Foucault on “Enlightenment” in Discipline and Punish

Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (or, to be more accurate, that portions of it that turn up in The Foucault Reader) in a seminar I taught this spring, I was struck, once again, by a sentence that reminded me why — prior to Foucault’s last discussions of Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” — there was a tendency to see Foucault as one of the more effective (and intransigent) modern critics of the Enlightenment.

An Enemy of the Enlightenment?

The sentence comes towards the end of the discussion of “Panopticism”, at the point when Foucault considers the ways in which the “formation of the disciplinary society” was connected with “a number of broad historical processes — economic, juridical-political and, lastly, scientific …” Considering the second of these three processes, he reflects on the way in which the rise of the bourgeoisie to the status of the politically dominant class had been “masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentarian, representative régime.”

In a gesture that echoes the moment in Capital when Marx bids farewell to the domain of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” and descends into the darkness of the factory to see how the worker tans hides and gets his own hide tanned, Foucault observes that the system of law and political representation is supported by a network of “tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical.” These mechanisms (which he terms “disciplines”) constitute “the other, dark side” of the system of rights and liberties.

… although, in a formal way, the representative regime makes it possible, directly or indirectly, with or without relays, for the will of all to form the fundamental authority of sovereignty, the disciplines provide to, at the base, a guarantee of the submission of forces and bodies. The real, corporeal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal, juridical liberties. The contract may have been regarded as the ideal foundation of law and political power; panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion. It continued to work in depth on the juridical structures of society, in order to make the effective mechanisms of power function in opposition to the formal framework that it had acquired. The “Enlightenment”, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines (222).

That last sentence seemed tailor-made to take its place — alongside Horkheimer and Adorno’s infamous judgment “Enlightenment is totalitarian” — on the list of the most famous attacks on the Enlightenment. His point, it would appear, is that the Enlightenment was playing a double game: on the surface, a world of rights, liberties, representation, but beneath the surface, a world of coercion and inequality. That the Panopticon served as the reigning image for the world of disciplinary practices added a final bit of spice to the account: the light that was supposed to liberate was even more efficient as a means of bondage.


Tallying “Enlightenment”

But having been recently cautioned by Stuart Edlen’s analysis of some of the problems that haunt the English translation of Surveiller et Punir, I thought it might make sense to take a look at the sentence in the original French. And, having done that, I became curious as to what the other invocations of “the Enlightenment” and “enlightenment” in the English translation were translating. Here, then, is an inventory of the five occurrences of these terms in English and the corresponding French passages that they are translating:

  1. The Enlightenment was soon to condemn public torture and execution as an ‘atrocity’. (Discipline and Punish 55)
    Les Lumiéres ne tarderont pas a disqualififier les supplices en leur reprochant leur ‘atrocité. (Surveiller et Punir 59)
  2. But at the time of the Enlightenment, it was not a theme of positive knowledge that man was opposed to the barbarity of public executions, but as a legal limit … . (Discipline and Punish 74)
    Mais en cette époque des Lumières, ce n’est point comme thème d’un savoir positif que l’homme est objecté à la barbarie des supplices, mais comme limite de droit. Surveiller et Punir 76)
  3. One should not forget that, generally speaking, the Roman model, at the Enlightenment, played a dual role: in its republican aspect, it was the very embodiment of liberty; in its military aspect, it was the ideal schema of discipline. (Discipline and Punish 146)
    Ne pas oublier que d’une façon générale le modèle romain, à l’époque des Lumières, a joué un double rôle; sous son visage républicain, c’était l’institution même de la liberté; sous son visage militaire, c’était le schéma idéal de la discipline. (Surveiller et Punir 148)
  4. The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines. (Discipline and Punish 222)
    Les ‘Lumiéres’ qui ont découvert les libertés ont aussi inventé les disciplines. ( Surveiller et Punir 224)
  5. (Quoting an 1847 ordinance): “The moral enlightenment of the inmates requires innumerable cooperators.” (Discipline and Punish 248).
    “La moralisation des détenus exige de nombreux coopérateurs.” (Surveiller et Punir 251-252).

Summing Up

What, then, are we to make of this list? Perhaps not all that much, but having gone to the trouble of looking up the various places where “enlightenment” appears in the English translation and comparing them with the French original, a few points might be worth noting.

First, we can throw out the phrase “moral enlightenment” in the fifth occurrence: the French is simply “moralisation”, which suggests that the English translation ought to follow suit and render it as “moral education” (or, if we want to exploit a possible ambiguity, “moralization”).

Second, we can note the not entirely surprising fact that, when Foucault finds the need to refer to the general period we call “the Enlightenment” (as he does in the second and third occurrences), he used the equivalent French phrase “époque des Lumières,” which is a minor variation on the eighteenth-century phrase that passed into general usage among French scholars of the Enlightenment as a way to refer to the period: “le siècle des lumières.” There are three reasons why this usage is worth noting:

  1. Both “époque des lumières” and “siècle des lumières” define an age by referring to the figures who defined it (“les lumières”), a gesture that — in the eighteenth century — made an implicit contrast to an earlier way of defining epochs: by referring to the name of the monarchs who defined them. For one famous example of this, it suffices to note a work by one of the “lumières”: Voltaire’s Le Siècle de Louis XIV.
  2. Defining a period in this way assumes that a group of individuals (les lumières) have enough in common to allow them to serve as a stand-in for a monarch who — though perhaps possessing two bodies — has (one hopes) a single identity. But when contrasted with terms like “the Enlightenment” or “die Aufklärung”, the French phrase seems to allow for a certain pluralism (perhaps a native French speaker could correct me on this). Were we to talk about “the age of the enlighteners”, instead of “the Enlightenment,” Anglophone scholars might be forced to think about the possible differences between the various thinkers they group together under the rubric “the Enlightenment.” Some of us think that might be a good thing (as we will see in a moment, this may also have implications for what Foucault may be doing in the other two occurrences).
  3. Finally, it should be noted that Foucault does not employ the German term Aufklärung, a term that turns up quite a bit in his work, and not just in the context of discussions of Kant’s famous essay on the subject. Should anyone care, here is a more or less complete list of Foucault’s use of the German term:Dits et Ecrits Vol 1: 76, 120, 545-546, 549.Dits et Ecrits Vol 3: 431-433, 479, 783.Dits et Ecrits Vol 4, 36-37, 73, 225, 231, 438, 440, 448, 562-568, 571-573, 577, 679-682, 685-687, 765-768.Histoire de la folie: 174.

    La naissance Naissance de la clinique, 51, 126.

    L’Herméneutique du sujet: 297, 467.

    There is more to be said about Foucault’s use of the term Aufklärung (I’ve said a bit about it in an earlier post), but, for now, we can simply pass on to the final to occurrences one and four.


Occurrences one and four strike me as even more problematic than the addition of “enlightenment” in fifth occurrence since they distort the text in a subtle, but significant way. They turn a claim about what certain individuals did into something that is accomplished by a historical period itself.

This is probably less of a problem in the first occurrence since, if there was anything on which the lumières could agree, it was that public tortures and executions were atrocious. But the fourth occurrence — which in English amounts to a sardonic takedown of the pretensions of “the Enlightenment” — reads somewhat differently in French, which would seem to be suggesting more that those Lumières, who were so concerned about discovering rights, were also engaged in the process of inventing the disciplines (I take Foucault’s use of scare quotes around Lumières to be an attempt to reinforce this point, but I’d be interested in alternative readings). While still nicely snarky, the French formulation carries an implicit burden with it: someone who makes a claim like this should be able to provide the names of a few lumières who were engaged in this sort of double game.

Jeremy_Bentham_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill_detailSince the passage occurs in a discussion of Panopticism, it is tempting to think of Bentham
as a possible example. He was, after all, about as close to being a philosophe as an English philosopher could come: he wrote in French, and he created a method of discipline that made use of light. There’s one problem, though: he didn’t think much of the idea of “rights”.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Foucault on “Enlightenment” in Discipline and Punish

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A very interesting discussion of Foucault’s usage of the term ‘Enlightenment’ before his relatively late turn to Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ – especially looking at Discipline and Punish.

  2. noir-realism says:

    It’s as if the transposition from one language to the other also entailed the translator to remain as neutral as possible. Yet, in this instance it appears the translator obviously interpolated incorrectly an addition to the fifth instance that forced a reading in English that just is not there. Dang… and so many of these types of things can change the destiny of a work and its interpretation, which obviously over the years gets reinforced. Why, after all these years, have we not seen a new better translation. Strange.

    Anyway thanks for the interesting exercise! Makes me start pondering the need to buy the original language versions of specific texts that might have issues like this on certain sentence transpositions.

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