Who Was Michel Foucault?

A Brief Biography and Intellectual History

Painting of Michel Foucault
thierry ehrmann/flickr/cc by sa 2.0/courtesy of Organ Museum ©2012 www.AbodeofChaos.org

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French social theorist, philosopher, historian, and public intellectual who was politically and intellectually active until his death. He is remembered for his method of using historical research to illuminate changes in discourse over time, and the evolving relationships between discourse, knowledge, institutions, and power. Foucault’s work inspired sociologists in subfields including sociology of knowledge; gender, sexuality and queer theory; critical theory;  deviance and crime; and the sociology of education.

His most well-known works include Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality, and The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Early Life

Paul-Michel Foucault was born to an upper-middle class family in Poitiers, France in 1926. His father was a surgeon, and his mother, the daughter of a surgeon. Foucault attended Lycée Henri-IV, one of the most competitive and demanding high schools in Paris. He recounted later in life a troubled relationship with his father, who bullied him for being “delinquent.” In 1948 he attempted suicide for the first time, and was placed in a psychiatric hospital for a period. Both of these experiences seem tied to his homosexuality, as his psychiatrist believed his suicide attempt was motivated by his marginalized status in society. Both also seem to have shaped his intellectual development and focus on the discursive framing of deviance, sexuality, and madness.

Intellectual and Political Development

Following high school Foucault was admitted in 1946 to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), an elite secondary school in Paris founded to train and create French intellectual, political, and scientific leaders.

Foucault studied with Jean Hyppolite, an existentialist expert on Hegel and Marx who firmly believed that philosophy should be developed through a study of history; and, with Louis Althusser, whose structuralist theory left a strong mark on sociology and was greatly influential to Foucault.

At ENS Foucault read widely in philosophy, studying the works of Hegel, Marx, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and Gaston Bachelard.

Althusser, steeped in the Marxist intellectual and political traditions, convinced his student to join the French Communist Party, but Foucault's experience of homophobia and incidences of anti-semitism within it turned him off. Foucault also rejected the class-centric focus of Marx’s theory, and never identified as a Marxist. He completed his studies at the ENS in 1951, and then began a doctorate in the philosophy of psychology.

For the next several years he taught university courses in psychology while studying the works of Pavlov, Piaget, Jaspers, and Freud; and, he studied relationships between doctors and patients at Hôpital Sainte-Anne, where he had been a patient after his 1948 suicide attempt. During this time Foucault also read widely outside of psychology into shared interests with his long-term partner, Daniel Defert, which included works by Nietzsche, Marquis de Sade, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Genet. Following his first university post he worked as a cultural diplomat at universities in Sweden and Poland while completing his doctoral thesis.

Foucault completed his thesis, titled “Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age,” in 1961. Drawing on the work of Durkheim and Margaret Mead, in addition to all of those listed above, he argued that madness was a social construct that originated in medical institutions, that it was distinct from true mental illness, and a tool of social control and power.

Published in abridged form as his first book of note in 1964, Madness and Civilization is considered a work of structuralism, strongly influenced by his teacher at ENS, Louis Althusser. This, along with his next two books, The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things showcase his historiographical method known as “archaeology,” which he also used in his later books, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality.

From the 1960s on Foucault held a variety of lectureships and professorships at universities around the world, including the University of California-Berkeley, New York University, and the University of Vermont. During these decades Foucault became known as an engaged public intellectual and activist on behalf of social justice issues, including racism, human rights, and prison reform.

He was very popular with his students, and his lectures given after his induction into the Collège de France were considered highlights of intellectual life in Paris, and always packed.

Intellectual Legacy

Foucault's key intellectual contribution was his deft ability to illustrate that institutions--like science, medicine, and the penal system--through the use of discourse, create subject categories for people to inhabit, and turn people into objects of scrutiny and of knowledge. Thus, he argued, those who control institutions and their discourses wield power in society, because they shape the trajectories and outcomes of people's lives.

Foucault also demonstrated in his work that the creation of subject and object categories is premised on hierarchies of power among people, and in turn, hierarchies of knowledge, whereby the knowledge of the powerful is considered legitimate and right, and that of the less powerful is considered invalid and wrong. Importantly, though, he emphasized that power is not held by individuals, but that it courses through society, lives in institutions, and is accessible to those who control institutions and the creation of knowledge. He thus considered knowledge and power inseparable, and denoted them as one concept, "knowledge/power."

Foucault is one of the most widely read and frequently cited scholars in the world.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Who Was Michel Foucault?" ThoughtCo, May. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/michel-foucault-biography-3026478. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, May 6). Who Was Michel Foucault? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/michel-foucault-biography-3026478 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Who Was Michel Foucault?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/michel-foucault-biography-3026478 (accessed January 19, 2018).