Michel Foucault

Foucault was born in 1926, in Poitiers, France, as Paul-Michel Foucault, to a notable provincial family. His father, Paul Foucault, was an eminent surgeon. Foucault later dropped the 'Paul' from his name however, presumably because of his stormy relationship with his father. His early education was a mix of success and mediocrity until he attended the Jesuit College Saint-Stanislaus where he excelled. During this period, Poitiers was part of Vichy France and later came under German occupation. After the war, Foucault gained entry to the prestiguous École Normale Supérieure, the traditional gateway to an academic career in France.
Foucault's personal life at the Ecole Normale was difficult - he suffered from acute depression, even attempting suicide. He was taken to see a psychiatrist. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Foucault became fascinated with psychology. Thus, in addition to his license in philosophy he also earned a license in psychology, and was involved in the clinical arm of the discipline where he was exposed to thinkers such as Ludwig Binswanger and Daniel Lagache.
Like many 'normaliens', Foucault joined the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953. He was inducted into the party by his mentor Louis Althusser. He left due to concerns about what was happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Unlike most party members, Foucault never actively participated in his cell.
Foucault passed his agrégation in 1950. After a brief period lecturing at the Ecole Normale, he took up a position at the Universiy of Lille, where from 1953 to 1954 he taught psychology. In 1954 Foucault published his first book, Maladie mentale et personnalité, a work which he would later disavow. It soon became apparent that Foucault was not interested in a teaching career, and he soon undertook a lengthy exile from France. In 1954 Foucault served France as a cultural delegate to the University of Uppsala in Sweden (a position arranged for him by Georges Dumézil, who was to become a friend and mentor). In 1958 Foucault left Uppsala for briefly held positions at Warsaw and at the University of Hamburg.
Foucault returned to France in 1960 to complete his doctorate and take up a post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. There he met Daniel Defert, with whom he lived in non-monogamous partnership for the rest of his life. In 1961 he earned his doctorate by submitting two theses (as is customary in France): a 'major' thesis entitled Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique and a 'secondary' thesis which involved a translation and commentary on Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Folie et déraison (published in English as Madness and Civilization) was extremely well-received. Foucault continued a vigorous publishing schedule. In 1963 he published Naissance de la Clinique (Birth of the Clinic), Raymond Roussel, and a reissue of his 1954 volume (now entitled Maladie mentale et psychologie) which he would again disavow.
Following Defert's military posting to Tunisia, Foucault next moved to a position at the University of Tunis in 1965. In 1966 he published Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), which was enormously popular despite its length and difficulty. This was during the height of interest in structuralism and Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes as the newest, latest wave of thinkers set to topple the existentialism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre. By now Foucault was militantly anti-communist, and some considered the book to be right wing, while Foucault quickly tired of being labeled a 'structuralist'. He was still in Tunis during the student rebellions, but was profoundly affected by a local student revolt earlier in the same year. In the fall of 1968 he returned to France, where he published L'archaeologie du savoir - a response to his critics - in 1969.
In the aftermath of 1968, the French government created a new experimental university at Vincennes. Foucault became the first head of its philosophy department in December of that year. He appointed mostly young leftist academics, whose radicalism resulted in the French ministry of education withdrawing accreditation from the department. Foucault notoriously also joined students in occupying administration buildings and fighting with police.
Foucault's tenure at Vincennes was short-lived, as in 1970 Foucault was elected to France's most prestigious academic body, the Collège de France as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. His political involvement now increased, Defert having joined the ultra-Maoist Gauche Proletarienne (GP), with whom Foucault became very loosely associated. Foucault helped found the Prison Information Group (in French: Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons, or GIP) to provide a way for prisoners to voice their concerns. This fed into a marked politicization of Foucault's work, with a book, Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish) about the prison system.
In the late 1970s political activism in France tailed off, with the disillusionment of many if not most Maoists, several of whom underwent a complete reversal in ideology, becoming the so-called New Philosophers, often citing Foucault as their major influence, a status about which Foucault had mixed feelings
Foucault began to spend more time in America, at SUNY Buffalo (where he had lectured on his first ever visit to the United States in 1970) and more especially at UC Berkley. Foucault found community with gay culture in San Francisco, particularly in the S&M culture, although he would not have identified as gay. Foucault died of AIDS-related complications in Paris in 1984.