Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

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Foucault, Michel (1926-1984), French philosopher, who attempted to show that the basic ideas which people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society change in the course of history. His studies challenged the influence of German political philosopher Karl Marx and Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Foucault offered new concepts that challenged people's assumptions about prisons, the police, insurance, care of the mentally ill, gay rights, and welfare.

Foucault was born in Poitiers. He studied philosophy and psychology at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris. During the 1960s, he served as head of the philosophy departments at the University of Clermont-Ferrand and the University of Vincennes (officially known as the Vincennes Experimental University Centre). In 1970 he was elected to the highest academic post in France, the College de France, where he took the title of Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. During the 1970s and 1980s his international reputation grew as he lectured all over the world.

The main influences on Foucault's thought were German philosophers Frederick Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche maintained that human behavior is motivated by a will to power and that traditional values had lost their power over society. Heidegger criticized what he called “our current technological understanding of being.” Foucault's thought explored the shifting patterns of power within a society and the ways in which power relates to the self. He investigated the changing rules governing the kind of claims that could be taken seriously as true or false at different times in history. He also studied how everyday practices enabled people to define their identities and systematize knowledge; events may be understood as being produced by nature, by human effort, or by God. Foucault argued that each way of understanding things had its advantages and its dangers.

Foucault's thinking developed through three stages. First, in Madness and Civilization (1960), he traced how, in the Western world, madness—which was once thought to be divinely inspired—came to be thought of as mental illness. In this book he attempted to expose the creative force of madness that Western societies have traditionally repressed. In his second stage he produced The Order of Things (1966), one of his most important works.

Foucault's last period was inaugurated by the publication of Discipline and Punish in 1975. It ostensibly questions whether imprisonment is a more humane punishment than torture, but it is more generally concerned with the way society orders individuals by training their bodies; for example, basic training may discipline and prepare a person to be a soldier. Foucault's last three books—History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (1976), The Use of Pleasure (1984), and The Care of the Self (1984)—are parts of an unfinished history of sexuality. In these books, Foucault follows the stages by which people in Western societies have come to understand themselves as sexual beings, and relates the sexual self-concept to the moral and ethical life of the individual.

In all the books of his last period Foucault seeks to show that Western society has developed a new kind of power he calls bio-power—that is, a new system of control that traditional concepts of authority are unable to understand and criticize. Rather than being repressive, this new power enhances life. Foucault encourages people to resist the welfare state by developing individual ethics in which one turns one's life into something that others can respect and admire.

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