History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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Michel Foucault | Biography


Early Life and Education

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France. He studied psychology and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris—one of France's most prestigious private universities—between 1946 and 1952. He earned his doctorate in 1961 after completing a dissertation titled Madness and Unreason: A History of Madness in the Classical Age.


Foucault first gained prominence in 1966 after publishing The Order of Things. In this work he attempted an "archaeology" of human sciences, including linguistics, biology, and economics. This "archaeology" was based on a belief that each era of history is defined by an underlying set of assumptions about the world and what is known or believed about reality. He followed this with a publication further developing his archaeological project, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). In 1970 he was awarded an academic position (the chair in the history of thought-systems) at the prestigious Collège de France. This position allowed him to concentrate more fully on researching and publishing, leading directly to his most productive period.

In the 1970s Foucault's project shifted from intellectual "archaeology" to "genealogy." With genealogy, he began tracing the history of how dominant paradigms, or typical examples or models, in patterns of thought develop through trial, error, historical accident, and other pathways. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) examined social and technical changes in the concept of crime and punishment in the West. In particular, he identified a shift from the public and bloody torture of the body to institutions and ideas, like the prison, that turned people into disciplined subjects. He devoted much of his remaining years to work on a proposed five-volume History of Sexuality. Only the first three volumes, The Will to Knowledge (also titled: An Introduction) (1976), The Use of Pleasure (1984), and The Care of the Self (1984) were completed at the time of his death in 1984.

Foucault's central project was an inquiry into the development of intellectual and social paradigms in the modern world. He argued that power was, fundamentally, a social relationship. It worked through interactions between individuals rather than as a structure imposed from above. Furthermore, he believed this meant power was not fixed but changeable. Indeed, it was changing all the time through social struggle. Foucault was himself an active participant in struggles for political and social liberty. He had been a member of the French Communist Party in the 1950s but left after only three years owing to the party's bigotry against homosexuals and Jews. Although he resisted orthodoxies, he remained a left-wing activist and public figure throughout his life, championing prison reform in France and campaigning against racism and human rights abuses worldwide.

Death and Legacy

Foucault died on June 25, 1984, at age 57. He had contracted HIV, which developed into AIDS, during the epidemic of the 1980s. At the time, the disease was not well understood. The first truly effective therapies would appear only in the 1990s. Foucault's partner, sociologist Daniel Defert (b. 1937), founded the first French AIDS advocacy charity, AIDES—named after the French world for help—in Foucault's memory.

Foucault's work, particularly its focus on the history and social construction of power, has had a lasting impact. It has been influential in the field of critical theory: the study of the social, ideological, and historical factors that produce culture. It has also greatly influenced postcolonial theory, which studies the creation, endurance, and overthrow of colonial regimes and their cultural and social legacies. Discipline and Punish, though primarily concerned with French history, is illustrative of this broader relevance. The disciplines of power it describes may have originated in the West, but they soon extended to colonial and postcolonial societies worldwide. Though not without its critics, The History of Sexuality is itself an important part of Foucault's legacy. The series' central concept of biopower—meaning, roughly, control over people as living organisms—was first introduced in this work and has found wide use in latter-day studies of population control and public health policy.

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