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boundary 2 29.2 (2002) 69-85

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Foucault's Philosophy of Experience

Gary Gutting

Paul Rabinow, ed., Essential Works of Foucault: 1954–1984 (New York: The New Press, 1997–2000). Volume 1, Ethics (ed. Paul Rabinow), was published in 1997; volume 2, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology (ed. James Faubion), in 1998; and volume 3, Power (ed. James Faubion), in 2000. These works will be cited parenthetically.

Michel Foucault was always, and quite deliberately, a moving target, so he may well have demurred from the idea that these three thick volumes represent "essential works." On the other hand, he had his own penchant for capsule summaries of what all his previous work had "really" been about, so editors and other commentators can defend their comprehensive interpretations as Foucaultian. Paul Rabinow and James Faubion have stayed close to mainline views in dividing Foucault's work into three periods, although their three volumes do not present the writings in chronological order. The editors accord entirely with conventional wisdom in volumes 3 and 1, which correspond, respectively, to a middle period focused on power and a late period that moves to ethical concerns. Volume 2 introduces a less common [End Page 69] perspective, presenting the early period as centering on aesthetics and methodology, in some contrast to the standard categorization of the early Foucault as "archaeological." But Foucault's archaeological histories are carried out in his books (from The History of Madness through The Birth of the Clinic to The Order of Things), and his corresponding essays and interviews treat archaeology in the mode of methodological reflection. There is, moreover, clear point to explicitly recognizing Foucault's early literary critical essays (appearing, for example, in Critique and Tel quel), which are very important in his oeuvre, although their precise significance is, as we shall see, debatable.

We might still wonder at the point of abandoning the more neutral but obviously helpful strict chronological order of the French Dits et écrits from which these pieces are selected. 1 My guess is that the choice was at least partly driven by marketing considerations, which would suggest directing each volume toward a specific interest group. Such considerations would also explain the decision to publish first the volume on ethics, which contains primarily Foucault's latest work. In any case, each volume sticks roughly to a single period of Foucault's work, with Volume 2 covering mostly the 1960s, Volume 1 mostly the 1970s, and Volume 3 mostly the 1980s.

The editors have done an excellent job of choosing from their French source. Almost all the essays and interviews crucial for understanding Foucault's projects are presented, along with a nicely representative selection of less central or more occasional pieces. Volume 1 begins with the official summaries of the courses and seminars Foucault offered at the Collège de France. The rest of the volume contains materials on ethics (mostly interviews) from the last five years of Foucault's life (1980–84). Volume 2 provides Foucault's essays on literature (published from 1961–69) as well as his essays and interviews (mostly from the 1960s) on archaeological method. Volume 3 is made up primarily of essays from the 1970s and 1980s on power and related topics such as governmentality; there is also a good selection of brief, mostly journalistic, political pieces.

One significant omission is the valuable 1967 interview that Foucault gave to Paolo Caruso on his work up through The Order of Things, a piece that provides, along with much else, a good statement of his attitude toward [End Page 70] Sartre. 2 Some reviewers have complained that the inclusion of brief book reviews and op-ed pieces on current political themes belies the titular claim of offering essential works, but Foucault's journalism as a whole has an essential role in his always engaged intellectual projects, even though any particular piece is, of course, dispensable. The English translations are generally at least serviceable and often improve earlier versions on which they are based. The introductions to each volume contain helpful background information and some stimulating interpretative suggestions. The editors deserve particular...