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Michel Foucault: biography and work of this French thinker

Michel Foucault: biography and work of this French thinker

February 8, 2024

Historian, psychologist, philosopher and social theorist. Michel Foucault was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century , whose ideas generated a great impact and exerted a great influence on the entire French cultural environment of the time.

He was recognized worldwide for his ideas about social institutions, especially prisons, the health system and psychiatry, as well as for his studies on human sexuality. Ideas that, along with his own biography and work, we will review throughout this article.

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Brief biography of Michel Foucault

Born on October 15, 1926 in the town of Poitiers, France and under the name of Paul-Michel Foucault, this prestigious French thinker grew up in a formal environment in which studies and knowledge were considered essential, since the Foucault's father, was a renowned French surgeon.


After an academic history full of ups and downs, Foucault managed to enter the famous École Normande Supérieure , recognized for being one of the cradles of the best specialists and thinkers of humanities of France.

His stay at the École Normande was one of his most difficult stages. After suffering a depression and several suicide attempts, Foucault was in the hands of a psychiatrist for a long time. During this period he acquired a great passion for psychology, which led him to graduate both in psychology and philosophy.

When finishing his university studies, Foucault got a teaching position at the École Normande . However, his stay in this position was brief assuming after him a position as professor of psychology at the University of Lille, also in France.


After several other jobs, Foucault returned to France with the intention of finishing his doctorate, during which he accepted a position in the philosophy department of the Clermont-Ferrand University.

Throughout this period of his life Foucault became a prolific writer, being the majority of his texts focused on psychology, psychiatry and mental health . While his later publications focused on issues related to politics, social issues and sexuality.

Overcoming structuralism and recent years

During the years in which he became interested in the structuralist current, Foucault was considered part of the current, being at the same level as some other great thinkers such as Jacques Lacan or Claude Lévi-Strauss. Despite this, Foucault completely rejected the idea of ​​being considered as a defender of structuralism .


In 1968, the famous student revolts of May broke out, events that deeply marked Foucault and after which he obtained a position as head of the philosophy department of the newly created experimental university Paris VIII. From here began his years of strong political activism.

Finally, this philosophical was chosen as part of the prestigious academic body of the College of France , increasing his participation in political life and traveling around the world to teach classes and lectures, including his famous lectures and interviews in the United States and Iran.

During his last years of life Foucault was criticized for having changed ideas and opinions continuously throughout his life, to what he defended as a natural phenomenon due to the experience and acquisition of knowledge.

Finally, Foucault died in 1984 because of AIDS , not without first destroying a large part of his manuscripts and strictly prohibiting the publication of all those who could have "survived.

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Power according to Foucault

Although in its beginnings Foucault focused on mainly psychological and mental health issues, as well as the institutions that control it, its most important and recognized contributions are found in the field of social sciences and politics.

Because he lived during a time of great changes and social upheaval, Foucault was very interested in the present to which he belonged. Performing exceptional reflections on the systems and power relations of the time.

First of all it is necessary to specify that when talking about power, Foucault it is not limited only to government power or institutions , if not it encompasses the power relations that occur in all areas of society, also known as social power.

This social power is conformed by a great plot of small spheres of power, located below the great powers such as the government or the church.According to Foucault, these sub-spheres of power are at different levels and lean on each other to manifest in a subtle and cunning manner.

However, according to the thinker, the main obstacle to carry out a revolution is the maintenance of power relations as they were at the time, calling to examine and analyze these power relations of a social nature .

In one of his publications known as The Microphysics of Power (1980), Foucault makes a review of these power relations through two different domain dynamics:

  • Contract : materializes in oppressive and legal power. Based on the legitimacy of this.
  • Domination : it is established in terms of repression and submission.

Foucault insists that conflict is not found only in governmental power, but also in all substructures with power relations within it that sustain it.

Following this idea, Foucault insists that the analysis of power relations should not start from the governmental power , but it is necessary to start with the smaller power subspheres that feed it and make it possible to maintain it.

Finally, Foucault determines that the main role of thinkers is within society, accompanying it in the struggle against the forms of power that exist within it.

Main works of this philosopher

As mentioned above, Foucault distinguished himself by being a prolific writer. Here we review some of his most relevant works.

1. History of madness in the classical period (1961)

First relevant work of Foucault, in it he analyzes and reviews the treatment that is given to the concept of madness throughout history, emphasizing the evolution of the treatment that is given to the patient .

2. Words and things (1966)

In this work of Foucault, the thinker makes a reflection about how all historical periods are distinguished by presenting a series of fundamental truth conditions that establish what is acceptable, and how these conditions they evolve and change over time .

3. The archeology of knowledge (1969)

Another of the most important works of the French thinker in which he performs an examination or analysis of the functionality and power of sentences as basic units of discourse.

4. Monitor and punish (1975)

Throughout this work, the analysis and reflection of the functioning of the penitentiary institutions is carried out, with the intention of understanding the evolution over the years experienced by the ways in which the convicts are punished.

5. History of sexuality (1976, 1984)

This Foucault work materializes in three different volumes in which the use of sexuality is reviewed with a regime of power, as well as the use of sexual pleasures throughout history.

When Foucault died in 1984, he was writing the fourth volume of these reflections, which focused on sexuality and Christianity.


PHILOSOPHY - Michel Foucault (February 2024).


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