MICHEL FOUCAULT, French philosopher, historian and sociologist[d: 1984]. Foucault held a chair at the Collège de France, giving it the title “History of Systems of Thought,” and taught at the University of California, Berkeley.
Foucault is best known for his critical studies of various social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Foucault’s work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse, has been widely discussed and applied. Sometimes described as postmodernist or post-structuralist, in the 1960s he was more often associated with the structuralist movement. Foucault later distanced himself from structuralism and always rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels.
Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault’s death in 1984. The first and most referenced volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English — Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonté de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power related to the emergence of a science of sexuality (scientia sexualis) and the emergence of biopower in the West. In this volume he attacks the “repressive hypothesis,” the widespread belief that we have, particularly since the nineteenth century, “repressed” our natural sexual drives. He shows that what we think of as “repression” of sexuality actually constituted sexuality as a core feature of our identities, and produced a proliferation of discourse on the subject.
The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualite, II: l’usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault’s death, with the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. In his lecture series from 1979 to 1980 Foucault extended his analysis of government to its ‘wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behavior of men’, which involved a new consideration of the ‘examination of conscience’ and confession in early Christian literature. These themes of early Christian literature seemed to dominate Foucault’s work, alongside his study of Greek and Roman literature, until the end of his life. However, Foucault’s death from AIDS-related causes left the work incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality on Christianity was never published. The fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). The volume was almost complete before Foucault’s death and a copy of it is privately held in the Foucault archive. It cannot be published under the restrictions of Foucault’s estate.