Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984) was a French philosopher, historian, intellectual, critic and sociologist. He held a chair at the Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought," and also taught at the University of California, Berkeley.
Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Foucault's work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse, has been widely discussed. In the 1960s Foucault was often associated with the structuralist movement. Foucault later distanced himself from structuralism. Though sometimes characterised as postmodernist, Foucault always rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels.
Foucault joined the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953. He was inducted into the party by his mentor Louis Althusser, but soon became disillusioned with both the politics and the philosophy of the party. Various people, such as historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, have reported that Foucault never actively participated in his cell, unlike many of his fellow party members.
Foucault returned to France in 1960 to complete his doctorate and take up a post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. There he met philosopher Daniel Defert, who would become his lover of twenty years. In 1961 he earned his doctorate by submitting two theses (as is customary in France): a "major" thesis entitled Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age) and a 'secondary' thesis which involved a translation of, and commentary on Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Folie et déraison (Madness and Insanity — published in an abridged edition in English as Madness and Civilization and finally published unabridged as "History of Madness" by Routledge in 2006) was extremely well-received. Foucault continued a vigorous publishing schedule. In 1963 he published Naissance de la Clinique (Birth of the Clinic), Raymond Roussel, and a reissue of his 1954 volume (now entitled Maladie mentale et psychologie or, in English, "Mental Illness and Psychology") which he would again disavow.
After Defert was posted to Tunisia for his military service, Foucault moved to a position at the University of Tunis in 1965. He published Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things) during the height of interest in structuralism in 1966, and 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. Foucault made a number of skeptical comments about Marxism, which outraged a number of Left wing critics, but later firmly rejected the 'structuralist' label. 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 fall of 1968 he returned to France, where he published L'archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge) — a methodological response to his critics — in 1969.
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 ultra-Maoist Gauche Proletarienne (GP). Foucault helped found the Prison Information Group (Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons or GIP) to provide a way for prisoners to voice their concerns. This fed into a marked politicization of Foucault's work, with a book, Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish), which "narrates" the micro-power structures that developed in Western societies since the eighteenth century, with a special focus on prisons and schools.
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 LSD at 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. 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.
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 isse 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 was disinterested in identifying 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 claim that he was presenting a coherent and timeless block of knowledge; rather desired his books "to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I don't write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.
Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness in Paris on 25 June, 1984. He was the first high profile French personality who was reported to have AIDS. Little was known about the disease at the time and the event was mired in controversy. In the front-page article of Le Monde announcing his death, there was no mention of AIDS, although it was implied that he died from a massive infection. Prior to his death, Foucault had destroyed most of his manuscripts and in his will prohibited the publication of what he might have overlooked.
Foucault begins his history in the Middle Ages, noting the social and physical exclusion of lepers. He argues that with the gradual disappearance of leprosy, madness came to occupy this excluded position. The ship of fools in the 15th century is a literary version of one such exclusionary practice, namely that of sending mad people away in ships. In 17th century Europe, in a movement which Foucault famously describes as the Great Confinement, "unreasonable" members of the population were locked away and institutionalised. In the eighteenth century, madness came to be seen as the reverse of Reason, and, finally, in the nineteenth century as mental illness.
Foucault also argues that madness was silenced by Reason, losing its power to signify the limits of social order and to point to the truth. He examines the rise of scientific and "humanitarian" treatments of the insane, notably at the hands of Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke. He claims that these new treatments were in fact no less controlling than previous methods. Tuke's country retreat for the mad consisted of punishing the madmen until they learned to act "reasonably". Similarly, Pinel's treatment of the mad amounted to an extended aversion therapy, including such treatments as freezing showers and use of a straitjacket. In Foucault's view, this treatment amounted to repeated brutality until the pattern of judgment and punishment was internalized by the patient.
Foucault's critique of Renaissance values in Les mots et les choses has been very influential to cultural history. The various consciousness shifts that he points out in the first chapters of the book have led several scholars to scrutinize the bases for knowledge in our present day as well as critiquing the projection of modern categories of knowledge onto subjects that remain intrinsically unintelligible, in spite of historical knowledge.
The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France.
Foucault directs his analysis toward the "statement", the basic unit of discourse. "Statement" is the English translation from French énoncé (enouncement or that which is enounced or expressed). "Statement" has a very special meaning in the Archaeology. It means that which makes propositions, utterances, or speech acts meaningful. In this understanding, statements themselves are not propositions, utterances, or speech acts. Rather, statements constitute a network of rules establishing what is meaningful, and these rules are the preconditions for propositions, utterances, or speech acts to have meaning. But, statements are also 'events', because, like other rules, they appear at some time. Depending on whether or not they comply with these rules of meaning, a grammatically correct sentence may still lack meaning and, inversely, a grammatically incorrect sentence may still be meaningful. Statements depend on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse. Foucault aims his analysis towards a huge organised dispersion of statements, called discursive formations. It is important to note that Foucault reiterates that the analysis he is outlining is only one possible procedure, and that he is not seeking to displace other ways of analysing discourse or render them as invalid.
According to Dreyfus & Rabinow, Foucault not only brackets out issues of truth (cf. Husserl) he also brackets out issues of meaning. Rather than looking for a deeper meaning underneath discourse or looking for the source of meaning in some transcendental subject, Foucault analyzes the discursive and practical conditions of the existence for truth and meaning. In order to show the principles of meaning and truth production in various discursive formations he details how truth claims emerge during various epochs on the basis of what was actually said and written during these periods of time. He particularly describes the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and the 20th century. He strives to avoid all interpretation and to depart from the goals of hermeneutics. This does not mean that Foucault denounces truth and meaning, but just that truth and meaning depend on the historical discursive and practical means of truth and meaning production. For instance, although they were radically different during Enlightenment as opposed to Modernity, there were indeed meaning, truth and correct treatment of madness during both epochs (Madness and Civilization). This posture allows Foucault to move away from an anthropological standpoint, denouncing a priori concepts of the nature of the human subject, and focus on the role of discursive practices in constituting subjectivity.
Dispensing with finding a deeper meaning behind discourse appears to lead Foucault toward structuralism. However, whereas structuralists search for homogeneity in a discursive entity, Foucault focuses on differences. Instead of asking what constitutes the specificity of European thought he asks what constitutes the differences developed within it and over time. Therefore, as a historical method, he refuses to examine statements outside of their historical context: the discursive formation. The meaning of a statement depends on the general rules that characterises the discursive formation to which it belongs. A discursive formation continually generates new statements, and some of these usher in changes in the discursive formation that may or may not be adopted. Therefore, to describe a discursive formation, Foucault also focuses on expelled and forgotten discourses that never happen to change the discursive formation. Their difference to the dominant discourse also describe it. In this way one can describe specific systems that determine which types of statements emerge.
The book opens with a graphic description of the brutal public execution in 1757 of Robert-François Damiens, who attempted to kill Louis XV. Against this it juxtaposes a colourless prison timetable from just over 80 years later. Foucault then inquires how such a change in French society's punishment of convicts could have developed in such a short time. These are snapshots of two contrasting types of Foucault's "Technologies of Punishment". The first type, "Monarchical Punishment", involves the repression of the populace through brutal public displays of executions and torture. The second, "Disciplinary Punishment," is what Foucault says is practiced in the modern era. Disciplinary punishment gives "professionals" (psychologists, programme facilitators, parole officers, etc.) power over the prisoner, most notably in that the prisoner's length of stay depends on the professionals' judgment.
Foucault also compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" design for prisons (which was unrealized in its original form, but nonetheless influential): in the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. The dark dungeon of pre-modernity has been replaced with the bright modern prison, but Foucault cautions that "visibility is a trap". It is through this visibility, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms which Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, "power-knowledge"). Increasing visibility leads to power located on an increasingly individualized level, shown by the possibility for institutions to track individuals throughout their lives. Foucault suggests that a "carceral continuum" runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others.
The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualite, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault's death, with the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. In his lecture series from 1979 to 1980 Foucault extended his analysis of government to its 'wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behaviour of men', which involved a new consideration of the 'examination of conscience' and confession in early Christian literature. These themes of early Christian literature seemed to dominate Foucault's work, alongside his study of Greek and Roman literature, until the end of his life. However, Foucault's death left the work incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality on Christianity was never published. The fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). The volume was almost complete before Foucault's death and a copy of it is privately held in the Foucault archive. It cannot be published under the restrictions of Foucault's estate.