Literary and Critical Theory Michel Foucault
by
Mark Kelly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0045

Introduction

Michel Foucault (b. 15 October 1926–d. 25 June 1984) was a French philosopher whose discipline-straddling work came to be the most widely cited touchstone in the humanities and social sciences by the first decade of the 21st century. He was the author of eleven books in his lifetime, and his ever-expanding posthumous legacy encompasses more than a dozen more, most notably his influential annual lecture series from the Collège de France, where he served as chair of the History of Systems of Thought for the last fourteen years of his life. Foucault rose to prominence in France with his bestselling 1966 book The Order of Things, which attracted enormous controversy with its anti-humanist thesis that “man” was an invention perhaps nearing its end, and condemning Marxism as obsolete while upholding the legacy of Nietzsche and the then-fashionable current of “French structuralism,” of which Foucault was seen as a leading light, along with Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Foucault found still greater fame in the 1970s with the explosion of “French theory” and “post-structuralism” in the American academy, of which he again was seen as a major exponent, alongside Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. During this period he moved away from his more technical and philosophical reflections of the late 1960s to a more engaged and political perspective after the tumult of 1968 in Paris. It was also at this time that wrote his most influential works, Discipline and Punish (1975) and the first volume of his History of Sexuality (1976), which were published only a year apart, with the latter work in particular expounding a revolutionary new understanding of social power that is justly his most famous intellectual contribution. Foucault at this time became an activist public intellectual and sometime fellow-traveler of Marxists, as well as a major signer of petitions and attender of the forefront of demonstrations. He was also involved in a number of more concrete efforts, such as the foundation of the Prisons Information Group, was arrested more than once, and, perhaps most controversially, wrote journalistic dispatches from Iran for an Italian daily newspaper in which he expressed unbridled enthusiasm for the early days of the Islamic Revolution.

Primary Texts

Foucault’s output consists of three main categories: first and foremost the books he published during his lifetime, eleven in all, albeit that he effectively disowned his first book, Maladie mentale et personnalité, and the very brief L’ordre du discours has appeared only as an anthologized essay in English. The second category is his lecture series, principally his annual lecture series at the Collège de France, thirteen in all, which have almost all now appeared in print, each as a book in its own right. There is a great tendency among commentators today to inflate the importance of these lecture series to the equivalent of monographs, but it should be borne in mind that they are effectively work in progress reports, not polished writings. Lastly, there are Foucault’s shorter writings and interviews, almost all of which are anthologized in French in Dits et écrits; in English, by contrast, there is no definitive collection of these, but rather many overlapping and incomplete anthologies.

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