One might not have expected Michel Foucault, born “Paul-Michel” into a petit bourgeois family in Poitiers on October 15, 1926, to become one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. A precocious student, he decided early in life to study philosophy. However, his provincial education was insufficient to prepare him for the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and he failed his first attempt at the entry exams. He spent the next year in relative isolation in Paris, where he studied at the Lycée Henri-IV, preparing for a second attempt. Here he was tutored in philosophy by the man he would eventually succeed at the Collège de France, Jean Hyppolite. This time, he would face an oral examination on the unorthodox topic of “sexuality” by Georges Canguilhem, the influential historian and philosopher of science who would later go on to champion Foucault’s dissertation, Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie á l’âge classique. On this attempt, Foucault placed fourth in the country. Beyond Canguilhem, Foucault’s personal and professional links to the traditions of French philosophy of science, or “historical epistemology,” were further strengthened by his time at the ENS where Louis Althusser served as the philosophy tutor, deeply influencing a generation of students, from Foucault and Deleuze to Alain Badiou and others.
Foucault earned a license de philosophie in 1948 and a Diplôme des études supérieures in 1949, with a thesis directed by Hyppolite entitled “La Constitution d’un transcendental historique dans La Phénoménologie de l’esprit de Hegel.” That same year he also received a diplôme de psychopathologie from the Sorbonne. Foucault did not embark on the traditional career of a philosophy teacher by finding stable employment teaching at a lycée. He failed his first attempt at the agrégation, the examination required to teach in secondary and post-secondary education, although placed third on his second attempt. He took a position as a répétiteur, or tutor, in psychology at the ENS, and as a lecturer in psychology at the University of Lille in 1951. During this time, Foucault would produce two of his early works on commission: a translation of, and extensive commentary on, Ludwig Binswanger’s Traum und Existenz and a work on mental illness that Foucault would extensively revise for an unwanted second edition, but ultimately disavow. Nevertheless, Foucault’s interest in psychology would lead to his first major work, although not before leaving France, first for Sweden and then Poland.
In 1955, Georges Dumézil offered Foucault a position at the University of Uppsala as an assistant in the Department of Romance Studies, and as the director of the Maison de France, where he was tasked with promoting French culture. Foucault held this position until 1958. During this period, he would begin work on what would become Folie et Déraison. After its cold reception by faculty in Uppsala, Foucault would break his work contract, leaving Sweden and taking up a post as the director of the Centre Français in Warsaw. His tenure there lasted less than a year, cut short when a male lover turned out to be an informant to the socialist regime, and he would take up a similar post as director of the Institut Français in Hamburg from 1958 to 1960. By 1960, Foucault had returned to France to become a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, where he taught until 1966. With Canguilhem’s support for his work on the history of madness, and an accompanying translation and commentary on Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View as his thése complémentaire, Foucault would finally earn a doctorate from the University of Paris in 1961.
An immense, dense, and challenging work, Foucault would later describe Folie et Déraison as a sort of matrix for his subsequent writings, as outlining the construction of an experience of madness. In it, Foucault traces the transformations of our perceptions of reason’s “other,” from a powerful, quasi-natural force, occasionally imbuing fools and madmen with deep wisdom, to a medicalized, objective pathology, along with the changes in the technologies for observing and treating it. Foucault argued that the apparent liberation of the insane from inhumane asylum conditions at the turn of the nineteenth century, in favor of “moral treatment,” was not unambiguous; while certainly less brutal, the new sciences of the mind and accompanying treatments made people available to emergent technologies of power in new and deep-reaching ways. These themes of the mutual imbrications of knowledge, power, and ethics would become increasingly prominent in Foucault’s work of the 1970s and 1980s, although his immediate attention would be on the transformations of knowledge between the “classical” age—the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—and the “modern” age.
Foucault’s next major work, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), would expand the scope of his investigations beyond psychiatry and to medicine more broadly. Keeping for the most part with the conventions of Bachelard’s and Canguilhem’s approaches to historical epistemology, Foucault would target “continuist” accounts of scientific progress. Rather than see modern anatomo-pathological knowledge as an undeniable case of progress in some sort of general science of “medicine,” based on renewed attention to empirical data, he attempts to demonstrate that it involves a fundamental reorganization of knowledge, that is, a transformation of the way we conceptualize the relations of illness, health, and life: in other words, an “epistemological break.” Rather than being ontologically “nothing” as they were seen in a long Augustinian tradition of thought, death and illness come to be seen as full, positive phenomena against which “life” struggles. However, where Bachelard would still see progress achieved through such an epistemological break and judge past science in light of present knowledge, Foucault is considerably more ambivalent about the prospects of rationally comparing these different organizations of knowledge.
As in Folie et Déraison, in The Birth of the Clinic Foucault does not isolate these epistemic transformations from broader political and social transformations. Indeed, some of Foucault’s comments on the establishment of nineteenth-century medical professional authority can be read as prefiguring his work on biopolitics in the latter half of the 1970s. Nevertheless, the work that established Foucault as an intellectual superstar in France, 1966s Les Mots et les Choses, translated into English as The Order of Things, was a sweeping, ostensibly apolitical, and strikingly abstract exploration of changes in the organization of knowledge from the Renaissance to the present day, across fields from natural history, the study of wealth, and general grammar, to biology, political economy, and linguistics. Indeed, it is central to that work that these all represent distinct disciplines. Natural history is not simply biology avant la lettre, nor does the study of wealth by the Physiocrats represent an early version of political economy. As a good historical epistemologist, Foucault insists that there is an epistemological rupture at the turn of the nineteenth century, through which emerge entirely new objects of inquiry: biology is the study of life, political economy the study of value with its source in labor, and philology and linguistics the study of language in all of its concrete, historical dispersion into the world. Foucault uses the technical term “épistémè” to refer to this encompassing structure of scientific knowledge.
For Foucault, there is a strong sense in which life, labor, and language, as objects of inquiry, did not exist before these disciplines. These objects are distinguished from the static tables of natural history etc., in that they are dynamic, quasi-transcendental forces. Making sense of this involves understanding a little better the shape of the narrative that Foucault tells. For Foucault, “Renaissance thought” construed the source of knowledge in terms of similitude. Words could teach us about things insofar as they resembled them in some way. This way of understanding knowledge allowed for allegories, fables, and rumors all to play some role in the formation of knowledges. To the modern reader, it seems at best naive and at worst hopelessly confused. The classical age, according to Foucault, was the age of representation; knowledge was possible because it is a form of representation that can be more or less accurate; it is the era of the “fact,” rather than the fable. Foucault spends much time trying to show us how the basic forms of these discourses are shaped by the period’s understanding of language, and of how words work, while at the same time treating it as a fully transparent medium for understanding. The Order of Things begins with an analysis of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, in which he explores how the painting implicitly makes the perspective of the painter central, while at the same time erasing the artist, that is, the source of the representation. Fittingly, this serves as an allegory for Foucault’s explanation of the shift from the classical to the modern period: accounting for the possibility of representation, for the intelligible order of things. The quasi-transcendental forces of life, labor, and language serve this function.
Foucault would later claim that he had conceived of the admittedly dry The Order of Things as a work for specialists, not expecting it to make a stir. But it did, in large part because of the way it historicized and minimized the Kantian/transcendental turn in philosophy. Kant had, at the turn of the nineteenth century, also raised the question of the source of the possibility of representation, but found it in the “transcendental unity of apperception” of a cognizing subject. In other words, for the Kantian, the possibility of objective truth resides in the subjective structure of mind. Foucault suggests, in effect, that this philosophical sea change is but an artifact of the broader change in épistémè. The transcendental subject was in fact an attempt to unify in a single point the source of the quasi-transcendental positivities of life, labor, and language and—ultimately—an incoherent one. According to Foucault, the transcendental subject is but one half of a “transcendental-empirical doublet.” Despite ostensibly being the source and ground of the unity and objectivity of empirical reality, the transcendental subject is determined and defined by the substantive, contentful domains of empirical knowledge into which it is dispersed. The Order of Things ends with Foucault claiming that “man,” construed as the subject-object of the human sciences, is “an invention of a recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.” Foucault critiques this “analytic of finitude” as a way of characterizing not only Kantian idealism, but also the phenomenology that, through Sartre especially, had captured the philosophical imagination of postwar France. To the extent that Foucault’s work characterized scientific discourse in terms of abstract, unconscious, impersonal structures, his work was seen as part of a broad wave of structuralism in the humanities and social sciences. This wave included Lévi-Strauss’s work in anthropology, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and Althusser’s version of historical materialism. Foucault himself disavowed the title of “structuralist,” but his subsequent work would also work to decenter any sort of unifying transcendental subjectivity, and was often viewed through the lens of French structuralism and anti-humanism.
While The Order of Things established Foucault’s reputation in France, he did not remain there to enjoy its immediate results. In the latter part of 1966, he took a position in Tunisia, as professor of philosophy at the University of Tunis, where he stayed until late 1968. This meant that, in a sense, he missed the great French rejections of 1968—of structuralism, in theory, and of the totality of capitalist culture in the exceptional uprisings of May 1968. While abroad, he wrote his last major work of the 1960s The Archaeology of Knowledge, published in 1969. In this text, he continued his theoretical battle with Sartrean phenomenology, working out the methodological foundations of the sorts of inquiries he pursued in The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things. It has to be admitted that Foucault’s concepts are moving targets, and here the notion épistémè gives way to that of a “discursive formation.” Foucault uses this concept to grasp a set of statements, practices, evidences, and knowledges, without resorting to prefabricated conceptions of the unity of a science or domain of objects. After the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault’s work would shift its focus to more explicitly deal with the relations of knowledge to technologies of power and ethics.
When Foucault eventually returned to France in late 1968, he took up a post as a professor and head of the philosophy department at the new Centre Expérimentale Universitaire Vincennes (now University of Paris VIII at Vincennes-Saint Denis). Here, he worked alongside figures like Étienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciére, Alain Badiou, and Michel Serres. Gilles Deleuze would join the department some years later in the early 1970s. While Foucault thought of himself as a man of the Left, and was dutifully, if briefly, a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) as a young man, his experiences of coldness and repression in Sweden and Poland had chilled him considerably on postwar socialism. He wasn’t present for the turmoil of May 1968, although he was a supporter of anti-government student groups while in Tunisia, and seems to have welcomed the demise of the hegemony of the PCF over radical politics in France. It was not until the 1970s that political activism became central to his intellectual pursuits. As traditional Marxism waned and groups like the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne gained prominence, favoring local intervention over broad, overly theoretical programs, and in the wake of a number of prison revolts and hunger strikes both in France and abroad, Foucault, along with a number of other intellectuals and activists, participated in the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP). In 1971, this group would publish a manifesto, signed by Foucault, as well as the influential French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, among others, opposing and problematizing over-incarceration and promising to gather information about the state of the carceral system. Notably, the GIP did not claim to speak for the incarcerated or those otherwise negatively impacted by the contemporary prison system. For Foucault, the refusal to speak for others while at the same time increasing his activism and focusing his research on what he would call “technologies of power” are all part of a general attitude that he would take toward his works of the 1970s and 1980s, referring to his theoretical work as like a “box of tools,” aimed at providing a diagnosis of present political conditions.
Like Bataille and Deleuze, Foucault thought of himself as Nietzschean, and his work of the 1970s bears out this influence. In 1971, he published as essay on Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to historical explanation, disavowing investigations of the “origins” of political and social phenomena. His major works of the 1970s would take a similar approach, attempting to explain the development of ostensibly progressive developments, such as the disappearance of penal torture or the acceptance of an ever-increasing number of sexual identities. This would be on full display in Foucault’s next major work, 1975s Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison. As the original title suggests, Foucault here is concerned with the relationship between punishment and surveillance over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This text infamously begins by juxtaposing two images: first, the gruesome torture in 1757 of Robert-Francois Damiens, who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV, and, second, from some eighty years later, Léon Faucher’s meticulous and orderly timetable for the everyday behavior of the incarcerated at the “House of young prisoners in Paris,” detailing to the minute the schedule of work, meals, schooling, etc. The aim of Foucault’s text, then, is to explain this striking shift in penal practice; as in Folie et Déraison, his claim is that the apparent humanization of a practice is not always as straightforward as it seems. In this case, Foucault’s worry is that the brutality of corporal punishment has been replaced by a subtle form of discipline (hence the English translation Discipline and Punish) that functions by rendering individuals docile prior to any criminal activity; since the nineteenth century, he claims, prisons resemble factories and schools and barracks that all resemble prisons, in all of which we are subject to slight but constant correction. In other words, if we have managed to move beyond the physical torture of the body of the criminal, it is because we have developed the art of normalizing the soul.
One of the central mechanisms for this transformation discussed in Surveiller et Punir is the Panopticon, a plan for a prison, developed by the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. The basic idea is that the cells of the prison would be isolated from each other, and arranged in a circle around a central watchtower, such that every inmate could be observed. Indeed, the inmates would not even have to actually be observed; the mere possibility, coupled with techniques of examination and the constant imperative to correction, alters the behavior of individuals. We are complicit in this new and increasingly far-reaching form of disciplinary domination, more subtle and less painful than pre-modern forms. Perhaps Foucault’s most controversial claim in this work, following his displacement of subjectivity from the center of philosophical concern in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, is that the technologies and relations of power he traces actually produce subjects. For Foucault, we ought not to construe domination or oppression in the first instance as the limitation or “repression” of an originally free subject; our freedom is a correlate of the forms of power that shape our bodies, habits, practical engagement with the world, and even our reasoning.
As we are constituted as subjects, for Foucault, we are also constituted as objects of knowledge; for him, the increased availability of normalized human beings to observation is part and parcel of the birth of the human sciences (especially criminology and sociology). The human sciences and techniques of power are intimately related, shaping and correcting each other. Foucault’s continued criticism of the increasing imbrication of ostensibly liberating political and social changes and the expanding domains of the human sciences continued in his next major work, La Volonté de savoir (“The Will to Knowledge”). Conceived as the first entry in a multi-volume project, The History of Sexuality, Foucault here rejects familiar narratives of sexual liberation.
His first move is to challenge what is called the “repressive hypothesis,” that is, the belief that, in the West, we have been sexually repressed, especially since the Victorian era. Rather, Foucault claims, the Victorian concern with sex led to an explosion in discourses about sex. Rather than repression, we have developed an obsession with sex, and made our sex increasingly intelligible. Among the consequences of this explosion of sexual discourse are the differentiation of previously broad categories of non-normative, non-heterosexual, or reproductive sexual proclivities into increasingly refined sexual identities and, beyond this, the increasing centrality of those identities to our self-conception. For Foucault, the freedom to act out those identities—to be who we are—is not an emancipation, but the intensification of a new and different form of power. As in Surveiller et Punir, apparently progressive and humanizing developments represent new ways of being tied to a normalizing identity, subject to the authority of experts and available to control.
To characterize the sorts of power relations at work in the deployment of sexuality, Foucault moves beyond his discussion of disciplinary power and introduces the concept of biopower, or biopolitics. Unlike disciplinary power, biopower does not seek to directly shape the behavior of individuals. Biopolitics names a complex web of economics, life sciences, medical and helping professions, with the goal of maximizing the health and productivity of entire populations through regulation. As Foucault puts it, biopower replaces the sovereign right to “make die or let live” with a positive right to “make live or let die.” Perhaps most strikingly, he suggests that both the Holocaust and Soviet purges are expressions of the intersection of biopower and sovereign power, where the affirmation and care for the biological existence of the population is made manifest in murderous racism. While the original plan for the history of sexuality was to develop these themes across a series of texts investigating Christian attitudes toward sex, childhood sexuality, and the pathologization of hysteria and perversity, culminating in a volume on “race and population,” Foucault would not publish another book for eight years, and the project was to change dramatically.
In 1984, shortly before his death, Foucault published the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, in these texts Foucault is no longer interrogating modern discourses and technologies of sex but rather problems concerning sexual practices in antiquity. The Use of Pleasure deals with the way in which sexual activity is conceptualized in terms of one’s relation to pleasure, with the aim of self-mastery. The third volume discusses how the “cultivation of the self” became an overarching operative in late antiquity, with special attention to the cultivation of a proper relation to one’s sexual appetites and desires. The fourth volume, The Confessions of the Flesh, was nearly complete at the time of his death in 1984 but wasn’t published until 2018 as Foucault forbade posthumous publications. In this text, we see how Christianity impacts the development of our understanding of desire, transforming it into a novel conception of “flesh.”
These final works show, on the one hand, a history of different ways of relating to ourselves, our pleasures, our desires, and bodies, ultimately—if but contingently—leading to the contemporary apparatus of sexuality and sexual identity. On the other hand, Foucault’s method for analyzing the sexual ethics in Greek and Latin antiquity involved a unique perspective on ethical subjectivity; according to Foucault, the ethical subject in antiquity was akin to an artistic creation, not ruled by universal laws or norms but rather responsive to being shaped according to both ethical and aesthetic criteria. These “aesthetics of existence” aimed at making one’s life a work of art. This claim has been controversial, both because it diverges from orthodox concepts of ethical subjectivity and because it seems to place something like a free subject, capable of acts of self-creation, back at the center of philosophical concern.
Foucault did not live to flesh out these ideas, and there is no guarantee that he would have done so if he had not died prematurely. Nevertheless, we have something of a window into the development of his philosophical thought throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1964, Jean Hyppolite, Foucault’s old tutor, had been named Chair in the History of Philosophical Thought at the Collège de France, arguably the most prestigious educational institute in Paris. He would die, unexpectedly, in 1968, and on the recommendation of Jules Vuillemin, in 1970 Foucault would be elected his successor to a renamed Chair in the History of Systems of Thought. Foucault would hold this position until his death in 1984. The Collège de France does not grant degrees, and students do not register. Rather, Foucault was required to give public lectures on his current research. As such, there is good reason to believe they reflect fairly accurately the development of his thought. Despite his wish that there be no posthumous publication of his work, since 1997 all of his courses from the Collège have been published and, while they are not drafts of his books, they give us a great deal of insight into Foucault’s thinking over the last fourteen years of his life. Courses on the “punitive society” and “psychiatric power” precede the publication of Surveiller et Punir, and the discussion of biopolitics in La Volonté de savoir is reproduced almost directly from his 1975–76 course “Society Must Be Defended.” In his lecture courses of 1977–78 and 1978–79, entitled Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, respectively, we get a sense of how he thought that the concept of biopower might be developed. Foucault develops the concept of “governmentality,” which he defines as the “conduct of conduct,” or the complex sets of ways of administrating subjectivity, in order to analyze the development of liberalism as an economic and political theory. In another incredibly provocative claim, Foucault would state that biopolitics could not be understood independently of the history of liberalism. These works are fascinating and opaque, and making sense of the relations between biopolitics, governmentally, and desire remains an exciting endeavor.
Foucault was gay, and in the years before his death had become active in the BDSM scene in San Francisco. He often visited UC Berkeley, and the area provided some welcome freedom from European homophobia; negative attitudes toward homosexuality had played a part in his exit both from the PCF and from his diplomatic post in Poland, arguably shaping in part both his interest in the history of sex and power and his distaste for traditional Leftism. In 1984, Foucault fell ill quite suddenly and passed away at the Saltpetriére hospital in Paris, on June 10 from complications related to AIDS, leaving behind a powerful, complicated legacy and unanswered questions as to where his seemingly inexhaustible philosophical curiosity might have led him next.
Le gouvernement de soi et des autres: cours au Collège de France 1982–1983 (Paris, 2008). Trans. Graham Burchell, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–1983 (New York, 2010).
Le courage de la verité (Le gouvernement de soi et des autres II): cours au Collège de France 1983–1984 (Paris, 2009). Trans. Graham Burchell, The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II): Lectures at the Collège de France 1983–1984 (New York, 2011).
Leçons sur la volonté de savoir: cours au Collège de France 1970–1971 suivi de Le savoir d’Œdipe (Paris, 2011). Trans. Graham Burchell, Lectures on the Will to Know: Lectures at the Collège de France 1970–1971 with Oedipal Knowledge (New York, 2013).
Théories et institutions penales: cours au Collège de France 1971–1972 (Paris, 2015). Trans. Graham Burchell, Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France 1971–1972 (New York, 2018).
Foucault’s archives are held at the Bibliothèque national de France in Paris and at l'Institute Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC) in Caen, France.