Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France. His father was a doctor, and he had a standard provincial upbringing. He was educated at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) in Paris from 1946 to 1950, where he studied philosophy and psychology and was briefly a member of the French Communist Party (FCP). Foucault observed clinics at the Sainte Anne mental asylum whilst he was at the ENS. After graduating, Foucault taught psychology at Lille University. In 1955 he went to Sweden as the head of the French cultural delegation to Uppsala. He wrote much of his first major work, Madness and Civilization at the University of Uppsala. Foucault was transferred to Poland, then to Hamburg.

Madness and Civilization was presented as his doctoral thesis in 1960 and was published in 1961. Foucault became a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Clermont-Ferrand from 1960. This really represented the beginning of his career as a public intellectual. He joined the editorial board of the French critical journal, Tel Que. Other works followed: a study of the poet Raymond Roussel (1963), The birth of the clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), The Archeology of Knowledge (1969), Discipline and Punish (1975), and the four volumes of his History of Sexuality (volumes 1-3 published between 1976-1984; volume 4 published posthumously in 2018). Foucault taught in Tunisia and at the University of Vincennes before his appointment to a Professorship in the History of Systems of Thought at the highly prestigious College de France in 1970.

In addition to being an intellectual and philosopher Foucault was also a political activist. He was involved in a wide range of protests and campaigns: against the war in Algeria, against racism, against the Vietnam War, and for prison reform. For much of the 1970s his political work occupied him almost entirely. Openly gay since his student days, he lived with his long-term partner Daniel Defert. Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness in 1984.

Background on The History of Sexuality

The intellectual climate in France in the middle of the 20th century was dominated by the philosophy of structuralism. Structuralism has been applied to a diverse range of fields, from anthropology to philosophy to mathematics. Structuralism claims that meaning doesn't rest in the individual units of a given system (e.g., words in a linguistic system) but in the relationships between these units. We come to understand the world not by understanding the individual things that make it up, but by understanding the relationships between these things.

Structuralist thought influenced Foucault's early career. He developed an approach to intellectual history that he called the "archaeology of knowledge." This approach dismissed the importance of individual thinkers or motives, emphasizing instead the inescapable mind-sets that characterize different ages.

In his later career, during which he wrote The History of Sexuality, Foucault complemented this archaeological approach with a genealogical approach that he borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche argues that the concepts we use are rarely fixed, but that they evolve to suit the changing needs of different ages. Nietzsche shows how our concepts of "good" and "evil" have changed over time. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault makes the same argument about our concept of "sexuality." By arguing that our concepts and self-image are fluid and contingent on quirks of history, Foucault adopts a position that has been termed "post-structuralist."

To a large extent, The History of Sexuality attempts to refute what Foucault calls the "repressive hypothesis"—the claim that sex has been consistently repressed, and that we can only achieve political liberation by means of sexual liberation.

The History of Sexuality was also considered a foundational text for what was at the time the relatively new field of queer theory. Queer theory studies the intersection between politics, gender, and sexuality. Its main goal is to refute the idea our identities are somehow fixed or determined by our gender or sexual preference.


Popular pages: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1