Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in the small provincial town of Poitiers, France. From a young age, he was expected to follow the medical path as both his father and grandfather were surgeons. They did everything they could to ensure that he receives the best education possible. Apart from that, there was another tradition on the paternal side of his family – to give all first-borns the name Paul. However, it was the mother who decided to name her son Paul Michel. Being hostile to the father because of his despotic nature, the young boy preferred to be called by his second name (Eribon, 1991). Therefore, in the official documents, the philosopher is filed as Paul, but the large audience knows him as Michel Foucault.
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As a child, Foucault studied at the Lyceum of Henry VI, and in 1940 he transferred to the College of St. Stanislaus. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1943, the young man began preparing for the entrance exams at the ENS. In his youth, he became interested in philosophy, discovering the works of Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and other thinkers. He received his secondary education during the years of the fascist occupation, and this had a significant impact on him as a person. The perception of reality was completely different from that of the modern world. The most radical ideas flourished, infiltrating the ethical and cultural foundations of society.
Upon entering university in 1946, Michel Foucault started a whole new life. Despite the post-war optimism and relief, all students were under enormous pressure. ENS was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in France, among whose graduates were many famous people, such as Canguilhem or Sartre. Therefore, it was necessary for the students to be strikingly different from others. From that point of view, Michel Foucault was remarkably successful as he was able to work incredibly hard and had a diverse variety of skills. His profound knowledge, unique sense of humor, and natural talent came unnoticed neither by his fellow students nor by the teachers.
These years of education were rather difficult for Foucault since, unfortunately, classmates began to avoid him as he was often misunderstood. At the same time, the young man started to comprehend his homosexual nature. As a result, this tension and alienation led to him trying to take his own life two years later in 1948 (Eribon, 1991). This was the event that first brought him to St. Anne’s psychiatric hospital. Nonetheless, there were those who tried to help this confused and insecure young man. One of them was Jacques Lacan Guesdorff, who conducted lectures on psychiatry for his students at the St. Anne’s hospital for practical training. Eventually, he and Michel Foucault became close friends for many years.
In 1948, Foucault received a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later, he graduated from the Paris Institute of Psychology and had degrees in philosophy, psychiatry, and psychopathology. During the early years of his career, the philosopher had spent much time working at the hospital of St. Anne. The work was monotonous and the hospital itself was rather indistinguishable from others operating during that time in France. The scientist also often times visited a local prison for medical examinations, as well as homes of his patients, studying their lifestyle and condition (Miller, 1993). Apart from that, there is not much information about this period of his life as he himself did not enjoy dwelling on it.
For five years, from 1951 to 1955, Michel Foucault taught at the ENS and he, as did his mentors before, also took students to St. Anne’s Hospital for excursions and lectures. As Foucault began to work on his book “The History of Madness”, he started learning German to read the works of Heidegger, Husserl, and Nietzsche (Gutting, 2005). He was drawing inspiration from all popular philosophical and political movements of the time, including Marxism and existentialism. While working in the shadow of Sartre who was a graduate of the same educational institution, Michel Foucault strived for perfection.
Years later, his attitude towards Marxism and existentialism has changed, yet the respect for Nietzsche’s work remained for life. His direct influence can be explicitly seen in the later works of Foucault. In them, the author introduces the concept of genealogy, which was based on the ideas of the German philosopher. However, Michel Foucault owes his brilliant creativity to Hegel, or rather, to his teacher Hippolytus, who was an ardent adherent of Hegelianism. It was he who inspired the future scientist to devote his thesis to the analysis of Hegel’s works.
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In his early works, the scientist made a considerable contribution to the development of the philosophical school of structuralism. Analyzing the phenomenon of space, Foucault introduced his definition of heterotopia, the borderline between utopia and dystopia. However, for some reason, he later abandoned this line of thought and concentrated on developing the idea of genealogy. Namely of significant interest to the scientist were questions of the relationship between power and crime. In the book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison,” Foucault described the evolution of prison institutions, showing how the realities of each era changed the perception of the execution within the society. The philosopher also considered the problems of gender relations from different points of view, analyzing the way power influences individual needs. Overall, he was interested in all sorts of power relations that are present within modern society: parent-child, teacher-student, doctor-patient, convict-supervisor. Nonetheless, the philosopher’s most intriguing discoveries are associated with verbal communication and linguistics. To summarize his ideas, one may capture three interrelated trends that define modern culture according to Michel Foucault.
The first tendency discovered by Foucault is the formation of a new language caused by a radical rejection of the unambiguous conjugation of linguistic reality with a certain and stable thesaurus of the cultural tradition. This provides linguistic phenomena with an extra-linguistic dimension, and an opportunity to claim the status of a “natural” condition of discourse (Foucalt, 2006). Modern culture can be expressed, according to Foucault, only by language that is not connected with any tradition and, most importantly, not bound by it.
This leads directly to the second trend in contemporary culture noted by Foucault: the trend he refers to as “attachment to the death of God.” According to Foucault, language expresses by no means the anthropological truth, it only confirms that mankind is left without God. The author introduced the idea of “Transgression” that opens “the experience of the impossible,” which is not bound and not limited by external and possible existence. From this point of view, language as a system sets certain limits of perception that eventually erase any possibility of limitless existence (Foucault, 1984). Thus, the world without God is the world that dissolves itself in the experience of the limit, creates itself again, and annihilates itself in an act of excess – in an act of transgression.
The third and, as Foucault believed, the most important trend of modern culture is the fact that the phenomenon of transgression expresses itself in the oppression of sexuality. In Foucault’s assessment, sexuality in modern culture can by no means be regarded as a “natural truth,” moreover, due to the power of discourses, it is being denaturalized. According to the scientist, for almost two centuries now, language has not been eroticized: on the contrary, sexuality has been absorbed by it (Foucalt, 1988). Today, the status of sexuality can be defined not via the concept of “freedom”, but precisely via the concept of “limit” – the limit of consciousness, the limit of the law, and the limit of language. Therefore, the existing power relations within society become an obstacle in terms of complete comprehension of human sexuality.
Over time, life in France became unbearable to Michel Foucault, so he decided to travel around the world. He lectured in Canada, the USA, Brazil, Japan, Tunisia, Sweden, Poland, and Austria-Hungary. During this period, he continued to actively work on the “History of Madness”. as Michel Foucault himself once noted, this time of his life is characterized by depression and confusion (Eribon, 1991). As he was struggling to accept his own aging, he decided to cut his hair regularly.
At the end of his life, the philosopher often visited the USA, California. Due to many reasons, such as his radical ideas and erratic behavior, he was rejected by European society. Moreover, he had to keep his homosexuality in secret as it was not welcomed on the continent during that time. However, in California, he felt happy as it was the only place where he could finally be himself. The society was much more tolerant to the emerging subculture of gay people, who actively struggled for their rights while publishing articles and organizing meetings. Perhaps it has played a part in Michel Foucault’s quick and unfortunate demise: in the summer of 1984, he died of the terminal stage of HIV infection.
There is no consensus about Michel Foucault’s belonging to one particular school of thought. In his research and work, the scientist was never limited by any framework of concepts and strict methodology. The study of insanity as a way of a person’s alienation from society convinced him that this problem hasn’t received enough attention from the academic community. It was his personal goal to make society finally recognize psychiatry and accept it as an independent discipline. To achieve this, he had thoroughly examined the aspect of the influence of madness on contemporary culture. He is universally recognized not only for his unique uncommon approaches and exceptional vision but also for his invaluable contribution to the development of psychiatry, psychology, and history. And despite the ambiguity of Michel Foucault’s ideas and concepts, he was and still remains one of the main philosophers of the 20th century, who introduced an entirely new direction of the philosophical discourse.
Eribon, D. (1991). Michel Foucault. (Wing, B. Trans.). Harvard University Press.
Foucault, M. (1984). Nietzsche, genealogy, history. The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. Edited by Paul Rabinow, 76–100. Pantheon.
Foucault, M. (1988). The history of sexuality. Vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge (Hurley. R. Trans.). Penguin.
Foucault, M. (2006). History of madness. Edited by Jean Khalfa. (Murphy, J. Trans.). Routledge.
Gutting, G. (2005). Foucault: A very short introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford University Press.
Miller, J. (1993). The passion of Michel Foucault. Simon & Schuster.