Response to Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”

Four Reasons for Foucault to Use Pathos

1. By opening his book with a description of the verdict against Damiens, Foucault shocks his readers with the vast cultural differences between the French penal systems of 1757 and 1975.  Since his readers probably consider the 1700’s a “civilized” era not far from our own, the book immediately challenges the reader’s assumptions about justice and humanity and opens his mind to the rest of the argument.

2. Foucault describes the execution itself in painstaking detail.  The agony and remorse that Damiens feels make the reader identify with him.  The reader has difficulty justifying the public execution when he realizes that he and Damiens are both human beings, and their roles might easily be reversed.

3. Arguing from an emotional standpoint is more effective than arguing from a moral one because moral relativism had become very strong by the 1970’s.  Foucault’s readers might deny the existence of God and universal truth, but they cannot deny the existence of physical pain.  Therefore, they willingly hear his case.

4. The 1970’s were a time of great social activism.  During this decade, environmentalism and feminism received unprecedented sympathy from the general public thanks to their great emotional appeal.  Foucault, recognizing the spirit of the times, shrewdly uses the same formula hoping for similar results.


Foucault could have also presented his argument logically or ethically.  A logical argument would use statistics and historical records to prove that public executions are not an effective deterrent to crime, and government officials abandoned the practice once they realized this.  This case would have appealed to his readers’ minds but would not have been as effective as the pathetic argument.  Though some people believe the government should be purely pragmatic, the majority feels elected officials should do what is right and just, and they might see capital punishment as just retribution for a horrible crime.   Most people consider state-sponsored death an emotional issue.  They might dismiss the statistics as “unscientific” or “biased;” never hearing about the horror of medieval torture methods, people would never consider them.  They would distance themselves from a logical claim, but Foucault’s emotional one makes the situation personal and thus affects people deeply.  An ethical argument would use both reason and emotions, but they would be the thoughts and feelings of one person: Foucault.  He might recount his personal experiences with execution so the reader can identify with him.  Like the logical argument, this would be effective to some, but many others would follow William James and say, “To each his own.”  In this case, pathos is broader and more immediate than ethos.  Foucault’s decision to stress the pathetic mode over the logical and ethical styles is a resounding success.

James Smyth

August 31, 2004

Foucault Summary

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault says that throughout history, humans have desired nothing more than to exert power over one another.  Power is not a tangib

e thing that can be accumulated but a web of tactics which include and imprison the entire world.  He says that power and knowledge are interchangeable, and our increased knowledge has only made our use of power more sophisticated.  Modern society claims to have become more tolerant and humane, but in reality, it has shifted its focus from controlling a man’s body to controlling his soul.  He cites as an example the penal system which has shifted its focus from punishing a criminal’s actions through physical torture to punishing his beliefs through psychological re-training.  Man’s methods have changed, but his manipulative ways have not.

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