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By Stuart Elden


The Montréal Review, March 2023



On 26 October 1968 Jean Hyppolite died. An important figure in French philosophy, especially as a translator and commentator on Hegel, he had supervised Foucault’s diploma thesis on Hegel in 1949, and twelve years later was the rapporteur for Foucault’s secondary thesis on Kant. Foucault learned of Hyppolite’s death on the boat back to Marseille from Tunisia on 27 October 1968.

Alongside Georges Canguilhem, Louis Althusser and others, Foucault spoke in tribute at the École normale supérieure on 19 January 1969. Foucault notes the importance of the course on The Phenomenology of Spirit he attended, in which he says the students heard not only the voice of the professor, but also “something of the voice of Hegel, and perhaps even the voice of philosophy itself”. He describes Logic and Existence as “one of the great books of our time”. Foucault stresses Hyppolite’s chair was not in the history of philosophy, but the “history of philosophical thought”. For Foucault this characterises Hyppolite’s entire œuvre, and relates to his own interest in philosophical discourse. A month later Hyppolite was the unnamed absent presence in Foucault’s “What is an Author?” lecture. And in his inaugural lecture in December 1970, he lists Hyppolite, Georges Dumézil and Canguilhem as the significant mentors who had helped him to achieve this position.

Foucault coordinated the volume Hommage à Jean Hyppolite, published in 1971. In a brief preface he says it brings together “some of the friends and the closest pupils” of Hyppolite. As a tribute to his memory, its aim is collecting essays across the “different domains” of his work, in “history of thought, philosophy of science, epistemology, psychoanalysis”. Foucault’s contribution was “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”. Foucault adds that others have edited Hyppolite’s final seminar from the Collège de France in 1967-68 as another part of the tribute. That volume, on Hegel and modern thought, edited by Jacques d’Hondt, with contributions by Derrida, Althusser and Dominique Janicaud, actually appeared first, in 1970. Dina Dreyfus edited Hyppolite’s own short essays into the two volume Figures de la pensée philosophique in 1971. As is well known, Hyppolite’s death left open a chair at the Collège de France.

SUNY Buffalo

At the time of his formal election to this chair on 12 April 1970, Foucault was teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was his first trip to the United States, and he had some difficulties getting a visa due to his former membership of the French Communist Party.1 The visit had been initiated by René Girard, but most of Foucault’s correspondence was with John K. Simon, chair of the French department. At this time Foucault either lectured in French or with an interpreter. Foucault had initially said he would teach Manet, but in the end only lectured on him at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo on 8 April 1970.

Foucault was also the closing speaker at the Language and Cultural Discontinuities Symposium, held in his honour in 15-17 April 1970. A report in the Buffalo student newspaper said: “The symposium will examine and offer to the American scene the methodologies which have developed out of new attitudes and approaches toward structural linguistics”. Foucault’s talk was under the title “The Discontinuities of Knowledge”, but seems not to have been preserved.

His course at Buffalo was on “modern criticism”, and Foucault told Simon this could either focus on literary criticism, or “touch on the history of ideas, or of science”. After a little back and forth discussing possible options, Foucault decided to give a short course on “the desire to know or the phantasms of knowledge [désir de savoir ou les fantasmes du savoir] in French literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”. This bears a thematic relation to his first course at the Collège de France on “the will to know [la volonté de savoir]”, which began in December later that year. In Buffalo though the focus would be literary, discussing “Sade, Balzac, Flaubert, perhaps J. Verne, G. Bataille and Blanchot”.

Foucault had mentioned this visit in a February 1970 letter to Barthes on the publication of S/Z,his analysis of Balzac’s “Sarrasine”.

Thank you, dear Roland, for sending me your S/Z. I’ve just read it in one sitting. It is magnificent, the first true analysis of text that I’ve ever read. I’m leaving soon for America—Buffalo, where I must, in two months, teach ‘French literature’. I’m taking S/Z, which I’ll assign to the students as a basic text. And we’ll get some practice.

It is not clear he actually taught Barthes, but the lectures at Buffalo, between March and April, were indeed quite wide-ranging. Materials preserved include a two-part lecture on Sade, ones on Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Balzac’s La Recherche de l'absolu [The Quest of or Search for the Absolute], and a different version of “What is an Author?” At least one and possibly two lectures were on Nietzsche, and Simon indicates these were part of the same course. In his interview with Simon from this visit, published in Partisan Review, there are some interesting reflections on the experience of teaching. Foucault also took a side trip to give a lecture at Yale University, and Paul Karan also invited him to the University of Kentucky, where he spoke to a group of graduate students from Sociology, Geography, Political Science and Anthropology about The Archaeology of Knowledge. It seems this was a detour from his trip to Faulkner country in Mississippi with Defert.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is the story of two copy-clerks, who meet in Paris and become friends. On inheriting a fortune, they move out of Paris, and begin a series of inquiries into almost every kind of human knowledge, from the sciences to the arts, to politics, religion, love and education. Each disappoints through their failure, and they quickly move onto the next. Flaubert died before completing the book and it was published the year after his death. The episodic nature of the text and its unfinished manuscript means its overall scope is unclear, but the categorisation and satirisation of types of knowledge undoubtedly appealed to Foucault.

Foucault had already discussed Flaubert in his 1964 untitled afterword to the German translation of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Foucault argued The Temptation anticipates literary work of the twentieth-century, and described Bouvard and Pécuchet “as its grotesque shadow, its tiny, yet boundless, double”. Both were books which were “produced from other books; the encyclopaedic learning of a culture; temptation experienced in a state of withdrawal; an extended series of trials; the interplay of illusions and belief”. However, while The Temptation had the Bible at its heart, in Bouvard and Pécuchet the interplay of the different sources is more evident, with the library “clearly visible – classified and analysed”.

The 1970 lecture, while ostensibly on Bouvard and Pécuchet, is as much on The Temptation, with some mention of other texts, including Madame. Foucault again sees the parallels in this “two great fables of knowledge [savoir]” between “the temptation of the hermit – of the stubborn believer – by demonic knowledge, and “the attempt by two ignorants to assimilate all human knowledge”. There is also something ironic about how Flaubert satirised the accumulation and organisation of knowledge, when he prepared for his writing with such care, amassing a vast range of notes, a comment which might also be made of Foucault himself. Nonetheless, Foucault suggests Bouvard and Pécuchet “is not a critique of the autodidact, but the grand fable of the already said”. A French version of the 1964 afterword appeared in 1967, and then was revised as a chapter in a collection on Flaubert in 1970. That Foucault returned to the text, rather than just allowed its reprint, suggests it remained of interest to him. Right at the end of the Flaubert lecture Foucault explicitly relates it to the “desire to know”.

Foucault relatively rarely discussed Balzac. In his work on madness and mental illness, Foucault mentions his novella L’Interdiction, which was an examination of the principle of declaring someone legally incompetent by reason of insanity. Elsewhere, Balzac functions as a contrast to Robbe-Grillet in their mode of description. He is mentioned in an early draft of The Archaeology of Knowledge, in the book itself, and – in place of Flaubert – in the manuscript of ‘What is an Author?’ In this Buffalo lecture, Foucault indicates his knowledge of Balzac was extensive, and he references several works. The main purpose is to look at The Quest of the Absolute, which he interestingly links to his idea of the absence of work [œuvre]. The reason is the main character, Balthazar Claës, is looking for the philosopher’s stone, the aim of alchemy, to turn base metals into gold. Claës, having pursued this quest until the end of his life, dies before uttering his final insight. Foucault also develops some themes around sexuality, especially the family life, and the homosexual desires of Claës.

In these two Buffalo lectures of 1970, Foucault is blending themes from his wider work and in particular the question of the will to know, with a survey of these two canonical French writers. But he seems to have found little use for developing these pieces, which remained simply as handwritten lecture notes. The lectures on Sade were similarly left unpublished, but might have been intended for a fuller study. The surviving materials include the notes from Buffalo in 1970, Montréal in 1971 and Cornell in 1972. A typescript of the Buffalo lectures, based on a recording and given to Foucault by Harari, has been published.

In April 1971 Foucault taught Sade and Nietzsche at McGill University. While in Montréal Foucault visited New York City and Buffalo again. He had remained in contact with Simon, and was one of the named academics for a Buffalo exchange programme in Paris. Foucault returned to Buffalo to teach two courses in 1972 as the Melodia E. Jones Chair in French. One was a seminar on “The criminal in French literature of the eighteenth and nineteeth-centuries”, listed in the course catalogue simply as “Criminal Literature”. For this he suggested the students read Gil Blas, Justine or if possible La Nouvelle Justine, Les Misérables and Les Mystères de Paris. He also taught a course on “The Origins of Culture”, for which he required the students read Homer, Hesiod’s Theogony, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Plato’s Republic and Laws, Nietzsche’s Gay Science, Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Myth and Thought among the Greeks and Marcel Detienne’s The Masters of Truth. Foucault also covered the history of law and money. In the opening lecture Foucault says the title really should be “The History of Truth” or even “Knowledge-Power”.

Foucault tells Simon his interview at the US consulate required him to talk about literature, and presumably not about more political issues. Yet while close in content to Lectures on the Will to Know, Foucault’s framing of his course is more political than how the material had been presented in Paris. It has parallels with the more Marxist Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-72) and even the subsequent The Punitive Society.


Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick.


* This is an edited text from the ‘Coda: Into the 1970s’ of Stuart Elden, The Archaeology of Foucault, pp. 197 - 212. Polity Press. © 2022 by Stuart Elden. All rights reserved.


1           Marcelo Hoffman, “The FBI File on Foucault”, Viewpoint, 2021, https://viewpointmag.com/2021/11/08/the-fbi-file-on-foucault/


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