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Michel Foucault - Biography

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher or more specifically a historian of systems of thought, a self-made title created when he was promoted to a new professorship at the prestigious Collège de France in 1970. Foucault is generally accepted as having been the most influential social theorist of the second half of the twentieth century. He was born on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France, and died in Paris in 1984 from an AIDS-related illness. As an openly homosexual man he was one of the first high-profile intellectuals to succumb to the illness, which was at the time still most unknown. However, it would appear that he knew he had AIDS and he reportedly was not afraid to die as he sometimes shared with his friends his thoughts of suicide. Yet, he continued working relentlessly until the end, spending the last eight months of his life working on the last two volumes of The History of Sexuality, which happened to come out just before he died in Paris at the hospital on June 26th 1984. He is buried at the Cimetière du Vendeuvre in Vienne, in the Rhone-Alpes Region, not far from Poitier the city where he was born.

Foucault’s father was a surgeon, and encouraged the same career for his son. Foucault graduated from Saint-Stanislas school having studied philosophy with Louis Girard who would become a notorious professor. After that Foucault attended the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, then in 1946, equipped with an impressive academic record he entered the École Normale Supérièure d’Ulm, which is the most prestigious French school for humanities studies. Fascinated by psychology he received the equivalent of a BA degree in Psychopathology in 1947. In 1948, working under the famous phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, he received another BA type of degree in Philosophy. In 1950 he failed his his agrégation (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors) in Philosophy, but succeeded in 1951. During the 1950s he worked in a psychiatric hospital, then from 1954-58 he taught French at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He then spent a year at the University of Warsaw, and a year at the university of Hamburg.

Through his impressive career Foucault became known for his many demonstrative arguments that power depends not on material relations or authority but instead primarily on discursive networks. This new perspective as applied to old questions such as madness, social discipline, body-image, truth, normative sexuality etc. were instrumental in designing the post-modern intellectual landscape we are still in nowadays. Today Michel Foucault is listed as the most cited intellectual worldwide in the humanities by The Times Higher Education Guide. This is not so, however if we consider the field of philosophy alone, and that in spite of it being the discipline Foucault was largely educated in, and which, it is safe to say he might have identified with the most. This is probably because Foucault’s definition of philosophy focuses on the critique of truth and does so by conceiving it as inextricable from a critique of history. This is because according to him, it makes philosophy a much richer discipline. Linking philosophy and history, however is considered by many as irreconcilable with the generally accepted definition of philosophy as being independent of it.

In 1959 Foucault received his doctorat d'état under the supervision of Georges Canguilhem, the famous French philosopher. The paper he presented was published two years later with the name Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, 1961). In this text, Foucault abolished the possibility of separating madness and reason into universally objective categories. He did so by studying how the division has been historically established, how the distinctions we make between madness and sanity are a result of the invention of madness in the Age of Reason. He does a reading of Descartes' First Meditation, and accuses him of being able to doubt everything except his own sanity, thus excluding madness from his famous hyperbolic doubt.

In the 1960s Foucault was head of the philosophy departments at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. It was at this time that he met the philosophy student Daniel Defert, whose political activism would be a major influence on Foucault. When Defert went to fulfill his volunteer service requirement in Tunisia, Foucault followed, teaching in Tunisia from 1966-68. They returned to Paris during the time of the student revolts, an event that would have a profound effect on Foucault's work. He took the position of head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Paris-VII at Vincennes where he brought together some of the most promising thinkers in France at the time, which included Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière. Both went on to become leading thinkers of their generation, and both have taught at EGS. It was also in 1968 that he formed, with others, the Prison Information Group, an organization that gave voice to the concerns of prisoners.

In The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, one of his last far-reaching works he wrote: "[W]hat is philosophy today–philosophical activity, I mean–if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself?". Foucault is here practicing the very kind of critical questioning he is hinting at. It is a sort of reflective movement of thought that challenges the all-too-often uncritical tendencies of philosophical thinking, especially when it fails to see that it is itself part of what needs to be critiqued. In this light, Foucault is not simply stating something to be accepted or refuted, for that too would lead to complacent thinking. On the contrary, in his very use of language here and elsewhere there is a clear opening for something other, perhaps even unknown, which is made possible in part through a challenging use of the questioning mode.

Foucault’s project, then, should not be confused with traditional history and needs to be wrestled with. He helpfully continues: "In what does it [philosophy] consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?" Significantly, he is questioning the very discourse of philosophy as an established tradition whose tendency towards rigidity needs to be interrogated. Foucault’s re-defining of "philosophical activity" characterizes what philosophy needs to be today if it is to do more than simply perpetuate the status quo. There is thus in a very real sense a political and ethical level to Foucault’s work. This is to varying degrees evident in all of his corpus, hence the appeal many critical thinkers still find in his research today.

Foucault always endeavors to write what he calls a "history of the present" and in spite of the apparent contradiction it is a critical move that has political reach. Because what matters today has roots in the past, a history of the present is a productive space for critical thinking. In Foucault’s own words: "The game is to try to detect those things which have not yet been talked about, those things that, at the present time, introduce, show, give some more or less vague indications of the fragility of our system of thought, in our way of reflecting, in our practices." Early on he refers to such history in terms of archeology and later as his research become more directly political, as genealogy, taking his cue from Friedrich Nietzsche.

His numerous archaeological, or epistemological studies recognize the changing frameworks of production of knowledge through the history of such practices as science, philosophy, art and literature. In his later genealogical practice, he argues that institutional power, intrinsically linked with knowledge, forms individual human "subjects", and subjects them to disciplinary norms and standards. These norms are produced historically, there is no timeless truth behind them. For him truth is something that is historically produced. Foucault examines the "abnormal" human subject as an object-of-knowledge of the discourses of human and empirical science such as psychiatry, medicine, and penalization.

Foucault published The Order of Things in 1966, which immediately became a bestseller in France, perhaps surprisingly given the level of complexity of the book (arguably his most difficult to read). It is an archeological study of the development of biology, economics and linguistics through the 18th and 19th centuries. It is in this book that he makes his famous prediction at the end that "man", a subject formed by discourse as a result of the arrangement of knowledge over the last two centuries, will soon be "erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." Less poetically and in the same book: "As the archeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of a recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end."

Foucault's book Archaeology of Knowledge was published in 1969. As with The Order of Things, this text uses an approach to the history of knowledge inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's work, although not yet using Friedrich Nietzsche terminology of "geneaology", and this is a rare major work for Foucault that does not include a historical study per se. Because what Foucault is really after in this book is the question of archeology as a method of historical analysis. This attitude to history is based on the idea that the historian is only interested in what has implications for present events, so history is always written from the perspective of the present, and fulfills a need of the present. Thus, Foucault's work can be traced to events in his present day. The Order of Things would have been inspired by the rise of structuralism in the 1960s, for example, and the prison uprisings in the early 1970s would have inspired Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). Discourses are governed by such historical positioning, which have their own logic, which Foucault refers to as an "archive". Archeology, Foucault explains, is the very excavation of such archive.

In 1975 with the publication of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, his work begins to focus more explicitly on power. He rejects the Enlightenment's philosophical and juridical interpretation of power as conceptualized particularly in relation to representative government, and he introduces instead the notion of power as "discipline" and takes the penal system as the context of his analysis, only to generalize it further to society at large. He shows this kind of discipline is a specific historical form of power that was taken up by the state from the army in the 17th century, which spread widely across society through institutions. Here he begins to examine the relationship of power to knowledge and to the body, which would become a pivotal Foucaultian move in his future research. He argues that these institutions, including the army, the factory and the school, all discipline the bodies of their subjects through surveilling, knowledge-gathering techniques, both real and perceived. Indeed, the goal of such exercise of power is to produce "docile bodies" that can be monitored, and which lead to the psychological control of individuals. Foucault goes as far as arguing that such power produces individuals as such. In maping the emergence of a disciplinary society and its new articulation of power, he uses the model of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon to illustrate the structure of power through an architecture designed for surveillance. The design of Bentham's prison allows for the invisible surveillance of a large number of prisoners by a small number of guards, eventually resulting in the embodiment of surveillance by the prisoners, making the actual guards obsolete. The prison is a tool of knowledge for the institutional formation of subjects, thus power and knowledge are inextricably linked. The rather controversial conclusion of the book is that the prison system is actually an institution whose purpose is to produce criminality and recidivism.

During the 1970s and 1980s Foucault's reputation grew and he lectured all over the world. In 1971 he was invited to debate Noam Chomsky in on Dutch television for The International Philosophers Project. It gave rise to a fascinating debate, which has been published several times since then. Chomsky argued for the concept of human nature as a political guide for activism while Foucault argued that any notions of human nature cannot escape power and must thus first be analyzed as such.

During the later years of his professorship at the Collège de France he started writing The History of Sexuality, a major project he would never finish because of his untimely death. The first volume of the work was published in 1976 in French and the English version would follow two years later, entitled The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. However, the French title was much more indicative of what Foucault was after: "Histoire de la sexualité, tome 1 : La Volonté de savoir", which translates as The History of Sexuality Volume I: The Will to Knowledge (a newer edition is simply named The Will to Knowledge). It is an amazingly prominent work, maybe even his most influential. The main thesis of the work is to be found in part two of the book called "The Repressive Hypothesis" where Foucault articulately explains that in spite of the generally accepted belief that we have been sexually repressed, the notion of sexual repression cannot be separated from the concomitant imperative for us to talk about sex more than ever before. Indeed, according to Foucault it follows in the name of liberating so-called innate tendencies, certain behaviors are actually produced. With the contention that modern power operates to produce the very behaviors it targets, Foucault attacks here again the notion of power as repression of something that is already in place. Such new notion of power has been and continues to be incredibly influential in various fields.

His last two books, the second and third volumes of the history of sexuality research, entitled The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self respectively, both relate the Western subject's understanding of ourselves as sexual beings to our moral and ethical lives. He traces the history of the construction of subjectivity through the analyses of ancient texts. In The Uses of Pleasure he looks at pleasure in the Greek social system as a play of power in social relations; pleasure is derived from the social position realized through sexuality. Later, in Christianity, pleasure was to become linked with illicit conduct and transgression. In The Care of the Self, Foucault looks at the Greeks' systems of rules that were applied to sexual and other forms of social conduct. He analyses how the rules of self-control allow access to pleasure and to truth. In this structure of a subject's life dominated by the care for the self, excess becomes the danger, rather than the Christian deviance.

What Foucault made from delving into these ancient texts, is the notion of an ethics to do with one’s relation to one’s self. Indeed the constitution of the self is the overarching question for Foucault at the end of his life. Yet the point for him was not to present a new ethics. Rather, it was the possibility for new analyses that focused on subjectivity itself. Foucault became very interested in the way subjectivity is constructed and especially how subjects produce themselves vis-à-vis truth.

In his last few books Foucault works with a system of control, not understood by traditional concepts of authority, which he calls bio-power. Bio-power can be understood as the prerogative of the state to "make live and let die", which is distinct from the rule of the sovereign power which would "let live and make die" by rule of the king. This attitude toward the lives of social subjects is a way of understanding the new formation of power in Western society. Foucault's history of sexuality suggests that pleasure is found in regulation and self-discipline rather than in libertine or permissive conduct, and encourages resistance to the state through the development of individual ethics towards the production of an admirable life: "We must at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king."



Michel Foucault was a French philosopher (1926 - 1984).