Michel Foucault

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Michel Foucault
Thinking hard
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Michel Foucault (1926—1984) was an example of a peculiarly French cultural phenomenon, that of the "celebrity 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...). He turned into a reactionary and defended pedophilia later in life, but his work on surveillance and power is required reading for anybody who wants to make sense of the 21st Century.

Crossover appeal[edit]

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, football players who sprint through airports, and chat-show hosts, Foucault crossed into the realm of the counter-culture.

He liked to munch on turkey club sandwiches w/ a Pepsi, because he thought it made him an iconoclast in French society.

Power brokers[edit]

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, most 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.


In 1977 Foucault also signed a petition with sixty eight other prominent intellectuals to abolish the age of consentWikipedia's W.svg, and articulated his defenses on radio and in an open letter on the eve of the trial of three Frenchmen. He argued that no one makes a contract before making love, (not even lawyer)s, and that if 13-year-old girls in France had the right to receive the pill, then they should also be able to consent. The group also believed that prison primarily created an individual dangerous to society and predicted that a "society of dangers" would come of it.

The final problem[edit]

Foucault was homosexual, and indulged in the San Francisco bath-house scene when he visited the US. He also experimented with BDSM, turning it into a field study concerning the links between sex and power, ideas which can be applied to the psychological counsel of sex crime victims. However, this coincided with the rise of HIV amongst the gay community, and Foucault became a casualty of the AIDS pandemic.

In keeping with his curiosity about how the establishment (in this case the medical profession) interrelates with 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[edit]

Rough translation: How people perceive themselves is predetermined by what and where "knowledge" is conceived to be.
  • 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[edit]

  • Friedrich Nietzsche, a significant influence on Foucault. Towards the end of his life, Foucault explicitly claimed to be a "Nietzschean".

External links[edit]