Authors: Michel Foucault

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French philosopher

Author Works


Maladie mentale et personnalité, 1954 (revised and expanded as Maladie mentale et psychologie, 1962; Mental Illness and Psychology, 1976)

Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 1961 (Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1965)

Naissance de la clinique: Une Archéologie du regard médical, 1963 (The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, 1973)

Raymond Roussel, 1963 (English translation, 1978)

Les Mots et les choses: Une Archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966 (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970)

L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969 (The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972)

L’Ordre du discours, 1971 (The Discourse on Language, 1971)

Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, 1975 (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977)

Histoire de la sexualité, 1976-1984 (3 volumes; The History of Sexuality, 1978-1987: includes La Volonté de savoir [An Introduction], L’Usage des plaisirs [The Use of Pleasure], and Souci de soi [The Care of the Self])

Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, 1977

Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, 1980

Dits et écrits: 1954-1988, 1994 (4 volumes; partial translation as The Essential Works of Michel Foucault: 1954-1984, 1997-2000 [3 volumes])


Michel Foucault (few-koh) is one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century. Born to a middle-class family in Poitiers, France, Foucault attended various public schools and then received his baccalauréat from a Catholic secondary institution. He studied philosophy as well as psychology at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and obtained his diploma in philosophy in 1948. Dissatisfied with his studies in philosophy, he began research in the field of psychopathology and taught in Paris and in Sweden for several years. In 1960 he was nominated head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, and in 1970 he was given a chair at the prestigious Colège de France in Paris, where he remained until his death of cerebral abscesses.{$I[AN]9810000817}{$I[A]Foucault, Michel}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Foucault, Michel}{$I[tim]1926;Foucault, Michel}

Foucault’s work is primarily in the area of the philosophies of history and of sociology, especially where these disciplines intersect with the domains of psychology and medicine. He termed the philosophical thrust of his early works an “archaeology” of ideas; that is, he sought to uncover the beginnings or roots of certain fundamental concepts of Western culture such as rationality, knowledge, and power, especially in terms of the way these ideas structure society and the perception of human relationships. His early work, Madness and Civilization, looks to the origins of societal definitions of madness and reason and the early development of psychiatry as well as the emergence of the mental asylum as a social institution in eighteenth century France. Before the seventeenth century and the early period of the European Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), mental illness or “unreason” was considered somewhat of a religious or transcendent state of consciousness, and the insane were not excluded from society. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the mentally ill began to be regarded negatively by society and were, along with the poor and the criminal, segregated from the general population. Because of their inability to carry on productive labor, the insane were eventually segregated even within this specific population–since the poor and criminal elements came to be sheltered in workhouses–and the mental asylum, along with the profession of psychiatry, was born. Foucault illustrates the way medical notions of insanity and rationality were closely linked to bourgeois expectations of a work ethic, virtuous conduct, and the rational political-social order. Much of this process of the segregation of the insane and deviant from society was facilitated if not enacted through modes of language and discourse. Foucault was influenced by the structuralist movement in linguistics and literary studies, and his book The Birth of the Clinic suggests how shifts in the structures of medical discourse influenced perception of the individual and the social context.

Foucault’s major work, The Order of Things, seeks to examine the structural patterns of intellectual thought that have emerged in the human sciences since the Renaissance. Here he develops the concept of the episteme, the totality of modes of thought during a particular historical period that gives rise to an epistemology or a way of understanding or interpreting reality, of creating an order or system to make sense of experience. Foucault’s work uncovers the discourse structures that fashion meaning in various humanistic and scientific disciplines. In The Archaeology of Knowledge he continues, as well as revises, certain of the central concepts found in his earlier analyses. The three volumes of The History of Sexuality treat the themes of the self, sexuality, and bourgeois social, political, and economic structures of power or control in Western thought. Issues such as the emergence of prohibitions against certain expressions of sexuality (including homoeroticism and sexual deviation), psychological repression, and Christian guilt and confession became societal, religious, and ethical forms of internalized control that led, over the course of centuries, to the development of a sense of the “self” and “subjectivity.”

Although he was a controversial thinker, Foucault contributed through his writings a number of provocative and compelling insights into the various humanistic disciplines of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history of science. His work is to be understood in the company of other innovative French intellectuals, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, who undertook extensive examinations of modes of thought, language, and social behavior in Western culture.

BibliographyArac, Jonathan, ed. After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. This book contains essays on Michel Foucault presented in 1985, the year after Foucault’s death, at a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Includes bibliography and index.Barker, Phillip. Michel Foucault: An Introduction. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. This book provides an introduction to Foucault and his thought. Includes bibliographies and an index.Bernauer, James William. Michel Foucault’s Force of Flight: Toward an Ethics for Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990. This work, part of a series on modern philosophers, examines Foucault’s views on ethics in the twentieth century. Includes a bibliography.Boyne, Roy. Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990. This volume looks at the ongoing debate between Foucault and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Includes bibliographical references and index.Davidson, Arnold I. Foucault and His Interlocutors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This book includes essays by several French thinkers who were influenced by Foucault. These authors take up the breadth of Foucault’s life’s work and provide a firm foundation by which to understand his writing.Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.Foucault, Michel, ed. I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother …: A Case of Parricide in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. A literal account of the murder of a family by a “madman” that simultaneously analyzes the “murder” of free will and responsibility.Gutting, Gary. Cambridge Companion to Foucault. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A comprehensive overview of Foucault’s essays and an extensive bibliography of his works.Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.Nehamas, Alexander. Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Nehamas focuses on the importance of Socrates to Foucault and produces an accessible evaluation of the idea of personhood as described by each.
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