Biography of Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault is considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926 in Poitiers, France, he spent his teenage years under the Nazi occupation of France. Foucault was a rebellious teenager, a self-described “delinquent” who did not begin to excel in academic study until his parents enrolled him in a strict Jesuit high school in 1942.

Foucault went on to the École Normale Supérieure, France’s most prestigious university, in 1946, where he would study for the equivalent of a BA in psychology and an MA in philosophy. At the ENS, Foucault read voraciously, becoming influenced by the work of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georges Bataille while also exploring the world of Paris’s deeply underground gay subculture. Foucault came under the tutelage of the now-famous Marxist intellectual Louis Althusser, who took up a position at the ENS in 1948. Invited by Althusser, Foucault lectured at the ENS in the early 1950s, while studying for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Paris.

Foucault’s first important book was The History of Madness (published in French as Histoire de la Folie à l’Age Classique in 1961), better known in the English-speaking world as Madness and Civilization until a 2006 expanded edition restored the book’s original title. Situating the history of the concept of madness within enlightenment theories of reason and the history of medical science, The History of Madness established Foucault’s reputation as an exacting and provocative thinker. Foucault’s interest in the relationships between knowledge and modern disciplinary power, especially medical authority, continued throughout his intellectual career. In the 1960s he wrote and published The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).

Running through all of Foucault's works from the 1960s and 1970s is an argument about the contingency of human knowledge and nature. His aim was to show how many of the identities and concepts we take for granted, including scientific, social, psychological, and sexual categories, have histories, which means they did not exist in the current form throughout time. For Foucault, this kind of historical study was also the grounds for intervening in political debates in the present. By showing that our very categories of analysis are not natural, that things were different in the past and could be different again, Foucault thought we could learn how to change the social conditions of life today.

Foucault was a committed participant in political activism, especially in the era-defining student protest movements of 1968. He got involved in many activist causes, notably advocating for prison reform. Foucault’s activism left an especially strong mark on his work during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1975, Foucault undertook the study of the relationship between modern practices of institutional discipline and the history of state punishment, in Discipline and Punish. Arguing that institutional discipline is the key force in shaping modern individuals, this book paved the way for The History of Sexuality, the first volume of which was published in 1976. Foucault had been elected to the highly prestigious Collège de France in 1970, permitting him to travel widely as a guest lecturer.

In 1980, Foucault became a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he continued to work on The History of Sexuality, which was planned to be a 7-volume work. He also continued to give lectures on literary and philosophical topics, as well as on the concept of biopower and other matters of politics and social theory. Toward the end of his life, he became particularly interested in contemporary Western societies and their relation to economics and what we have come to call "neoliberalism." He argued that a special emphasis on individuality and the rationales of the market to justify human behavior blocked other facets of human life and society.

In 1983, Foucault became ill with what would later be diagnosed as an HIV infection. He returned to Paris, where he died on 10 June, 1984 of AIDS-related septicemia. The French AIDES foundation was created in his honor, by Foucault's partner, Daniel Defert. Foucault's life and legacy would continue to influence activists and academics throughout the world.

Study Guides on Works by Michel Foucault

The Archaeology of Knowledge is Foucault’s historiographical treatise—his theory of how to study history—and it was first published in French in 1969. It lays out Foucault’s method for doing history, in particular how to assemble and interpret the...

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason is the 1965 abridged translation of Michel Foucault’s 1961 French text, Folie et Déraison. A more recent, unabridged translation has been released by Routledge under the title ...