Michel Foucault

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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...

(This entire section contains 2086 words.)

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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?

In undertaking such examinations, Foucault usually begins with paradoxes aimed at breaking down the conventional formulations of thinking on particular subjects. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, it is the supposed unity of the concepts of the book, the body of the author’s work, and the author’s character that he demolishes before proceeding onward; in volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, it is the detestation of sex attributed to the Victorians that attracts his subversive attentions. What he wants to do for any given branch of knowledge is “to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. … The essential aim will not be to determine whether these discursive productions and these effects of power lead one to formulate the truth … but rather to bring out the ‘will to knowledge’ that serves as both their support and their instrument.”

Foucault sees such assaults upon traditional modes of thought as a necessary prelude to those investigations of “positivity,” of the material realities of history, which constitute the middle sections of his books. These typically range over an extraordinarily wide panorama of empirical evidence, display an erudition that reflects his extensive studies in philosophy and the social sciences, and make illuminating connections among phenomena that at first sight seem completely disparate. Because Foucault considers inherited notions about the need for logical coherence and linear organization as obstacles, and not aids, to knowledge, he presents his researches in an allusive, unrestrained manner that seems simply to break off rather than come to manifest conclusions. Although this method can be maddening for the reader expecting to be told what to think, it can also spark the kind of creative reordering of experience that results in genuinely fresh insights.

The problematic aspects of such a methodology are obvious and are squarely faced by Foucault himself. The possibility of an infinite regress of discourses—of discourses that merely recede into ever-murkier depths of disguised assumptions—certainly threatens his work, and he does his best to avoid it by striving for a discourse that

is trying to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any centre … it does not set out to be a recollection of the original or a memory of the truth. On the contrary, its task is to make differences … it is continually making differentiations, it is a diagnosis.

Foucault’s selection of specific pieces of evidence, which he wishes to be random and unrestrained, is also open to question: His belief that he is working outside conventional discourse may in fact simply mean that he is operating within an unconventional, but nevertheless constraining, discourse of his own, and he tends to assume that materials from the same historical period must exhibit the same fundamental characteristics. The openness of Foucault’s approach ensures that he is always cognizant of these problems, although much of the debate about his work centers on the extent to which he has actually managed to transcend them.

In fact, Foucault’s explorations of the history of madness, of prisons, and of sexuality—his probes into the subject matter of particular intellectual disciplines—have had relatively little influence on the disciplines themselves: It is not the world’s psychiatrists, criminologists, and sexologists who have made Foucault’s writings a basic unit of modern intellectual currency. It is in the humanities, and especially in philosophy and literary studies, that his ideas have been adopted as important sources of insight.

Foucault’s interest in history and his use of historical materials as a means of examining an era’s normative characteristics have strongly appealed to those postmodernists who resist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s call for the complete deconstruction of texts. It is in his public disagreements with Derrida that Foucault has probably exercised his greatest degree of influence. These conflicts between Derrida’s efforts to deconstruct history in order to set free its hidden possibilities and Foucault’s attempts to experience history as a means of making explicit its latent structures have generated numerous scholarly commentaries, many of which seek either to reconcile or selectively choose from the work of these two French thinkers.

The difficulty of Foucault’s style and the sheer complexity of his thought have tended to limit his direct influence to the realm of the university, and even there his work has often been dismissed as chaotic or useless by more traditional scholars.

Foucault’s work centers on the nature of language rather than the nature of literature. He does not differentiate between literature and nonliterature in ways that exalt the status of the former, and indeed, his writings tend to subvert traditional notions of literature’s distinctive qualities. In addition, his researches almost always reflect a spirit of open-ended inquiry rather than a search for absolute truths. He accepts paradox as a source of potentially valuable insights and is never ashamed to admit that he has changed his mind.

When he died on June 25, 1984, from a rare neurological disorder that he had kept a secret from all but his closest friends, he was engaged in making major revisions to the first volume of The History of Sexuality, a fact that underlines his commitment to projects that would in a sense always remain unfinished.


Foucault had a profound effect on philosophy and literary theory. His probing into the historical archaeology of human culture places great emphasis on the forces operating behind the concepts of “discourse” and “the word.” Foucault’s well-publicized disagreements with Derrida have served as the starting point for many a book and article, and literary critics such as Frank Lentricchia, Timothy Reiss, Michel Serres, and Edward Said have acknowledged Foucault as a source of fruitful ideas and suggestions.

Additional Reading

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: 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. Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences series. 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 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.

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

Nehamas, Alexander. The 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.