Biography of Michel Foucault

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Dec 24, 2012
Philo 300A Postmodernism

Michel Foucault (1926– 1984),
A Biography & Examination of His Theories

“Anyway, my personal life is not at all interesting. If somebody thinks that my work cannot be understood without reference to such and such a part of my life, I accept to consider the question. I am ready to answer if I agree. As far as my personal life is uninteresting, it is not worthwhile making a secret of it. By the same token, it may not be worthwhile publicizing it.”

Michel Foucault, an Interview with Stephen Riggins, Toronto, 1982.
(Foucault, 2008)

Born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926 in Poitiers in western France, Michel Foucault was a very unlikely candidate to be France’s premier philosopher and intellectual (Kelly, 2010). He was the most cited scholar in the humanities from 2000-2010 (Kelly, 2010; The Most ..., 2009). Philosophy was an equally unlikely course of study for Foucault and deciding to pursue it rather than medicine caused a rift between father and son that would prompt Foucault to drop the first part of his name “Paul” which was the name of his father “Paul-André Foucault”, a prominent surgeon and his paternal grandfather “Paul Foucault” also medical doctor (Kelly, 2010; Foucault, Michel, 2011). Despite also Foucault’s younger brother and maternal grandfather being physicians, Foucault surprised his family by pursuing studies in psychology and philosophy in France’s eminent philosophy college École Normale Supérieure. He was known as an ardent student who argued his ideas among other well established philosophers. Foucault frequently locked horns with other famous philosophers such as Derrida (a former psychology student of his), and Jean-Paul Sartre, who was already a well-established philosopher being a teacher in and around École Normale Supérieure during Foucault’s student years there. Despite excelling in philosophy and, Foucault thought of himself as a historian who applied philosophical thinking to understanding the questions surrounding the history of what made people and society the way they are (Kelly, 2010). Despite being a top notch student, Foucault’s college years were embedded with emotional turmoil. He suffered from depression, a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide, commonly thought to be the result of coming to terms with his emergent homosexual feelings (Kelly, 2010). In his later college years he would not only accept, but embrace his homosexual feelings and become a global figure in championing the rights of homosexuals. He would also come to terms with choosing to go against his family’s wishes and enter into a field other than medicine. Although he did not pursue studies in medicine as did the rest of his family, all four of his of his critiques of historical reason encompassed healthcare and the health of society. Being that Foucault’s first passion and first degree earned was psychology, it is not at all surprising that he would choose to research mental health related topic for his doctoral thesis in Philosophy. His doctoral thesis, “History of Madness in the Classical Age (1961)” explores the history of the emergence of diagnosing and treating mental illness in Europe. Foucault goes on to state that the current treatments of mental illness in labelling mentally ill people as “merely sick” is the same vague and empty reasoning that took place during the Renaissance when mentally ill people were thought to be under the control of evil spirits and needing instead to be controlled by medical staff. The habit of tracing history with the use of philosophy continued as Foucault wrote Birth of a Clinic discussing the emergence of the health clinic in Europe (Foucault, Michel, 2008). His second critique of historical reason, “Discipline and Punishment” (1975) examines the need for prisons. Foucault is very much against the use of prisons. He contends that the...
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