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Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926 – June 26, 1984) was a French philosopher and self-titled "historian of systems of thought".His writings have had an enormous impact on many fields including literary criticism and theory, philosophy (especially philosophy of science in the French-speaking world), critical theory, history, history of science (especially scientific medicine), critical pedagogy, and the sociology of knowledge, which he transformed altogether.
He is considered a postmodernist and a poststructuralist, though some consider his earlier works, especially The Order of Things, to be structuralist, which is the label Foucault was given at the time. He was cagey about this label initially, though, and ultimately totally denied its applicability to his work. He moreover considered himself to be a participant in the tradition of modernity, hence the postmodern label is also somewhat dubious - although this is so in very many cases where it is applied.


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. Foucault later dropped the 'Paul' from his name however, presumably because of his stormy relationship with his father. 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 prestiguous École Normale Supérieure, the traditional gateway to an academic career in France.
Foucault's personal life at the Ecole Normale was difficult - he suffered from acute depression, even attempting suicide. He was taken to see a psychiatrist. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Foucault became fascinated with psychology. Thus, in addition to his license in philosophy he also earned a license in psychology, and was involved in the clinical arm of the discipline where he was exposed to thinkers such as Ludwig Binswanger and Daniel Lagache.
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.
Foucault passed his agrégation in 1950. After a brief period lecturing at the Ecole 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 soon 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 (published in English as Madness and Civilization) 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.
Following Defert's military posting to Tunisia, Foucault next 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 Levi-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, but 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'archaeologie du savoir - a response to his critics - in 1969.
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. He appointed mostly young leftist academics, whose radicalism 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.
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 began to spend more time in America, 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 found a community within the gay culture in San Francisco, particularly in the S&M culture, although he would not have identified as gay. Foucault died of AIDS-related complications in Paris in 1984.


Foucault's major works contain a few common elements and themes. His most common concern is with the idea of power, its relation with knowledge (the sociology of knowledge) and how it manifests in a given historical context. He breaks history into a series of epistemes, which are defined as a given arrangement of power within a culture.
Foucault does not use power purely in the sense of physical or military might, although these are certainly elements of power. For Foucault, power also exists in the ways in which social orders are arranged. Foucault argues that being recognized as having knowledge is also a source of power, because it lets you speak authoritatively about what other people are, and why they are that way - Foucault does not see power as formal, but as the various methods that ingrain themselves by way of social institutions and the positing of a form of truth.
So, for instance, when Foucault looks at the history of prisons, he does not merely look at the ways in which guards are physically given power (i.e. security systems, batons, etc) but in the way that they are socially given power - the way in which the prison is designed to give prisoners a particular idea of who they were, and to make them internalize particular methods of behavior. He also looks at the development of the idea of "the criminal," and how the nature of what a criminal is has changed over time, thus changing the dynamics of power.
For Foucault, "truth" (that is, what functions as truth or is taken as truth in a given historical situation) is produced by the operations of power, and the human subject is simply a handle for the manipulation by power of bodies.
For Foucault, power that is determined through systems of truth could be challenged by appeal to disqualified forms of discourse, knowledge, history, etc., through the privileging of body over abstract intellect, and through artistic self-creation.
Foucault's books tend to be densely written and packed with historical information, particularly small "minutiae," that serve to illustrate his theoretical points with memorable examples. Critics of Foucault, however, often claimed that he was insufficiently careful in his history, and that he frequently misrepresented things, or simply made them up entirely.

Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization is an abridgement of the French book Folie et deraison, published in 1961. It 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. He then looks at the way in which madness was treated as a disease associated with women, and caused by their wombs becoming dislodged and wandering around their bodies. 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 treatment of madmen, and 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 brutal and cruel. 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, Birth of the Clinic traces the development of the medical profession, and specifically the institution of the medical clinic or hospital.

The Order of Things

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences is the English title of the French Les Mots et les choses: un archeologie des sciences humaines, published in 1966, and translated to English in 1970. It is this book that brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. It was attacked by Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the last rampart of the bourgeoisie'. The main thesis of the book was to show how there were in all periods certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse, and that that changed over time, in large shifts, from one episteme to another.

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 is significantly influenced by Anglo-American analytical philosophy, particularly speech act theory. Foucault wants us to awake from our “anthropological sleep” and his theory of discursive practice that he describes in the Archaeology of Knowledge is his method for arriving at this insight.
Foucault directs his analysis toward the statement, the basic unit of discourse that he believes has been ignored up to this point. Statements have no stable unit; they 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.
This turn away from meaning moves Foucault “beyond hermeneutics”. 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, (as Foucault constantly states), he is not a structuralist. 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.
Having defined his work in opposition to both hermeneutics and structuralism, Foucault must develop a new way for systematizing discourse. Foucault examines the inadequacies of the four ways in which statements have typically been categorized – by the objects to which they refer, by the subjects that can speak legitimately, by the concepts employed, and by the strategies commonly used. He quickly dismisses the traditional methods, noting their contrived character. It is discursive formations that shape these groups, not the other way around. Objects of study and concepts, rather than creating groups, are themselves a product of discourse, and therefore, cannot define the groupings. Practices, rather than determining discourse, are determined by it.
Foucault seeks to systematize discourses by the internal rules governing discursive formations. By refusing to bring in outside determinants for the rules governing discourse, Foucault is staking a claim to the autonomy of discourse. But he goes even further. He claims that it is discourse that shapes the relationship between statements and the practices that emerge around them. Therefore, discourse is not only granted autonomy, but also primacy over these relationships. The general system of discursive formation makes possible the existence of statments in a given historical period, what can and can’t be said, what can be conceived as a relevant object and what can’t. The description of these different discursive practices in different eras is the goal of the archaeology of knowledge.
Describing the discursive relations of a given historical era by examining what is said fosters a discontinuous view of history. Rather than depicting history as a progressive trajectory from one discursive system to another, Foucault creates an understanding of history that tends to isolate different discursive formations from each other. He is not interested in the empirical succession between these various eras, only to describe them in their totality.

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. Although Foucault himself was always at pains to contend that his various books were theoretically continuous with one another, it is at the same time possible to argue that Discipline and Punish marks a break with his earlier 'archaeological' study of 'epistemes' of knowledge, in favour of an approach studying historical patterns not only knowledge but of practices. The book's Nietzschean preoccupation with power, its unsettling structure and arguments, and its peculiar historical approach sometimes seen as a good example of French post-structuralism.
The book opens with its famous juxtaposition of a graphic description of the brutal public execution of Damiens the Regicide with a colourless prison timetable from a little over 80 years later, and enquires as to how such a change in how French society punished could have come about over such a short period of time. The book makes the controversial argument that the explanation is not that society has become more civilised but that it has developed a more 'efficient' way of punishing. The two contrasting ways of punishing are snapshots drawn from the first and third types of what Foucault terms 'technologies of punishment'. The first, the 'monarchical' technology of punishment involves the repression of the populace through brutal public execution and torture. The second, 'classical' punishment, involves the use of proportionate prison sentences. The third, 'disciplinary punishment' - which according to Foucault is the form of punishment practised today - gives 'professionals' (psychologist, program facilitators, parole officers, etc.) power over the prisoner in the sense that the prisoner's length of stay often depends on the opinion of these professionals. Foucault compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's (unrealised) "Panopticon" circular design for prisons, in which a single guard can watch over many prisoners while themselves remaining unseen. The dark dungeon of pre-modernity has become replaced with the bright modern prison, but Foucault cautions that "visibility is a trap" - it is through this optics of seeing that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power/knowledge: "The Gaze". In this way, Foucault suggests that there is something that connects the maximum security prison with our everyday working and domestic lives, namely the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others. There is a 'carceral continuum' stretching from the prison, through to secure accommodation, to probation, social workers, the police, teachers... and us ourselves. Discipline and Punish remains controversial and thought-provoking today. As a work of history it is highly questionable, and is also (famously) internally contradictory in terms of the efficacy of the disciplinary penal system. Nevertheless, in its own distinctive way, it remains a classic.

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, An Introduction (Histoire de la sexualite, 1: la volonte de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, with and the functioning of sexuality as a regime of power and related to the emergence of biopowerThe 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 sexualite, 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 more-or-less complete at the time of Foucault's death, but Foucault explicitly forbade any posthumous publication of his work, though this has been interpreted pretty liberally.


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. This has made possible, starting in 2001, for them to be re-edited for publication as books in French, and thence their translation into English. 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:


Foucault's influences:
  • Louis Althusser - French structuralist Marxist philosopher and Foucault's sometime teacher.
  • Georges Bataille - French Nietzschean political and aesthetic philosopher.
  • Georges Canguilhem - prominent 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 - prominent 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 - prominent French philosopher and sometime teacher of Foucault. Phenomenologist instrumental in popularising Saussure's structuralism for a philosophical audience.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche - idiosyncratic German philosopher. Influenced Foucault's conception of society and power.
  • Roland Barthes - French (post) structuralist literary critic who was at one time very close to Foucault.

Bibliography (monographs)

  • 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)
  • 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' translations)
  • Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1973) (This Is Not a Pipe)
  • Surveiller et punir (1975) (Dicipline 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)

Works available online

External links