Michel Foucault  born Paul-Michel Foucault (15 October, 1926 – 25 June, 1984), was a French philosopher, sociologist and historian. He held a chair at the Collège de France with the title “History of Systems of Thought,” and also taught at the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Berkeley.

Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. His work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse has been widely discussed. In the 1960s Foucault was associated with Structuralism, a movement from which he distanced himself. Foucault also rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels to which he was often later attributed, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. Foucault is particularly influenced by the work of Nietzsche; his “genealogy of knowledge” is a direct allusion to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. In a late interview he definitively stated: “I am a Nietzschean.”In 2007 Foucault was listed as the most cited intellectual in the humanities by The Times Higher Education Guide. 

Foucault’s personal life during the École Normale was difficult—he suffered from acute depression. As a result, he was taken to see a psychiatrist. During this time, Foucault became fascinated with psychology. He earned a licence (degree equivalent to BA) in psychology, a very new qualification in France at the time, in addition to a degree in philosophy, in 1952. He was involved in the clinical arm of psychology, which exposed him to thinkers such as Ludwig Binswanger.

Foucault was a member of the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953. He was inducted into the party by his mentor Louis Althusser, but soon became disillusioned with both the politics and the philosophy of the party. Various people, such as historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, have reported that Foucault never actively participated in his cell, unlike many of his fellow party members.

Early career

Foucault failed at the agrégation in 1950 but took it again and succeeded the following year. After a brief period lecturing at the École Normale, he took up a position at the Université Lille Nord de France, 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. At this point, Foucault was not interested in a teaching career, and he undertook a lengthy exile from France. In 1954 he 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 and briefly held positions at Warsaw University 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 philosopher Daniel Defert, who would become his lover of twenty years. 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 (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age) and a “secondary” thesis which involved a translation of, and commentary on Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Folie et déraison (Madness and Insanity — published in an abridged edition in English as Madness and Civilization and finally published unabridged as “History of Madness” by Routledge in 2006) 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 or, in English, “Mental Illness and Psychology”) which he would again disavow.

After Defert was posted to Tunisia for his military service, Foucault moved to a position at the University of Tunis in 1965. He published Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things) during the height of interest in structuralism in 1966, and Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes as the newest, latest wave of thinkers set to topple the existentialism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre. Foucault made a number of skeptical comments about Marxism, which outraged a number of left wing critics, but later firmly rejected the “structuralist” label. He was still in Tunis during the May 1968 student riots, where he was profoundly affected by a local student revolt earlier in the same year. In the Autumn of 1968 he returned to France, where he published L’archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge) — a methodological response to his critics — in 1969.

 Post-1968: as activist

In the aftermath of 1968, the French government created a new experimental university, Paris VIII, at Vincennes and appointed Foucault the first head of its philosophy department in December of that year. Foucault appointed mostly young leftist academics (such as Judith Miller) whose radicalism provoked the Ministry of Education, who objected to the fact that many of the course titles contained the phrase “Marxist-Leninist,” and who decreed that students from Vincennes would not be eligible to become secondary school teachers.Foucault notoriously also joined students in occupying administration buildings and fighting with police.

Foucault’s tenure at Vincennes was short-lived, as in 1970 he 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 increased, and his partner Defert joined the ultra-Maoist Gauche Proletarienne (GP). Foucault helped found the Prison Information Group (French: Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons or GIP) to provide a way for prisoners to voice their concerns. This coincided with Foucault’s turn to the study of disciplinary institutions, with a book, Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish), which “narrates” the micro-power structures that developed in Western societies since the eighteenth century, with a special focus on prisons and schools.

In the late 1970s, political activism in France tailed off with the disillusionment of many left wing intellectuals. A number of young Maoists abandoned their beliefs to become the so-called New Philosophers, often citing Foucault as their major influence, a status about which Foucault had mixed feelings. Foucault in this period embarked on a six-volume project The History of Sexuality, which he never completed. Its first volume was published in French as La Volonté de Savoir (1976), then in English as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978). The second and third volumes did not appear for another eight years, and they surprised readers by their subject matter (classical Greek and Latin texts), approach and style, particularly Foucault’s focus on the human subject, a concept that some mistakenly believed he had previously neglected.

Foucault began to spend more time in the United States, at the University at Buffalo (where he had lectured on his first ever visit to the United States in 1970) and especially at UC Berkeley. In 1975 he took LSD at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, later calling it the best experience of his life.

In 1979 Foucault made two tours of Iran, undertaking extensive interviews with political protagonists in support of the new interim government established soon after the Iranian Revolution. His many essays on Iran, published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, only appeared in French in 1994 and then in English in 2005. These essays caused some controversy, with some commentators arguing that Foucault was insufficiently critical of the new regime.

In the philosopher’s later years, interpreters of Foucault’s work attempted to engage with the problems presented by the fact that the late Foucault seemed in tension with the philosopher’s earlier work. When this issue was raised in a 1982 interview, Foucault remarked “When people say, ‘Well, you thought this a few years ago and now you say something else,’ my answer is… [laughs] ‘Well, do you think I have worked hard all those years to say the same thing and not to be changed?'” He refused to identify himself as a philosopher, historian, structuralist, or Marxist, maintaining that “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” In a similar vein, he preferred not to claim that he was presenting a coherent and timeless block of knowledge; he rather desired his books “to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.”

Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness in Paris on 25 June, 1984. He was the first high-profile French personality who was reported to have AIDS. Little was known about the disease at the time and there has been some controversy since. In the front-page article of Le Monde announcing his death, there was no mention of AIDS, although it was implied that he died from a massive infection. Prior to his death, Foucault had destroyed most of his manuscripts, and in his will had prohibited the publication of what he might have overlooked.