Foucault's theories primarily addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Though often cited as a post-structuralist and postmodernist, Foucault rejected these labels, preferring to present his thought as a critical history of modernity. His thought has influenced academics, especially those working in sociology, cultural studies, literary theory and critical theory. Activist groups have also found his theories compelling.
Born in Poitiers, France, into an upper-middle-class family, Foucault was educated at the Lycée Henri-IV, at the École Normale Supérieure, where he developed an interest in philosophy and came under the influence of his tutors Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser, and at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), where he earned degrees in philosophy and psychology. After several years as a cultural diplomat abroad, he returned to France and published his first major book, The History of Madness. After obtaining work between 1960 and 1966 at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, he produced The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things, publications which displayed his increasing involvement with structuralism, from which he later distanced himself. These first three histories exemplified a historiographical technique Foucault was developing called "archaeology".
From 1966 to 1968, Foucault lectured at the University of Tunis before returning to France, where he became head of the philosophy department at the new experimental university of Paris VIII. In 1970 he was admitted to the Collège de France, a membership he retained until his death. He also became active in a number of left-wing groups involved in anti-racist campaigns, anti-human rights abuses, and penal reform. He later published The Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality. In these books he developed archaeological and genealogical methods which emphasized the role that power plays in society. Foucault died in Paris of neurological problems compounded by HIV/AIDS; he became the first public figure in France to die from the disease. His partner Daniel Defert founded the AIDES charity in his memory.
Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15 October 1926 in the city of Poitiers, west-central France, as the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. Family tradition prescribed naming him after his father, Dr. Paul Foucault, but his mother insisted on the addition of "Michel"; referred to as "Paul" at school, he expressed a preference for "Michel" throughout his life.
His father (1893–1959), a successful local surgeon born in Fontainebleau, moved to Poitiers, where he set up his own practice and married local woman Anne Malapert. She was the daughter of prosperous surgeon Dr. Prosper Malapert, who owned a private practice and taught anatomy at the University of Poitiers' School of Medicine. Paul Foucault eventually took over his father-in-law's medical practice, while his wife took charge of their large mid-19th-century house, Le Piroir, in the village of Vendeuvre-du-Poitou. Together the couple had three children – a girl named Francine and two boys, Paul-Michel and Denys – who all shared the same fair hair and bright blue eyes. The children were raised to be nominal Roman Catholics, attending mass at the Church of Saint-Porchair, and while Michel briefly became an altar boy, none of the family were devout.
In later life, Foucault would reveal very little about his childhood. Describing himself as a "juvenile delinquent", he claimed his father was a "bully" who would sternly punish him. In 1930 Foucault began his schooling, two years early, at the local Lycée Henry-IV. Here he undertook two years of elementary education before entering the main lycée, where he stayed until 1936. He then undertook his first four years of secondary education at the same establishment, excelling in French, Greek, Latin and history but doing poorly at arithmetic and mathematics. In 1939 the Second World War broke out and in 1940 Nazi Germany occupied France; Foucault's parents opposed the occupation and the Vichy regime, but did not join the Resistance. In 1940 Foucault's mother enrolled him in the Collège Saint-Stanislas, a strict Roman Catholic institution run by the Jesuits. Lonely, he described his years there as an "ordeal", but he excelled academically, particularly in philosophy, history and literature. In 1942 he entered his final year, the terminale, where he focused on the study of philosophy, earning his baccalauréat in 1943.
Returning to the local Lycée Henry-IV, he studied history and philosophy for a year, aided by a personal tutor, the philosopher Louis Girard. Rejecting his father's wishes that he become a surgeon, in 1945 Foucault went to Paris, where he enrolled in one of the country's most prestigious secondary schools, which was also known as the Lycée Henri-IV. Here he studied under the philosopher Jean Hyppolite, an existentialist and expert on the work of 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hyppolite had devoted himself to uniting existentialist theories with the dialectical theories of Hegel and Karl Marx. These ideas influenced Foucault, who adopted Hyppolite's conviction that philosophy must develop through a study of history.
Attaining excellent results, in autumn 1946 Foucault was admitted to the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS); to gain entry, he undertook exams and an oral interrogation by Georges Canguilhem and Pierre-Maxime Schuhl. Of the hundred students entering the ENS, Foucault was ranked fourth based on his entry results, and encountered the highly competitive nature of the institution. Like most of his classmates, he was housed in the school's communal dormitories on the Parisian Rue d'Ulm. He remained largely unpopular, spending much time alone, reading voraciously. His fellow students noted his love of violence and the macabre; he decorated his bedroom with images of torture and war drawn during the Napoleonic Wars by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and on one occasion chased a classmate with a dagger. Prone to self-harm, in 1948 Foucault allegedly undertook a failed suicide attempt, for which his father sent him to see the psychiatrist Jean Delay at the Sainte-Anne Hospital (Centre hospitalier Sainte-Anne). Obsessed with the idea of self-mutilation and suicide, Foucault attempted the latter several times in ensuing years, praising suicide in later writings. The ENS's doctor examined Foucault's state of mind, suggesting that his suicidal tendencies emerged from the distress surrounding his homosexuality, because same-sex sexual activity was socially taboo in France. At the time, Foucault engaged in homosexual activity with men whom he encountered in the underground Parisian gay scene, also indulging in drug use; according to biographer James Miller, he enjoyed the thrill and sense of danger that these activities offered him.
Although studying various subjects, Foucault's particular interest was soon drawn to philosophy, reading not only Hegel and Marx but also Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl and most significantly, Martin Heidegger. He began reading the publications of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, taking a particular interest in his work exploring the history of science. He graduated from the ENS with a DES (diplôme d'études supérieures, roughly equivalent to an MA) in Philosophy in 1949. His DES thesis under the direction of Hyppolite was titled La Constitution d'un transcendental dans La Phénoménologie de l'esprit de Hegel (The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit).
In 1948, the philosopher Louis Althusser became a tutor at the ENS. A Marxist, he proved to be an influence both on Foucault and a number of other students, encouraging them to join the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF). Foucault did so in 1950, but never became particularly active in its activities, and never adopted an orthodox Marxist viewpoint, refuting core Marxist tenets such as class struggle. He soon became dissatisfied with the bigotry that he experienced within the party's ranks; he personally faced homophobia and was appalled by the anti-semitism exhibited during the Doctors' plot in the Soviet Union. He left the Communist Party in 1953, but remained Althusser's friend and defender for the rest of his life. Although failing at the first attempt in 1950, he passed his agrégation in philosophy on the second try, in 1951. Excused from national service on medical grounds, he decided to start a doctorate at the Fondation Thiers in 1951, focusing on the philosophy of psychology, but he relinquished it after only one year in 1952.
Foucault was also interested in psychology and he attended Daniel Lagache's lectures at the University of Paris, where he obtained a BA (licence) in Psychology in 1949 and a Diploma in Psychopathology (Diplôme de psychopathologie) from the University's Institute of Psychology (now Institut de psychologie de l'université Paris Descartes) in June 1952.
Over the following few years, Foucault embarked on a variety of research and teaching jobs. From 1951 to 1955, he worked as a psychology instructor at the ENS at Althusser's invitation. In Paris, he shared a flat with his brother, who was training to become a surgeon, but for three days in the week commuted to the northern town of Lille, teaching psychology at the Université de Lille from 1953 to 1954. Many of his students liked his lecturing style. Meanwhile, he continued working on his thesis, visiting the Bibliothèque Nationale every day to read the work of psychologists like Ivan Pavlov, Jean Piaget and Karl Jaspers. Undertaking research at the psychiatric institute of the Sainte-Anne Hospital, he became an unofficial intern, studying the relationship between doctor and patient and aiding experiments in the electroencephalographic laboratory. Foucault adopted many of the theories of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, undertaking psychoanalytical interpretation of his dreams and making friends undergo Rorschach tests.
Embracing the Parisian avant-garde, Foucault entered into a romantic relationship with the serialist composer Jean Barraqué. Together, they tried to produce their greatest work, heavily used recreational drugs and engaged in sado-masochistic sexual activity. In August 1953, Foucault and Barraqué holidayed in Italy, where the philosopher immersed himself in Untimely Meditations (1873–76), a set of four essays by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Later describing Nietzsche's work as "a revelation", he felt that reading the book deeply affected him, being a watershed moment in his life. Foucault subsequently experienced another groundbreaking self-revelation when watching a Parisian performance of Samuel Beckett's new play, Waiting for Godot, in 1953.
Interested in literature, Foucault was an avid reader of the philosopher Maurice Blanchot's book reviews published in Nouvelle Revue Française. Enamoured of Blanchot's literary style and critical theories, in later works he adopted Blanchot's technique of "interviewing" himself. Foucault also came across Hermann Broch's 1945 novel The Death of Virgil, a work that obsessed both him and Barraqué. While the latter attempted to convert the work into an epic opera, Foucault admired Broch's text for its portrayal of death as an affirmation of life. The couple took a mutual interest in the work of such authors as the Marquis de Sade, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka and Jean Genet, all of whose works explored the themes of sex and violence.
Interested in the work of Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger, Foucault aided family friend Jacqueline Verdeaux in translating his works into French. Foucault was particularly interested in Binswanger's studies of Ellen West who, like himself, had a deep obsession with suicide, eventually killing herself. In 1954, Foucault authored an introduction to Binswanger's paper "Dream and Existence", in which he argued that dreams constituted "the birth of the world" or "the heart laid bare", expressing the mind's deepest desires. That same year, Foucault published his first book, Mental Illness and Personality (Maladie mentale et personalité), in which he exhibited his influence from both Marxist and Heideggerian thought, covering a wide range of subject matter from the reflex psychology of Pavlov to the classic psychoanalysis of Freud. Referencing the work of sociologists and anthropologists such as Émile Durkheim and Margaret Mead, he presented his theory that illness was culturally relative. Biographer James Miller noted that while the book exhibited "erudition and evident intelligence", it lacked the "kind of fire and flair" which Foucault exhibited in subsequent works. It was largely critically ignored, receiving only one review at the time. Foucault grew to despise it, unsuccessfully attempting to prevent its republication and translation into English.
Foucault spent the next five years abroad, first in Sweden, working as cultural diplomat at the University of Uppsala, a job obtained through his acquaintance with historian of religion Georges Dumézil. At Uppsala he was appointed a Reader in French language and literature, while simultaneously working as director of the Maison de France, thus opening the possibility of a cultural-diplomatic career. Although finding it difficult to adjust to the "Nordic gloom" and long winters, he developed close friendships with two Frenchmen, biochemist Jean-François Miquel and physicist Jacques Papet-Lépine, and entered into romantic and sexual relationships with various men. In Uppsala, he became known for his heavy alcohol consumption and reckless driving in his new Jaguar car. In spring 1956, Barraqué broke from his relationship with Foucault, announcing that he wanted to leave the "vertigo of madness". In Uppsala, Foucault spent much of his spare time in the university's Carolina Rediviva library, making use of their Bibliotheca Walleriana collection of texts on the history of medicine for his ongoing research. Finishing his doctoral thesis, Foucault hoped it would be accepted by Uppsala University, but Sten Lindroth, a positivistic historian of science there, was unimpressed, asserting that it was full of speculative generalisations and was a poor work of history; he refused to allow Foucault to be awarded a doctorate at Uppsala. In part because of this rejection, Foucault left Sweden. Later, Foucault admitted that the work was a first draft with certain lack of quality.
Again at Dumézil's recognition, in October 1958 Foucault arrived in the Polish city of Warsaw, placed in charge of the University of Warsaw's Centre Français. Foucault found life in Poland difficult due to the lack of material goods and services following the destruction of the Second World War. Witnessing the aftermath of the Polish October in which students had protested against the governing communist Polish United Workers' Party, he felt that most Poles despised their government as a puppet regime of the Soviet Union, and thought that the system ran "badly". Considering the university a liberal enclave, he traveled the country giving lectures; proving popular, he adopted the position of de facto cultural attaché. As in France and Sweden, homosexual activity was legal but socially frowned upon in Poland, and he undertook relationships with a number of men; one was a Polish security agent who hoped to trap Foucault in an embarrassing situation, which would therefore reflect badly on the French embassy. Wracked in diplomatic scandal, he was ordered to leave Poland for a new destination. Various positions were available in West Germany, and so Foucault relocated to the Institut français Hamburg (where he was director in 1958–60), teaching the same courses he had given in Uppsala and Warsaw. Spending much time in the Reeperbahn red light district, he entered into a relationship with a transvestite.
In West Germany, Foucault completed in 1960 his primary thesis (thèse principale) for his State doctorate, entitled Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age), a philosophical work based upon his studies into the history of medicine. The book discussed how West European society had dealt with madness, arguing that it was a social construct distinct from mental illness. Foucault traces the evolution of the concept of madness through three phases: the Renaissance, the later 17th and 18th centuries, and the modern experience. The work alludes to the work of French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, who exerted a strong influence over Foucault's thought at the time.
Histoire de la folie was an expansive work, consisting of 943 pages of text, followed by appendices and a bibliography. Foucault submitted it at the University of Paris, although the university's regulations for awarding a State doctorate required the submission of both his main thesis and a shorter complementary thesis. Obtaining a doctorate in France at the period was a multi-step process. The first step was to obtain a rapporteur, or "sponsor" for the work: Foucault chose Georges Canguilhem. The second was to find a publisher, and as a result Folie et déraison would be published in French in May 1961 by the company Plon, whom Foucault chose over Presses Universitaires de France after being rejected by Gallimard. In 1964, a heavily abridged version was published as a mass market paperback, then translated into English for publication the following year as Madness and Civilization.
Folie et déraison received a mixed reception in France and in foreign journals focusing on French affairs. Although it was critically acclaimed by Maurice Blanchot, Michel Serres, Roland Barthes, Gaston Bachelard, and Fernand Braudel, it was largely ignored by the leftist press, much to Foucault's disappointment. It was notably criticised for advocating metaphysics by young philosopher Jacques Derrida in a March 1963 lecture at the University of Paris. Responding with a vicious retort, Foucault criticised Derrida's interpretation of René Descartes. The two remained bitter rivals until reconciling in 1981. In the English-speaking world, the work became a significant influence on the anti-psychiatry movement during the 1960s; Foucault took a mixed approach to this, associating with a number of anti-psychiatrists but arguing that most of them misunderstood his work.
Foucault's secondary thesis (his thèse complémentaire written in Hamburg between 1959 and 1960) was a translation and commentary on German philosopher Immanuel Kant's 1798 work Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (the title of his thesis was "Introduction à l'Anthropologie", "Introduction to Kant's Anthropology"). Largely consisting of Foucault's discussion of textual dating—an "archaeology of the Kantian text"—he rounded off the thesis with an evocation of Nietzsche, his biggest philosophical influence. This work's rapporteur was his old tutor and then director of the ENS, Hyppolite, who was well acquainted with German philosophy. After both theses were championed and reviewed, he underwent his public defense, the soutenance de thèse, on 20 May 1961. The academics responsible for reviewing his work were concerned about the unconventional nature of his major thesis; reviewer Henri Gouhier noted that it was not a conventional work of history, making sweeping generalisations without sufficient particular argument, and that Foucault clearly "thinks in allegories". They all agreed however that the overall project was of merit, awarding Foucault his doctorate "despite reservations".
In October 1960, Foucault took a tenured post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, commuting to the city every week from Paris, where he lived in a high-rise block on the rue du Dr Finlay. Responsible for teaching psychology, which was subsumed within the philosophy department, he was considered a "fascinating" but "rather traditional" teacher at Clermont. The department was run by Jules Vuillemin, who soon developed a friendship with Foucault. Foucault then took Vuillemin's job when the latter was elected to the Collège de France in 1962. In this position, Foucault took a dislike to another staff member whom he considered stupid: Roger Garaudy, a senior figure in the Communist Party. Foucault made life at the university difficult for Garaudy, leading the latter to transfer to Poitiers. Foucault also caused controversy by securing a university job for his lover, the philosopher Daniel Defert, with whom he retained a non-monogamous relationship for the rest of his life.
Foucault maintained a keen interest in literature, publishing reviews in amongst others the literary journals Tel Quel and Nouvelle Revue Française, and sitting on the editorial board of Critique. In May 1963, he published a book devoted to poet, novelist, and playwright Raymond Roussel. It was written in under two months, published by Gallimard, and would be described by biographer David Macey as "a very personal book" that resulted from a "love affair" with Roussel's work. It would be published in English in 1983 as Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. Receiving few reviews, it was largely ignored. That same year he published a sequel to Folie et déraison, entitled Naissance de la Clinique, subsequently translated as The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Shorter than its predecessor, it focused on the changes that the medical establishment underwent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Like his preceding work, Naissance de la Clinique was largely critically ignored, but later gained a cult following. Foucault was also selected to be among the "Eighteen Man Commission" that assembled between November 1963 and March 1964 to discuss university reforms that were to be implemented by Christian Fouchet, the Gaullist Minister of National Education. Implemented in 1967, they brought staff strikes and student protests.
In April 1966, Gallimard published Foucault's Les Mots et les choses ("Words and Things"), later translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Exploring how man came to be an object of knowledge, it argued that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, from one period's episteme to another. Although designed for a specialist audience, the work gained media attention, becoming a surprise bestseller in France. Appearing at the height of interest in structuralism, Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes, as the latest wave of thinkers set to topple the existentialism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre. Although initially accepting this description, Foucault soon vehemently rejected it. Foucault and Sartre regularly criticised one another in the press. Both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir attacked Foucault's ideas as "bourgeois", while Foucault retaliated against their Marxist beliefs by proclaiming that "Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else."
In September 1966, Foucault took a position teaching psychology at the University of Tunis in Tunisia. His decision to do so was largely because his lover, Defert, had been posted to the country as part of his national service. Foucault moved a few kilometres from Tunis, to the village of Sidi Bou Saïd, where fellow academic Gérard Deledalle lived with his wife. Soon after his arrival, Foucault announced that Tunisia was "blessed by history", a nation which "deserves to live forever because it was where Hannibal and St. Augustine lived." His lectures at the university proved very popular, and were well attended. Although many young students were enthusiastic about his teaching, they were critical of what they believed to be his right-wing political views, viewing him as a "representative of Gaullist technocracy", even though he considered himself a leftist.
Foucault was in Tunis during the anti-government and pro-Palestinian riots that rocked the city in June 1967, and which continued for a year. Although highly critical of the violent, ultra-nationalistic and anti-semitic nature of many protesters, he used his status to try to prevent some of his militant leftist students from being arrested and tortured for their role in the agitation. He hid their printing press in his garden, and tried to testify on their behalf at their trials, but was prevented when the trials became closed-door events. While in Tunis, Foucault continued to write. Inspired by a correspondence with the surrealist artist René Magritte, Foucault started to write a book about the impressionist artist Eduard Manet, but never completed it.
In 1968, Foucault returned to Paris, moving into an apartment on the Rue de Vaugirard. After the May 1968 student protests, Minister of Education Edgar Faure responded by founding new universities with greater autonomy. Most prominent of these was the Centre Expérimental de Vincennes in Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. A group of prominent academics were asked to select teachers to run the Centre's departments, and Canguilheim recommended Foucault as head of the Philosophy Department. Becoming a tenured professor of Vincennes, Foucault's desire was to obtain "the best in French philosophy today" for his department, employing Michel Serres, Judith Miller, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, François Regnault, Henri Weber, Étienne Balibar, and François Châtelet; most of them were Marxists or ultra-left activists.
Lectures began at the university in January 1969, and straight away its students and staff, including Foucault, were involved in occupations and clashes with police, resulting in arrests. In February, Foucault gave a speech denouncing police provocation to protesters at the Latin Quarter of the Mutualité. Such actions marked Foucault's embrace of the ultra-left, undoubtedly influenced by Defert, who had gained a job at Vincennes' sociology department and who had become a Maoist. Most of the courses at Foucault's philosophy department were Marxist-Leninist oriented, although Foucault himself gave courses on Nietzsche, "The end of Metaphysics", and "The Discourse of Sexuality", which were highly popular and over-subscribed. While the right-wing press was heavily critical of this new institution, new Minister of Education Olivier Guichard was angered by its ideological bent and the lack of exams, with students being awarded degrees in a haphazard manner. He refused national accreditation of the department's degrees, resulting in a public rebuttal from Foucault.
Foucault desired to leave Vincennes and become a fellow of the prestigious Collège de France. He requested to join, taking up a chair in what he called the "history of systems of thought," and his request was championed by members Dumézil, Hyppolite, and Vuillemin. In November 1969, when an opening became available, Foucault was elected to the Collège, though with opposition by a large minority. He gave his inaugural lecture in December 1970, which was subsequently published as L'Ordre du discours (The Discourse of Language). He was obliged to give 12 weekly lectures a year—and did so for the rest of his life—covering the topics that he was researching at the time; these became "one of the events of Parisian intellectual life" and were repeatedly packed out events. On Mondays, he also gave seminars to a group of students; many of them became a "Foulcauldian tribe" who worked with him on his research. He enjoyed this teamwork and collective research, and together they would publish a number of short books. Working at the Collège allowed him to travel widely, giving lectures in Brazil, Japan, Canada, and the United States over the next 14 years. In 1970 and 1972, Foucault served as a professor in the French Department of the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York.
In May 1971, Foucault co-founded the Group d'Information sur les Prisons (GIP) along with historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet and journalist Jean-Marie Domenach. The GIP aimed to investigate and expose poor conditions in prisons and give prisoners and ex-prisoners a voice in French society. It was highly critical of the penal system, believing that it converted petty criminals into hardened delinquents. The GIP gave press conferences and staged protests surrounding the events of the Toul prison riot in December 1971, alongside other prison riots that it sparked off; in doing so it faced police crack down and repeated arrest. The group became active across France, with 2,000 to 3,000, members, but disbanded before 1974. Also campaigning against the death penalty, Foucault co-authored a short book on the case of the executed murderer Pierre Rivière. After his research into the penal system, Foucault published Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Discipline and Punish) in 1975, offering a history of the system in western Europe. In it, Foucault examines the penal evolution away from corporal and capital punishment to the penitentiary system that began in Europe and the United States around the end of the 18th century. Biographer Didier Eribon described it as "perhaps the finest" of Foucault's works, and it was well received.
Foucault was also active in anti-racist campaigns; in November 1971, he was a leading figure in protests following the perceived racist killing of Arab migrant Dejellali Ben Ali. In this he worked alongside his old rival Sartre, the journalist Claude Mauriac, and one of his literary heroes, Jean Genet. This campaign was formalised as the Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Immigrants, but there was tension at their meetings as Foucault opposed the anti-Israeli sentiment of many Arab workers and Maoist activists. At a December 1972 protest against the police killing of Algerian worker Mohammad Diab, both Foucault and Genet were arrested, resulting in widespread publicity. Foucault was also involved in founding the Agence de Press-Libération (APL), a group of leftist journalists who intended to cover news stories neglected by the mainstream press. In 1973, they established the daily newspaper Libération, and Foucault suggested that they establish committees across France to collect news and distribute the paper, and advocated a column known as the "Chronicle of the Workers' Memory" to allow workers' to express their opinions. Foucault wanted an active journalistic role in the paper, but this proved untenable, and he soon became disillusioned with Libération, believing that it distorted the facts; he would not publish in it until 1980.
In 1976, Gallimard published Foucault's Histoire de la sexualité: la volonté de savoir (The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge), a short book exploring what Foucault called the "repressive hypothesis". It revolved largely around the concept of power, rejecting both Marxist and Freudian theory. Foucault intended it as the first in a seven-volume exploration of the subject. Histoire de la sexualité was a best-seller in France and gained positive press, but lukewarm intellectual interest, something that upset Foucault, who felt that many misunderstood his hypothesis. He soon became dissatisfied with Gallimard after being offended by senior staff member Pierre Nora. Along with Paul Veyne and François Wahl, Foucault launched a new series of academic books, known as Des travaux (Some Works), through the company Seuil, which he hoped would improve the state of academic research in France. He also produced introductions for the memoirs of Herculine Barbin and My Secret Life.
Foucault remained a political activist, focusing on protesting government abuses of human rights around the world. He was a key player in the 1975 protests against the Spanish government to execute 11 militants sentenced to death without fair trial. It was his idea to travel to Madrid with 6 others to give their press conference there; they were subsequently arrested and deported back to Paris. In 1977, he protested the extradition of Klaus Croissant to West Germany, and his rib was fractured during clashes with riot police. In July that year, he organised an assembly of Eastern Bloc dissidents to mark the visit of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to Paris. In 1979, he campaigned for Vietnamese political dissidents to be granted asylum in France.
In 1977, Italian newspaper Corriere della sera asked Foucault to write a column for them. In doing so, in 1978 he travelled to Tehran in Iran, days after the Black Friday massacre. Documenting the developing Iranian Revolution, he met with opposition leaders such as Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari and Mehdi Bazargan, and discovered the popular support for Islamism. Returning to France, he was one of the journalists who visited the Ayatollah Khomeini, before visiting Tehran. His articles expressed awe of Khomeini's Islamist movement, for which he was widely criticised in the French press, including by Iranian expatriates. Foucault's response was that Islamism was to become a major political force in the region, and that the West must treat it with respect rather than hostility. In April 1978, Foucault traveled to Japan, where he studied Zen Buddhism under Omori Sogen at the Seionji temple in Uenohara.
Although remaining critical of power relations, Foucault expressed cautious support for the Socialist Party government of François Mitterrand following its electoral victory in 1981. But his support soon deteriorated when that party refused to condemn the Polish government's crackdown on the 1982 demonstrations in Poland orchestrated by the Solidarity trade union. He and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu authored a document condemning Mitterrand's inaction that was published in Libération, and they also took part in large public protests on the issue. Foucault continued to support Solidarity, and with his friend Simone Signoret traveled to Poland as part of a Médecins du Monde expedition, taking time out to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp. He continued his academic research, and in June 1984 Gallimard published the second and third volumes of Histoire de la sexualité. Volume two, L'Usage des plaisirs, dealt with the "techniques of self" prescribed by ancient Greek pagan morality in relation to sexual ethics, while volume three, Le Souci de soi, explored the same theme in the Greek and Latin texts of the first two centuries CE. A fourth volume, Les Aveux de la chair, was to examine sexuality in early Christianity, but it was not finished.
In October 1980, Foucault became a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, giving the Howison Lectures on "Truth and Subjectivity", while in November he lectured at the Humanities Institute at New York University. His growing popularity in American intellectual circles was noted by Time magazine, while Foucault went on to lecture at UCLA in 1981, the University of Vermont in 1982, and Berkeley again in 1983, where his lectures drew huge crowds. Foucault spent many evenings in the San Francisco gay scene, frequenting sado-masochistic bathhouses, engaging in unprotected sex. He would praise sado-masochistic activity in interviews with the gay press, describing it as "the real creation of new possibilities of pleasure, which people had no idea about previously." Foucault contracted HIV, which eventually developed into AIDS. Little was known of the virus at the time; the first cases had only been identified in 1980. In summer 1983, he developed a persistent dry cough, which concerned friends in Paris, but Foucault insisted it was just a pulmonary infection. Only when hospitalized was Foucault correctly diagnosed; treated with antibiotics, he delivered a final set of lectures at the Collège de France. Foucault entered Paris' Hôpital de la Salpêtrière—the same institution that he had studied in Madness and Civilisation—on 10 June 1984, with neurological symptoms complicated by septicemia. He died in the hospital on 25 June.
On 26 June, Libération announced his death, mentioning the rumour that it had been brought on by AIDS. The following day, Le Monde issued a medical bulletin cleared by his family which made no reference to HIV/AIDS. On 29 June, Foucault's la levée du corps ceremony was held, in which the coffin was carried from the hospital morgue. Hundreds attended, including activist and academic friends, while Gilles Deleuze gave a speech using excerpts from The History of Sexuality. His body was then buried at Vendeuvre in a small ceremony. Soon after his death, Foucault's partner Daniel Defert founded the first national HIV/AIDS organisation in France, AIDES; a pun on the French language word for "help" (aide) and the English language acronym for the disease. On the second anniversary of Foucault's death, Defert publicly revealed that Foucault's death was AIDS-related in The Advocate.
Foucault's first biographer, Didier Eribon, described the philosopher as "a complex, many-sided character", and that "under one mask there is always another". He also noted that he exhibited an "enormous capacity for work". At the ENS, Foucault's classmates unanimously summed him up as a figure who was both "disconcerting and strange" and "a passionate worker". As he aged, his personality changed: Eribon noted that while he was a "tortured adolescent", post-1960, he had become "a radiant man, relaxed and cheerful", even being described by those who worked with him as a dandy. He noted that in 1969, Foucault embodied the idea of "the militant intellectual".
Foucault was a fan of classical music, particularly enjoying the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Foucault became known for wearing turtleneck jumpers. After his death, Foucault's friend Georges Dumézil described him as having possessed "a profound kindness and goodness", also exhibiting an "intelligence [that] literally knew no bounds."
Foucault was an atheist.
His life-partner Daniel Defert inherited his estate.
Foucault's colleague Pierre Bourdieu summarised the philosopher's thought as "a long exploration of transgression, of going beyond social limits, always inseparably linked to knowledge and power."
Philosopher Philip Stokes of the University of Reading noted that overall, Foucault's work was "dark and pessimistic", but that it did leave some room for optimism, in that it illustrates how the discipline of philosophy can be used to highlight areas of domination. In doing so, Stokes claimed, we are able to understand how we are being dominated and strive to build social structures that minimise this risk of domination. In all of this development there had to be close attention to detail; it is the detail which eventually individualises people.
Later in his life, Foucault explained that his work was less about analysing power as a phenomenon than about trying to characterise the different ways in which contemporary society has expressed the use of power to "objectivise subjects." These have taken three broad forms: one involving scientific authority to classify and 'order' knowledge about human populations. A second, and related form, has been to categorise and 'normalise' human subjects (by identifying madness, illness, physical features, and so on). The third relates to the manner in which the impulse to fashion sexual identities and train one's own body to engage in routines and practices ends up reproducing certain patterns within a given society.
Politically, Foucault was a leftist through much of his life, but his particular stance within the left often changed. Towards the end, as he suffered from AIDS, he adopted classical liberalism and had a strong interest in Stoic philosophy. In the early 1950s he had been a member of the French Communist Party, although he never adopted an orthodox Marxist viewpoint and left the party after three years, disgusted by the prejudice against Jews and homosexuals within its ranks. After spending some time working in Poland, then governed as a socialist state by the Polish United Workers' Party, he became further disillusioned with communist ideology. As a result, in the early 1960s he was considered to be "violently anticommunist" by some of his detractors, even though he was involved in leftist campaigns along with most of his students and colleagues.
In addition to his philosophical work, Foucault also wrote on literature. Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel was published in 1963, and translated into English in 1986. It is Foucault's only book-length work on literature. Foucault described it as "by far the book I wrote most easily, with the greatest pleasure, and most rapidly." Foucault explores theory, criticism, and psychology with reference to the texts of Raymond Roussel, one of the first notable experimental writers.
Foucault's discussions on power and discourse have inspired many critical theorists, who believe that Foucault's analysis of power structures could aid the struggle against inequality. They claim that through discourse analysis, hierarchies may be uncovered and questioned by way of analyzing the corresponding fields of knowledge through which they are legitimated. This is one of the ways that Foucault's work is linked to critical theory.
In 2007, Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by the ISI Web of Science among a large quantity of French philosophers, the compilation's author commenting that "What this says of modern scholarship is for the reader to decide—and it is imagined that judgments will vary from admiration to despair, depending on one’s view".
A prominent critique of Foucault's thought concerns his refusal to propose positive solutions to the social and political issues that he critiques. Since no human relation is devoid of power, freedom becomes elusive—even as an ideal. This stance which critiques normativity as socially constructed and contingent, but which relies on an implicit norm in order to mount the critique led philosopher Jürgen Habermas to describe Foucault's thinking as "crypto-normativist", covertly reliant on the very Enlightenment principles he attempts to argue against. A similar critique has been advanced by Diana Taylor, and by Nancy Fraser who argues that "Foucault's critique encompasses traditional moral systems, he denies himself recourse to concepts such as 'freedom' and 'justice', and therefore lacks the ability to generate positive alternatives." Likewise, scholar Nancy Pearcey points out Foucault's paradoxical stance: "[when someone] states that it is impossible to attain objectivity, is that an objective statement? The theory undercuts its own claims."
Philosopher Richard Rorty has argued that Foucault's 'archaeology of knowledge' is fundamentally negative, and thus fails to adequately establish any 'new' theory of knowledge per se. Rather, Foucault simply provides a few valuable maxims regarding the reading of history. Rorty writes:
As far as I can see, all he has to offer are brilliant redescriptions of the past, supplemented by helpful hints on how to avoid being trapped by old historiographical assumptions. These hints consist largely of saying: "do not look for progress or meaning in history; do not see the history of a given activity, of any segment of culture, as the development of rationality or of freedom; do not use any philosophical vocabulary to characterize the essence of such activity or the goal it serves; do not assume that the way this activity is presently conducted gives any clue to the goals it served in the past.
Foucault has frequently been criticized by historians for what they consider to be a lack of rigor in his analyses. For example, Hans-Ulrich Wehler harshly criticized Foucault in 1998. Wehler regards Foucault as a bad philosopher who wrongfully received a good response by the humanities and by social sciences. According to Wehler, Foucault's works are not only insufficient in their empiric historical aspects, but also often contradictory and lacking in clarity. For example, Foucault's concept of power is "desperatingly undifferentiated", and Foucault's thesis of a "disciplinary society" is, according to Wehler, only possible because Foucault does not properly differentiate between authority, force, power, violence and legitimacy. In addition, his thesis is based on a one-sided choice of sources (prisons and psychiatric institutions) and neglects other types of organizations as e.g. factories. Also, Wehler criticizes Foucault's "francocentrism" because he did not take into consideration major German-speaking theorists of social sciences like Max Weber and Norbert Elias. In all, Wehler concludes that Foucault is "because of the endless series of flaws in his so-called empirical studies ... an intellectually dishonest, empirically absolutely unreliable, crypto-normativist seducer of Postmodernism".
Though American feminists have built on Foucault's critiques of the historical construction of gender roles and sexuality, some feminists note the limitations of the masculinist subjectivity and ethical orientation that he describes.
Foucault's approach to sexuality, which he sees as socially constructed, has become influential. Foucault's resistance to identity politics, and his rejection of the psychoanalytic concept of object choice, stands at odds with some theories of queer identity.
Foucault is sometimes criticized for his prominent formulation of principles of social constructionism, which some see as an affront to the concept of truth. In Foucault's 1971 televised debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault argued against the possibility of any fixed human nature, as posited by Chomsky's concept of innate human faculties. Chomsky argued that concepts of justice were rooted in human reason, whereas Foucault rejected the universal basis for a concept of justice. Following the debate, Chomsky was stricken with Foucault's total rejection of the possibility of a universal morality, stating "He struck me as completely amoral, I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral [...] I mean, I liked him personally, it's just that I couldn't make sense of him. It's as if he was from a different species, or something."
Education and authority
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, while acknowledging that Foucault contributed to give a right of citizenship in cultural life to certain marginal and eccentric experiences (of sexuality, of cultural repression, of madness), asserts that his radical critique of authority was detrimental to education. Foucault's notion of observation, and its power to change individuals' behavior as a subtle type of authority, influences many fields of education.