Introduction

Michel Foucault 1926–1984

French philosopher, psychologist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

Foucault is considered one of the most important thinkers to have emerged from France since 1960. He is sometimes called a historian of ideas. Foucault's methodology, which he regarded as an archaeological examination of knowledge, is based on a combination of historical, philosophical, epistemological, and linguistic analyses. Language is of central importance to Foucault's theory, for it directly connects the formation and utilization of discourses with those who wield power in society. As James Mall has noted, "Foucault is especially preoccupied with the use of power: the ways in which the social order classifies, manipulates, and isolates certain elements of itself: madness, illness, criminality, sexuality, etc." While critics frequently link him with the structuralists or post-structuralists, Foucault himself rejected such classification.

Foucault's first major work, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason), is a treatise on the definition and treatment of madness in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. R. D. Laing said that in this work "the madness of Europe is revealed not in the persons of the madmen of Europe, but in the actions of the self-validated sane ones, who wrote the books, sanctified, and authorised by State, Church, and the representatives of bourgeois morality." In this book, Foucault introduces two issues which are central to his next two works: the emergence of the medical profession and its privileged discourse, and the general essence of language as a power base from which the "sane" world operates. According to Jean Starobinski, Naissance de la clinique: Une archéologie du regard médical (1963; The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception) and Les mots et les choses (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences), along with Madness and Civilization, "make up a trilogy in which the author is successively a historian of psychiatry and psychopathology, of medicine, of natural history, of economics, and of grammar."

Foucault's other important works include Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) and Histoire de la sexualité, Volume 1: La volonté de savoir (1976; The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction). Discipline and Punish is a study of the development of the French penal system in which Foucault reasserts a basic premise introduced in Madness and Civilization: that it is essential to the fortification of a social order that aberrant "others" be isolated. For many critics it is the most accessible of Foucault's arguments. In The History of Sexuality Foucault focuses on the progression of the discourse on sexuality. He is especially intrigued by the changes that occurred when this discourse became scientific with the emergence of Sigmund Freud's theories and the practice of psychoanalysis.

Because of the density of his prose and the complexity of his theories, Foucault is often charged with having written works which are inaccessible. Among academics, however, Foucault has a considerable following, and many critics agree that he is a major influence on contemporary French thought. As Edith Kurzweil has written, "Foucault's own marginality, objectively assessing and 'transcending' all of philosophy and knowledge, turning back upon itself with irony, avoiding oversimplification and reduction, marks him as one of the giants of our time."