Michel Foucault

The French philosopher, critic, and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was an original and creative thinker who made contributions to historiography and to understanding the forces that make history.

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Pottiers, France, the son of Paul (a doctor) and Anne (Malapert) Foucault. He studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure and at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, where he received his diploma in 1952. He served as director of the Institut Francais in Hamburg and held academic posts at the Universities of Clermont-Ferrand and Paris-Vincennes. In 1970 he became professor and chairman of the History of Systems of Thought at the College de France. A creative thinker, Foucault made substantial contributions to philosophy, history, literary criticism, and, specifically, to theoretical work in the human sciences. Often depicted as a "structuralist," a designation he disavowed, Foucault had something of a following among French intellectuals. He died from a neurological disorder on June 25, 1984, cutting short a brilliant career.

Foucault was known for tracing the development of Western civilization, particularly in its attitudes towards sexuality, madness, illness, and knowledge. His late works insisted that forms of discourse and institutional practices are implicated in the exercise of power. His works can be read as a new interpretation of power placing emphasis on what happens or is done and not on human agency—that is, he sought to explore the conditions that give rise to forms of discourse and knowledge. Foucault was particularly concerned with the rise of the modern stress on human self-consciousness and the image of the human as maker of history. He argued that the 20th century is marked by "the disappearance of man" because history is now seen as the product of objective forces and power relations limiting the need to make the human the focus of historical causation.

Throughout his studies Foucault developed and used what he called an "archeological method." This approach to history tries to uncover strata of relations and traces of culture in order to reconstruct the civilization in question. Foucault assumed that there were characteristic mechanisms throughout historical events, and therefore he developed his analysis by drawing on seemingly random sources. This gives Foucault's work an eclecticism rarely seen in modern historiography. His concern, however, was to isolate the defining characteristics of a period. In the Order of Things (1971) he claimed that "in any given culture and at any given moment there is only one episteme (system of knowledge) that defines the conditions of the possibility of all knowledge." The archeological method seeks to "dig up and display the archeological form or forms which would be common to all mental activity." These forms can then be traced throughout a culture and warrant the eclectic use of historical materials.

Foucault's archeological method entails a reconception of historical study by seeking to isolate the forms that are common to all mental activity in a period. Rather than seeking historical origins, continuities, and explanations for a historical period, Foucault constantly sought the epistemological gap or space unique to a particular period. He then tried to uncover the structures that render understandable the continuities of history. His form of social analysis challenged other thinkers to look at institutions, ideas, and events in new ways.

Foucault claimed that his interest was "to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects." By this he meant the way in which human beings are made the subjects of objectifying study and practices through knowledge, social norms, and sexuality. Thus he applied his archeological method to sexuality, insanity, history, and punishment. Just prior to his death, Concern for the Self, the third of his projected five volume History of Sexuality, was published in France. The first two volumes—The Will to know (published in English as The History of Sexuality Volume I, 1981) and The Use of Pleasure (1985)—explored the relation between morality and sexuality. Concern for the Self addresses the oppression of women by men. In these studies, as in his Discipline and Punish (1977) about the rise of penal institutions, Foucault isolated the institutions that are images of the episteme of modernity. His conclusion was that modernity is marked not by liberalization and freedom, but by the repression of sexuality and the "totalitarianism of the norm" in mass culture.

Foucault's work continues to have significance for historical, literary, and philosophical study. In his later years Foucault wrote and spoke extensively on varying topics ranging from language to the relations of knowledge and power. In the span of a short career Foucault had considerable impact on the intellectual world. Yet given the complexity, subtly, and eclecticism of his style, the full impact of his work has yet to be realized.

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Further Reading on Michel Foucault

Foucault is included in Contemporary Authors (volumes 105,113). Obituaries can be found in Newsweek (July 9, 1984) and TIME (July 9, 1984). For helpful works on Foucault see Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth (Tavistock, 1980) and Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabbinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1982).

Additional Biography Sources

Macey, David, The lives of Michel Foucault: a biography, New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Eribon, Didier, Michel Foucault, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.