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The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  1,855 ratings  ·  88 reviews
Librarian note: an alternate cover for this edition can be found here.

In the eighteenth century, medicine underwent a mutation. For the first time, medical knowledge took on a precision that had formerly belonged only to mathematics. The body became something that could be mapped. Disease became subject to new rules of classification. And doctors begin to describe phenomen
Paperback, 240 pages
Published March 29th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1963)
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This is a remarkably interesting book. In many ways it is a working out of the same ideas presented in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences this time in relation to the development of what Foucault refers to as the clinical gaze. This isn’t so much a history of the clinic, but rather of the clinical, a history of medicine from nearly the time of the French Revolution through to about the 1850s or so, I guess. Some of the ideas here are very clever.

I don’t want to map out th
Jan 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-non_fiction
I finished this on the bus the other day and a couple things come to mind:

1. It's one of his most approachable, even if it is a bit clunky in spots.
2. I'd recommend reading it before On the Order of Things as it's a good introduction to his study of epistemological change.
3. There's some very sharp reminders in here of why Foucault is considered a descendent of Nietzsche. The one most important for me is that, unlike most philosophers, he's a damn good writer. His love of language shines almost
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Less interesting than "madness and civilization" it does make a few interesting points about early modern medicine. The transition where medicine changed from a complicated form of sympathetic magic ( the four humors, miasmas and such)to the dependence on the "gaze" basically looking at the patient's body and determining the malady from the appearance of parts of the body. Definitely a shift of focus on the part of doctors and shift in worldview involved on how the body works but there is a lot ...more
Jun 15, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Birth of the Clinic (1963) is Michel Foucault’s second major work, after Madness and Civilization (1961), but perhaps it’s his more important work of the two. This is because madness, perceived as a disease, is just one aspect of a more wider transition in the eighteenth century, i.e. the emerge of clinical medicine. In this sense, Madness and Civilization (which I read prior to Birth of the Clinic) started making sense only whilst I was reading through the second work.

In both books, Foucaul
Apr 11, 2010 rated it liked it
In "Reading Capital" Althusser defines philosophical work as an intervention in science, an exposing of what the object of a science is. "The Birth of the Clinic" is a philosophical work in this sense.

"The Birth of the Clinic" does not make as clear use of the power/knowledge paradigm that characterizes Foucault's other work. Modern medicine is hardly some absolute, objective science that we, after years of struggling with medieval medicines, happened to stumble upon; but neither was it borne mo
Oliver Bateman
Aug 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
This short but dense text should be read in conjunction with Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization. More specifically, it should probably be read after them, given how complicated and important (as well as "important") it is. Here we have Foucault's account of a series of "scientific revolutions" (although he would not use the term as such) in which the nature of discourse-derived "scientificity" changed for the field of clinical medicine on account of sometimes profound, sometimes ...more
Jan Martinek
Jul 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Well, that was certainly a thrilling ride through the medicine of the ca. 1760s—1820s. I wasn't able to read it all at once — several tries ended in exhaustion and pretending that the book does not even exist :) I always needed to take a deep breath before diving back into it — it's a dense text. Though, I finished the second half in a week and it's been great.

I'd recommend to read this book to anyone who wants to use the word „science“. Yes. The book describes in painful detail everything relat
Mar 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Like Foucault, it all begins with Descartes, and how Enlightenment casts out and "others" the mentally ill. Unfortunately, I discovered that the French edition is more complete, and most English translations are abridged, particularly in the second chapter which really digs into Decartes' Cogito and the effects of "cogito ergo sum" on madmen.
Tyler Nielsen
Sep 26, 2014 rated it liked it
This is one of those books in which it feels like the author is intentionally obscure -- almost in a self-aggrandizing way. To use one of Foucault's favorite (or at least most frequent) criticisms against others (in this text), this book is needlessly prolix; he throws that word around like it's going out of style. Oh, wait.

In it, Foucault examines the emergence of the clinic as a teaching hospital as opposed to a hospital intended solely to cure the sick. If you're going to tackle this work, y
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was ok
Much as I love love love Discipline and Punish and enjoyed Madness and Civilization, I found this excruciating and tedious. Foucault just bounces all over the place, trying to tie together various observations about space, seeing, family, empiricism and medical reforms with no clear goal or overall project. I loved the strong, accessible style of discipline and punish, but Birth of the Clinic has a really weak, meandering quality to it, maybe because it's one of Foucault's earlier works. Which i ...more
Jon Morgan
I'm sure this is an excellent history of the medical gaze in the late eighteenth century, but I found myself too deep in the weeds to actually understand Foucault's theoretical work in his endless explications of various doctor's theories of disease and the reorganization of medical administration in the wake of the French Revolution. For Foucault completists only.
Oct 24, 2008 marked it as to-read
medicine is a huge part of our culture, and i think it's important we learn about the role it plays in our lives, and how it came about
John Wojewoda
This is one of the most formative books I ever read.
Dec 22, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a very challenging book to read. Foucault's narrative is very meandering and tortuous, sometimes I had the feeling that the phrases made no sense at all, but they looked well altogether through the type of used words.
Some parts were really boring, especially because of the phraseology.
Nevertheless, there are also very interesting parts, which, as a doctor for human medicine, i appreciated a lot.
- the becoming of the clinical medicine, the whole narrative around "the gaze" made me real
Piers Haslam
Aug 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
This book contains some fantastic insights into the nature of medical perception. I especially loved the idea of disease becoming a thing that exists in a strange place between the patient and the medical practitioner, and of course the enduring idea of the gaze and the "eye that governs". As ever when fresh off of Foucault, I'm finding it hard to broaden these ideas out and see bigger implications, as his historical works are always so centred around the details. I'll need time to think, read c ...more
Sep 02, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone in the medical field who enjoys out-of-the-box thinking
Been working on this on and off for four years. I read it for a couple reasons. One, because there seems to me to be a glut of writings and rantings about "postmodernism" bogeymen, but I do not sense there is much reading of the primary sources themselves - Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, et al. Second, this book exposes the structures of knowledge used in medical practice, and because my own life has been invaded by cancer, I desire to be able to get "outside" the typical story provided by the medi ...more
Alex Vu
Dec 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
I read this with a couple good friends. Birth of the Clinic is a fantastic exploration of the epistemological shift that medicine takes; and on a greater scale delineates what knowledge is and how the mode of its acquisition is just as important as knowledge itself.

Incredibly dense and thoughtful, this book was meant to present the problems of modern medicine; however it does not attempt to offer any solutions (that wasn't really Foucault's style). Perhaps a hope for a change in contemporary med
May 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Foucault was predominantly immersed in the late 18th century, or early Modernism (The Enlightenment) when he wrote this book. How did the schematic behind the perfect prison (the Panopticon) become used in the logic of the University, the Clinic, etc. How do populations become disciplined, manipulated, transformed into healthy, productive, docile bodies? Is it a coincidence that the advent of so-called "Modern" medicine occurred at a time when Western Culture was rapidly Capitalizing? The popula ...more
May 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have a very complicated relationship with this man. He is both my inspiration and subject of intense scrutiny. Foucault is the author that I love to hate and cannot escape. Despite all of the criticism, Foucault is an extremely important philosopher and even if you do not agree with his theoretical position, particularly his concept of decentralized power, his discussion of institutional power and knowledge production is insurmountable.

I have read most of Foucault's major works and the Birth
Jun 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
My knowledge of the history of medical theory is practically non-existent, and I'm embarrassed to say that I know next to nothing about the French Revolution, so large sections of this book didn't really register with me. It seems like Foucault is using a slightly more direct style than is his wont, but this effect is largely eliminated by the obscurity of his historical references. As with much of his writing, I felt that I understood the beginning and end of the narrative arc pretty well witho ...more
Jul 16, 2012 rated it liked it
I knew this book would be like tearing trees apart with your bare hands and it does not disappoint. The whole notion of health hinges on the loss of doctors in the continental wars that raged in Europe pre-Revolution, that left France a land of quackery served on a side plate with a self trained country doctor sandwiches. Standards had to be put in place, and the clinic was born to address this quandary over the health space, where was it? who was authorized to be in it? and what could be done t ...more
Jul 21, 2015 rated it liked it
More dense, albeit indisputably well-researched prose from Foucault. The text itself does precisely what its subtitle indicates: formulate an "archaeology" (à la Foucault) of medical perception. Over the course of the book, he introduces new terminology (the gaze, the glance, pathological anatomy, etc.) that experiences radical chronological evolution. For example, whereas the gaze initially focuses solely on what can be visually perceived by a physician, it transforms by the end of the text int ...more
Aug 25, 2012 rated it liked it

A really daunting read due to his reliance on philosophical sentence structure and philosophical or archaic terminology. Overall, as a physician, it is remarkable to explore the requisite naïveté and inexperience from which modern clinical medicine was birthed. The advent of touching patients, exploring for causation, examining tissue, and positivism as a replacement of what essentially sounds like witchcraft is especially estimable. Foucault is clearly brilliant. I may explore, either in revi
Nov 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
I can see why Foucault is tagged as brilliant; there are some really insightful observations in this book. But I suspect that he has better books than this one, which really jumps all over the place.

His conclusion, though, is so clever and interesting that I'm tempted to give this 4 stars. He really didn't give much of hint where he was going while making the broader argument, though, and if he did, it was hidden under the incredibly dense text.

People should read Foucault, though. His influence
Apr 03, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: cultural-study
This book is more about the history of knowledge than the history of clinics. Specifically, Foucault, a historian of knowledge (which latter is sometimes termed “episteme” in his work) analyzes the changes in the way medical and clinical knowledge was organized in the modern era (beginning with the Enlightenment). He discusses texts of the period to show how theorists and clinicians of the day interpreted disease and its relation to symptoms and to causes.
Michelle Marvin
Jan 24, 2015 rated it liked it
I wish I could give this book 2.5 stars. I think I appreciate what Foucault was saying ... I think I do ... but it's really hard to tell through his florid language, and his ahistorical way of writing history. (I am aware that this is intellectual history, not history proper.) This was the first book by Foucault that I've read, and now I'm going to start Archaeology of Knowledge. Hopefully it is a little bit more approachable than this text, though I've heard otherwise.
Richard K. W. Hsu
Sep 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: euro-theory
This book is phenomenal for Foucault's in-depth discussion on the entanglement of language and death from a sometimes biased observation of medical history. Highly recommend this book to those who are interested in the formation of modernity, which I think highly involved with the transformation of death that brings totally distinguished structure of perception from early modern period.
Nov 28, 2007 marked it as abandoned  ·  review of another edition
reading this has been surreal. could understand not a single sentence in the preface. haven't read anything by him before. is there some help? been putting the book to some use though. getting my friends to read some paragraphs from the book at random. the looks of bemusement, incomprehension, bewilderment, etc. amuse both parties.
Sep 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A challenging read but one of those books that changes the way you think. I think this book helps anyone understand why our healthcare system is both as successful and dysfunctional as it is. I think this is a real challenge for the profession of nursing as we seem to be bent on making all the same mistakes that medicine has.
Oct 03, 2012 rated it liked it
This book is not interesting but enlightening. If you can get through it (which is tough and requires a clear alert mind and coffee) then it gives you a good understanding of how medicine has changed and developed. I wish Foucault made this more interesting because I am interested in how it developed but this was dry and boring.
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Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas. He held a chair at the Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought," but before he was Professor at University of Tunis, Tunisia, and then Professor at University Paris VIII. He lectured at several different Universities over the world as at the University at Buffalo, the University of California, ...more

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