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You might not even know how to pronounce his name, much less know who Michel Foucault is, but no worries.

You can learn to say his name and much more about this important French philosopher and his work in this lesson!

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Historian of Thought: A Brief Biography of Michel Foucault

Do you ever wonder what makes people tick? Have you ever thought why you or others might think the way you do? What experiences and ideas have led you to these thoughts and behaviors? You may not have ever given much thought to any of these questions, but they were a constant preoccupation for Michel Foucault (pronounced ‘foo – KOH’) – one of the most influential social theorists of the latter 20th century, and one of the most renowned French thinkers of all time.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), influential French thinker
Photo of Michel Foucault

Michel was born October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France, and was encouraged from an early age to pursue an advanced education. His father was a surgeon who originally wanted Michel to follow in his footsteps. Though much of Foucault’s work would involve a great deal of clinical knowledge, the operating room was not for him.

In fact, he received some of his earliest education in philosophy, studying under Louis Gerard – a famous French scholar and professor – at the Saint-Stanislas School.Michel later attended Lyc;e Henri-IV in Paris, where he furthered his reputation for academic excellence (i.e.

He was ‘that kid.’). Whatever your classmates might’ve thought of him, Foucault’s hard work and extreme intellectual curiosity paid off, and in 1946 he was accepted into the ;cole Normale Sup;ri;ure d’Ulm, which is the foremost school in France for studying humanities and where most major French philosophers got their starts.

In only a year, Foucault received the same as a B.A. degree in psychopathology, and just another year later, he got a similar degree in philosophy. After a failed attempt the year before, Michel passed the French examination to serve as a professor in 1951. He taught for most of the latter half of the decade, lecturing in universities from Sweden (Uppsala), to Poland (Warsaw), to West Germany (Hamburg).

However, after he’d passed his teaching exam in 1951, he initially worked in a psychiatric hospital – a decision that would set the tone of his career.Foucault’s doctoral thesis was presented in 1959, but it did much more than earn him his Ph.D. Two years later, the paper he defended was published as Michel’s first major work, often known in the English world as History of Madness in the Classical Age, or simply History of Madness. This book built off of Foucault’s experiences with psychiatric medicine and criticized the contemporary views on madness (mental illness) and reason (sanity), which he argued were social constructs that started taking shape in ancient Greece and Rome. History of Madness almost instantly identified Foucault as a preeminent thinker of his day, especially one on social issues and the nature of human thought.While teaching in the 1960s, Foucault was swept up in the intense social activism that characterized much of the decade – not just in America (as many of us are probably familiar with), but throughout the world.

Upon returning from teaching for a short time in Tunisia, Michel found himself in the middle of ongoing student protests in Paris during 1968. That year, he also founded the Prison Information Group, which worked to ensure fair treatment of prisoners by voicing concerns with the penal system. In 1970, though, Foucault was given perhaps the greatest opportunity of his career: the chance to teach at the highly prestigious Collège de France, which he did until his death. With his new organization to run, his new teaching job, and all his academic and civil interests, the next decade was a flurry of activity for Foucault.Michel was tirelessly productive in his quest to understand and inform on how humans think and how that thinking has changed over time.

He published several more works on various subjects – ranging from the history of punishment to linguistics – during the 1970’s and, an openly homosexual man himself, spoke on perceptions and treatment of the gay community. Throughout his lifetime, Michel Foucault turned people’s attention toward many things they’d probably never thought about before, and the same could be said for his death.Before Michel died on 25 June 1984 from AIDS-related complications, no major figure in the public eye had yet been dealt a mortal blow by the disease. His death brought much public attention to the illness and is largely responsible for the ongoing fervor to find the cure still around today. Present-day activists and intellectuals have a lot to thank Foucault for, including the following books that have become part of an enduring legacy in the history of thought.

Books by Michel Foucault

The Order of Things

Published in 1966, The Order of Things is one of Foucault’s most recognized works and what really put him on the map as one of the influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Like History of Madness, this book – subtitled ‘An Archaeology of the Human Sciences’ – is concerned with examining how human thought evolves over time. In The Order of Things, Michel is primarily occupied with epistemology, or the study of knowledge and its characteristics, and how human thoughts on knowledge have changed from the Classical era to the modern day. He focuses particularly on the disconnects between language and the things and ideas it classifies – an important concept considering language is how we construct meaning and acquire knowledge. Foucault also uses his psychology background to employ psychoanalytic principles to his epistemological questions.

The History of Sexuality

Keeping up his enthusiasm for recording and exploring humanity’s history of thought, Michel first started his three-volume work, The History of Sexuality, in the 1970’s.

The first volume, An Introduction, was published in 1976 and does essentially what its title implies – it lays out Foucault’s approach to the central issue of the changing rules of sexual morality. The philosopher didn’t return to this project for almost a decade, however, and the final two volumes weren’t printed until the final year of Michel’s life in 1984. These installments, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, complete Foucault’s project by investigating various aspects of ancient Greco-Roman sexuality and contrasting them with those of Christianity that have grown to dominate much of the Western world.

By the end, Foucault concludes that sexuality has evolved in Christian culture to be a means of social control rather than an expression of oneself as it was in antiquity.

Lesson Summary

Psychologist, social theorist, humanitarian, Michel Foucault is all of those things, but is most often recognized as a philosopher – an historian of thought. He spent much of his career as a teacher, holding positions in his native France, as well as in Germany, Sweden, and other countries.His first major work, History of Madness in the Classical Age, set the analytical tone for Foucault’s career, but his work on epistemology (The Order of Things), or the study of knowledge and its characteristics, really put him on the map. He worked on his final landmark work – The History of Sexuality – all the way up to his death from AIDS-related complications in 1984.

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