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Continental Philosophy

Structuralists

What was Michel Foucault’s method for forming his cultural criticism?

Foucault studied institutions and ideas by understanding their histories. In the course of that anthropological “archeology,” he often pinpointed the emergence of new forms of human discourse and personal identity. In the case of sexuality, for example, Foucault argued that new forms of power create new forms of sexuality, as do new practices of observation and medical diagnosis.

One of Foucault’s most enduring contributions was to demonstrate how many human traits and practices that are believed to be natural are in fact the effects of social and political institutions that exert unexamined power on individuals. At the same time, the individuals are complicit in remaking themselves to conform to institutional expectations. A primary example would be ideas of gender such as athletic ability in women. Before the second half of the twentieth century, women were believed to be unable to participate or excel in sports due to “natural” limitations.

Foucault is famous for having claimed to invert Plato (c. 428–c. 348 B.C.E.), who had said that the soul is imprisoned in the body, meaning that our natural physical needs and desires oppress our higher spiritual selves. Foucault thought that “the soul is the prison of the body,” meaning that our ideas shape our physical existence.



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