Study Guide

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Foucault was a controversial thinker and theorist who examined structures of societal and political power in Western thought and how they related to discourse and language as well as to human sexuality.

Early Life

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France, into the middle-class family of Dr. Paul Foucault and his wife, the former Anne Malapert. After attending the local Catholic school, in 1944 the promising young scholar was sent to the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, where he prepared for the entrance examinations to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. There and at the Sorbonne, he studied under Jean Hippolyte, a philosopher specializing in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; Georges Canguilhem, a historian of science; and Louis Althusser, a Marxist theoretician interested in structuralist thought. Foucault received his undergraduate degrees in philosophy, in 1948, and in psychology, in 1950.

Perhaps as a result of Althusser’s influence, Foucault became a member of the Communist Party, but he soon found its ideological rigidity too confining and resigned in 1951. He received his diploma in psychopathology from the University of Paris in 1952, and then—in an unusual step for a French intellectual of his time—embarked upon a period of teaching at foreign institutions. From 1953 to 1957, he was a member of the French department at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, then spent a year as director of the Warsaw Institut Français, and from 1959 to 1960, he occupied the same position at the Institut Français in Hamburg.

Life’s Work

Foucault returned to France in 1960, taking up a professorship at the University of Clermont Ferrand in Auvergne. He remained there until 1968, when he accepted a post at the University of Paris at Vincennes.

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Foucault’s investigations into the history of how those classified as social or psychological deviants were perceived by their peers led to an interest in the nature of language. In books such as Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic, he conceptualized this understanding primarily in terms of power relationships similar to those hypothesized in Louis Althusser’s epistemological Marxism and stressed the use of such institutions as agents of control and repression that exclude their inmates from meaningful participation in society.

The obvious political implications of such views made Foucault one of the heroes of France’s would-be revolutionaries of 1968; they are also evident in his prominence as a defender of the rights of women, homosexuals, and other oppressed groups. After his 1970 appointment to the chair in the history of systems of thought at Collège de France in Paris, Foucault became something of a public figure, forming the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (group for information on prisons) as a spur to penal reform and campaigning vigorously for the rights of women and homosexuals.

Foucault’s development took him well beyond the orthodoxies of the kind of Marxist social science so popular in Western culture during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Instead of simply accepting the idea that language is nothing more than a function of one class’s dominance over another, Foucault considered how the strategies with which language is employed—those specific modes of discourse that appropriate words into highly technical vocabularies—are in fact the means of exercising power upon its subjects. In the 1977 work Discipline and Punish, he came to the conclusion that power is a set of techniques for organizing human knowledge; while not inconsistent with Marxist ideology, this idea was such an essentially intellectual construct that Foucault ceased to be considered a reliable friend of the Left. He criticized the repressive nature of the Eastern European bloc countries and became associated with the general wave of disillusionment with Communism so characteristic of French intellectual life in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The key word in this reorientation of Foucault’s thinking is “discourse,” which he uses in the sense of language as rhetorical persuasion, as the determinant of the boundaries within which it speaks, and as the hidden workings of operations obscured by the superficial objectivity of its constituent words and sentences. It is when one tries to think about the concept of discourse—to discourse upon discourse, as it were—that one starts to break through to levels of meaning denied to those who take language at its face value. As Foucault puts it in The Archaeology of Knowledge:

The question posed by language analysis of some discursive fact or other is always: according to what rules has a particular statement been made, and consequently according to what rules would other similar statements be made? The description of the events of discourse poses a quite different question: how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?

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Michel Foucault Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Arac, Jonathan, ed. After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. This book contains essays on Michel Foucault presented in 1985, the year after Foucault’s death, at a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Includes bibliography and index.

Barker, Phillip. Michel Foucault: An Introduction. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. This book provides an introduction to Foucault and his thought. Includes bibliographies and an index.

Bernauer, James William. Michel Foucault’s Force of Flight: Toward an Ethics for Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990. This work, part of a series on modern philosophers, examines Foucault’s views on ethics in the twentieth century. Includes a bibliography.

Boyne, Roy. Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990. This volume looks at the ongoing debate between Foucault and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Davidson, Arnold I. Foucault and His Interlocutors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This book includes essays by several French thinkers who were influenced by Foucault. These authors take up the breadth of Foucault’s life’s work and provide a firm foundation by which to understand his writing.

Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel, ed. I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother : A Case of Parricide in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. A literal account of the murder of a family by a “madman” that simultaneously analyzes the “murder” of free will and responsibility.

Gutting, Gary. Cambridge Companion to Foucault. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A comprehensive overview of Foucault’s essays and an extensive bibliography of his works.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Nehamas, Alexander. Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Nehamas focuses on the importance of Socrates to Foucault and produces an accessible evaluation of the idea of personhood as described by each.

Michel Foucault Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michel Foucault (few-koh) is one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century. Born to a middle-class family in Poitiers, France, Foucault attended various public schools and then received his baccalauréat from a Catholic secondary institution. He studied philosophy as well as psychology at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and obtained his diploma in philosophy in 1948. Dissatisfied with his studies in philosophy, he began research in the field of psychopathology and taught in Paris and in Sweden for several years. In 1960 he was nominated head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, and in 1970 he was given a chair at the prestigious Colège de France in Paris, where he remained until his death of cerebral abscesses.

Foucault’s work is primarily in the area of the philosophies of history and of sociology, especially where these disciplines intersect with the domains of psychology and medicine. He termed the philosophical thrust of his early works an “archaeology” of ideas; that is, he sought to uncover the beginnings or roots of certain fundamental concepts of Western culture such as rationality, knowledge, and power, especially in terms of the way these ideas structure society and the perception of human relationships. His early work, Madness and Civilization, looks to the origins of societal definitions of madness and reason and the early development of psychiatry as well as the emergence of the mental asylum as a social institution in eighteenth century France. Before the seventeenth century and the early period of the European Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), mental illness or “unreason” was considered somewhat of a...

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Michel Foucault Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Michel Foucault was a twentieth century French philosopher who studied the concept of “principles of exclusion.” The career of this professor at the University of Paris-Vincennes and the College de France expressed two broad themes. The first, which was represented in his 1961 book Madness and Civilization, focused on mental illness and society’s response through the institution of the insane asylum.

Later, Foucault began to expand the concept of exclusion to include the penal system and prisons, and in 1975 he published Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In this book, Foucault described the societal changes that led to the move from castigating the...

(The entire section is 524 words.)