Michel Foucault: Biography and Work

Michel Foucault is one of the most influential French philosophers and psychologists of the twentieth century worldwide. Come with us to know their life and work and how their thinking contributed, to some extent, to mobilize society.

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Michel Foucault has been considered one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. This philosopher, psychologist, social theorist and historian developed different ideas that marked the French culture. Although its contributions go beyond its borders and the boundaries between the various areas in which it stood out.

Very prolific, he achieved fame and world renown thanks to his research on numerous subjects such as psychiatry. They also emphasize their studies on human sexuality, the health system and even with respect to social institutions, with special emphasis on prisons. And is that this thinker, as well as activist, was a very restless and active in their research and studies. All this was reflected in his work and the intensity that characterized his life.

Foucault is a multidisciplinary author whose contributions continue to be very useful in very different fields.

Michel Foucault, first steps

Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on October 15, 1926. Being the son of a prestigious French surgeon, his family expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He grew up in a family and gave great value to studies, considering that knowledge was essential for the person. This environment would lead him to attend very important schools, although he was not always a great student. He obtained successes and recognitions in academics, but also accumulated failures.

Foucault studied at the prestigious École Normande Supérieure, a school in which the best humanities thinkers and specialists of France were trained. Although, for Michel Foucault, his passage by her was tragic, since it suffered depression and even diverse attempts of suicide. For this reason, he received psychiatric treatment as early as his youth.

Michel Foucault and psychology

As a result of his contact with psychiatry as a patient, his other great passion arose: psychology. His premature contact with this discipline led Foucault to study it within the academic field. He obtained his degree in Psychology, in addition to his training in Philosophy. His prestige was such that he remained as a teacher in the same center he had attended.

Although, shortly after, he obtained a position as professor of psychology at the well-known University of Lille. Later, he joined the Philosophy department of the Clermont-Ferrand University, with the aim of completing his doctorate. It was during this period that he wrote most of his works in psychiatry, psychology and mental health. Being those of sexuality, politics and social issues after this stage.

Subsequently, the famous student revolts of May 1968 left an important imprint on Michel Foucault, developing a great political activism and causing him to join the Philosophy Department of the Experimental University Paris VIII, a university that had been founded in those years.

Finally, he was elected member of the academic body of the College of France, a position of recognized prestige that allowed him to travel around the world teaching classes and lectures, which increased his participation in political life.

These were the years in which he was accused of changing his mind and ideas. Something that he defended and considered a normal fact when acquiring knowledge and experience. However, this led him to destroy much of his work and to prohibit the publication of the writings that remained. Finally, after a life of emotional swings and a great dedication to study and research, Michel Foucault died of complications arising from AIDS in 1984.

“Knowledge is the only space of freedom of being”.

-Michel Foucault-

Michel Foucault detected insufficiencies in the main currents that dealt with psychopathology, especially, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and evolutionism. Later, he based his theory on the global interpretation of mental illness, from two novel points of view up to now: the cultural and the social.

For Foucault, power comes from all areas of society and, as a consequence, he proposed to analyze the existing power relations in the social environment, according to his criteria. He considered that the role of thinkers was to contribute to society.

Foucault analyzed how the psychological subject was constructed from the three fundamental knowledge of man:

  • First, psychology and psychiatry.
  • Second, the exercises of power, both normalizing and institutional.
  • Finally, he highlighted the power of subjectivation, composed of examination, confession and moral blame.

The thinker went further in his research, contributing a historiographic component that was novel. That is, he decided to give an account of how certain issues had been treated throughout history and, in this way, he was able to verify and argue the changes that occur in the different periods. A diachronic view of a problem provides an objective view of the same fact in the present.

How has the madness been treated throughout history? And sexuality? What conclusions can we draw from it? All this was reflected in his works, among which are: History of madness in the classical era, Words and things, The archeology of knowledge, Monitor and punish, History of sexuality, The birth of the clinic, etc.

Michel Foucault has been considered one of the great thinkers of France in the last century. His thinking greatly influenced the philosophy and psychology of the twentieth century. In addition, today, many of his works are still being published and generating impact in society.