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Who is Michel Foucault?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Michel Foucault was an original and influential thinker born June 15, 1926 in Poitiers, France. He was known as a social scientist, philosopher, and historian.

Like many French philosophers, Foucault's academic training ground was the Ecole Normale Superieure, which he entered at age 20 in 1946. Foucault became impressed with Marxism and existentialism during this period, having been exposed to the philosophy of both Hegel and Marx, but was later to change his position on both of these philosophical approaches.

Foucault, in keeping with French tradition, studied the history and philosophy of science and Georges Canguilhem's work greatly inspired him. Through Canguilhem, Foucault became aware of and interested in the inconsistencies in scientific history. His work was also inspired by the structural linguistics approach of Ferdinand de Saussure as well by the psychological studies of Jacques Lacan, and the proto-structuralist examination of comparative religion as presented by Georges Dumezil.

A brilliant scholar, Foucault worked at various French universities before being elected, at age 43, to the position of Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the highly regarded College de France. Foucault was politically active and became a strong voice for marginalized groups such as the "mentally ill," which was a term he despised, homosexuals and prison inmates. He co-founded the Groupe d'information sur les prisons and continued to lecture at universities worldwide. A year before his death in Paris from AIDS in 1984, Foucault had decided to accept an annual teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley.

Although postmodernist Foucault adamantly separated himself from the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, both of these French men despised the power of the bourgeois and stood up for the political causes of the marginalized bourgeoisie groups.

Madness and Civilization, The History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison are considered by many to be among Foucault's most influential books. He combined philosophy with historical retrospective.

Knowledge, power, and the connection between them form the crux of all of Foucault's work. Foucault believed that mind control is more powerful than physical punishment in establishing social control. Foucault stressed that social control by authorities often masquerades as the sound reasoning of scientific knowledge.

Foucault's work cautions that what we may take to be knowledge, may instead be nothing more than powerful concepts perpetuated by authorities and those concepts may change our understanding of our selves and our world.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon31695 — On May 10, 2009

If Foucault were alive today, what would his thoughts be on the current "ecological-crisis?"

If I'm correct, he would probably say that the discourse which surrounds this topic would be the deliberate perpetuation by the bourgeoisie of falsifying scientific data about the state of our ecology.

That to blame humans as agents who are responsible for the demise of our planetary ecosystem would in effect constitute a form of "biopower".

This in effect would ultimately give the bourgeoisie absolute control over the people through the development of a juridico-political state controlled apparatus; a codification of a whole new set of laws in "defense" of "mother earth".

An example of this kind of law would be a global taxation on carbon. Those who stand in the way of such a discourse would be brought to bourgeoisie "justice".

If this form of biopower is achieved, this would be another step closer towards achieving global governance - in short complete control over every individual in society.

By anon20686 — On Nov 04, 2008

what is foucault's theory of history?

By AuthorSheriC — On Mar 08, 2008

Good question, anon9523. I'll get an okay from the editor and write up an article called "What is Marxism." Thanks for your question!

By anon9523 — On Mar 08, 2008

what is marxism?

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