Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault
Born Oct. 15, 1926
Poitiers, France
Died June 25, 1984 (at age 57)
Paris, France
Nationality French

Born on October 15th, 1926, in the commune of Poitiers in west-central France, Michel Foucault was a leading figure of the 20th century Western philosophy. He was also a highly influential historian of ideas, literary critic, social theorist and philologist. He firmly believed that philosophy should be rooted in a historical context and he rejected the postmodernist and post-structuralist labels attributed to him by American academics.

Foucault Early Years

Born Paul-Michel to Dr. Paul Foucault and Anne Malapert, he grew up with his brother Denys and sister Francine in an imposing mid-19th century mansion named Le Piroir located in the small French village of Vendeuvre-du-Poitou. His family was quite prosperous and well-respected in the local community, mainly because his father being a renowned surgeon.

Although he described himself as a juvenile delinquent, Michel was intellectually precocious, beginning his schooling years at the age of four when he was enrolled at Lycee Henri-IV, one of the most demanding sixth-form colleges in all of France. He stated that he was not always smart but, in order to ingratiate himself with a beautiful boy at his school, he started doing his homework and that is how he became smart.

Educational Years

Foucault excelled academically at French, Latin, Greek and history, but he was not very fond of mathematics. He earned his baccalaureate degree in 1943 and in 1945, against his father’s wishes that he pursued a medical career, he began to study philosophy with the famous French existentialist philosopher Jean Hyppolite, whose ideas involving the fact that philosophy should be developed through a thorough study of history influenced Michel Foucault’s future philosophical works.

Life Struggles

In 1946, he was admitted to the highly competitive educational institution Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. During his college years, he continued to be an avid reader, but he was not very popular due to his obsessive ideas of self-harm and suicide and his homosexuality, which was a taboo in France at that time.

Michel Foucault attempted several times to commit suicide and in 1948, he was sent by his father to see a psychiatrist. According to his biographer, he enjoyed the danger and thrill of consuming drugs and having homosexual relationships with various men that he met in the underground gay scene in Paris.

Thoughts on Philosophy

According to Foucault, philosophy’s mission is to accurately reflect the human relations to truth and to describe the way we should conduct ourselves in society. His thought can be summed up as a complex exploration of transgression beyond social limits, always and undeniably connected to knowledge and power.

Foucault considered his thought a critical history of the social relations associated with capitalism and he preferred to discuss the way it has been defined historically. He was also heavily influenced by Nietzsche.

Foucault’s Major Philosophical Works

Michel-FoucaultMichel’s major philosophical works focus on the study of the complex relations between two separate entities, namely power and knowledge and their role in the evolution of social discourse include Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, The History of Sexuality and his only explicitly methodological work, The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Published in 1969, The Archaeology of Knowledge is a historiographical and methodological treatise which is viewed as a philosophical critique of both structural and phenomenological readings of philosophy and history.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was published in 1975 and it represents a thorough analysis of the social mechanisms behind the substantial changes in the penal systems in modern times by focusing on four notions – torture, discipline, punishment and prison. He considered prison as the new power in modern society and it can be found in hospitals, schools and military camps.

Death and Legacy

Michel Foucault passed away at the age of 57 on June 25, 1984 in Paris, France. Although the family officially denied that his death was HIV-related, he was the first personality in France to die of complications associated with HIV/AIDS.

His lifelong partner, Daniel Defert, founded the non-profit organization AIDES (which means “support” in French) in Foucault’s memory. It is currently the largest NGO in France working on issues related to HIV, being active in 100 French cities. Michel Foucault’s body is buried at the Vendeuvre cemetery.

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