Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was an example of a peculiarly French cultural phenomenon, that of the 'famous intellectual'. Part philosopher, historian and social theorist, he was 'Professor of Systems of Thought' at France's most prestigious university, published several best-selling books (best-selling in France, that is), and was generally renowned there as one of their great 'thinkers' (joining the canon of Sartre, Derrida, Barthes, Althusser, Lacan and many more...). The French public fully expected these guys to come up with ideas that were difficult, challenging, controversial and sometimes unfathomably hard to grasp. To an American audience more used to idolizing film stars, rock musicians, sportsmen and chat-show hosts, much of Foucault's work strayed into the realm of subversion and taboo. He explored issues related to government, sexuality, education, medicine and the prison system and was one of the first people to truly challenge society's strongly held views about the morality of those social institutions and our justification of them.
Central to much of Foucault's thinking was the question of power and its links with social and political relationships. Some of the important aspects of his thinking can be summarized fairly straightforwardly, although in a very simplified way. He conceived power as a relationship, moving beyond the conventional idea of power as something that is held by people (the "juridical-discursive" idea of power). For Foucault, power and knowledge were intimately tied, to the extent that they can be seen as a single idea of "power-knowledge". Historical eras create new discourses of knowledge which draw people into networks of power, culminating in the ideal of the "Panopticon Society" where everyone observes and has full "knowledge" of everyone else. As an example, he gives the idea of sexuality, which in modern history moved from being a property of particular acts (e.g. "sodomy") to a property of people ("homosexuality"), creating a new category of knowledge by which people are socially controlled.
Though his anarchistic ideas are strongly associated with the academic New Left following the 1970s, by the late 70s his interests had settled upon alternatives to the liberal welfare state, such as revolutionary theocracy (exemplified by the Islamic Revolution), and he also wrote about the economic ideology of the Chicago School. While Foucault did report for the Islamic Revolution, many commentators overplay these so called "right wing" alternatives and choose to ignore Foucault's vast interest in collaborative/militant politics that lasted up until his death. This interest is illustrated in his last two years of lectures at the College of France.
Foucault was an enthusiastic homosexual, and indulged with relish in the San Francisco bath-house scene when he visited the US. Ever the nerd, he tried out BDSM and other more exotic sex positions and then turned it into a field study about the links between sex and power, ideas which can be applied to the psychological council of sex crime victims. Unluckily for him, these forays coincided with the rise of HIV amongst the gay community, and Foucault became a casualty of the AIDS pandemic. In keeping with his intellectual analyses of how society's institutions (such as the medical profession) interrelate with power, morality and authority, Foucault was professedly deeply skeptical that there was a 'gay plague' sweeping the globe (as opposed to what AIDS always has been, a virus without sexuality preference), though he arrived at such ideas from a very different direction to stereotypical AIDS denialists.
 Selected works
- Madness and Civilization
- The Order of Things
- The Archaeology of Knowledge
- Discipline and Punish
- The History of Sexuality (Volume I: Introduction (also published as The Will to Knowledge), Volume II: The Uses of Pleasure, Volume III: Care of the Self)
- Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France, 1973-1974
- Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France, 1974-1975
- Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976
- The Hermeneutics Of The Subject: Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982
- Lectures on Biopolitics, 1978-1979
- "The Government of Self and Others 1982-1983"
- "The Courage of Truth 1983-1984"
Some of Foucault's more abstract works, like The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, can be very difficult to understand without already having some grounding in his thought. For this reason, if you're looking to read Foucault it's generally a better idea to start off with his "case study" books like Discipline and Punish or the first volume of The History of Sexuality, which deal with actual examples of what he means in a more comprehensible way.
 See also
- Friedrich Nietzsche, a significant influence on Foucault. Towards the end of his life, Foucault explicitly claimed to be a "Nietzschean".
- Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault debate Human Nature (1971) - this (reasonably) famous television appearence gives a good insight into Foucault's character: in contrast to Chomsky's rather pensive, earnest and sincere musings, Foucault throughout he is positively gleeful and revelling in the play of ideas: he's HAVING FUN.