Michel Foucault has been generally recognised as one of the most influential thinkers of the post-war period. His work is widely known throughout the world, and not just among academics. Foucault's work has influenced education, the humanities, philosophy, psychology, sociology, social policy, theology. Probably the most significant impact has been in sociology as part of a development of post-structuralist and postmodern thought. Foucault's work has influenced many groups of activists particularly gay/lesbian movements and also prisoner groups. Yet Foucault remains an enigma; part of his assault on the forms of subjectivity and identity found in much philosophical and psychological writing has involved his denial of the significance of the person as individual. This is no less true in his own case. His best known statement on himself is this, "Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.... Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order" (Archaeology of Knowledge).
However, there are a number of biographies and accounts of his life and thought. Macey (1994) The Lives of Michel Foucault is a readable and detailed account. Eribon's study Michel Foucault is also worth consulting. Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers in 1926 and attended a Jesuit secondary school. He progressed from the Lycee Henri-IV where he was taught philosophy by Hyppolite to the Ecole Normale Superieure. He was to study philosophy at L'Ecole, the most prestigious university course in France, with Althusser as one of his tutors. Foucault graduated from the Ecole with licence in philosophy and psychology and then the aggregation in philosophy (1952).
His first post was in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Lille but he moved to Sweden and the University of Uppsala in 1955. He taught in Poland and Germany before moving to teach at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. He received his doctorate for a main thesis entitled Histoire de la folie a l'age classique. This was supported by a thesis on Kant. Macey gives an interesting account of the 'soutenance' which accorded Foucault his Doctor of Letters. Foucault then became a professor at the University of Clermont-Ferrand (1962) before moving to become Chair of the Philosophy department at the University of Vincennes. In 1969 he was elected to the chair of the College de France taking the title Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. Between 1970 and his death in 1984 Foucault taught extensively overseas and was active in prison reform. He was also an active supporter of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981.
Such a bald account says nothing about the intellectual and political movements within which Foucault's thought was formed. At the time Foucault received his University education and immediately thereafter the dominant intellectual traditions in France were, firstly, Hegelian phenomenology with its existentialist development through Sartre, and, secondly, structuralism, particularly the structuralist marxism of Althusser. Foucault was to stand out against both traditions. A factor that has to be considered in this is Foucault's position within the distinctive French orientation to social thought. For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s in France the linkage between existentialism and western marxism was frequently made. This linkage of existentialism and marxism was far less common in the UK or USA but it had a considerable impact on Foucault's intellectual development.
He was a member of the CP for a brief period but broke with it, although he maintained an active and sympathetic debate with marxism throughout his life. Foucault's thought involved an extensive acquaintance with a wide range of academic disciplines and intellectual movements. Foucault does not make the explicit use of sociology and sociological traditions that Habermas (also a philosopher by background) does. Nevertheless, he comments on sociological theorising throughout his work. His thought has been of considerable significance for all social science disciplines as shown in the number of articles developing his thought in a wide range of sociology journals.
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