyzes a neoliberal credo identified by Foucault (“this multiplication of the ‘enterprise’ form within the social body is what is at stake in neo-liberal policy” (Foucault [1979] 2008, 167)) and considers that management and business science currently constitute a new “dispositif” of knowledge and power that the author calls “managerial governmentality” (Le Texier, 2010).

  • 9 See the edited collection by Boquet, Dufal, and Labey (2013), published after the 2011 conference e (...)
  • 10 See, for instance, the debate with the historian Laurence Stone concerning History of Madness (Fouc (...)
  • 11 See, for instance, the debate with François Dagognet concerning Cuvier and his analysis in The Orde (...)
  • 12 “The economy as an object has not always been specified and governed in liberal terms, it may not a (...)

29 Promoters and disciples of Foucault in the history of economic thought share a common interpretational perspective: Foucault’s corpus is regarded as a set of critical theses on political economy, i.e., against certain theories (modern, humanist, neoliberal theories) and eventually in favor of other “postmodern” theories. However, Foucault’s promotion in economics has given rise to numerous critiques. In a similar manner to what occurred in other disciplines concerned with Foucault’s diffusion (history,9 psychiatry,10 biology,11), the quality and accuracy of Foucault’s analyses have been questioned. Certain authors note the rather hazardous and speculative nature of his works and the arbitrariness in his choice of texts and authors. In discussing Amariglio, Lawrence Birken criticizes Foucault for having ignored the neoclassical revolution in The Order of Things. Birken contends that Foucault underestimates the importance of the 1871-1914 period to the history of economic thought (Birken, 1990, 560). Birken argues also that Foucault’s analyses on the modern épistémè and the classical theory of value do not apply to neoclassical economics (Birken, 1990, 559-560). More recently, Ryan Walter questions the “governmentality account” of classical economics (Walter, 2008). Walter challenges the supposedly Foucauldian notion that modern political economy emerged at the end of the 18th century as an “autonomous domain requiring its own form of governmental reason” (Walter, 2008, 94). Thus, governmentality studies relate political economy to the rise of the liberal individual. Walter notes that Smith and Ricardo do not render the economy an independent sphere but rather separate it from governmental reason. The emergence of classical economics does not necessarily imply the rise of liberal doctrines and politics,12 and Foucauldian interpretations suffer from a “liberal bias” (Walter, 2008, 94).

30 More importantly, Foucault’s ambition and political position raise a number of questions and problems. It is uncertain whether Foucault intended to criticize economics or neoliberalism in this particular normative sense. He occasionally expresses his disagreement with particular historiographical approaches, i.e., particular ways of analyzing texts, but he does not necessarily judge the texts that he studies as a historian. For instance, the famous final section of The Order of Things on the “death of Man” has frequently been read, as we have observed, as a radical critique of humanism. Nevertheless, in 1967, Foucault provides further comments on this text and rejects as a “neutral historian” any direct position against humanism: “a polemic value has been attributed to some of my analyses, which were for me only analyses” (Foucault, 1967, 635).

  • 13 In a 1975 interview, Foucault was asked the following question: “what are the tasks of criticism to (...)
  • 14 In 1984, Foucault wrote an article on “Michel Foucault” for the Dictionary of Philosophers and says (...)

31 Foucault admits that his purposes are “critical”, but not in the common sense of that term: “I am trying indeed to be situated outside of the culture that we belong to, to analyze its formal condition in order to criticize it, not in the sense that I would determine its value, but rather to see how it has been effectively constituted” (Foucault, 1967, 633). Foucault understands the word “critique” in its Kantian sense13, and claims to belong to the “critical tradition of Kant”.14 Thus Foucault is not a critic of economics, in the sense that a heterodox economist is: when a Kantian criticizes science, he analyzes transcendental conditions, i.e., how the knowing subject intuits and conceives of objects. This analysis is aimed not at challenging knowledge but rather at founding it.

32 Foucault’s critical and political position toward economics ultimately appears highly ambiguous since a Kantian follower can be understood in a particular sense also as a “supporter” of the science or knowledge he is criticizing. This problem is particularly difficult in the context of the works on governmentality and biopolitics in the second part of his body of work. Some of Foucault’s readers, such as François Ewald, have developed theories that favor neoliberal politics and its agenda (Ewald, 1986). Similarly, Maurizio Lazzarato refers to Foucault’s studies on governmentality to analyze the French political situation in 2005 after the European referendum. According to Lazzarato, contemporary liberalism as the “politics of multiplicity” is unfairly ignored in France, which is characterized by the political tradition of “unity” (Lazzarato, 2005, 62).

  • 15 “The ‘hard’ liberal way of inflexible economists leads to something quite fascinating in the sense (...)

33 Foucault’s opposition to “mainstream economics” has therefore been questioned. For instance, Jean-Yves Grenier and André Orléan argue, for instance, that Foucault has succumbed to a “liberal temptation” (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1182). Grenier and Orléan particularly challenge Foucault’s contention in the Birth of Biopolitics that there is no “economic sovereign” (Foucault [1979] 2008, 302) in neoliberal economics. According to Grenier and Orléan, money serves this function, as it is always related to power, to an exclusive right to issue currencies, to legislation, regulatory politics, etc. Such neglect reveals an ambiguous political agenda because it is precisely a distinctive feature of liberal doctrines (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1170-71). Thus, it is legitimate to ask whether Foucault was in favor of neoliberalism. He might have been attracted by neoliberal proposals such as the respect for heterodoxies and the autonomy of the subject (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1181).15

34 However, this paper argues that Foucault must be read as a critic of economics, not only in the Kantian sense of the word but also in the political sense of subversion, resistance, and opposition (see above). The overall picture drawn by Grenier and Orléan should be more nuanced. It should be noted, first, that Foucault did not refuse in principle to discuss monetary problems in his works on economists. It is true that money is not analyzed in his studies on governmentality, but it is central to the classical épistémè in The Order of Things; in a 1964 interview, Foucault commented further on the role played by money in Marx’s writings (Foucault, 1964, 600). It seem unfair to detect an “ideological function” in the disappearance of money in the second part of his works: Foucault does not state that money has no significance in order to mask its true influence. His choice to study other aspects of liberal thought is the result of a historian’s rather than an ideologist’s decision.

35 The “ideological” accusation of Grenier and Orléan (2007, see above) more clearly reveals the difficulties related to understanding Foucault’s intentions. Foucault does provide a critique of political economy, which is based specifically on a rejection of the notion of ideology. In his interviews and writings, Foucault frequently criticizes the Marxist concept of ideology (see, in particular, Foucault, 1974-c, 1975-c, 1977-c). These discussions are beyond the limited scope of this paper but it should be noted that Foucault formulates two main objections. First, critiques in ideological terms are inappropriate because ideology is opposed to truth. Thus, science is understood as a false discourse that is designed to obscure the reality of social relationships. This is because, for Foucault, the “untruth” and prohibitions are not decisive problems; his works are “a political history of […] truth and not a historical sociology of a prohibition” (Foucault, 1977-b, 257). True discourses and theories are more important than ideologies because, as we show in greater detail in the next section, Foucault strongly rejects social determinism and externalist, context-based approaches. Theoretical thought should not be treated as a mere reflection of infrastructures (Foucault, 1977-b, 248). Second, the concept of ideology paradoxically supposes rather than explains a particular model of the individual. Theory can only be said to model and constitute subjects on the condition that it preexists these subjects and hence is independent of social context: in analyses framed in ideological terms, “a human subject is always presupposed, whose model has been given by classical philosophy, and who is provided with a conscience that the power would come to capture” (Foucault, 1975-c, 1624). The whole purpose of Foucault’s critique consists of considering political economy not as a discourse that is inaccurate and loaded with implicit political intentions but rather as true and legitimate knowledge. This does not mean that Foucault denies the existence of such intentions and their eventual influence; thinkers and authors have their own “scientist ideologies” but it is pointless to disqualify their knowledge for that reason since ideologies play a minor and secondary role relative to the effects of true discourses (Foucault, 1976, 112).

36 Foucault’s approach challenges the usual critiques of economic theories, which denounce their unrealistic hypotheses or excessive use of mathematical models. For instance, when he analyses Gary Becker’s theory of human capital in the Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault does not condemn its abstract, partial and simplified view of social interactions. Of course, Becker’s works rest on hypotheses that make it possible to analyze “behavior in terms of individual enterprise, of enterprise of oneself with investments and incomes”. Such hypotheses have “immediate political connotations”, but “there is no need to stress them further”. The theory of human capital could be regarded as a mere ideology intended to promote the liberal individual and entrepreneurial spirit. As such, Becker’s theory does not contribute any decisive novelty and would not be worth studying: “If there were only this lateral political product, we could no doubt brush this kind of analysis aside with a gesture, or at any rate purely and simply denounce it”. The practical influence of an economic model is much more related to its theoretical and purely abstract contribution. For instance, the theory of human capital makes it possible “to reappraise phenomena which have been identified for some time before the end of the nineteenth century, and to which no satisfactory status has been given. This is the problem of technical progress, or what Schumpeter called ‘innovation’” (Foucault [1979] 2008, 230-231).

37 Foucault treats economic theories as what they aspire to be, i.e., legitimate science with a coherent set of problems to analyze and solve. This is absolutely necessary to criticize them appropriately and efficiently: “this does not mean eliminating the elements, the political connotations I referred to a moment ago, but rather of showing how these political connotations owe their seriousness, their density, or, if you like, their coefficient of threat to the very effectiveness of the analysis” (Foucault [1979] 2008, 232-233). Foucault wants to take his opponent “seriously”, but he does not intend to legitimate the true discourse that he studies: archeology is a “critical machine” which questions power relations or should, at a minimum, serve a “liberating function” (Foucault, 1974-b, 1501).

  • 16 In a 1967 interview, Foucault was asked about the provocativeness of his interpretations of humanis (...)

38 Foucault’s political position appears highly ambiguous, due probably polemic tone of his writings. Analyses framed in ideological terms are not only inappropriate but according to Foucault, they also in some sense participate in what they pretend to criticize. For instance, humanism is supposed to be challenging to “human sciences” because it insists on personal existence and subjectivity, yet The Order of Things describes how both belong to the modern épistémè. Similarly, in a famous text, Foucault argues that “though it is in opposition to the ‘bourgeois’ theories of economics”, Marxism has as its condition of possibility an event “that prescribed simultaneously, and according to the same mode, both nineteenth-century bourgeois economics and nineteenth-century revolutionary economics”; hence “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else” (Foucault [1966] 1994, 261). Such analyses are clearly provocative in the context in which they were written.16 Regarding neoliberalism, Foucault shows contempt for the usual critiques that consider it to be “no more than the reactivation of old, secondhand economic theories, […] a way of establishing strictly market relations in society” or “a cover for a generalized administrative intervention by the state”:

Adam Smith, Marx, Solzhenitsyn, laissez-faire; society of the market and spectacle, the world of the concentration camp and the Gulag: broadly speaking these are the three analytical and critical frameworks with which this problem of neo-liberalism is usually approached, and which therefore enable it to be turned into practically nothing at all, repeating the same type of critique for two hundred, one hundred, or ten years (Foucault [1979] 2008, 130).

39Heterodox economics frequently mobilize these types of arguments against so-called mainstream economics. As already observed, statements such as the quote above have led to doubts about Foucault’s political position. Yet, Foucault’s own discourse is also a political critique of economics, but a critique that is intended to reject the notion of ideology. This implies taking economics seriously, as a true discourse, and not as a mathematical fiction designed to conceal the reality of social relations.

4. Michel Foucault, Social History and Sociology

40In Section 3 we observed that Foucault’s critique of political economy consisted of neither making value judgments regarding economic theories nor detecting such judgments that implicitly were supported by those theories. Foucault abandons ideological analyses and focuses instead on the positive functions served by economic theories. On what types of truths they can produce; what types of recommendations do they formulate? This section studies a second important bias in Foucault’s reception among historians of economic thought. His works and method have been regarded also as institutional and sociological analyses of power. We argue that these interpretations are flawed because the Foucauldian approach also supposes that economic discourses should be seen as autonomous of the social context in which they appear or to which they may be applied.

  • 17 According to Ryan Walter, Foucault’s decisive claim was “that “things” such as sexuality are not pr (...)

41Historians of economic thought often contend that Foucault is opposed to so-called “internalist” history which focuses exclusively on the internal and autonomous development of models and theories. According to this perspective, Foucault would rather belong to “externalist” history which insists on the role played by social context and practices. According to Kologlugil, for instance, Foucault placed emphasis “on the non-epistemological-discursive elements of economic theorizing” (Kologlugil, 2010, 2). As Francesco Guala writes in his review of the Birth of Biopolitics, “the important action is supposed to take place where a ‘series of practices’ meets a ‘regime of truth’” (Guala, 2006, 433; see also Walter, 2011).17

42 Foucault’s history, however, fails to satisfy such expectations. As observed in the introduction, the first part of his work consists of an internal analysis of theoretical knowledge and its production, considered independently of its social context. For this reason Vigo de Lima considers that Michel Foucault’s early works are actually supported by “mainstream” (internalist) historians such as Mark Blaug and Joseph Schumpeter (De Lima, 2010, 195-196). However, in the 1970s Foucault’s approach seems to change and he considers instead that “the development of scientific knowledge” is related to “changes in the ways power operates” and, specifically, that “the typical case would be that of economic analysis” (Foucault, 1978-b, 533). However, the second part of Foucault’s work does not include any analysis of the social context. Paradoxically, his later works are increasingly concerned with contemporary theories, and could equally have focused on the institutional environment. As Grenier and Orléan note, it is precisely when Foucault studies contemporary neoliberalism that he abandons practices, and favors the concept of “governmentality” which is elaborated as a purely theoretical notion (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1166). Guala also regrets the weakness of institutional and social analyses in the Birth of Biopolitics, as compared to Territory, Security, Population (Guala, 2006, 437; see also Hacking, 2004).

43 According to Guala, this lack of institutional analysis is all the more surprising since post-war economic theories are particularly well suited to this type of investigation. The influence of Keynes’s ideas on Beveridge in England is a good example of an interaction between “knowledge and power”. In this case, economics seeks explicitly to control certain parts of society and provide a theoretical justification for economic policies (Guala, 2006, 434). Guala suggests that Foucault played at least a pioneering role in the development of context-based approaches, as there are increasing numbers of studies of the interaction between theories and practices. In particular, the literature on “performativity” establishes links, for instance, between the pricing of futures in finance and the construction of auction mechanisms (MacKenzie, Muniesa and Siu, 2006); Guala observes that “economics looks more like a Foucauldian discipline now than it did when these lectures were delivered at the Collège de France” (Guala 2006, 439). According to Guala, Foucault could have performed similar analyses, for example, concerning the relationship between the Chicago School and Chilean politics. However, Foucault did not investigate such connections: in his writings, “there’s power, and there’s knowledge. However, there’s little Power/Knowledge” (Guala, 2006, 433). Neoliberalism is not described precisely as “an explicit project of socio-economic engineering”, and one is bound to admit that it is more a “utopian nucleus” (Guala, 2006, 437).

  • 18 On Foucault’s rejection of the juridical conception of power, see Hindess (1996, 142-143) and Dean (...)

44 However, the literature on performativity referenced by Guala does not correspond to the method followed and advocated by Foucault, and the latter cannot be considered their precursor. What interests Foucault is not the way in which economic theories model social and institutional reality and, in turn, are eventually modeled by the same reality. The causal link might be complex because of mutual interdependence, but according to Foucault, institutional analyses of power are limited because they consider only reproductive functions of power: The role of knowledge is to legitimate, fund and reinforce institutions which, in turn, serve to legitimate, fund and reinforce knowledge. Foucault argues that such “an explanation of power by the power” is circular (Foucault, 1982, 1057) and is characterized by a privilege accorded to laws and rules.18

45 This is why at the end of the 1970s, Foucault attempts to depart from sociology and social history. Though the publication of Discipline and Punish in 1975 might have given the impression that Foucault’s approach was being increasingly concerned with practices, in 1979 Foucault claims that he is not “a social scientist”. When asked if his studies on disciplines might be related to Erving Goffman’s work on asylums, Foucault answers: “I am not trying to do the same thing as Goffman. What interests him is how a certain type of institution works: the total institution—asylum, school, prison”. Goffman’s issue is the institution; Foucault’s issue is rather “the rationalization of individual government” (Foucault, 1979-a, 802). Three years later, Foucault stresses that “the history of thought [he] want[s] to achieve has different requirements, different methods, because of different objects than social history” (Foucault, 1982-b, 1170). Unlike sociologists, Foucault does not investigate social phenomena: “my issue is not to propose a general principle to analyze society. My general theme is not society, it is true/false discourse” (Foucault, 1980-a, 852). As we have observed above, Foucault insists on the autonomy of knowledge, which is heterogeneous to strategies of power.

  • 19 “The efforts pursued by some Marxist-inspired historians of science to locate the social genesis of (...)

46 It should be noted that Foucault’s rejection of context-based approaches is not specific to the second part of his output. In 1971, he already refuses the notion that “discursive formations would be the expression of social and economic formations” (Foucault, 1971, 1027). Despite the apparent breach in his work (cf. introduction), there is a strong continuity in his method. In this respect, his opposition to the notion of ideology can be understood as a guiding principle in his research, although he recognizes the importance of Marxist historiography19. From the beginning, in The Order of Things, Foucault notes that the political orientations of theorists play a minor role. Thought deserves to be studied for itself, since it can be reduced neither to the biography of its author nor to any personal intention:

those who, in their profound stupidity, assert that there is no philosophy without political choice, that all thought is either ’progressive’ or ’reactionary’ […] Their foolishness is to believe that all thought ’expresses’ the ideology of a class; their involuntary profundity is that they point directly at the modern mode of being of thought (Foucault [1966] 1994, 327).

47Foucault’s method in the history of economic thought must therefore be distinguished from the sociology of sciences or social history, since it maintains a strict autonomy of theories from their contexts of emergence and diffusion. In the previous section, we demonstrated also that the Foucauldian approach is not dogmatic in the sense that its purpose is not to promote or support a certain economic thesis against some other economic thesis. The final section in this paper begins by reviewing Foucault’s reception among historians of economic thought and then discusses the origin of its misuses and misrepresentations.

5. Postmodernism, Foucauldian Theory and the History of Economic Thought

  • 20 Rose expresses a “personal unease” about the values of identity, choice, autonomy, etc., that can b (...)

48The previous two sections highlighted two frequent biases in Foucault’s interpretations among historians of economic thought. However, this is not to say that his works have been entirely misunderstood. Some readers and followers of Foucault note the autonomy of knowledge and the importance of personal commitment in his work. For instance, Ian Hacking distinguishes the respective “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches of Goffman and Foucault (Hacking, 2004, 278). Nikolas Rose’s ethical critique in Governing the Soul (Rose, 2009, xxiv) is similar to what we would describe as politically engaged journalism.20 It should be further noted that Foucault was not the only one to promote these ideas in the 1970s. In his 1978 work Land, Labour and Economic Discourse, Keith Tribe also strongly reacts against “political teleologies” and maintains a strict separation between “economic discourse” and its political realization (Tribe, 1978, 161).

49 However, perhaps the originality of Foucault lies precisely in the conjunction of these two principles: the rejection of ideological critiques on the one hand, and the presence of political purposes on the other hand. The latter is lacking in Tribe’s book, while Rose’s study of post-war psychology (Rose, 2009) is more sociological than theoretical. Foucault focuses only on abstract theories, but his history of knowledge is meant to have practical effects. There is no contradiction here because Foucault’s activism is non-academic, i.e., it does not support or fund any existing theory or contribute directly to a purely intellectual debate. If Foucault does not criticize the theory of neoliberalism, a Foucauldian history of neoliberalism might change the way we think, behave, and “conduct” ourselves in neoliberal societies.

  • 21 Hacking (2004, 278) argues also that “there is something missing” in Foucault: “an understanding of (...)

50 Yet such political ambitions remain mainly implicit and therefore appear disappointing for some readers. Foucault keeps saying that knowledge and power are intertwined, but he does not investigate the causal mechanisms between theories and practices. Hence, the idea is that Foucault’s approach played a pioneering role but still needed to be completed or continued (see above, Guala, 2006, 433, see also Hacking, 2004).21 Our hypothesis is that Foucault is perceived as an external source of inspiration in the history of economic thought rather than a historian in the strict understanding. As Rose (1999, xii) rightfully notes, Foucault has been debated mostly in relation to his theoretical and methodological credentials: Foucault is considered a “philosopher” who theorizes about history and social sciences, and his works are not read as either history or social sciences per se.

51 The problem is that Foucault’s works are not meant to be productive of “self-consciousness” among economists or other human scientists (see above). Foucault refused to be labelled a “philosopher” (Foucault, 1970; 1974; 1978). On numerous occasions he claimed that the days of philosophy as a universal discourse were over (Foucault, 1967, 639; 1970; 1972-a, 1972-b). His well-known critique of the “universal intellectual” (Foucault, 1976) also rejects the role of “spiritual adviser” (see also Foucault, 1970) traditionally applied to philosophers. Foucault preferred to be described as a “philosopher-journalist” (Foucault, 1973) or associated with “historical philosophy” (Foucault, 1977) or “political-analytic philosophy” (Foucault, 1978).

52 The fact that Foucault has been read as a general theorist and methodologist suggests that he has been underestimated as a historian (and also probably overestimated as a philosopher). Again, the problem is not entirely due to Foucault’s interpreters. As Bourdieu notes, Foucault was an active participant in Parisian intellectual life, and his public exposure was actually close to the “universal intellectuals” he was criticizing. As such, he was still immersed in the fields of philosophy, art, and literature (Bourdieu, 2004, 105-106). Hence, the importance of his style of writing, which was frequently highlighted by his interpreters (see for instance Hacking, 2004, 278). Such expressions as “historical fiction” (see above) have also given the impression that Foucault was promoting a type of artistic or aesthetic engagement.

53However, we have established that the notion of fiction does not mean that Foucault promotes the role of style, poetry or art in the writing of history. Historical fiction is not literature. A Foucauldian historian would distinguish himself by in selecting a particular set of thinkers and texts that are constrained by his own particular situation and political interests (see above). As Guala rightfully notes, Foucault’s primary originality in the history of economic thought consists of choosing the writings of low-ranking figures and fairly obscure economists (Guala, 2006, 431). In so doing, he in some sense was excluded from the field of philosophy, since he refused to separate the history of the traditional great philosophers from other types of more specific and applied discourses (Foucault, 1966, 531-532).

  • 22 Of the authors previously quoted, see in particular Amariglio (1988) and Kologlugil (2010).
  • 23 In a dense and exhaustive narrative, François Cusset (2003) analyzes the diffusion of Foucault and (...)

54Ultimately, Foucault’s output has been received as being somewhere between philosophy and the history of economic thought, which probably explains its supposed affiliation to “postmodernism”. Foucault has been frequently read, especially in English-speaking countries, as a postmodernist author.22 The term “postmodernism” was coined to describe very different philosophical sensibilities; as a “postmodernist”, Foucault has been associated with highly heterogeneous French and non-French authors:23 Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard but also Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas.

  • 24 “Like Rorty and McCloskey, Foucault would advise economists to give up their peculiar will to truth (...)

55These “postmodernist” perspectives are likely able to explain the two confusions in Foucault’s writings which we identified in the previous two sections. Postmodernism is poorly defined, but it can be understood as a type of contemporary nihilism. In this respect, it is related to two theses that we discussed previously, i.e., anti-humanism and social relativism. For Kologlugil, for instance, postmodernism “rejects the modernist construction of the human being as an abstract, centered, and unified entity with an inherent essence and rationality (theoretical humanism)”. Postmodernist authors challenge rationality and reason and therefore argue “that there are only different interpretations of reality, based upon different social structures of thought” (Kologlugil, 2010, 19-20). Amariglio also notes the importance of social relativism in postmodernism.24 We have previously demonstrated that Foucault was “postmodernist” in the sense that he was not opposed to humanism and does not subscribe to sociological explanations of theories. Some sociologists accused Foucault of being an “essentialist”, i.e., supposing the existence of autonomous concepts and ideas (see, for instance, Bourdieu, 1994, 65).

  • 25 “It is extremely dangerous to say that rationality is the enemy that we have to eliminate […] It is (...)
  • 26 When asked whether he belongs to “postmodernism”, Foucault responds: “I have to say I am very embar (...)

56 An important theme in postmodernism is the notion of an “end of reason”, toward which both antihumanism and relativism converge. The “end of reason” means that “the exercise of ‘human reason’ in its pure, abstract, and non-historical form is [not] able to achieve universal goals such as truth, freedom, democracy, emancipation, and development” (Kologlugil, 2010, 19). It is often related to Lyotard’s suggestion of the end of “metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984). Again, it is easily proven that this definition does not apply to Foucault’s approach. According to Foucault, it is meaningless to speak of “reason” in such general and abstract terms. In a 1983 interview, he is asked specifically about the “end of reason” and his supposed affiliation with postmodernism. Foucault does not understand what is meant by an “end of reason”: “The proposition that reason is a long narrative which is now terminated is nonsense”, as new forms of rationalities are constantly and endlessly created (Foucault, 1983-b, 1267). Moreover, it is absurd to pretend to be “against reason” or to oppose abstract reason and history.25 Ultimately, Foucault confesses that he does not understand to what the term “postmodernism” might refer26.

57 However, there is a more delicate issue concerning Foucault and postmodernism. As a “postmodernist” historian, Foucault is often considered the inventor or at least the promoter of the notion of “discontinuity” (De Lima, 2010; Kologlugil, 2010; Amariglio, 1988; Walter, 2008). It is true that in The Order of Things, Foucault highlights three different stages or épistémè in the history of Western thought and science. This analysis thus challenges the tendency to treat knowledge as continuous, progressive and unified by common concepts and instead contends that discontinuity and ruptures are observed over time. As Amariglio rightfully notes, the Foucauldian approach implies that historians of economic thought no longer seek to identify precursors to economic thought or find the thread of one argument in another at a later date (Amariglio, 1988, 610-611).

58 Yet, the notion of discontinuity is not one that Foucault supported as a methodological principle. Shortly after its publication, The Order of Things was criticized for being a “frozen” history and unable to explain the change between each rupture or épistémé. Foucault consistently responded to these critiques that discontinuity was not an important feature of his approach (Foucault, 1967-a, 616-617 and 705; 1967-b, 635; 1970-a, 878; 1980-a, 842). It is a mere fact that needs to be observed but then has to be explained: “You know there is nobody more continuist than me: tracking discontinuity is nothing other than noticing a problem to solve” (Foucault, 1980-a, 842). We should therefore reject De Lima’s claim that the notion of épistémé is enduring in Foucault’s works (De Lima, 2010, 237). Foucault struggled to distance himself from these accusations of discontinuity. This is why, in the foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things, he wrote: “It has been said that this work denies the very possibility of change. And yet my main concern has been with changes” (Foucault, 1970-a, 878). Foucault intended to substitute new logical modes for the classical forms of causality, especially psychological ones—the genius of great inventors, crisis of conscience, emergence of a spirit, etc. (Foucault, 1967-b, 635; 1968-a, 705); nevertheless, his purpose was to explain the transformations of concepts and ideas.

Conclusions

59Foucault’s reflections on his own material seem to justify any interpretations of his works, as he supports the notion that each of his books has to be read for itself, without considering his overall methodology. However, there is no need to read Foucault according to this narrowly Foucauldian perspective or to conduct a Foucauldian Archaeology of the author “Michel Foucault”. As a whole, Foucault’s writings and interviews converge on a coherent method. A Foucauldian-inspired history of economic thought would appear to be “politically engaged journalism”. This means that the theoretical problems of the past must be raised on the basis of practical problems that the historian encounters in his present situation. Such a partial and politically oriented inquiry into knowledge is meant to affect real power relations. This is not to say, however, that a Foucauldian historian would be the “critical consciousness” of economists; the whole point of Foucault’s approach consists of refusing any moral role while simultaneously leading to “hyper-activism” (Foucault, 1983-a, 1205).

60 We identified two frequent confusions regarding this method. The first lies in a normative reading: Foucault’s critique would consist of judging whether economic theories are good or bad, depending on variable criteria (“humanism”, “modernism”, “liberalism”, etc.). According to this perspective, Foucault is often regarded as a supporter of heterodox economics, or at least an opponent of “mainstream economics”. Foucault’s writings do not satisfy such expectations, and his political position ultimately appears rather ambiguous, as he recognizes the importance and novelty of the theories he nonetheless intends to criticize.

61 The Foucauldian approach has also been confused with social history and the sociology of science. For Foucault, sociological critiques of science are not adequate because theories are understood as ideologies, i.e., false theories, the role of which is to mask and legitimate the social relations of power and domination. Such analyses framed in ideological terms do not recognize the novelty and importance of the theoretical works they intend to question. Ultimately, Foucault’s central objection concerns the lack of efficiency in sociological critiques. The same tired arguments are advanced against “liberalism” or “orthodox economics”: the defense of the consumer society, of the liberal individual, etc.

62The problem with Foucault’s reception is that his works have been debated mostly on theoretical and methodological grounds: Foucault has been read more as a “philosopher” than a historian. The so-called “Foucauldian theory” has been associated with such theoretical claims as anti-humanism, social relativism, the “end of reason”, and discontinuity. In this respect, the term “postmodernism” was probably a major source of distortion in his reception among historians of economic thought.

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Notes

1 All translations of Foucault’s writings and interviews are the author’s, with the exception of The Order of Things and The Birth of Biopolitics.

2 The terms “discourse”, “knowledge” and “thought” can be understood as synonyms in Foucault’s terminology, even if Foucault uses these terms to varying extents throughout his writings.

3 A famous text entitled “What is an author?” (Foucault, 1969), which Foucault changed slightly when presenting it at a conference at the University of Buffalo in 1970, and was later published in the US in 1979 (Foucault 1979), played a particularly central role in the understanding of Foucault by English-speaking readers. American and English historians of thought frequently call on Foucault’s theme of “the disappearance of the author”, which is loosely associated with the so-called “linguistic turn” (see, for instance, Hacohen 2006).

4 “Freudian-type analyses are currently so prestigious that historical analyses of texts very often pursue the goal of looking for the unsaid of discourse, the “repressed”, the “unconscious” of the system” (Foucault, 1975-b, 1587-8).

5 See also Foucault (1977-a, 236): “I realize quite well that I have never written anything other than fictions”).

6 This expression was contributed by the author and was not found directly in Foucault’s writings. However, Foucault frequently claimed in his interviews that he considered himself much more a “journalist” than a philosopher in the classical sense of the word, or that contemporary philosophy was a type of journalism; see, in particular, Foucault (1970-d; 1973; 1975-d; 1978-a).

7 On this matter, see also the “ethical position” defended by Nikolas Rose in Governing the Soul (Rose, 1999, xxiv) and the interview entitled “the political function of the intellectual”, in which Foucault develops the notion of the “specific” intellectual as opposed to the universal intellectual (Foucault, 1976).

8 “Political economy is […] a type of knowledge […] which those who govern must take into account. But economic science cannot be the science of government and economics cannot be the internal principle, law, rule of conduct, or rationality of government. Economics is a science lateral to the art of governing. One must govern with economics, one must govern alongside economists, one must govern by listening to the economists, but economics must not be and there is no question that it can be the governmental rationality itself.” (Foucault [1979] 2008, 286).

9 See the edited collection by Boquet, Dufal, and Labey (2013), published after the 2011 conference entitled “A history of the present. Historians and Michel Foucault” (original title in French: “Une histoire au présent. Les historiens et Michel Foucault”).

10 See, for instance, the debate with the historian Laurence Stone concerning History of Madness (Foucault, 1983-c).

11 See, for instance, the debate with François Dagognet concerning Cuvier and his analysis in The Order of Things (Foucault, 1970-c).

12 “The economy as an object has not always been specified and governed in liberal terms, it may not always be in the future” (Walter, 2008, 111).

13 In a 1975 interview, Foucault was asked the following question: “what are the tasks of criticism today?” He answers: “only a Kantian can attribute a general meaning to the word “criticism”. I would say: it is an attempt to unveil […] most deeply and generally all effects of dogmatism related to knowledge, and all effects of knowledge related to dogmatism” (Foucault, 1975, 1683).

14 In 1984, Foucault wrote an article on “Michel Foucault” for the Dictionary of Philosophers and says of himself: “if Foucault belongs to the philosophical tradition, it is the critical tradition of Kant and his works could be called a critical history of thought” (Foucault, 1984-a, 1450).

15 “The ‘hard’ liberal way of inflexible economists leads to something quite fascinating in the sense that it substitutes to disciplinary society politics that respect differences, which were until now impossible to imagine, even from a mere theoretical point of view. And this respect of heterodoxies is undoubtedly more valued than anything else in Foucault’s political reflection” (Grenier and Orléan, 2007, 1181).

16 In a 1967 interview, Foucault was asked about the provocativeness of his interpretations of humanism in The Order of Things. Foucault answers with what might be considered another provocation: “it is humanism that constitutes a provocation… you know that it is precisely this humanism which served to justify, in 1948, Stalinism and the leadership of Christian democracy, that it is the very humanism that can be found in Camus’s or Sartre’s existentialism. In the end, this humanism has constituted, in a certain way, the small prostitute of the whole thought, the whole culture, the whole morals, and the whole politics of the last twenty years… The provocation is to propose it as an example of virtue” (Foucault, 1967, 643).

17 According to Ryan Walter, Foucault’s decisive claim was “that “things” such as sexuality are not pre-given but are formed from practices of knowing […] and governing” (Walter, 2011, 4). This interpretation is associated with a general argument about the social construction of economic objects (they do not exist “naturally as part of the furniture of the world” but emerge from reciprocal relations between theories and practices (ibid, 1-2)). Walter provides a sociological reading of Foucault, as suggests his endorsement of the literature on the performativity of economic discourse (ibid, 3)

18 On Foucault’s rejection of the juridical conception of power, see Hindess (1996, 142-143) and Dean (2012).

19 “The efforts pursued by some Marxist-inspired historians of science to locate the social genesis of geometry or the calculus of probabilities in the 17th century had impressed me a lot” (Foucault, 1971, 1027).

20 Rose expresses a “personal unease” about the values of identity, choice, autonomy, etc., that can be traced back to “Marxist critiques of bourgeois individualism, to the psychoanalytic decentering of the sovereignty of the conscious ego, to structuralist arguments”. However, Rose does not promote Marxism, structuralism or psychoanalytic approaches. His study merely aims to “enhance our capacity to think about these issues” (Rose, 1999, xxiv).

21 Hacking (2004, 278) argues also that “there is something missing” in Foucault: “an understanding of how the forms of discourses become part of the lives of ordinary people, or even how they become institutionalized and made part of the structure of institutions at work”. Hacking’s paper claims, therefore, that Michel Foucault’s “archaeology” and Erving Goffman’s interpersonal sociology are complementary.

22 Of the authors previously quoted, see in particular Amariglio (1988) and Kologlugil (2010).

23 In a dense and exhaustive narrative, François Cusset (2003) analyzes the diffusion of Foucault and other French authors in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. Cusset demonstrates that Foucault has, from the beginning, been associated with other French philosophers of the so-called “French theory”: Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard. Another important aspect of Foucault’s reception in the US is that it primarily occurred in university literature departments. It is this literature-influenced view of French theorists’ writings that subsequently gave rise to postmodernist stances and interpretations.

24 “Like Rorty and McCloskey, Foucault would advise economists to give up their peculiar will to truth” (Amariglio, 1988, 610).

25 “It is extremely dangerous to say that rationality is the enemy that we have to eliminate […] It is equally dangerous to claim that any critical questioning of rationality risks making us fall into irrationality” (Foucault, 1982-b, 1098).

26 When asked whether he belongs to “postmodernism”, Foucault responds: “I have to say I am very embarrassed to answer. First, because I have never precisely understood the meaning […] of the word modernity. I know that Americans have planned some sort of seminar in which there would be Habermas and me too. And I know that Habermas proposed modernity as a theme. I feel embarrassed because I do not see what it means very well, and I do not even see what are the types of problems that are concerned with this word or that would be common to people who are called postmodernists. Not as much as I see clearly that behind what was called structuralism, there was a certain problem that was roughly the subject and the re-melting of the subject, not much as I do not see in those who are called postmodernists or post-structuralists what types of problems would be common to them” (Foucault, 1983-b, 1265-1266).

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Nicolas Vallois

Lycée Jean Lurçat, Paris. nicovallois@hotmail.com

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