Michel Foucault (1926- 1984)

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michel_foucaultMichel Foucault (French: [miʃɛl fuko]; born Paul-Michel Foucault) (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984) was a French philosopher, historian, social theorist, philologist andliterary critic. His philosophical theories addressed the nature of power and the manner in which it functions, the means by which it controls knowledge and vice versa, and how it is used as a form of social control. Foucault is best known for his histories of ideas and critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, the social anthropology of medicine, the human sciences, the prison system, and the history of human sexuality. His writings on power, knowledge, and discourse have been widely influential in both academic and activist circles.

Born in Poitiers, France to an upper-middle-class family, Foucault was educated at the Lycée Henri-IV and then the École Normale Supérieure, where he developed an interest in philosophy and came under the influence of his tutors—philosophers Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser. After several years as a cultural diplomat abroad, he returned to France and published his first major book, The History of Madness (later published in English in an abbreviated volume called Madness and Civilization). After obtaining work between 1960 and 1966 at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, he produced two more significant publications, The Birth of the Clinicand The Order of Things, which displayed his increasing involvement with structuralism, a theoretical movement in social anthropology from which he later distanced himself. These first three histories were examples of a historiographical technique Foucault was developing he called archaeology which he would later give a comprehensive account of in The Archaeology of Knowledge. From 1966 to 1968, he lectured at the University of Tunis, Tunisia before returning to France, where he involved himself in several protest movements and left-wing groups. He went on to publish The Archaeology of KnowledgeDiscipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality, his so-called genealogies which emphasized the role power plays in the evolution of discourse in society. Foucault died in Paris of neurological problems compounded by HIV/AIDS; he was the first public figure in France to have died from the disease, with his partner Daniel Defert founding the AIDES charity in his memory.

Foucault rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels later attributed to him, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity.


Youth: 1926–1946

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15 October 1926 in the small town of Poitiers, west-central France, as the second of three children to a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. He had been named after his father, Dr. Paul Foucault, as was the family tradition, but his mother insisted on the addition of the double-barrelled “Michel”; referred to as “Paul” at school, throughout his life he always expressed a preference for “Michel”. His father (1893–1959) was a successful local surgeon, having been born in Fontainebleau before moving to Poitiers, where he set up his own practice and married local woman Anne Malapert. She was the daughter of prosperous surgeon Dr. Prosper Malapert, who owned a private practice and taught anatomy at the University of Poitiers’ School of Medicine. Paul Foucault eventually took over his father-in-law’s medical practice, while his wife took charge of their large mid-19th century house, Le Piroir, in the village of Vendeuvre-du-Poitou. Together the couple had 3 children, a girl named Francine and two boys, Paul-Michel and Denys, all of whom shared the same fair hair and bright blue eyes.The children were raised to be nominal Roman Catholics, attending mass at the Church of Saint-Porchair, and while Michel briefly became an altar boy, none of the family were devout.

“I wasn’t always smart, I was actually very stupid in school… [T]here was a boy who was very attractive who was even stupider than I was. And in order to ingratiate myself with this boy who was very beautiful, I began to do his homework for him – and that’s how I became smart, I had to do all this work to just keep ahead of him a little bit, in order to help him. In a sense, all the rest of my life I’ve been trying to do intellectual things that would attract beautiful boys.”

— Michel Foucault, 1983.

In later life, Foucault would reveal very little about his childhood. Describing himself as a “juvenile delinquent”, he claimed his father was a “bully” who would sternly punish him. In 1930, Foucault began his schooling two years early at the local Lycée Henry-IV. Here he undertook two years of elementary education before entering the main lycée, where he stayed until 1936. He then undertook his first four years of secondary education at the same establishment, excelling in French, Greek, Latin and history but doing poorly at maths. In 1939, the Second World War broke out and France was occupied by Nazi Germany until 1945; his parents opposed the occupation and the Vichy regime, but did not join the Resistance. In 1940, Foucault’s mother enrolled him in the Collège Saint-Stanislas, a strict Roman Catholic institution run by the Jesuits. Lonely, he described his years there as the “ordeal”, but excelled academically, particularly in philosophy, history and literature. In 1942, he entered his final year, the terminale, where he focused on the study of philosophy, earning his baccalauréat in 1943.

Returning to the local Lycée Henry-IV, he studied history and philosophy for a year, aided by a personal tutor, the philosopher Louis Girard. Rejecting his father’s wishes that he become a surgeon, in 1945 Foucault traveled to Paris, where he enrolled in one of the country’s most prestigious secondary schools, which was also known as the Lycée Henri-IV. Here, he studied under the philosopher Jean Hyppolite, an existentialist and expert on the work of 19th century German philosopher Hegel who had devoted himself to uniting existentialist theories with the dialectical theories of Hegel and Karl Marx. These ideas influenced Foucault, who adopted Hyppolite’s conviction that philosophy must be developed through a study of history.

asdf3École Normale Supérieure: 1946–1951

Attaining excellent results, in autumn 1946 Foucault was admitted to the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS); to gain entry, he undertook exams and an oral interrogation by Georges Canguilhem and Pierre-Maxime Schuhl. Of the hundred students entering the ENS, Foucault was ranked fourth based on his entry results, and encountered the highly competitive nature of the institution. Like most of his classmates, he was housed in the school’s communal dormitories on the Parisian Rue d’Ulm. He remained largely unpopular, spending much time alone, reading voraciously. His fellow students noted his love of violence and the macabre; he decorated his bedroom with images of torture and war drawn during the Napoleonic Wars by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, on one occasion chasing a classmate with a dagger. Prone to self-harm, in 1948 Foucault allegedly undertook a failed suicide attempt, for which his father sent him to see the psychiatrist Jean Delay at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. Obsessed with the idea of self-mutilation and suicide, Foucault attempted the latter several times in ensuing years, praising suicide in later writings. The ENS’s doctor examined Foucault’s state of mind, suggesting that his suicidal tendencies emerged from the distress surrounding his homosexuality, for though legal, same-sex sexual activity was socially taboo in France. At the time, Foucault engaged in homosexual activity with men whom he encountered in the underground Parisian gay scene, also indulging in drug use; according to biographer James Miller, he enjoyed the thrill and sense of danger that these activities offered him.

Although studying various subjects, Foucault’s particular interest was soon drawn to philosophy, reading not only Hegel and Marx but also Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl and most significantly, Martin Heidegger. He began reading the publications of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, taking a particular interest in his work exploring the history of science. In 1948, the philosopher Louis Althusser became a tutor at the ENS. A Marxist, he proved to be an influence both on Foucault and a number of other students, encouraging them to join the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français – PCF). Foucault did so in 1950, but never became particularly active in its activities, and never adopted an orthodox Marxist viewpoint, refuting core Marxist tenets such as class struggle. He soon became dissatisfied with the bigotry that he experienced within the party’s ranks; he personally faced homophobia and was appalled by the anti-semitism exhibited during the Doctors’ plot in the Soviet Union. He left the Communist Party in 1953, but remained Althusser’s friend and defender for the rest of his life. Although failing at the first attempt in 1950, he passed his agrégation in philosophy on the second try, in 1951. Excused from national service on medical grounds, he decided to study for a doctorate at the Fondation Thiers, focusing on the philosophy of psychology.

Early career: 1951–1955

Over the following few years, Foucault embarked on a variety of research and teaching jobs. From 1951 to 1955, he worked as a psychology instructor at the ENS at Althusser’s invitation. In Paris, he shared a flat with his brother, who was training to become a surgeon, but for three days in the week commuted to the northern town of Lille, teaching psychology at the Université Lille Nord de France from 1953 to 1954. His lecturing style was looked upon positively by many of his students. Meanwhile, he continued working on his thesis, visiting the Bibliothèque Nationale every day to read the work of psychologists like Ivan Pavlov, Jean Piaget and Karl Jaspers. Undertaking research at the psychiatric institute of the Hôpital Sainte-Anne, he became an unofficial intern, studying the relationship between doctor and patient and aiding experiments in theelectroencephalographic laboratory. Foucault adopted many of the theories of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, undertaking psychoanalytical interpretation of his dreams and making friends undergo Rorschach tests.

Embracing the Parisian avant-garde, Foucault entered into a romantic relationship with the serialist composer Jean Barraqué. Together, they pushed the boundaries of the human mind, trying to produce their greatest work; making heavy use of drugs, they engaged in sado-masochistic sexual activity. In August 1953, Foucault and Barraqué holidayed in Italy, where the philosopher immersed himself in Untimely Meditations (1873–1876), a collection of four essays authored by German philosopherFriedrich Nietzsche. Later describing Nietzsche’s work as “a revelation”, he felt that reading the book deeply affected him, and he subsequently “broke with my life” as he had formerly experienced it. Foucault subsequently experienced a groundbreaking self-revelation when watching a Parisian performance of Samuel Beckett’s new play,Waiting for Godot, in 1953.

Interested in literature, Foucault was an avid reader of the philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s book reviews published in Nouvelle Revue Française. Enamoured with Blanchot’s literary style and critical theories, in later works he adopted Blanchot’s technique of “interviewing” himself. Foucault also came across Hermann Broch’s 1945 novel The Death of Virgil, a work that obsessed both him and Barraqué. While the latter attempted to convert the work into an epic opera, Foucault admired Broch’s text for its portrayal of death as an affirmation of life. The couple took a mutual interest in the work of such authors as the Marquis de Sade, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka and Jean Genet, all of whose works explored the themes of sex and violence.

“I belong to that generation who, as students, had before their eyes, and were limited by, a horizon consisting of Marxism, phenomenology and existentialism. For me the break was first Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a breathtaking performance.”

— Michel Foucault, 1983.

In the early 1950s, Foucault came under the influence of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who remained a core influence on his work throughout his life.

In the early 1950s, Foucault came under the influence of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who remained a core influence on his work throughout his life.

Interested in the work of Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger, Foucault aided family friend Jacqueline Verdeaux in translating his works into French. Foucault was particularly interested in Binswager’s studies of Ellen West who, like himself, had a deep obsession with suicide, eventually killing herself. In 1954, Foucault authored an introduction to Binswager’s paper “Dream and Existence”, in which he argued that dreams constituted “the birth of the world” or “the heart laid bare”, expressing the mind’s deepest desires. That same year Foucault published his first book, Mental Illness and Personality (Maladie mentale et personnalité), in which he exhibited his influence from both Marxist and Heideggerian thought, covering a wide range of subject matter from the reflex psychology of Pavlov to the classic psychoanalysis of Freud. Referencing the work of sociologists and anthropologists such as Émile Durkheimand Margaret Mead, he presented his theory that illness was culturally relative. Biographer James Miller noted that while the book exhibited “erudition and evident intelligence”, it lacked the “kind of fire and flair” which Foucault exhibited in subsequent works. It was largely critically ignored, receiving only one review at the time. Foucault grew to despise it, unsuccessfully attempting to prevent its republication and translation into English.


Foucault spent the next five years abroad, first in Uppsala, Sweden, working as cultural diplomat at the University of Uppsala. A job obtained through his acquaintance with historian of religion Georges Dumézil, at Uppsala, he was appointed a Reader in French, teaching both French language and literature through courses on such topics as “The Conception of Love in French Literature from the Marquis de Sade to Jean Genet.” Simultaneously appointed director of the Maison de France, this opened the possibility of a future cultural-diplomatic career. Although finding it difficult to adjust to the “Nordic gloom” and long winters, he developed close friendships with two Frenchmen, biochemist Jean-François Miquel and physicist Jacques Papet-Lépine and entered into romantic and sexual relationships with various men. In Uppsala, he became known for his heavy alcohol consumption and reckless driving in his new Jaguar car. In spring 1956, Barraqué broke from his relationship with Foucault, announcing that he wanted to leave the “vertigo of madness”. In Uppsala, Foucault spent much of his spare time in the university’s Carolina Rediviva library, making use of their Bibliotheca Walleriana collection of texts on the history of medicine for his ongoing research. Finishing his doctoral thesis, Foucault hoped it would be accepted by Uppsala University, but Sten Lindroth, a historian of science there, was unimpressed, asserting that it was full of speculative generalisations and was a poor work of history; he refused to allow Foucault to be awarded a doctorate at Uppsala. In part because of this rejection, Foucault left Sweden.

In October 1958, Foucault arrived in the Polish city of Warsaw, being in charge of the University of Warsaw’s Centre Français. Once again, he had been recommended for the position by Dumézil. Foucault found life in Poland difficult due to the lack of material goods and services following the destruction of the Second World War. He later commented that he had moved from a “social-democratic country which functioned “well”,” to a “people’s democracy that functioned “badly.”” Witnessing the aftermath of the Polish October in which students had protested against the governing communist Polish United Workers’ Party, he felt that the Polish negatively viewed their government as a puppet regime of the Soviet Union. Considering the university a liberal enclave, he traveled the country giving lectures; proving popular, he adopted the position of de facto cultural attaché. Like France and Sweden, homosexual activity was legal but socially frowned upon in Poland, and he undertook relationships with a number of men; one was a Polish security agent who hoped to trap Foucault in an embarrassing situation, which would therefore reflect badly on the French embassy. Wracked in diplomatic scandal, he was ordered to leave Poland for a new destination. Various positions were available in West Germany, and so Foucault relocated to Hamburg, teaching the same courses he had given in Uppsala and Warsaw. Spending much time in the Reeperbahn red light district, he entered into a relationship with a transvestite.



Madness and Civilization and Kant’s Anthropology: 1960

Histoire de la folie is not an easy text to read, and it defies attempts to summarise its contents. Foucault refers to a bewildering variety of sources, ranging from well-known authors such as Erasmus and Molière to archival documents and forgotten figures in the history of medicine and psychiatry. His erudition derives from years pondering, to citePoe, ‘over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’, and his learning is not always worn lightly…
Yet the text affords even its most casual reader a great deal of pleasure. Its overall arguments and structures are seductively persuasive, and do win over the reader, just as they were to win over and convince the members of the jury which examined Foucault for his doctorate.”

— Foucault biographer David Macey, 1993.

In West Germany Foucault completed his doctoral thesis, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age), a philosophical work based upon his studies into the history of medicine. The book discussed how West European society had dealt with madness, arguing that it was a social construct distinct from mental illness. Foucault traces the evolution of the concept of madness through three phases: the Renaissance, the “Classical Age” (the later 17th and 18th centuries) and the modern experience. He argues that in the Renaissance the mad were portrayed in art as possessing a kind of wisdom, and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be. With the rise of the age of reason, madness began to be conceived as unreason and the mad were now separated from society and confined, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers, and orphans in newly created institutions all over Europe. The subsequent modern experience, Foucault argued, began at the end of the 18th century with the creation of places devoted solely to the care of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors. The work alludes to the work of French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, who exerted a strong influence over Foucault’s thought at the time.

Histoire de la folie was an expansive work, consisting of 943 pages of text, followed by appendixes and a bibliography. He submitted it at the University of Paris, although the university’s regulations for awarding a doctorate required the submission of both his main thesis and a shorter complementary thesis. Obtaining a doctorate in France at the period was a multi-step process. The first step was to obtain a rapporteur, or sponsor for the work: Foucault chose Georges Canguilhem. The second was to find a publisher, and as a result Folie et déraison would be published in French in May 1961 by the company Plon. Foucault had initially received an offer of publication from the Presses Universitaires de France, but he wanted his work to be published by a popular rather than an academic press, so that it would reach a wider audience. Hoping that his work would be picked up by Gallimard, the publishers of Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential bestseller,Being and Nothingness (1943), he was perturbed when they rejected him, instead selecting Plon. In 1964, a heavily abridged version was published as a mass market paperback, then translated into English for publication the following year as Madness and Civilization.

Folie et déraison received a mixed reception in France and in foreign journals focusing on French affairs. Critically acclaimed by the likes of Blochot, Michel Serres, Roland Barthes, Gaston Bachelard, and Fernand Braudel, much to Foucault’s upset it was largely ignored by leftist press.[100][101][102] It was notably criticised for advocating metaphysics by a young philosopher who had attended Foucault’s psychology course at the ENS, Jacques Derrida, in a March 1963 lecture at the University of Paris. Responding with a vicious retort, Foucault ignored some of Derrida’s points, focusing on criticising his interpretation of René Descartes. The two remained bitter rivals until reconciling in 1981. In the English-speaking world, the work became a significant influence over the anti-psychiatry movement during the 1960s; Foucault took a mixed approach to this, associating with a number of anti-psychiatrists but arguing that most of them misunderstood his work.

Foucault’s secondary thesis was a translation and commentary on German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 1798 work Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Largely consisting of Foucault’s discussion of textual dating – an “archaeology of the Kantian text” – he rounded off the thesis with an evocation of Nietzche, his biggest philosophical influence. This work’s rapporteur was his old tutor and then director of the ENS, Hyppolite, who was well acquainted with German philosophy. After both theses were championed and reviewed, he underwent his public defense, the soutenance de thèse, on 20 May 1961. The academics responsible for reviewing his work were concerned about the unconventional nature of his major thesis; reviewer Henri Gouhier noted that it was not a conventional work of history, making sweeping generalisations without sufficient particular argument, and that Foucault clearly “thinks in allegories”. They all agreed however that the overall project was of merit, awarding Foucault his doctorate “despite reservations”.

University of Clermont-Ferrand, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things: 1960–1966

In October 1960, Foucault took a tenured post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, commuting to the city every week from Paris, where he lived in a high-rise block on the rue du Dr Finlay. Responsible for teaching psychology, which was subsumed within the philosophy department, he was considered a “fascinating” but “rather traditional” teacher at Clermont. The department was run by Jules Vuillemin, who soon developed a friendship with Foucault despite their political differences. Foucault then took Vuillemin’s job when the latter was elected to the Collège de France in 1962. In this position, Foucault took a dislike to another staff member whom he considered stupid: Roger Garaudy, a senior figure in the Communist Party. Foucault made life at the university difficult for Garaudy, leading the latter to transfer to Poitiers. Foucault also entered into a non-monogamous relationship with a young philosopher, Daniel Defert, controversially securing Defert a job at the university.

Foucault maintained a keen interest in literature, publishing reviews in literary journals Tel Quel and Nouvelle Revue Française, and sitting on the editorial board ofCritique. In May 1963 he published Raymond Roussel, a book devoted to the eponymous poet, novelist and playwright; brought out by Gallimard, it had been written in under two months, and would be described by biographer David Macey as “a very personal book” that resulted from a “love affair” with Roussel’s work. It would be published in English in 1983 as Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. Receiving few reviews, it was largely ignored. That same year he published a sequel to Folie et déraison, entitled Naissance de la Clinique, subsequently translated as Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Shorter than its predecessor, it focused on the changes that the medical establishment underwent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Like his preceding work, Naissance de la Clinique was largely critically ignored, but later gained a cult following. Foucault was also selected to be among the “Eighteen Man Commission” that assembled between November 1963 and March 1964 to discuss university reforms that were to be implemented by Christian Fouchet, the Gaullist Minister of National Education; implemented in 1967, they brought staff strikes and student protests.

In April 1966, Gallimard published Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses (“The words and the things”), later translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Exploring how man came to be an object of knowledge, it argued that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, from one period’s episteme to another. Although designed for a specialist audience, the work gained media attention, becoming a surprise bestseller in France. Appearing at the height of interest in structuralism, 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. Although initially accepting this description, Foucault soon changed his mind, and vehemently rejected it. Foucault’s relationship with Sartre was strained, with the two regularly criticising one another in the press; both Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir attacked Foucault and his ideas as “bourgeoisie”, while Foucault retaliated against their Marxist beliefs by proclaiming that “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else.”

University of Tunisia and The Archaeology of Knowledge: 1966–1970

“I lived [in Tunisia] for two and a half years. It made a real impression. I was present for large, violent student riots that preceded by several weeks what happened in May in France. This was March 1968. The unrest lasted a whole year: strikes, courses suspended, arrests. And in March, a general strike by the students. The police came into the university, beat up the students, wounded several of them seriously, and started making arrests… I have to say that I was tremendously impressed by those young men and women who took terrible risks by writing or distributing tracts or calling for strikes, the ones who really risked losing their freedom! It was a political experience for me.”

— Michel Foucault, 1983.

Foucault then took up a position teaching psychology at the University of Tunis in the North African nation of Tunisia, which had gained independence from France in 1956. His decision to do so was in part based upon the fact that his lover, Defert, had been posted to the country as a part of his national service following the completion of his agrégation. Arriving in the country in September 1966, Foucault moved into the village of Sidi Bou Saïd, which was just a few kilometres away fromTunis and where Gérard Deledalle, who also worked at the university, lived with his wife. Soon after he arrived in the country, he would announce that Tunisia was “blessed by history”, a nation which “deserves to live forever because it was where Hannibal and St. Augustine lived.”

His lectures at the university proved very popular, and were well attended. Although many of the young students were enthusiastic about his teaching, they were critical of what they believed to be his right-wing political views, viewing him as a “representative of Gaullist technocracy”, even though he considered himself aleftist. Foucault was in Tunis over the course of the anti-government and pro-Palestinian riots that rocked the city in June 1967, and which would continue for the next year. Although highly critical of the violent, ultra-nationalistic and anti-semitic nature of many of the protesters, he used his status to try and prevent some of his militant leftist students from being arrested and tortured for their role in the agitation. Hiding their printing press in his own garden, he tried to testify on their behalf at their trials, but was prevented when the trials became closed-door events.

While in Tunis, Foucault had continued to write. Inspired by a correspondence with the surrealist artist René Magritte, Foucault set about writing a book upon theimpressionist artist Eduard Manet, but it was never completed.

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 treatise that included a response to his critics – in 1969.

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.

Collège de France and Discipline and Punish: 1970–1975

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 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 18th century, with a special focus on prisons and schools.

Foucault's minor thesis was devoted to the work of Kant.

Foucault’s minor thesis was devoted to the work of Kant.

The History of Sexuality and Iranian Revolution: 1975–1983

In the late 1970s, political activism in France trailed 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 Foucault had mixed feelings about. 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 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 LSDat 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. In the tradition ofNietzsche and Georges Bataille, Foucault had embraced the artist who pushed the limits of rationality, and he wrote with great passion in defense of irrationalities that broke boundaries. In 1978, Foucault found such transgressive powers in the revolutionary figures Ayatollah Khomeini, Ali Shariati and the millions who risked death as they followed them in the course of the revolution. Both Foucault and the revolutionaries were highly critical of modernity and sought a new form of politics, they both also looked up to those who risked their lives for ideals; and both looked to the past for inspiration. Later on when Foucault went to Iran “to be there at the birth of a new form of ideas,” he wrote that the new “Muslim” style of politics could signal the beginning of a new form of “political spirituality,” not just for the Middle East, but also for Europe, which had adopted the practice of secular politics ever since the French Revolution. Foucault recognized the enormous power of the new discourse of militant Islam, not just for Iran, but for the world. He wrote:

As an Islamic movement, it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid. Islam which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization, has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men. . . Indeed, it is also important to recognize that the demand for the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people’ hardly stirred the Arab peoples. What it be if this cause encompassed the dynamism of an Islamic movement, something much stronger than those with a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist character? (“A Powder Keg Called Islam”)

During his two trips to Iran, Foucault was commissioned as a special correspondent of a leading Italian newspaper and his articles appeared on the front page of that paper. 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. The more common attempts to bracket out Foucault’s writings on Iran as “miscalculations,” reminds some authors of what Foucault himself had criticized in his well known 1969 essay, “What is an Author?” Foucault believed that when we include certain works in an author’s career and exclude others that were written in a “different style,” or were “inferior” (Foucault 1969, 111), we create a stylistic unity and a theoretical coherence. This is done by privileging certain writings as authentic and excluding others that do not fit our view of what the author ought to be: “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning” (Foucault 1969, 110). This controversy is frequently discussed in the Foucault literature.

Throughout this period Foucault continued to lecture at the Collège de France about the penal system, security, biopower and biopolitics. In his lecture on The Hermeneutics of the Subject Foucault encouraged a process which he called “transsubjectivation”, he “conceived [it] as a journey within oneself… the product of a transformation.” Foucault used the word ethopoiein from the Greek word ethos to describe the transformation. “Ethopoiein“, says Foucault, “means making ethos, producing ethos, changing, transforming ethos, the individual’s way of being, his mode of existence”.

Illness and death: 1983–1984

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 state that he was presenting a coherent and timeless block of knowledge; he rather desired his books “to be a kind of tool-box others can rummage through to find a tool they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.”

During these trips to California, Foucault spent many evenings in the gay scene of the San Francisco Bay Area. He frequented a number of sado-masochistic bathhouses, engaging in sexual intercourse with other patrons. He would praise sado-masochistic activity in interviews with the gay press, describing it as “the real creation of new possibilities of pleasure, which people had no idea about previously.” The American academic James Miller would later claim that Foucault’s experiences in the gay sadomasochism community during the time he taught at Berkeley directly influenced his political and philosophical works. Miller’s ideas have been rebuked by certain Foucault scholars as being either simply misdirected, a sordid reading of his life and works, or as a politically motivated, intentional misreading.

At one point, Foucault contracted HIV, which would eventually develop into AIDS. Little was known of the disease at the time; the first cases had only been identified in 1980, and it had only been named in 1982. In the summer of 1983, he noticed that he had a persistent dry cough; friends in Paris became concerned that he may have contracted the virus then sweeping the San Francisco gay population, but Foucault insisted that he had nothing more than a pulmonary infection that would clear up when he spent the autumn of 1983 in California. It was only when hospitalized that Foucault was diagnosed with AIDS; placed on antibiotics, he was able to deliver a final set of lectures at the Collège de France. Foucault entered Paris’ Hôpital de la Salpêtrière – the same institution that he had studied in Madness and Civilisation – on 9 June 1984, with neurological symptoms complicated by septicemia. He died in the hospital at 1:15pm on 25 June.

On 26 June, the newspaper Libération – associated with Foucault for much of his life – announced his death, also highlighting the rumour that it had been brought on by AIDS. The following day, Le Mondepublicly issued a medical bulletin that had been cleared by his family; it made no reference to HIV or AIDS. On 29 June, Foucault’s la levée du corps ceremony was held, in which the coffin was carried from the morgue. Taking place in the rear courtyard of the Hôpital de la Salpêtriêre, it was attended by hundreds of admirers who had seen the event advertised in Le Monde, including left wing activists like Yves Montand and Simone Signoret and academics such as Jacques Derrida, Paul Veyne, Pierre Bourdieu and Georges Dumézil. Foucault’s friend Gilles Deleuze gave a speech, with the words coming from the preface to the final two volumes of The History of Sexuality. Soon after his death, Foucault’s partner Daniel Defert founded the first national AIDS organisation in France, which he called AIDES; a pun on the French language word for “help” (aide) and the English language acronym for the disease. On the second anniversary of Foucault’s death, Defert agreed to publicly announce that Foucault’s death was AIDS-related, doing so in the California-based gay magazine, The Advocate.


Philosopher Philip Stokes of the University of Reading noted that overall, Foucault’s work was “dark and pessimistic”, but that it did leave some room for optimism, in that it illustrates how the discipline of philosophy can be used to highlight areas of domination. In doing so, Stokes claimed, we are able to understand how we are being dominated and strive to build social structures that minimize this risk of domination. In all of this development there had to be close attention to detail; it is the detail which eventually individualises people.


In addition to his philosophical work, Foucault also wrote on literature. Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel was published in 1963, and translated into English in 1986. It is Foucault’s only book-length work on literature. Foucault described it as “by far the book I wrote most easily, with the greatest pleasure, and most rapidly.”[180] Foucault explores theory, criticism, and psychology with reference to the texts of Raymond Roussel, one of the first notable ofexperimental writers.


Foucault’s discussions on power and discourse have inspired many critical theorists, who believe that Foucault’s analysis of power structures could aid the struggle against inequality. They claim that through discourse analysis, hierarchies may be uncovered and questioned by way of analyzing the corresponding fields of knowledge through which they are legitimated. This is one of the ways that Foucault’s work is linked to critical theory.

In 2007, Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by the ISI Web of Science.


Philosopher Jürgen Habermas has described Foucault as a “crypto-normativist”, covertly reliant on the very Enlightenment principles he attempts to deconstruct (see also Foucault–Habermas debate). Central to this problem, Habermas argues, is the way Foucault seemingly attempts to remain both Kantian and Nietzschean in his approach.

Philosopher Richard Rorty has argued that Foucault’s ‘archaeology of knowledge’ is fundamentally negative, and thus fails to adequately establish any ‘new’ theory of knowledge per se. Rather, Foucault simply provides a few valuable maxims regarding the reading of history. Says Rorty:

As far as I can see, all he has to offer are brilliant redescriptions of the past, supplemented by helpful hints on how to avoid being trapped by old historiographical assumptions. These hints consist largely of saying: “do not look for progress or meaning in history; do not see the history of a given activity, of any segment of culture, as the development of rationality or of freedom; do not use any philosophical vocabulary to characterize the essence of such activity or the goal it serves; do not assume that the way this activity is presently conducted gives any clue to the goals it served in the past.”


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