Who Was Michel Foucault? Power, Knowledge, and Legacy

Michel Foucault was one of the 20th century’s leading philosophers, whose work on poststructuralism and postmodernism was widely influential.

Mar 22, 2024By Maysara Kamal, BA Philosophy & Film
michel foucault power knowledge legacy


Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who wrote extensively on the interplay of power and knowledge, social institutions, psychology, sexuality, and language. Using genealogy to investigate the historical evolution of what he observes in society, Foucault has contributed to the development of poststructuralism and postmodernism and has influenced numerous thinkers who have helped shape the modern world.


Foucault’s Early Life and Education

Photograph of École Normale Supérieure. Source: ENS
Photograph of École Normale Supérieure. Source: ENS


Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers in 1926. He was the second of three children of a French middle-class family. Both his father, Paul Foucault, and his grandparents were surgeons. Foucault and his siblings, Denys and Francine, had a Catholic upbringing, and although they were not religious, the young philosopher served at the altar of the Saint-Porchair Church. In 1930, Foucault completed his elementary education at Lycée Henry IV and then studied at the local school of his hometown. In 1946, he started his higher education studies at École Normale Supérieure, where he discovered his love for philosophy under the tutelage of Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser


Career and Publications

Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Source: Abe Books
Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Source: Abe Books


Foucault graduated with a degree in philosophy and psychology. In 1951, Louis Althusser invited him to teach psychology at École Normale Supérieure. Between 1953 and 1955, Foucault simultaneously taught psychology at the University of Lille. During that time, he was also researching for his doctorate thesis at the Sainte-Anne Hospital. In 1955, he started working at the University of Uppsala in Sweden as a cultural diplomat, but they refused to accept his thesis when he submitted it to them. Subsequently, in 1958, Foucault traveled to Poland where he worked as the director of the French Center at the University of Warsaw, but he returned to France shortly afterward. In 1960, Foucault’s doctoral thesis was eventually accepted at the University of Paris and later published in 1964 under the title Madness and Civilization.


Photograph of Foucault during a discussion. Source: Po Lit
Photograph of Foucault during a discussion. Source: Po Lit


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The publication of his thesis marked the debut of Foucault’s subsequent genealogical works. In 1960, he started teaching psychology at the University of Clermont-Ferrad and later took charge of its philosophy department. There, he published his famous book, Birth of the Clinic, where he investigated the historical developments of the medical field and developed the concept of ‘the medical gaze’. In 1966, Foucault started teaching at the University of Tunis in Tunisia where he wrote The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge.


In 1968, he returned to Paris and started working at the Centre Expérimental de Vincennes and later at Collège de France where he published some of his most influential works, including Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Foucault died in 1984 from AIDS, leaving behind a legacy of brilliant oeuvres that have influenced thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Jean Francois Lyodart among others.  


Hardship and Controversy

michel foucault
Photo of Michel Foucault. Source: Anekdot.se.


Foucault had an unstable relationship with his father. In his youth, he was fascinated with the social sciences and humanities, but his father pressured him to follow in his medical footsteps and become a surgeon. Their relationship reportedly caused Foucault deep suffering. Although he insisted on studying what his heart desired and was ranked the fourth best student at École Normale Supérieure based on his entry result, Foucault led a life of misery. He spent most of his time alone and alienated, suffering from severe depression and self-harm. His inclination towards sadomasochism was no secret. He reportedly loved violence and once chased a classmate with a dagger. He also decorated his room with artwork depicting torture, such as those by Francisco Goya. Foucault is said to have attempted suicide in 1948, an incident after which his father forced him to see a psychiatrist.


michel foucault martine franck 2 1978
Michel Foucault, by Martine Franck, in Foucault’s house, Ile de France, 1978.


Jean Delay was considered the best psychiatrist in France at the time. Foucault frequented him at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center, yet continued trying to take his life in the years that followed and praised suicide in his writings. His doctor explained his extreme suffering as a byproduct of his inability to integrate as a sadomasochistic homosexual in a largely homophobic and conservative society. According to James Miller, his biographer, Foucault pursued dangerous experiences in the Parisien underground homosexual scene, where he tried to cope with the harsh realities of his environment through recreational drug use. 


michel foucault in west berlin 1978
Philosopher Michel Foucault with André Glucksmann (left) at a philosophy conference in West Berlin, 1978. Source: la Repubblica


On the more controversial side of his life was his position on child sexuality. In 1977, Foucault petitioned against the new age of consent law in France, claiming that minors can give meaningful consent to sexual relations. His defense of sexual intercourse with minors, as well as allegations that he engaged in pedophilia when he lived in Tunisia, greatly damaged his reputation.

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By Maysara KamalBA Philosophy & Film Maysara is a graduate of Philosophy and Film from the American University in Cairo (AUC). She covered both the BA and MA curriculums in the Philosophy Department and published an academic article in AUC’s Undergraduate Research Journal. Her passion for philosophy fuels her independent research and permeates her poems, short stories, and film projects.