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Since his death in 1984, Michel Foucault has become a foundational figure for work across the humanities. Foucault was highly educated in a variety of subjects and his work takes on an interdisciplinary character. But more than that, it is also deeply informed by his own political activism and by struggles and frustrations in his personal life.
Paul-Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, in western France, in 1926. His father, Paul-André Foucault, was a surgeon and the young Michel enjoyed a privileged bourgeois upbringing despite Germany's occupation of France through much of WWII. Foucault excelled at philosophy from a young age, which led him to openly defy his parents’ expectations that he would become a surgeon like his father. The rift between father and son would persist through the death of Paul-André and no doubt contributed to Foucault’s preference simply to be called “Michel.” Foucault began his university studies in 1946 at the École Normale Supérieure d’Ulm, which was then – and still is – the most prestigious French institution for education in the humanities. He graduated in 1951, having primarily studied philosophy but with qualifications in psychology as well.
During his student years, Foucault observed clinics at the Sainte Anne mental asylum in Paris. His position there – as neither doctor, nor patient – allowed Foucault to observe power relations that were not fully visible from the perspective of either of these institutionally sanctioned roles. Such marginal experiences came to hold a general philosophical interest for Foucault and can be seen in his analyses of madness and the rise of psychiatry as a discipline. Foucault’s interest in psychiatry was also fueled by his own acute depression and attempted suicide. Most biographers attribute this depression to the fact that Foucault’s homosexuality was still considered a social taboo in France at the time.
During his years at the École Normale, Foucault also joined the French Communist Party under the influence of his mentor, Louis Althusser. Foucault, however, left the party after only three years, disgusted by the anti-Semitism and homophobia of its members. This break with the communist party was both political and philosophical, as his own works focus on marginalized groups (prisoners, the mad, sexual minorities, etc.) that orthodox Marxists have typically ignored.
The years after the École Normale were marked by extensive travel. Foucault took up various academic posts in Sweden, Poland and Germany. He returned to France in 1960, living in Paris until 1966, at which point he took up a chair in philosophy at the University of Tunis, in Tunisia, where he remained until 1968.
Foucault initially moved to Sweden to escape restrictive French social norms, especially those surrounding homosexuality. He has described travel as a freeing experience, firstly, because “as foreigners we can ignore all those implicit obligations which are not in the law but in the general way of behaving. Secondly, merely changing your obligations is felt or experienced as a kind of freedom.” These years of travel had a profound influence on Foucault’s relationship to his own French culture and no doubt helped to establish a kind of marginal position – at once insider and outsider – similar to that he had occupied at Sainte Anne's.
In 1970, Foucault returned to France to lecture at the prestigious Collège de France, a position he would occupy until his death. France was by now irreversibly marked by the social upheaval of May 1968, in which students and workers protested, eventually shutting down the French economy through wide-spread strikes. After 1970, Foucault’s work took on a more explicitly political tone and he threw himself into activism. It was at this time that he became a founder of what was called the “Prison Information Group.” Originally designed to aid political prisoners, the group became a platform to give voice to all prisoners. He also organized many protests on behalf of homosexuals and other marginalized groups.
In the late 1970s, Foucault began to spend more time teaching in the United States, especially at the University of California, Berkeley; it is believed that this is where he contracted the HIV virus that would eventually contribute to his death. His activism continued as he became more seriously involved in journalism, even visiting Tehran in 1978, mere days after the Iranian Revolution's "Black Friday" massacre. In Iran, Foucault met with opposition leaders including Ayatollah Khomeini and discovered the depth of popular support for Islamism. Foucault expressed awe for this political movement and urged the West to adopt a stance of respect rather than mere hostility (a position for which he was widely criticized in the French press at the time and for which he continues to be criticized in the broader West today).
On June 25, 1984, Michel Foucault died from AIDS-related complications. At the time, little was known about the disease and Foucault was undeniably one of the most prominent figures to be associated with it at the time of his death. His partner, Daniel Defert, later founded the first national HIV/AIDS organization in France.
Written by Katharine M. McIntyre, Core Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University
"Michel Foucault," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
"Michel Foucault," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, edited by Sylvere Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 1989