Key thinker: Michel Foucault (1926–1984)
Michel Foucault (1926–1984)
Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France into a bourgeois family of physicians (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michel-Foucault). From an early age, Foucault defied his father’s wishes to join the medical profession and declared his intention to pursue an academic career in philosophy (https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/). In 1946, Foucault enrolled at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris where he attended the lectures of the preeminent existential phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He was also influenced by his mentor Louis Althusser’s structuralist reading of Marx (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx for Althusser’s reading of Marx) and Jean Hyppolite’s reading of G.W.F. Hegel (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). But Foucault’s time at the ENS was also marked by depression, a suicide attempt, and his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality (https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/). Foucault was also fascinated by psychology—he obtained qualifications in the subject at the ENS—not least because he had himself suffered from depression.
In 1950, Foucault briefly joined the French Communist Party (CPF) but was quickly disillusioned and abandoned communism. Following a succession of short-lived teaching posts in Lille (France), Warsaw (Poland), Uppsala (Sweden), and Hamburg (Germany), Foucault became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1960 (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michel-Foucault). Between 1960 and 1966, Foucault published several books including History of Madness in the Classical Age (1961), a critique of the moral hypocrisy of modern psychiatry developed from his doctoral thesis, which was published in English as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965). While his monographs were critically acclaimed, they never found much of an audience (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). But with the publication of The Order of Things in 1966, which became a bestseller in France, Foucault started to make a name for himself in the intellectual circles (https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/). At the time, Foucault was teaching at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. He was still in Tunis when student riots broke out in France in the spring of 1968.
Foucault returned to Paris later that year and spent the next two years as Professor of Philosophy at the new experimental University Paris, Vincennes (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michel-Foucault). In 1970, he was appointed Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France, where he delivered the lectures that were compiled in the posthumous collection Lectures at the Collège de France, 1970-1984 (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). Foucault would remain at the Collège de France for the next decade. Foucault also became increasingly drawn towards the United States, where he lectured at the University of California, Berkeley; he also travelled to Iran, where he wrote a sympathetic report of the 1979 revolution (https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/). By the early 1980s, Foucault had contracted AIDS and his health quickly deteriorated. He died of an AIDS-related illness in a Paris hospital in 1984. He was 57 years old.
Foucault was an idiosyncratic thinker and published extensively on subjects ranging from the emergence of institutions like asylums, hospitals, and prisons to the history of European sexuality (see 33.1. Introduction). Foucault’s early work is mainly concerned with how specific forms of knowledge—psychiatry, clinical medicine, criminal anthropology, or criminology—were employed to pathologize certain conditions and classify people as ‘abnormal’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/).
When Foucault was writing his history of madness, the orthodox view was that people who were ‘mad’, ‘mentally ill’, or ‘insane’ were a threat to themselves and others and should therefore be kept away from society. According to this logic, asylums were a regrettable necessity: they constrained the patient’s freedom but improved their life by liberating them from madness and protecting society (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). By tracing the development of the concept of madness in relation to its (supposed) opposite, reason, Foucault presented the ‘mad’ as those who acted in defiance of the established rules of conduct. He argued that the supposed scientific neutrality of the discourse (see Key Concept: Discourse) about ‘mental illness’ covered up attempts to control or contain challenges to bourgeois morality (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). Anyone deemed ‘abnormal’ in bourgeois society was simply locked away until they learned how to obey the rules of the given social order.
In his studies of madness and sexuality, Foucault developed a genealogical method inspired by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1887) (see Chapter 14 on Friedrich Nietzsche) to better understand how things came to be as they are. For Foucault, systems of thought were not the outcome of inevitable or rational trends but of contingent historical developments (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). Foucault’s genealogical method takes forms of resistance against different forms of power as its starting point; it is therefore designed to help emancipatory struggles challenge the existing economy of power relations (see 33.2. Sexuality).
The History of Sexuality (1976), the first volume in a proposed six-volume series, pushes back against the ‘repressive thesis’: the idea that Victorian sexuality was repressed or silenced (see 33.2. Sexuality: Key Points). Instead, Foucault argues, sexuality became the object of medical, juridical, and psychological discourses which claimed that they could deduce scientific truths about people by observing their sexual behaviour (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/). For Foucault, the scientific discourse about sexuality that emerged in the Victorian era paralleled the modern control of criminality or madness, but unlike these discourses, the scientific discourse on sexuality teaches individuals to also monitor themselves to conform to the norms of bourgeois society. Sexual ‘deviants’ are therefore not only objects of a controlling scientific discourse, but self-forming subjects (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/).
In Discipline and Punish (1975) Foucault turns to the history of prisons to show how the ‘panopticon’, a concept developed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was a means of making prisoners believe that they were under constant observation (see Key Concept: Disciplinary Power). He argued that a similar form of disciplinary power (see 33.3.2. Disciplinary Power) was employed in liberal democracies, where citizens were subjected to constant regulation and interference by a state which was unable to use force as a means of social control. But in these societies citizens had to be convinced that they were being controlled for their own good. In his subsequent work, including the lectures on Security, Territory, Population (1977-78) and the Birth of Biopolitics (1978-79), Foucault shifted focus from such forms of micro-social power towards forms of government by the state, or what he called ‘governmentality’ (see 33.4. Race, Government and Power).
Foucault coined the term 'biopower' to denote modern mechanisms of control that actively managed not only individual lives of citizens, but the lives of whole populations (see 33.4.1. Biopower and State Racism). While sovereign power decides who lives and who does not, biopower divides and classifies the different lives that are under the control of the state and determines that only certain lives deserve to be protected. This aspect of Foucault’s work has been picked up by postcolonial theorists like Achille Mbembe, who has used the concepts of biopower and governmentality to describe how modern sovereignty works by annihilating all those considered enemies of the sate (Mbembe, 2019). Foucault’s writing on sexuality, on the other hand, has become an important resource for queer theory: Judith Butler’s work on the performativity of gender, for example, uses Foucauldian thought to challenge the supposed connection between gender and biological sex (see Chapter 35 on Judith Butler).
But Foucault’s work is not always uncontroversial: feminist scholars have embraced his analysis of power while criticising his lack of attention to the relationship between modern sexuality and the oppression of women in modern European societies (McNay, 1992). Foucault himself likened his work to a ‘toolkit’, insisting that it was not a systematic or consistent body of thought. But this has also led to ambiguities in Foucault’s value as a political thinker: it is unclear whether Foucault was a critic or an admirer of neoliberalism, for example, so his work has been celebrated by both the left and the right (Mitchell & Zamora, 2021). In any case, Foucault’s work remains an indispensable resource for anyone trying to understand how power works in modern society.
Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2020. The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs.
Dean, Mitchell, and Daniel Zamora, The Last Man takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, London/New York Verso 2021.
Cook, Deborah, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West, London/New York: Verso, 2018.
McNay, Lois, Foucault and feminism: power, gender and the self. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.