Paul-Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)
Foucault was born in 1926, in Poitiers, France. His father
was an eminent local surgeon who desired his son to follow in his career
footsteps. After graduating from Saint-Stanislas school, he entered the
prestigious lycée Henri-IV in Paris. In 1946 he was admitted to the École
Normale Supérièure as the fourth highest ranked student. Studying philosophy
Foucault emerged as a brilliant young thinker. He received his licence in Philosophy in 1948, in Psychology in
1950, and in 1952 was awarded a diploma in Pyschopathology.
From 1954 to 1958 he taught French at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, then
spent a year at the University of Warsaw followed by a year at the University of
Hamburg. In 1960 he published his landmark work Madness and Civilization. In this he argued that “madness” as we know it, and
the scrupulous and troubled distinctions we make between it and “sanity,” is a
hallmark invention of the Age of Reason. The book won him a Doctorat d’état.
In that same year, Foucault met Daniel Defert, a philosophy student ten years
his junior. Defert’s political activism would exercise a major influence on
Foucault’s development. About their relationship, Foucault said in a 1981
interview: “I have lived for 18 years in a state of passion toward someone. At
some moments, this passion has taken the form of love. But in truth, it is a
matter of a state of passion between the two of us.”
Foucault’s second major work, The Order of Things, a comparative study of the
development of economics, the natural sciences, and linguistics in the 18th and
19th centuries, appeared in 1966.
When Daniel Defert went to Tunisia to fulfill his volunteer service
requirements, Foucault followed him, and spent 1966-1968 teaching there. The two
returned to Paris—Foucault to head up the Philosophy Department at the
University of Paris-VIII at Vincennes, Defert to teach sociology—just as the
student revolts of May, 1968, unleashed their fury. Foucault was profoundly
affected by the unrest. In that year he joined with other intellectuals in
forming GIP, the Prison Information Group, an organization that sought to
provide prisoners with a way to talk about prison concerns.
His study "Archaeology of Knowledge" appeared in 1969. In 1970 he was elected to
the College de France, the country’s most eminent institution of research and
learning, as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. In 1975 he
published "Discipline and Punish: The Origin of the Prison", perhaps his most
influential book. During the last decade of his life he devoted himself to "The
History of Sexuality", a monumental but unfinished project. Volume I: An
Introduction appeared to much controversy in 1976, and the second and third
volumes—"The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self"—came out shortly before
his death in 1984.