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.
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.
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?
(The entire section is 2086 words.)