Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Birth of the Clinic - Michel Foucault

The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (French: Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical) is the second major work of twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault. First published in French in 1963, the work was published in English translation in 1973. Developing the themes explored in his previous work, Madness and Civilization, Foucault traces the development of the medical profession, and specifically the institution of the clinique (translated as "clinic", but here largely referring to teaching hospitals). Its central points are the concept of the medical regard ("medical gaze") and the sudden re-organisation of knowledge at the end of the 18th century, which would be expanded in his next major work, The Order of Things.

Key Points:

Medical Gaze

The term medical gaze was coined by French philosopher and critic, Michel Foucault in his book, The Birth of the Clinic (1963) (trans. 1973), to denote the dehumanizing medical separation of the patient's body from the patient's person (identity); (see mind-body dualism).

In modern medicine, the detached and value-free approach taken by medical specialists in viewing and treating a sick patient.

Episteme (implicit in this book, not explicit)

The historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses and thus represents the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch.


"The years preceding and immediately following the Revolution saw the birth of two great myths with opposing themes and polarities: the myth of a nationalized medical profession, organized like the clergy, and invested, at the level of man's bodily health, with powers similar to those exercised by the clergy over men's souls; and the myth of a total disappearance of disease in an untroubled, / dispassionate society restored to its original state of health."

“Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.”

“The first task of the doctor is ... political: the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government." Man will be totally and definitively cured only if he is first liberated...”

"How can the free gaze that medicine, and, through it, the government, must turn upon the citizens be equipped and competent without being embroiled in the esotericism of knowledge and the rigidity of social privilege?"

"What was fundamentally invisible is suddenly offered to the brightness of the gaze, in a movement of appearance so simple, so immediate that it seems to be the natural consequence of a more highly developed experience. It is as if for the first time for thousands of years, doctors, free at last of theories and chimeras, agreed to approach the object of their experience with the purity of an unprejudiced gaze."

"There's a famous book by Michel Foucault called 'The Birth of the Clinic' and I will wish you luck with that particular work. Its one of the classic studies which everyone refers to with regard to the Paris School [of Medicine] and its importance but let me just tell you anecdotally that I've read it I think four times. The first time I read it in French and thought there was something wrong with my French so I read it in English and decided there was also something wrong with my English, and then my third and fourth times I decided there was maybe something wrong with Foucault but I will leave that for you to judge and make your own decisions." - Professor Frank Snowden, Yale University, Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600 (HIST 234), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7YNY4MHBW8

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