Michel Foucault (1926–1984)


Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, western France, the son of a successful surgeon. Academically, he was a fairly late developer. In 1945 he failed the entrance examination for the prestigious École Normale Supériore (ENS) in Paris. However, he managed to pass the following year and took a degree in philosophy (after once again failing at the first attempt). In 1950 he joined the French Communist Party, influenced by one of his teachers, the Marxist Louis Althusser. However, he was not a very active participant. This was fairly typical of the adult Foucault, who was too rebellious to be confined even by a subversive institution like the Communist Party.

Foucault was also fascinated by psychology; he had suffered from depression, partly perhaps because of his homosexuality. His first book (published in 1954) was in the field of psychology. However, after a succession of short-lived teaching posts he became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1960. The following year he was awarded a doctorate, partly based on an examination of the concept of madness. After spending some years teaching in Tunisia, in 1968 Foucault was appointed Professor of Philosophy at a new university, Paris VIII, before moving to the Collège de France as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. By this time he was increasingly drawn towards the United States, and lectured extensively at Berkeley, California. He also travelled to Iran, where he reported sympathetically on the 1979 revolution. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1984.


Foucault was chiefly concerned with power in its various manifestations. His early work on madness—in The History of Madness (1961)—was typical of this approach. The orthodox view at the time was that “mad” people were genuinely dangerous to themselves and to others, and that although their treatment was sometimes difficult to square with civilized values the existence of asylums to keep them apart from society was a regrettable necessity. Foucault traced the development of the concept of madness in relation to its (supposed) opposite: “reason.” From this perspective, “mad” people could be regarded as those who acted in defiance of the ruling ideas in a given society; they must be treated inhumanely until they learned to obey the established rules of conduct.

Thus, for Foucault, power is inherent in all social relationships, beginning with control over the definition of key terms like “madness” and “reason” (for analysis, see pages 49–50, Chapter 2). It was therefore natural for him to take a highly critical view of the eighteenth century “Enlightenment,” which had been led by “rationalistic” philosophers. Under the influence of such philosophers, governments (particularly since the eighteenth century) had seen it as part of their duty to inculcate “rational” behaviour in their citizens. A key disciplinary technique was the way in which such governments treated criminals. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault turned to the history of prisons, highlighting the “panopticon” which had been developed by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a means of making prisoners believe that they were under constant surveillance. By extension, it could be argued that modern liberal democracies had become vast open-air prisons, in which the behaviour of citizens was subjected to constant regulation and interference by a state that was unable to use naked force as a means of day-to-day social control. In modern states, it was necessary for governments to give “rational” explanations for techniques of control which had previously been wielded merely on the command of a sovereign (see page 332–333, Chapter 16). In other words, people had to be assured that they were being controlled for their own good. Foucault coined the term “biopower” to denote these devices of modernity. If he had lived to see the response of several Western governments to the new security threats which were associated with “the War on Terror,” he would not have been surprised.

Foucault himself likened his work to a “toolkit” rather than a systematic or consistent body of thought. This is a very apt description. His work can be embraced by “left” or “right” (it is unlikely to appeal to many political moderates). In this sense, he has much in common with postmodernists (for discussion, see page 117, Chapter 6). No doubt Foucault would be less celebrated if he had not been born in France, the home of the “celebrity philosopher” during his lifetime. For those who were tired of Marxism, Foucault represented a refreshing change from Jean-Paul Sartre. However, the possibility that his reputation has been inflated by the context of his life should not obscure the numerous valuable insights in his published work.

Further Reading

Michael Dillon, Foucault on Politics, Security and War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

David Macey, The Lives of Michael Foucault, Hutchinson, 1993.

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