Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926 - June 26, 1984) was a French philosopher and "historian of systems of thought". He had an enormous impact on many fields including literary criticism and theory, philosophy (especially the philosophy of science in the French-speaking world), history, psychoanalysis, the history of science (especially scientific medicine), and the sociology of knowledge, which he can be said to have transformed altogether.
He is considered a postmodernist and a poststructuralist (though some consider his earlier works, like The Order of Things, as structuralist - possibly reflecting a lack of distinction at the time). His structuralist or poststructuralist leanings have led others to question the basis of his political activism, a problem he shares with Noam Chomsky, George Lakoff and Jane Jacobs. His work grows out of that of French thinkers on the history of science. Foucault gathered historical evidence with remarkable fastidiousness, and included many minutiae to support his belief of the historical organization of power.
In his various books, Foucault concentrated on specific social institutions and how they constituted power and control. He also charted their changes in form and practice throughout history. Discipline and Punish dealt with the development of prisons, Madness and Civilization with treatment of the insane, The Birth of the Clinic on the rise of medicine and hospitals, and The Order of Things discussed the sciences. His death precluded the completion of his projected three-volume work The History of Sexuality.
One of his most popular works, Discipline and Punish, looks at the ways in which the overt control through fear used in pre-modern times (public executions and torture, for example) have generally given way to covert, psychological controls. Foucalt compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" design for prisons, in which a few guards can watch over many prisoners while themselves remaining unseen - this he terms "The Gaze". Foucault also remarks that since the birth of the prison system, prison has frequently been considered the only solution for criminal behavior.
The greatest part of Foucault's work investigates the relationship between power and knowledge - the sociology of knowledge. For Foucault, "truth" (that is, what functions as truth or is taken as truth in a given historical situation) is produced by the operations of power, and the soul or the human subject is simply a handle for the manipulation by power of bodies. For Foucault, power that is determined through systems of truth could be challenged by appeal to disqualified forms of discourse, knowledge, history, etc., through the privileging of body over abstract intellect, and through artistic self-creation. Foucault does not see power as formal, but as the various methods that ingrain themselves by way of social institutions and the positing of a form of truth.
Foucault was born in Poitiers, France on October 15, 1926, and died in Paris on June 26, 1984 from complications resulting from HIV/AIDS. It has been alleged that he knowingly infected multiple sexual partners with HIV without informing them beforehand.
Terms coined or largely redefined by Foucault, as translated into English:
- discourse (discours) - the medium by which ideas are exchanged; a field's discourse is a system of knowledge by which the veracity of statements related to that field can be determined
- episteme (épistémè)
- exemplar - used by Thomas Kuhn to replace paradigm, refined by Foucault
- mathesis - any universal science of measurement and order, i.e. modern mathematics, or any prior system of folk mathematics
- taxinomia (taxinomie) - a principle of classification and ordered tabulation, e.g. classification of animals into kingdomss or genera
- "The Gaze", carceral state and panopticon - similar ideas
- "Man" in the broad sense of humanity as both subject and object, i.e. humanism
- "repression" - the idea that power represses sexual discourse
- "queer" or homosexual defined as a species not an action
- "archaeology" as applied to the history of science and of medicine
Works by Foucault:
See also: postmodernism, sociology of knowledge, episteme, power (sociology)