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Michel Foucaultís Medical Gaze

by Melissa Spicer (7214 views)
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Frenchman Michel Foucault was famous for creating the concept of the “medical gaze,” a phrase coined to signify the separation of a patient’s body from their identity. A renowned philosopher during the French Revolution, Foucault developed this concept in his book The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, in which a double system of observation is employed in order to properly diagnose the patient. The physician uses his knowledge to objectively observe the patient and look for telling signs in order to properly diagnose and treat whatever illness is ailing the patient.

Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception

Foucault’s 1963 book Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception was the follow-up book to 1961’s Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age, which was a philosophical work inspired by his studies of the history of medicine. Birth of the Clinic focused on the changes the medical field underwent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and introduced the concept of the “medical gaze,” which helped Foucault and his readers understand how the French Revolution changed science.

Foucault argued that, unlike in previous times when medieval clergy were in charge of manipulating the human body and its ailments, physicians saved bodies, not souls. Therefore physicians must view the patient’s physical body separately from the patient as an individual person. Through thorough examination of the body, a doctor can deduct symptoms, illness, and therefore diagnose the cause of the patient’s ailments. The doctor’s medical gaze was thought to look beyond surface illusions and enable him to discover the hidden truth of an individual’s body’s functions or malfunctions, and why it behaved in such a matter. However, Foucault argued that while the physician had better means of treating patients, he became a sinister figure, one who saw patients simply by their problems, not as individuals.

What is the Medical Gaze?

The medical gaze, Foucault posited, is the method a physician uses from the moment he first meets a patient. This involves the physician observing the patient’s body through conversation, observation, and a physical exam. Modern medical gazing techniques also involve lab and imaging tests. The doctor takes the patient’s history in order to try to pinpoint exactly what it is that is ailing them, and then uses his knowledge he acquired during his many years of training and experience to determine a diagnosis. Medical gazing involves the observation of physical symptoms and employing knowledge in order to come up with an accurate diagnosis. The medical gaze is still discussed today.

Foucault's Legacy

Foucault wanted to work out, through his theories, how "power works." He hoped to use the knowledge of how power works to create a Utopian society. Much of what drove Foucault to success was his hatred of the upper class and bourgeois society, everything he saw in his own mother, who was wealthy in her own right. He lived abroad for much of his life, framing his manifesto and meditating. It was during his meditations that he got the ideas for many of his most popular essays. Foucault thought that by studying the past, people could learn from their mistakes.

The driving force behind Foucault's life was his ability to buck the system, think outside the box, and think for himself. He was unconcerned with the views of contemporary society, and he urged free-thinking and revisiting past ideas now ruled archaic. Perhaps the biggest factor behind Foucault was that he cared less about what people thought and more about advancing society.