Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) thought is widely used in the humanities and social sciences for investigating experiences of madness, illness, marginalization and social conflicts. However, the meaning of the word “experience” is not always clearly defined, and the French word expérience has a whole variety of meanings. In this article I explicate Foucault’s most relevant concepts of experience and their theoretical functions. He refers to experience throughout his career, especially in his early texts on existential psychiatry from the 1950s and 1960s and in his late work from the 1980s. Texts such as Mental Illness and Psychology and Dire vrai sur soi-même have received less attention than Foucault’s most famous books, but they show that references to experience form significant theoretical and thematic links between his earlier investigations of mental distress and his late work on ethics. When Foucault reorganizes his work in the 1980s, he looks back to his early work in his search for a new concept of experience. I argue that in these contexts, experience cannot be understood as an outcome of activity that organizes perceptions and leads to objective knowledge, but experiences are not defined as events produced by discourses, either. I demonstrate in this article how Foucault uses the concept of experience to structure his research on ethical subjectivity and cultural practices of care. At the same time the article questions some standard interpretations of his work.
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