Stuart Elden’s The Early Foucault is the third of a four-volume study of the origins and development of Michel Foucault’s thought. This book is the first one regarding the period it covers, basically the 1950s, but it is the third to be published. It will be soon followed by a fourth and final book, that will cover the ‘archaeological’ period and Foucault’s forays into art history and literary criticism. External factors explain the disconnect between the order of production and the chronology. Elden’s first two books dealt with the publication of Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France. The publication of the Lectures began in 1997, with the publication of the sixth lecture, Il faut défendre la société (1975-1876). Additional volumes followed it, released not in the order of their delivery by Foucault, but on the availability of audio recordings of the lectures. Foucault’s preparatory notes and other ancillary materials later supplemented and eventually displaced the recordings. Elden’s earlier books responded to the availability of the Lectures and the will to integrate the new material into a coherent picture. The First Foucault and the forthcoming book on Archaeology deal with the archive material made available to the public in recent years. This material includes reading and preparatory notes, lectures of the period before his appointment to The College de France, manuscripts in different degrees of development, philosophical diaries, bibliographies, etc.
Elden is one of the first to attempt a synthetic picture of this wealth of materials. He relies on archival material from Foucault and his contemporaries, detailed comparisons between different editions of published works, and a thorough familiarity with the secondary literature.
While we have three superb biographies of Foucault (Eribon, Miller, and Macey) and numerous specialized studies, these are primarily based on Foucault’s published work and interviews with Foucault and his contemporaries. But the opening of Foucault’s literary estate — deposited today in the Bibliothèque nationale de France — necessitates revisions, or at least qualifications, of our prior understanding of Foucault’s thought and development. Elden’s book is a thorough study of the archive. It also explores Foucault’s stay in Upsala (Sweden) and his use of its University Library’s significant collection of medical books and printed materials. Also, using documents unearthed in recent years by Polish historians, he sheds some light on the sordid story of how the communist Polish secret police attempted to entrap and possibly blackmail Foucault.
It is not possible to describe in detail the riches of the book in this review. Therefore, I will concentrate on a few issues previously insufficiently documented and on how newly discovered materials sheds light on the formation of Foucault’s thought. Ultimately, the book’s structure is strongly indexed to a foretold result, writing the two texts Foucault submitted for his doctoral degree (Doctorat d’État). This structure necessarily downplays the roads not taken. Elden is aware of this, and on several occasions, he considers projects that Foucault abandoned or reoriented into newer ones.
Chapter 1 discusses Foucault’s university studies in philosophy and psychology, with particular emphasis on a Master’s thesis that Foucault prepared under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite. This work was presumed lost, but it was recently recovered and would be published soon. Chapter 2 investigates Foucault’s first teaching assignments at the University of Lille and the Ecole normale superieure (ENS) in Paris. Chapter three discusses Foucault’s earlier publications and describes several other projects that Foucault began in this period but left unfinished. Chapter 4 looks at his work as a co-translator of the existentialist psychiatrist Binswanger and the philosopher and essayist von Weizsäcker. Chapter 5 analyzes Foucault’s study of Nietzsche and Heidegger, his reading of the work of Dumezil, and his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué. Chapter 6 covers Foucault’s postings in Upsala and Warsaw, while chapter 7 does the same for the Hamburg period. In Hamburg Foucault translated and commented Kant’s Anthropology, that he submitted as his secondary thesis for his Doctorat d’état. Finally, chapter eight deals with the defense, publications, and after story of Madness and Civilization, his principal doctoral dissertation.
One of the many strengths of Elden’s account is its attention to Foucault’s study of Hegel, Husserl, Kant, the Dasein analytical movement, and many more. This is particularly welcome because Foucault is not very loquacious about his readings. In particular, there is almost no explicit reference in Foucault’s published writings to his extensive reading of Husserl. Elden shows that Foucault studied Husserl intensively, even reading and annotating some of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. The same is true of other master thinkers, such as Freud, Binswanger, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.
Chapter 1 presents the teachers Foucault encountered first in Lycée Henri-IV during the preparation for the entrance examination to the École normale supérieure (ENS) and later at the ENS and the Sorbonne. These teachers were not only sources of knowledge and inspiration for Foucault but also incarnated the philosophical establishment, and Foucault will meet them as teachers, examiners, members of his doctoral jury, and later, as colleagues. Of particular interest is the figure of Jean Wahl, who played an essential role as a relay for German philosophy, was interested in the philosophy of Heidegger, but also in Hegel and Kierkegaard. Foucault attended Wahl’s courses on Heidegger in 1950 and possibly also in 1952.
Elden then presents the figure of Jean Hyppolite, and most importantly, the thesis that Foucault wrote under his direction and submitted in 1949. The dissertation asks three questions: (a) what are the limits of the field of phenomenological exploration and what are the criteria for the experience that serves as the point of departure; (b) what the limits of the transcendental domain in which experiences are made up; (c) what the relations of the transcendental world with the actuality of the world of experience (12).
Elden describes Foucault’s arguments (12-17) and adds that Foucault refers to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, other Hegel writings, and a wide range of secondary literature, including the work of Kojève, Lukacs, Hyppolite, Löwith, and Croce. Foucault also references Husserl and expositors of Husserl’s philosophy, such as Levinas, Fink, and Sartre. According to Elden, Foucault argues that The Phenomenology of Spirit is not an introduction to the Hegelian system or its first part, but rather an assessment of how a ‘system as the totality of knowledge… could be conceived’ (13).
Elden concludes that it is ‘an apprentice work’ and is surprised that Foucault does not evoke the famous ‘master slave’ theme. He points out some continuity between the thesis and Foucault’s later interests. For example, Elden lists the idea of the transcendental and the stress on the question of knowledge (16). Elden also notes the absence of references to Heidegger and Nietzsche (17). However, he seems less surprised by Foucault’s strikingly ‘unhegelian’ reading of the Phenomenology.
Foucault studied not only philosophy but also psychology and psychopathology. Elden refers to his teachers, Lagache and the psychiatrist and neurologist Ajuriaguerra. Foucault also read the work of Georges Politzer, who proposed a Marxist oriented ‘concrete psychology,’ critical of psychoanalysis. Foucault was also interested in the historical approach to psychology that Ignace Meyerson developed. Regarding psychoanalysis, Elden refers briefly to Pierre Morichau-Beauchant, one of the earliest French psychoanalysts and a friend of his family. Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars. Based on Maurice Pinget, a close friend at that period, Elden writes that Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars in 1951 and until his departure for Upsala in 1955. But while Pinget claims that Foucault was very enthusiastic about Lacan, other witnesses seem to remember that Foucault had little sympathy for Lacan’s project and philosophical ambitions (20). And Foucault’s early publications do not reflect Lacan’s teachings. Elden promises more on the relationship between Foucault and Lacan in his forthcoming book about Foucault’s Archaeology (21).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was another significant influence. Foucault attended Merleau-Ponty’s lectures in 1947-48 in the Sorbonne, but probably not his lectures at the College de France. Foucault wrote an unpublished manuscript on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy (see chapter 4). Elden describes the influence of Merleau-Ponty as being significant for the young Foucault, in particular, because of Merleau-Ponty’s project to bridge between psychology and philosophy (23).
A section in this chapter deals with the preparation for the aggregation examination. Elden explains the mechanism of the exams (24-25) and portraits some important characters for Foucault in this period, mainly Althusser and Canguilhem. Foucault failed in his first attempt but retook the exam the next year and was graded second in philosophy. One anecdotical aspect of his exams is that Foucault’s subject for the oral exam was sexuality, a topic newly introduced by Canguilhem to the program. It seems that Foucault complained about the subject.
Chapter 2 deals with the Lille and ENS period, from 1949 to his departure for Upsala in 1955. Following his aggregation, Foucault applied for a scholarship to conduct doctoral research at the Foundation Thièrs. His proposal was the study of the problem of human science in post-Cartesian thought and the work of Malebranche and Bayle. Elden remarks that this subject seems to link back to Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Malebranche and Maine de Biran. In this period, Foucault also worked as an assistant lecturer in psychology at the University of Lille. He taught contemporary psychology and its history, psychoanalysis, psychopathology, Gestalt theory, the work of Pavlov and other Soviet psychologists, Rorschach tests, and the existential psychologies of Roland Kuhn and Binswanger. He also taught psychology at the ENS, covering psychology, experimental psychology, Pavlov, and the psychoanalytical theory of personality.
In parallel to his teaching activities, Foucault obtained a certificate in psychopathology from the Institute of Psychology of Paris. The studies there included lectures and practical observations at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital.
We have several archival materials from this period. Three ‘substantial manuscripts’ were preserved: ‘Connaissance de l’homme et réflexion transcendantale’ (Knowledge of man and transcendental reflection), an untitled manuscript on Binswanger, and one on phenomenology and psychology. We also have indirect materials, such as student notes, which cover Foucault’s teaching at the ENS. Elden describes and summarizes the content of this archival material.
Regarding ‘Knowledge of Man,’ the manuscript is in a binder labeled ‘Cours 1952-3’, and its content overlaps with a course that Foucault taught in 1954-5 at the ENS with a different title. Elden suspects these notes may be more than just teaching material, maybe material for a projected thesis. In these manuscripts, Foucault takes leave from his Master’s thesis and explores the notion of a ‘philosophical anthropology.’ The manuscript begins with references to the origins of philosophical anthropology in the early modern era. In a typical Foucauldian gesture, he dates the origins of the word ‘anthropology’ to the work of the physician and philosopher Ernst Platner, a Kant’s contemporary. Next, Foucault surveys the development of anthropology in early modern times, referring to Scheler, Husserl, and Binswanger. Finally, Foucault claims that philosophy did not recognize anthropology as an autonomous discipline because of the influence of dualism, theology, and the privilege given to abstract a priori rationality. Foucault refers abundantly to Leibnitz, Spinoza, Lessing, Malebranche, Descartes. Still, Elden suspects that these sections are most likely oriented to the curricular requirements and are not the kernel of Foucault’s project. The second part of the course studies Kant’s anthropology in relation to the critical project overall. A few pages inserted after the concluding chapter of the manuscript deal with ‘the end of anthropology,’ an idea that he powerfully develops many years later in The Order of Things. The final pages are devoted to a reading of Nietzsche, to the relationship of biology to psychology, and the criticism of psychologism, religion, and universal history. Finally, Foucault reviews current views on anthropology, discussing Jaspers, Heidegger, Löwith, Kaufmann, and Vuillemin.
Elden dedicates a few paragraphs to the question of when and how Foucault knew about Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, which was still unpublished at that time. The question is whether Foucault developed his reading of Nietzsche independently of the influence of Heidegger, a query that Foucault himself addressed ambiguously. Elden discusses this issue in chapter 5.
Another important manuscript of this period is the one on Binswanger. This manuscript has been, in the meantime, published in a critical edition with the title Binswanger et l’analyse existentielle (2021). Elden discusses the problems of dating the manuscript, presents Binswanger’s career, and his relationships with Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger. According to Elden, one of the key themes of Foucault’s manuscript is whether Binswanger was able to move from a descriptive and pre-scientific apprehension of the human being to a rigorously scientific anthropology (34). Elden does not pursue this lead but concentrates instead on showing the extent of Foucault’s mastery of Binswanger’s work. What attracted Foucault to Binswanger? Elden says that Foucault was attracted by Binswanger’s interest in ‘modes of being of the human.’ Binswanger also provided an alternative to Sartre’s anthropological-phenomenological project (37). Elden adds that while Foucault did not publish this text, it is quite developed. While the manuscript overlaps with his Introduction to Dream and Existence, Foucault did not use this manuscript as a basis for his later essay. Elden speaks of a road not taken, even if eventually the interest in Daseinsanlysis may have inspired Foucault to write History of Madness. But Foucault soon will reject the whole idea of philosophical anthropology and its impossible hermeneutical circle. In his later work, Foucault will castigate as an ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’ the pretension of a philosophical anthropology.
The third manuscript reviewed in this chapter has for title Phénoménologie et psychologie. Foucault gave a course with the same title in 1953-4 and the following year. A different manuscript on psychology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty may also be part of the course. And a third manuscript, intitled Psychologie et phénoménologie’, seems to date from the same period, but it has only a thematic but not textual relation to the manuscript (40).
Foucault begins with the claim that ‘The tradition attributed two forms to psychological experience, recognizing each as an independent source: introspection…and objective observation…in the first psychology sought its philosophical foundation, in the other its scientific justification. The situation was clear, but it was an alibi: psychology was never where it was suspected to be’ (Foucault, quoted and translated by Elden, 41).
The manuscript follows with the claim that the death of God contributed to the division between subjective and objective forms of experience. But according to Elden, the reference throughout the manuscript is Husserl. Elden comments that Husserl was a major focus of Foucault’s research at this point in his career, even if he rarely discussed Husserl in his writings (42).
Archival material regarding Foucault’s lectures on psychology, child psychology, testing, etc., is not extant. Still, we know indirectly of Foucault’s lectures through notes from students at the ENS, Lagrange, and Simon in particular (43-46).
Elden also refers to Foucault’s internship in the Sainte-Anne hospital, collaborating with Jacqueline and George Verdeux on various testing and electroencephalography research. Foucault also participated in studies conducted at the Fresnes prison, part of a project to evaluate new inmates suitability for different institutions and programs. Elden observes that Foucault seems to have had in this period an earlier exposure to many of the issues that he will explore in-depth in his mature work. Elden also mentions that Foucault never referred in detail to his previous work, and his recollections were not very consistent. For example, we know that Jacqueline Verdeux requested Foucault’s help for her translation of Binswanger’s work. But Elden does not say if Foucault knew Binswanger before his collaboration with Verdeux or how he came to be interested in his work.
Chapter 3 deals with Foucault’s first publications in the early ’50s. In this period, Foucault wrote three essays and one book, which reflect on Foucault’s interests in psychology and psychopathology. They are the Introduction to the French translation of Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, a review essay on the history of psychology from 1850 to 1950, and finally, one on scientific research and psychology. Maladie mentale et personnalité, a book, was published in 1954, reissued in 1962 with profound changes, and finally abandoned by Foucault. While these writings were published between 1954 and 1957, Elden estimates that they were written simultaneously.
Elden’s decision to separate the published from the unpublished works may be a disservice to himself and his readers, insofar as the detailed descriptions do not coalesce into a clear hypothesis about what drives Foucault’s explorations. We don’t know if Maladie Mentale et Personnalité and the Introduction to Dream and Existence represent the ideas developed in the early manuscripts or their abandonment.
Maladie Mentale et Personnalité was commanded by Jean Lacroix for the series ‘Initiation Philosophique’ published by the prestigious Presses Universitaires de France. The collection was planned as a series of introductions to philosophical subjects. Lacroix accepted Foucault’s proposal in February 1953, and Foucault delivered a manuscript in October 1953. In Chapter 8, Elden compares the original with the revised edition Foucault published after publishing Madness and Civilization. Elden summarizes the book and emphasizes that the way Foucault presents the problem of psychology and pathology is similar to the approach that he will develop in his mature works, namely, uncovering the structures that make possible forms of scientific knowledge (63). At this stage of Foucault’s evolution, the problem is still presented in philosophical anthropological terms: the approach must be grounded on Man itself, not on the abstraction of illness (Elden 65, quoting Foucault). Evaluating the impact of this book, Elden argues that as Foucault’s profile raised, more attention was paid to this book, especially to the (heavily edited) second edition, despite Foucault’s attempts to forget the book. Nonetheless, some have argued that if we want to examine ‘the archaeology of Foucault’s thought,’ we should consider the first edition (quoted by Elden, 78).
Summarizing his argument, Elden states that “it is striking how much of the work that Foucault undertook in the 1960s has its roots back in the period studied here (190). And he adds, ‘what seems striking in reading all of Foucault’s writings, published and unpublished, are links between periods, rather than clear breaks’ (190). Foucault himself characterized his evolution as a philosopher who moved on to psychology and from psychology to history. Elden shows that these transitions are not breaks but the reconfiguration of some initial questions and their development in new directions.
Elden’s book is undoubtedly a treasure trove for the student of Foucault. Elden says that ‘I have read what he [Foucault] read and analyzed what he wrote.’ The extent of his scholarship, the sources, and the available secondary literature are impressive. Elden benefited from access to Foucault’s papers and the work of a group of young researchers that are busy publishing critical editions of several of the documents that Elden refers to. A good example of this is the recent special issue of the journal Theory, Culture and Society, edited by Elden, Orazio Irrera and Daniele Lorenzini with the title ‘Foucault Before the Collège de France.’ And we should commend his selflessly sharing in his blog many facts, big and small, that he helped uncover.
When all is said and done, how is this going to impact our understanding of Foucault? It is too early to say how this will affect our future interpretation of the life and work of Michel Foucault. Most likely, not in a revolutionary way, but we will have a better context and insights on how some of his ideas developed and what they mean. But the philological and the reception dimensions of a work often do not run in parallel. The misunderstandings around Foucault are at least as productive as the historical record. The student of Foucault knows that a concept such as ‘biopolitics’ has a very short half-life in Foucault’s work. But we can argue that it becomes the inspiration for a renewed interest in Foucault’s work several years after his untimely death. The same is true of his criticism of the ‘repressive hypothesis,’ the idea of the ‘death of man,’ the ‘ontology of the present’ and other metaphors easy to weaponize that, tend to disappear from Foucault’s conceptual universe as soon as coined, only to reappear later in a new metaphor.