The Life and Philosophy of Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

By Jacob Burgess


Michel Foucault was a French philosopher in the 20th century who was primarily interested in how history could be used to create a better society in the modern world. He dedicated his career to examining and criticizing the modern capitalist state, seeking an understanding of power so he could move it in the direction of a Marxist/Anarchist utopia. Foucault was enormously popular within Parisian intellectual circles, and he was a committed revolutionary character. He organized protests, gave speeches at political rallies and, on occasion, was involved in clashes with the police. Foucault remained politically left-leaning throughout his life, but his particular stance within the left was constantly changing. He grew disenchanted with the French Communist Party after 3 years of membership, disgusted by the rampant anti-Semitism and homophobia within its ranks. Michel Foucault’s biggest intellectual contribution was to the philosophy of history. He insisted that a new approach should be taken to how we understand and teach history; events and ideas of the past shouldn’t be studied for their own sake–they should rather be used to create a better world in the present and in the future.


Foucault’s upbringing, something he was fiercely reluctant to discuss, was extremely privileged. He descended from a long line of successful surgeons, so he and his brother were expected to follow the family tradition and become doctors themselves. Foucault attended many elite upper-class institutions where he excelled in languages and history but did poorly in mathematics and arithmetic. In 1946, Foucault was admitted to the elite École Normale Supérieure where he studied a variety of subjects, becoming particularly interested in philosophy. He began reading voraciously, spending most of his time alone in his dormitory. His colleagues, who were disturbed by his interest in violence and the macabre, largely disliked him. Foucault decorated his room with images of torture by the famous Napoleonic painter Francisco Goya and became fascinated with the idea of self-mutilation and suicide. After a failed suicide attempt in 1948, Foucault’s father forced him to see the famous psychiatrist Jean Delay at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in France. The doctor suggested that Foucault’s distress arose from his having to keep his homosexuality and his interest in extreme sadomasochism a secret from the repressive Parisian society he grew up in. Foucault then became involved in the underground Parisian gay scene and began experimenting with drugs and, eventually, he decided to travel Europe in search of a place where he could freely express his sexuality.


In the summer of 1953, while on holiday in Italy with his lover, Foucault came across Nietzsche’s book Untimely Meditations. The book contains an essay called “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life”, in which Nietzsche argues that rather than learning about history for its own sake, we should look through history to find ideas, concepts, and examples that can help us to create a better world in our own times. Foucault was deeply affected by the essay, and after reading it he decided to become a certain type of philosophical historian. He wanted to learn how to look back into the past to find possible solutions to the many problems of his time. Shortly after his discovery of Nietzsche’s essay, he began working on what many consider to be his first masterpiece: Madness and Civilization.


Madness and Civilization (1961)


In this book, Foucault argues against the commonly accepted idea that people with mental illnesses are taken far better care of than they were in the past. Foucault examines the history of the concept of madness and traces its evolution back to three distinct phases: The Renaissance, the 17th and 18th centuries, and the modern experience. Foucault asserts that, in the Renaissance, life was much better for the mentally ill than it subsequently became. The mad weren’t considered to be “sick,” but instead, they were just seen as “different.” They were allowed to wander freely alongside the sane and were even revered in some circles for the fact that they demonstrated the limits of reason. In the mid-17th century, Foucault observes that a new understanding of the mentally ill had emerged–one that medicalized and institutionalized the insane. Seen as people who are ill rather than different, the mad were taken from their families, locked up in asylums, and used as test subjects for the newly emerging medical treatments for mental illnesses. Foucault uses the same method to examine medicine more broadly in his next book: The Birth of the Clinic.


The Birth of the Clinic (1963)      


In his next book, Foucault attacks the idea that medicine has become more humane over time. He acknowledges that medical treatments have become more effective but also draws attention to the change of attitude between doctor and patient. Foucault believed that the 18th century gave rise to the “professional doctor.” These doctors tended to look at their patients with what Foucault called “The Medical Gaze,” seeing them as sacks of malfunctioning organs rather than fellow people. This attitude, Foucault argues, dehumanizes the patients and removes the sense of compassion that should be present when a doctor treats a sick patient.


Discipline and Punish (1975)


In this work, Foucault turns his attention to the modern justice system. Once again, he claims that some aspects of our penal system are actually far worse than they were in the past. While the modern justice system may seem to be fairer and more humane than when the state used to publicly execute criminals, Foucault argues that our justice system simply has the illusion of being fairer and more humane. He points out how, in the past, the condemned person would often become an object of sympathy, and the crowd would sometimes even riot in support of the prisoner. This was possible because the justice system was more transparent and gave the citizens more power to revolt if they disagreed with the decision of the state. In the modern justice system, on the other hand, everything happens more or less in secret and out of the view of the public. It is far more difficult for citizens to change the mind of the state because all of the decisions and punishments happen behind closed doors. This is why Foucault saw our modern penal system as sickeningly barbaric.


History of Sexuality (1976-84)


Foucault’s last work was a multi-volume book in which he argues that our modern understanding of sexuality is actually far more repressive than it has been in the past. While we may think that we have a fairly liberal understanding of sex, Foucault argues that sex has become relentlessly medicalized. He called the age we live in “Scientia Sexualis” (Science of Sexuality). He looked back to the cultures of Rome, China, and Japan, and detected what he called “Ars Erotica” (Erotic Art). These cultures were interested in how they could increase the pleasures of sex rather than simply understand and label it in the way our modern culture tends to do. He finished the last volume of this work in 1984 in the hospital while dying of AIDS at the age of 58.


Michel Foucault encourages us to see past the optimistic smugness about the present and suggests that we should reconsider the past in order to find ways of thinking and doing things that might, perhaps, be more effective than how they are now. Many academic historians tend to dislike Foucault’s work as he wasn’t particularly concerned with total historical accuracy; he saw history as a gigantic warehouse of ideas, some good and some bad. Rather than simply believing that the way things are now must always be an improvement on the way they were in the past, we should sift through history’s ideas in search of the ones we can still use to create a better world in the present.    

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