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Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926June 26, 1984) was a French philosopher and held a chair at the Collège de France, a chair to which he gave the title "The History of Systems of Thought". His writings have had an enormous impact on academia: Foucault's influence extends throughout the humanities and social sciences, and in many applied and professional areas of study.

Foucault is well known for his critiques of various social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine and the prison system, and also for his ideas on the history of sexuality. His general theories concerning power and the relation between power and knowledge, as well as his ideas concerning "discourse" in relation to the history of Western thought have been widely discussed and applied.

His work is often described as postmodernist or post-structuralist by contemporary commentators and critics. During the 1960s, however, he was more often associated with the structuralist movement. Although he was initially happy to go along with this description, he later emphasised his distance from the structuralist approach, arguing that unlike the structuralists he did not adopt a formalist approach. Neither was he interested in having the postmodern label applied to his own work, saying he preferred to discuss how 'modernity' was defined.



Early life

Foucault was born in 1926, in Poitiers, France, as Paul-Michel Foucault, to a notable provincial family. His father, Paul Foucault, was an eminent surgeon and hoped his son would join him in the profession. Foucault later dropped the 'Paul' from his name for reasons which are not entirely clear. His early education was a mix of success and mediocrity until he attended the Jesuit College Saint-Stanislaus where he excelled. During this period, Poitiers was part of Vichy France and later came under German occupation. After the War, Foucault gained entry to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure d'Ulm, the traditional gateway to an academic career in France.

The École Normale Supérieure

Foucault's personal life at the École Normale was difficult — he suffered from acute depression, even attempting suicide. He was taken to see a psychiatrist. Perhaps because of this, Foucault became fascinated with psychology. Thus, in addition to his licence in philosophy he also earned a licence (degree) in psychology, which was at that time a very new qualification in France, and was involved in the clinical arm of the discipline where he was exposed to thinkers such as Ludwig Binswanger.

Like many 'normaliens', Foucault joined the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953. He was inducted into the party by his mentor Louis Althusser. He left due to concerns about what was happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Unlike most party members, Foucault never actively participated in his cell.

Early career

Foucault passed his agrégation in 1950. After a brief period lecturing at the École Normale, he took up a position at the University of Lille , where from 1953 to 1954 he taught psychology. In 1954 Foucault published his first book, Maladie mentale et personnalité, a work which he would later disavow. It soon became apparent that Foucault was not interested in a teaching career, and he undertook a lengthy exile from France. In 1954 Foucault served France as a cultural delegate to the University of Uppsala in Sweden (a position arranged for him by Georges Dumézil, who was to become a friend and mentor). In 1958 Foucault left Uppsala for briefly held positions at Warsaw and at the University of Hamburg.

Foucault returned to France in 1960 to complete his doctorate and take up a post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand . There he met Daniel Defert, with whom he lived in non-monogamous partnership for the rest of his life. In 1961 he earned his doctorate by submitting two theses (as is customary in France): a 'major' thesis entitled Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique and a 'secondary' thesis which involved a translation and commentary on Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Folie et déraison (History of Madness ) was extremely well-received. Foucault continued a vigorous publishing schedule. In 1963 he published Naissance de la Clinique (Birth of the Clinic ), Raymond Roussel, and a reissue of his 1954 volume (now entitled Maladie mentale et psychologie) which he would again disavow.

After Defert was posted to Tunisia for his military service, Foucault moved to a position at the University of Tunis in 1965. In 1966 he published Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things ), which was enormously popular despite its length and difficulty. This was during the height of interest in structuralism and Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes as the newest, latest wave of thinkers set to topple the existentialism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre. By now Foucault was militantly anti-communist, and some considered the book to be right wing, while Foucault quickly tired of being labeled a 'structuralist'. He was still in Tunis during the student rebellions, where he was profoundly affected by a local student revolt earlier in the same year. In the fall of 1968 he returned to France, where he published L'archéologie du savoir — a response to his critics — in 1969.

Post-1968: Foucault the activist

In the aftermath of 1968, the French government created a new experimental university at Vincennes. Foucault became the first head of its philosophy department in December of that year, having appointed mostly young leftist academics, the radicalism of one of whom, (Judith Miller), resulted in the French ministry of education withdrawing accreditation from the department. Foucault notoriously also joined students in occupying administration buildings and fighting with police.

Foucault's tenure at Vincennes was short-lived, as in 1970 Foucault was elected to France's most prestigious academic body, the Collège de France as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. His political involvement now increased, Defert having joined the ultra-Maoist Gauche Proletarienne (GP), with whom Foucault became very loosely associated. Foucault helped found the Prison Information Group (in French: Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons, or GIP) to provide a way for prisoners to voice their concerns. This fed into a marked politicization of Foucault's work, with a book, Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish) about the prison system.

The late Foucault

In the late 1970s political activism in France tailed off, with the disillusionment of many if not most Maoists, several of whom underwent a complete reversal in ideology, becoming the so-called New Philosophers, often citing Foucault as their major influence, a status about which Foucault had mixed feelings. Foucault in this period began a mammoth project to write a History of Sexuality, which he was never to complete. Its first volume, The Will to Knowledge, was published in 1976, and has much in common with Discipline and Punish. The second and third volumes did not appear for another eight years, and they surprised readers by their relatively traditional style, subject matter (classical Greek and Latin texts) and approach, particularly Foucault's concentration on the subject, a concept he had previously tended to denigrate.

Foucault began to spend more time in the United States, at SUNY Buffalo (where he had lectured on his first ever visit to the United States in 1970) and more especially at UC Berkeley. Foucault enthusiastically participated in the gay culture in San Francisco, particularly in the S&M culture - it is suspected that it was here that he contracted HIV, in the days before the disease was described as such. Foucault died of AIDS-related illness in Paris in 1984.


Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization is an abridgement of the French book Folie et déraison, published in 1961 (though a full translation entitled The History of Madness is due to be published in 2005). This was Foucault's first major book, written while teaching French in Sweden. It looked at the way in which the idea of madness had developed through history.

Foucault starts his analysis in the Middle Ages, noting how lepers were locked away. From there, he traces the history through the idea of the ship of fools in the 15th century, and the sudden interest in imprisonment in 17th century France. Eventually, madness became thought of as a malady of the soul, and, finally, with Freud, as mental illness.

Foucault also pays a lot of attention to the way in which the madman went from an accepted part of the social order to being someone who was confined and locked away. He also looked at the ways in which people tried to treat the insane, particularly the cases of Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke. He claimed that the treatments offered by these men were in fact no less controlling than previous methods. Tuke's country retreat for the mad consisted of punishing the madmen until they learned to act normally, effectively intimidating them into behaving like well-adjusted people. Similarly, Pinel's treatment of the mad amounted to an extended aversion therapy, including such treatments as freezing showers and use of a straitjacket. In Foucault's view, this treatment amounted to repeated brutality until the pattern of judgment and punishment was internalized by the patient.

The Birth of the Clinic

Foucault's second major book, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (Naissance de la clinique: une archeologie du regard medical in French) was published in 1963 in France, and translated to English in 1973. Picking up from Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic traces the development of the medical profession, and specifically the institution of the medical clinic or hospital. Its motif is the concept of the medical gaze.

The Order of Things

Foucault's Les Mots et les choses: un archeologie des sciences humaines was published in 1966. It was translated to English in 1970 under the title The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. (Foucault had preferred L'Ordre des Choses for the original French title, but changed the title to suit the wishes of his editor, Pierre Nora )

The book opened with an extended discussion of Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas and its complex arrangement of sight-lines, hiddenness and appearance. Then it developed its central claim: that all periods of history possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argued that these conditions of discourse changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period's episteme to another.

The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. A review by Jean-Paul Sartre attacked Foucault as 'the last rampart of the bourgeoisie'.

The Archaeology of Knowledge

Published in 1969, this volume was Foucault's main excursion into methodology. He wrote it in order to deal with the reception that Les Mots et les choses had received. It makes references to Anglo-American analytical philosophy, particularly speech act theory.

Foucault directs his analysis toward the statement, the basic unit of discourse that he believes has been ignored up to this point. Statements depend on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse. They are not propositions, utterances, or speech acts (although Foucault later recognized the similarities between statements and speech acts as defined by Searle). It is this group of statements toward which Foucault aims his analysis – an analysis that examines the serious speech acts on the level of literal meaning, rather than looking for some deeper meaning. It is important to note that Foucault reiterates that the analysis he is outlining is only one possible tactic, and that he is not seeking to displace other ways of analysing discourse as invalid.

Foucault’s posture toward the statements is radical. Not only does he bracket out issues of truth; he also brackets out issues of meaning. Rather than looking for the source of meaning in some transcendental subject or against the background of practices, Foucault denies that meaning is even relevant to his needs. He merely sets out to describe in detail how truth claims emerge, on what was actually said and written, and how it fits into the discursive formation. He wants to avoid all interpretation and to depart from the goals of hermeneutics. This posture allows Foucault to move away from an anthropological standpoint and focus on the role of discursive practices.

Dispensing with meaning would appear to lead Foucault toward structuralism. However, he refuses to examine statements outside of their role in the discursive formation and he also refuses to examine possible statements that could have emerged from such a formation. His identity as a historian emerges here, for he is only interested in describing statements that actually occur in history. The whole of the system and its discursive rules determine the identity of the statement; therefore there is no point in distinguishing possible statements from actual ones. The actual statements are the only possible ones in a discursive system. One should, therefore, only describe specific systems that determine which types of statements emerge.

Discipline and Punish

Main article: Discipline and Punish.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was translated to English in 1977, from the French Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, published in 1975.

The book opens with a graphic description of the brutal public execution in 1757 of the regicide Damiens. Against this it juxtaposes a colourless prison timetable from just over 80 years later. Foucault then enquires how such a change in how French society punished convicts could have come about in such a short time. These two contrasting modes of punishing are snapshots drawn from the two types of what Foucault terms 'technologies of punishment'. The first, the 'monarchical' technology of punishment, involves the repression of the populace through brutal public executions and torture. The second, 'disciplinary punishment', according to Foucault, is the form of punishment practised today. Disciplinary punishment gives 'professionals' (psychologists, program facilitators, parole officers, etc.) power over the prisoner: the prisoner's length of stay depends on the professionals' opinion. Foucault compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" design for prisons (which was unrealised in its original form, but nonetheless influential): in the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. The dark dungeon of pre-modernity has been replaced with the bright modern prison, but Foucault cautions that "visibility is a trap". It is through this optics of seeing, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms which Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, "power-knowledge"). Foucault suggests that a 'carceral continuum' runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others.

The History of Sexuality

Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault's death in 1984. The first and most referenced volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English - Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonte de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as a regime of power and related to the emergence of biopower. In this volume he attacks the "repressive hypothesis," the very widespread belief that we have, particularly since the nineteenth century, "repressed" our natural sexual drives.

The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualite, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault's death, with the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. A fourth volume, dealing with the Christian era, was almost complete at the time of Foucault's death, but there is as yet no indication that it will be published.


From 1970 until his death in 1984, for part of the year nearly every year, Foucault gave a course of lectures and seminars weekly at the Collège de France as the condition of his tenure as professor there. All these lectures were tape-recorded, and Foucault's transcripts also survive. In 1997 these lectures began to be published in French with six volumes having appeared so far. So far, two sets of lectures have appeared in English: Society Must Be Defended and Abnormal. A set of Foucault's lectures from UC Berkley has also appeared as Fearless Speech.


Terms coined or largely redefined by Foucault, as translated into English:

Criticisms of Foucault

Many thinkers have criticized Foucault, ranging from Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and Nancy Fraser to Slavoj Zizek. While each of them take issue with different aspects of Foucault's work, all of these approaches share the same basic orientation: Foucault seems to reject the liberal values and philosophy associated with the Enlightenment while simultaneously secretly relying on them. They argue that this failure either makes him dangerously nihilistic, or that he cannot be taken seriously in his disavowal of normative values and in fact his work ultimately presupposes them.

Some historians as well as others have also criticised Foucault for his use of historical information, claiming that he frequently misrepresented things, got his facts wrong, or simply made them up entirely. Perhaps the most notable of these was Jacques Derrida's extensive critique of Foucault's reading of Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. Derrida's criticism led to a break in their friendship and marked the beginning of a fifteen year-long feud between the two.

It is important to note, however, that there has been considerable debate over both these sets of criticisms and they are not universally accepted as valid by all critics. Foucault himself on a number of occasions took issue with the first kind of criticism noting that he believed strongly in human freedom and that his philosophy was a fundamentally optimistic one, as he believed that something positive could always be done no matter how bleak the situation. One might also add that his work is actually aimed at refuting the position that Reason (or 'rationality' ) is the sole means of guaranteeing truth and the validity of ethical systems. Thus, to criticise Reason is not to reject all notions of truth and ethics as some of these critics claim.

In relation to the second criticism, Foucault on a number of occasions refuted charges of historical inaccuracy particularly in relation to Madness and Civilization. There are notable exchanges with Lawrence Stone and George Steiner on this subject as well as a discussion with historian Jacques Leonard concerning Discipline and Punish. Some of the criticisms of Foucault's use of history are generated, as Foucault himself points out, by his use of and approach to history in terms of dealing with specific problems rather than more traditional general historical approaches.

Intellectual contexts

Influences on Foucault's work

Thinkers whose work strongly influenced Foucault's thought included:

  • Louis Althusser — French structuralist Marxist philosopher and Foucault's sometime teacher.
  • Georges Bataille — French Nietzschean political and aesthetic philosopher.
  • Georges Canguilhem — French historian of science.
  • Gilles Deleuze — French philosopher. A great friend and ally of Foucault's in the early 1970s.
  • Georges Dumézil — French structuralist mythologist, known for his reconstruction of Indo-Aryan mythology.
  • Martin Heidegger — German philosopher whose influence was enormous in post-war France. Foucault rarely referred to him, but called him 'the essential philosopher'.
  • Jean Hyppolite — French Hegel scholar and Foucault's sometime khâgne teacher.
  • Karl Marx — Marx's influence in French intellectual life was dominant from 1945 through to the late 1970s. Foucault often found himself opposing Marxists, but claimed that he still quoted Marx without acknowledging him during this time as a kind of game.
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty — French philosopher and sometime teacher of Foucault. Phenomenologist instrumental in popularising Saussure's structuralism for a philosophical audience.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche — German philosopher whose work influenced Foucault's conception of society and power.
  • Roland Barthes — French (post) structuralist literary critic who was at one time very close to Foucault.

His influence on academia

Foucault's work is frequently referred to in disciplines as diverse as philosophy, history, cultural studies, sociology, education, literary theory, management studies , the philosophy of science, urban design, museum studies , and many others. Quantitative evidence of the impact of his work can be found in the sheer volume of citations in standard academic journal indexes such as the Social Sciences Citation Index [1] (more than 9000 citations). A keyword search of the Library of Congress catalogue [2] reveals over 750 volumes in a variety of languages relating to his writings, and a search on Google Scholar [3] reveals thousands of citations.



  • Maladie mentale et personnalité (1954); reed. Maladie mentale et psychologie (1995) (Mental Illness and Psychology)
  • Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique - Folie et déraison (1961) (Madness and Civilization - although this is a revised version)
  • Naissance de la clinique - une archéologie du regard médical (1963) (The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception)
  • Raymond Roussel (1963)
  • Les mots et les choses - une archéologie des sciences humaines (1966) (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences)
  • La pensée du dehors (1966) ('Thought of the Outside')
  • L'archéologie du savoir (1969) (Archaeology of Knowledge)
  • L'ordre du discours (1971) ('The Order of Discourse'/'The Discourse on Language' [different translations]; not published as a monograph in English)
  • Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1973) (This Is Not a Pipe)
  • Surveiller et punir (1975) (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison)
  • Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality)
    • Vol I: La Volonté de savoir (1976) (The Will to Knowledge)
    • Vol II: L'Usage des plaisirs (1984) (The Use of Pleasure)
    • Vol III: Le Souci de soi (1984) (The Care of the Self)

The Collège Courses

  • 1976-1977 Il faut défendre la societé (1997) (Society Must Be Defended)
  • 1974-1975 Les anormaux (1999) (Abnormal)
  • 1981-1982 L'herméneutique du sujet (2001) (The Hermeneutics of the Subject - forthcoming)
  • 1973-1974 Le pouvoir psychiatrique (2003) (not yet available in English)
  • 1977-1978 Securité, territoire, population (2004) (not yet available in English)
  • 1978-1979 Naissance de la biopolitique (2004) (not yet available in English)


  • Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)
  • David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (London: Hutchison, 1993) - this is the most detailed biography of Foucault.
  • Stephan Moebius, Die Zauberlehrlinge. Soziologiegeschichte des Collège de Sociologie, 2006, Konstanz (about influence of Bataille on Foucault)
  • James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (London: HarperCollins, 1993) - this is the most popular biography, but is regarded suspiciously in scholarly circles for its sensationalism.

Works available online

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:48:29
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