Michel Foucault

Foucault (1926 – 1984) was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. He theorized the relationship between power and knowledge, and examined the forms of social control through societal institutions. He is often considered to be a post-structuralist and postmodernist, but he preferred to think of his work as a critical history of modernity. Here is a biographical sketch from the Stanford Encyclopedia article, as well as a timeline of his life.

Biographical Sketch

“Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on October 15, 1926. His student years seem to have been psychologically tormented but were intellectually brilliant. He became academically established during the 1960s, when he held a series of positions at French universities, before his election in 1969 to the ultra-prestigious Collège de France, where he was Professor of the History of Systems of Thought until his death. From the 1970s on, Foucault was very active politically. He was a founder of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons and often protested on behalf of homosexuals and other marginalized groups. He frequently lectured outside France, particularly in the United States, and in 1983 had agreed to teach annually at the University of California at Berkeley. An early victim of AIDS, Foucault died in Paris on June 25, 1984. In addition to works published during his lifetime, his lectures at the Collège de France, being published posthumously, contain important elucidations and extensions of his ideas.
It can be difficult to think of Foucault as a philosopher. His academic formation was in psychology and its history as much as in philosophy, his books were mostly histories of medical and social sciences, his passions were literary and political. Nonetheless, almost all of Foucault’s works can be fruitfully read as philosophical in either or both of two ways: as a carrying out of philosophy’s traditional critical project in a new (historical) manner; and as a critical engagement with the thought of traditional philosophers. This article will present him as a philosopher in these two dimensions.”

Timeline of his Life

(adapted from the “Biographical Chronology” in The Final Foucault)

1926: Born, Poitiers, France
1936-40: Lycée Henri-IV, Poitiers
1940-45: College St Stanislas, Poitiers
1945: Lycée Henri IV, Paris
1946: Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris
1948: licence de philosophie (can teach secondary school)
1949: licence de psychologie
1951: agrégation de philosophie (can be university lecturer)
1952: Diplôme de psycho-pathologie, Institut de psychologie, Paris
1952-55: teaches pyschology at University of Lille (commutes from Paris)
1955-58: teaches French culture and language at University of Uppsala, Sweden
1958: Director of French Center at University of Warsaw, Poland
1959: Director of French Institute in Hamburg, Germany
1960-66: teaches philosophy and psychology at Clermont-Ferrand (commutes from Paris)
1961: publication of Madness and Civilization
1961: Doctorat ès lettres (can be university professor)
1962: promotion to Professor of Philosophy at Clermont-Ferrand
1962-66: “literary period”: writes on Blanchot, Bataille, Klossowski, Artaud, Roussel
1963: publication of Birth of the Clinic and Death and the Labyrinth
1965: trip to Brazil
1965-66: works on the Fouchet educational reforms (MF as “Gaullist technocrat”)
1966-68: Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Tunis
1966: publication of The Order of Things; reaches best-seller lists (!)
1968-73: ultra-left political activism; many street protests and petitions
1968: Chairman of Philosophy Dept, Paris VIII (Vincennes)
1969: Elected to College de France
1969: publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge
1970: Dec 2, Inaugural lecture at College de France (=”The Discourse on Language”)
1970-83: regular visits to US; occasional trips to Brazil and Japan
1971-73: active with Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP)
1975-83: liberal political orientation: human rights, critique of totalitarian systems
1972: visits Attica prison, New York State
1975: protest executions by Franco regime in Spain
1975: publication of Discipline and Punish
1976: publication of History of Sexuality, vol. 1
1978: articles on Iranian revolution for Corriere della serra
1981: protests in support of Solidarity movement in Poland
1983: teaches at Berkeley as beginning of permanent visiting appointment
1984: publication of volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality
1984: dies in Paris, June 25.
1994: publication of Dits et Ecrits (collection of all MF’s work outside his monographs)

Some Quotes

  • From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.
  • I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.
  • …if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing
  • A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest.
  • People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.
  • Truth is not by nature free-nor error servile-its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power.
  • Where there is power, there is resistance.
  • The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.
  • Total surveillance is increasingly the general condition of society as a whole.
  • What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
  • Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.
  • The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker -judge.
  • Domination is not that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over others, or one group over another, but the manifold forms of domination that can be exercised within society.
  • Are the prisons overpopulated, or is the population over-imprisoned ?
  • Education may well be, as of right, the instrument whereby every individual, in a society like our own, can gain access to any kind of discourse. But we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.
  • ‘The prison’ begins well before its doors. It begins as soon as you leave your house – and even before.
  • Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?
  • Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions- to define, classify, control, and regulate people.
  • The language of psychiatry is a monologue of reason about madness.
  • There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.
  • Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.
  • ‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.
  • What I seek is a permanent opening of possibilities.
  • One makes war to win, not because it’s just.
  • The gaze that sees is the gaze that dominates.
  • There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than politicians think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas… that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.

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  1. […] Michel Foucault discusses the case in his 1975 book “Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison.) He argues that capital punishment involves the use of the physical body in a ritual that symbolizes pain, fear, and guilt. It stigmatizes individuals and deters others from engaging in criminal or unwanted activities. The images of pain and guilt send a message to society that makes people aware of the consequences if they decide to carry out anything forbidden, teaching them to think before they act. It can also be argued that the public display of pain, associated with the physical body, represents the vengeance of the rulers. The cruelty in these public executions is excessive in order to induce fear in the citizens and spectators. The punishment ritual is the inverse of the glory and power of the king. The style of execution thus symbolizes supreme political power. When we look back at the execution of Damiens, we see the perversion of power and an almost absolute negation of humanity. We can see how easy it is for people to feel justified when in reality they do something evil!  […]

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