Michel Foucault was one of the most influential social theorists of the 20th century. He held a chair at the Collège de France; his studies on mental health, prison and penal reform, sexuality, and epistemology have profoundly influenced their respective fields. Particularly in academic humanities, Foucault’s work enjoys widespread influence.

Much of Foucault’s work drew on his personal experience. He was born in Poitiers, France, the son of a surgeon, and he spent a good part of his adult life critically reexamining the history of medicine, particularly its practitioners’ troubling use of coercion. His early years in the rigidly structured elite French educational system seem to have deeply informed his analysis of institutionalized power relationships. In addition, his open homosexuality—and his embrace of its sadomasochistic subculture—led him to doubt the prevailing views regarding modern sexuality.

In each of these areas, Foucault questioned whether the accepted professional techniques, which were commonly coercive, could ever produce genuine, unbiased knowledge or, indeed, whether such knowledge was even possible. His influential book Madness and Civilization traced modern psychiatry’s institutionalization of people whose behavior deviated from a set of increasingly stringent norms. He termed this process the great confinement, and he suggested that modernity had not increased liberty but reduced it.

A similar paradoxical approach runs throughout Foucault’s work. The science of sexuality, Foucault argued, curtailed human freedom by insisting on rigid sexual identities, only some of which were normal. Likewise, modern epistemological categories, including the abstract numbering of populations and the scientific mapping of territories, increased state power and subjected the individual to the government in a profoundly dehumanizing manner. Foucault similarly argued that some of the worst cruelties of the civilized world could be found in the prison system, whose original purpose was to rehabilitate criminals and end the cruel punishments found before the Enlightenment. All that modernity had accomplished here, Foucault claimed, was to hide cruelty from public view, which helped it to continue.

Even outside his academic work, Foucault attacked modernity’s darker side. He participated in the student uprisings of the 1960s, edited harrowing firsthand accounts of prison life, and even traveled to Iran in the ultimately vain hope of finding a genuine popular revolution against the modern state, exemplified by the Shah and his government. He was one of the leading inspirations of the modern gay rights movement, and he contributed often to the francophone gay press.

Although Foucault consciously rejected Enlightenment hopes for human betterment through liberty, he still has much to offer libertarians, and Foucault seems to have been aware of this possibility even while he always placed himself on the political left. In particular, his attacks on the way government conceptualized itself brought him to doubt the need for government at all and—surprisingly for some—to recommend to his students the works of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. In Foucault’s words, they should be studied as examples of “the will not to be governed.” His analysis of compulsory mental health has often been likened to that of libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who discovered similar ideas independently and who also argued against forcible confinement.

Like many intellectuals of his era, Foucault joined the Communist Party, although he quickly abandoned both communism and Marxism. As recent scholars have agreed, Nietzsche was his most important intellectual ancestor. His mature works show a critical, antinomian libertarianism, rather than a rigid, class‐​based analysis of social phenomena. Particularly in his final years, as he grew ill from AIDS and contemplated his approaching end, his politics approached classical liberalism, tempered with a deep interest in Stoic philosophy. From attacking state coercion, Foucault had come to wonder what might replace it. Much of Foucault’s work from these final years remains unpublished, and still more of it was destroyed, rendering much of Foucault an enigma in death as he was in life.

Further Readings

Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

———. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

———. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Richard Howard, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Jason Kuznicki
Originally published