48 pages 1 hour read

Michel Foucault

Discipline And Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary and Study Guide


Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault is a socio-political study of how power manifests in the Western penal system throughout history. Considered to be Foucault’s masterpiece, Discipline and Punish traces the history of how punishment and control were applied in Western society and how penal systems evolved to match changes in social sensibilities. Michel Foucault was a French historical philosopher and literary critic in the 20th century. Foucault’s work has had profound influence on scholarship in many subjects, including criminology, psychology, literature, critical theory, and historiography.

This guide utilizes the 1977 translation by Vintage Books.

Content Warning: This guide considers Foucault’s entire body of work to lend context to Discipline and Punish, including his 1961 book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Foucault uses the terms “madness” and “insanity” to refer to persons with mental illness and disabilities. He also uses these terms within a Western philosophical and literary tradition, including the trope of the “wise fool,” which suggests that some people with altered consciousnesses have greater wisdom. Foucault’s work on this subject is integral to a comprehensive understanding of his philosophy in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. This guide will avoid the use of stigmatizing language that may perpetuate negative stereotypes, except when speaking directly about Foucault’s work on this subject.


Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault traces the evolution of Western criminal punishment from public spectacle to private psychological control. Within a span of 80 years, European countries abandoned public executions and ushered prisoners away from view. Foucault explores the reason for this shift in thinking about punishment and argues that it is the result of multiple factors, including changing social sensibilities and the construction of the modern soul.

Public torture and execution were utilized to maintain control and to emphasize the power of the sovereign. However, it also created tension between the people and the sovereign ruler. A mechanism of punishment needed to be designed that would establish control while making the punishment invisible. Foucault describes multiple modes of discipline and punishment and their varying effects. The Panopticon, for example, is presented to maximize visibility of the subject while rendering the observer invisible. The work emphasizes three themes: The Relationship Between Knowledge and Power, The Function of Punishment, and The Body Versus the Modern Soul.

In Part 1, Foucault details the history of public punishment. He opens with the story of Damiens the regicide, who was tortured and killed for attempting to assassinate the King. Damiens’s story serves as a marker for the emphasis of the body in this traditional form of punishment. Torture as a public spectacle served as a warning, a way to keep the masses from committing the same crime. Over time, however, punishment moved behind closed doors. Torture was considered uncivilized and needlessly violent. The invention of the modern soul brought more emphasis upon cognition and psychology. Justices were now more concerned with motive than they were with the reality of the crime itself. As judging became more cerebral, punishment followed suit.

In Part 2, Foucault outlines the shift in punishment to a more generalized and humanitarian approach that focused on the mind rather than the body. The traditional method of public punishment had a problem of power. It placed too much power in the hands of the masses and directed too much attention toward those at the top of the hierarchy who made disciplinary decisions. The law needed to become more clearly defined so people knew exactly what they could expect for committing a particular crime.

Part 3 introduces the concept of docile bodies. Foucault argues that docile bodies are made through discipline. For example, a person is not born a soldier but becomes the figure of a soldier through discipline. He describes the various disciplines that are used in the penal system and other institutions to form docile bodies. Time and activities are separated, strictly monitored, and regulated. Each day follows a specific rhythm and routine. Individual actions are prescribed through ritual. Punishments are enacted as forms of repetitive practice of the desired behavior. In this section, Foucault introduces two major ideas to his philosophy. First, he suggests that the function of punishment and discipline is to maintain Norms. Individuals are targeted for not following the Norms that are established by society. Not following Norms may not be necessarily evil or even lawless, but within the mechanism of the institution they are necessary for the maintenance of control and power. The second idea is that of Panopticism. First presented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, this architectural structure provides a way for administrators of justice to enact perfect and total observation of the subjects—without the subjects having any visibility of each other or the observers.

In Part 4, Foucault reveals how the contemporary prison system emerged at the same time as prison reform. The disciplines that were emphasized by reform—isolation, work, education, and routine—were transformed into strategies of power. The same complaints about earlier punitive measures were being made against the carceral system, but no changes were being made. Foucault asserts that the true function of any form of punishment is the retention of power and the preservation of illegality. He points to the modern carceral system as a perfect representation of this function.