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Michel Foucault

(1926—1984) French philosopher

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French philosopher and historian of ideas, best known for his work on the history of western attitudes to the insane, criminals, and sexual deviants.

Foucault was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a student of Louis Althusser. He began his career outside France teaching at the University of Uppsala in Sweden in the 1950s and for a year he held the post of director of the Institut Français in Hamburg. Foucault returned to France in 1960 to the chair of philosophy at Clermont-Ferrand, moving in 1970 to the Collège de France, where he held the post of professor of the history of systems of thought until his death.

Foucault first revealed his power as a historian and philosopher in his Histoire de la folie (1961; translated as Madness and Civilization, 1971). He followed this study with equally subversive accounts of western attitudes to punishment and to sexuality (L'Histoire de la sexualité – 3 vols, 1976–84; translated as The History of Sexuality, 1978). Much of the theoretical background to this work was contained in his Les Mots et les choses (1966; translated as The Order of Things, 1970) and L'Archéologie du savoir (1969; translated as The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972). In all his work Foucault sought to identify and describe certain ‘discourses’ present in such disciplines as biology, medicine, and politics. How do the ‘discourses’ emerge? What rules do they obey? How do they change? Foucault's answers to his central questions, always obscure, have been endowed with great insight by some; others, with equal conviction, have dismissed them as pretentious and incoherent. He died of AIDS.

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