In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Michel Foucault

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies of Foucault
  • Influences on Foucault
  • Essential Works and Compilations

Philosophy Michel Foucault
Michael A. Peters, Marek Tesar, Kirsten Locke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0128


Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers in 1926 and died of AIDS in 1984 at the age of 57. In his short life span Foucault became an emblem for a generation of intellectuals: someone who embodied in his work the most-pressing intellectual issues of his time. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, he named as his closest supports and models Georges Dumèzil, Georges Canguilhem (the philosopher of biology who succeeded Gaston Bachelard at the Sorbonne), and Jean Hyppolite. He was a student both of Louis Althusser and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He grew up in the tradition of a history of philosophy that dominated the French university, a history that gave pride of place to Hegel and helped to legitimate the contemporaneous emphases on phenomenology and existentialism, especially as it developed in the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. He was classified by the popular press as a member of the structuralist Gang of Four, along with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes. Foucault in 1964 indicated his intellectual debts in an early essay titled “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx,” yet his relationship to Marx and Marxism was more complex and problematic than his engagement with Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals (originally published in 1887) provided a model for historical study. He came to Nietzsche through the writings of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, both of whom exercised tremendous influence on his work. Yet, it was Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger who helped Foucault to frame up his life’s work as the history by which human beings become subjects and to change the emphasis of his early work from political subjugation of “docile bodies” to individuals as self-determining beings continually in the process of constituting themselves as ethical subjects. In this article we focus on internationally published English editions to avoid confusion and to provide readers a balanced overview of top-quality sources currently available.

General Overviews

Books and publications that attempt to summarize and provide a general overview of Foucault’s work are very popular. These general overviews range in depth, quality, and target audience, but they all tend to cover the most-important periods in his work: knowledges, ethics, method, and politics to various extents. The best ones interpret Foucault and provide an overview of his work, while the reader is encouraged, and guided, to read his original texts. This selection is focused on the most-useful and well-known texts that a reader can come across in the English language. Among the sheer volume of diverse publications dedicated to Foucault’s work, Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983 stands out as an essential contribution to Foucault scholarship as one of the first general overviews available (and deemed acceptable by Foucault himself). While Dreyfus and Rabinow provide a sustained, coherent analysis of Foucault’s work as a whole, Deleuze 2006, a personal treatment of Foucault’s work, is highly original and scholarly. Because there are many publications focused on Foucault, in this section we also suggest to treat some with caution, such as Understanding Foucault (Schirato, et al. 2012). In recent years, edited volumes such as the Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Gutting 2005) have been published, with a focus on a broad range of authors treating subjects of Foucault’s heritage.

  • Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Translated and edited by Seán Hand. Continuum Impacts. London: Continuum, 2006.

    Deleuze’s homage to Foucault is a unique monograph. In an utterly rigorous way, Deleuze reads Foucault and provides the reader both with a concise portrait and an introduction to Foucauldian thought. This is a highly original Deleuzian reading of Foucault. Originally published in 1986.

  • Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

    A very well-known overview with an afterword by Foucault; this is a careful, analytical exploration of his work. A great companion to Foucault’s original work, this edition also includes an interview with Foucault: “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.”

  • Flynn, Thomas R. Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason. Vol. 2, A Poststructuralist Mapping of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    The second volume of the two-volume comparative analysis between Sartre and Foucault is an unexpected gem, providing us with an interesting treatment of Foucault’s work. Because the author does not avoid contradictions and difficult subjects, the research demonstrates depth but also raises and provokes questions and even disagreements. A very significant contribution to scholarship, and a fascinating read.

  • Gutting, Gary, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. 2d ed. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521840821

    This edited book, first published in 1994, is a strong collection of essays that offer an overview of Foucault’s work. Approachable language and style provide an introduction to most of the concepts used in Foucault’s writing. Various authors have multiple voices and histories, but this volume works well as a solid commentary on Foucauldian thought.

  • Mills, Sara. Michel Foucault. Routledge Critical Thinkers. London: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203380437

    A textbook-style overview of Foucault’s work, easy to read and follow. Text boxes provide additional information for students, as well as further links to other texts by and about Foucault. Key ideas are highlighted, and despite this manuscript lacking depth, it is a solid introduction for students to Foucault’s work.

  • Schirato, Tony, Geoff Danaher, and Jenn Webb. Understanding Foucault: A Critical Introduction. 2d ed. London: SAGE, 2012.

    At first glance, this monograph seems like an ideal overview for a student, in that it uses approachable language and easy-to-follow themes. As with many other similar outputs, this book oversimplifies Foucauldian thought and does not really encourage students to read the original work. However, this book is very popular with students because it seems to explain Foucault well, but it is to be treated with caution.

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