Frequently Asked Questions


Foucault and Jean Daniel

When did Foucault live?

Foucault was born in Poitiers, France on 15 October 1926 and died in Paris on 26 June 1984.

What did Foucault write?

For a complete bibliography of Foucault's work in French see the Foucault archives site and the Foucault.info site. For a list of his shorter works translated into English see Richard Lynch's bibliography on michel-foucault.com. For a select bibliography of Foucault's works in English translation see John Protevi's site.

What writings by Foucault are the best introduction to his work?

Michel Foucault (1991) The Foucault Reader, Paul Rabinow (ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin (originally published 1984) is a very good place to start. This book contains extracts from some of Foucault's books and easy to read interviews and articles. Another excellent book of interviews is Michel Foucault (1996) Foucault Live. Interviews, 1961-1984. S. Lotringer (Ed.). Tr. L. Hochroth & J. Johnston. 2nd ed. New York: Semiotext(e).

What books provide a general introduction to Foucault's work?

I will take the opportunity first of all to mention my two introductory texts to Foucault's work: my 1989 book Foucault: Historian or Philosopher and my 2005 book Michel Foucault. There are a large number of other introductions. You can find some of them listed on the introductions page on this site.

Where can I find out about other books and articles written on Foucault?

There is an excellent bibliography of secondary literature on Foucault available on the net namely Jeff Hearn's comprehensive The Untimely Past site. For a selection of a few new books you can consult the general bibliography page on this site. The Foucault News blog lists articles and books appearing after August 2010.

Foucault and Jean Daniel

Where can I find definitions of the terms Foucault uses?

Some of the introductory books on Foucault include short glossaries. There is a list of key concepts and definitions on michel-foucault.com and my book Michel Foucault (Sage, 2005) includes an extensive list of key concepts and where these can be found in Foucault's work. You might also like to try Lois Shawver's Dictionary for the Study of the Works of Michel Foucault.

Where can I find short overviews of Foucault's work on the net?

There is useful introductory material on John Protevi's site. You can also read a short introduction to his work at the Theory@org site by David Gauntlett. In addition, you can also look through some of the links listed under summaries and writing about Foucault on this site. You can also try SparkNotes Study Guides which provides study notes for The Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, Madness and Civilization. You can also look at some of the encyclopedia entries on the links page of this site.

Where can I discuss and ask questions about Foucault's work?

There is a fairly active email discussion list attached to the Foucault.info site. For other discussion lists see the links page under 'discussion lists'. You might also find the various Foucault blogs of interest.

Foucault and Jean Daniel

Where can I find out about Foucault's life?

There are three biographies of Foucault:

  • Eribon, Didier. (1991). Michel Foucault. Translated by Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Macey, David. (1994). The Lives of Michel Foucault. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Miller, James. (1993). The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster.

There is also a chronology of Foucault's work and life at the beginning of the first volume of Michel Foucault (1994). Dits et ecrits. Paris: Gallimard and on the Foucault archives site. For short biographies on the web see the Foucault.info site, John Protevi's bio and an outline of Foucault's life and work on Casey Alt's site.
For an overview of the historical and intellectual setting of Foucault's work, see also the first chapter of my own book Foucault: Historian or Philosopher? the text of which can be found at the Foucauldian site.

Where can I buy books by Foucault and about Foucault?

See the online bookshops listed on the links page.

Where can I find photographs of Foucault?

In the gallery section of this site and also at the sites listed on the links page under pictures. Please note that all the copyright information that I have is listed on the individual pages where the photographs are found.


Additional questions: Questions courtesy of Daniel Allen


Foucault and Jean Daniel

You get chatting to Foucault at a party. What impression would you have formed after five minutes?

I would be impressed by his extreme intelligence and his facility at answering the most difficult of questions clearly and logically. I would also be struck by his punctilious but somewhat distancing politeness and his avid curiosity about ideas and events around him.

In one sentence, what is the essence of Foucault?

Foucault is a philosopher who uses history to provide insight into human experience and social interaction with a view to inviting people to change the ingrained status quo.

In a healthcare context, what are the top five things a student of Foucault should try and understand?

(i) That all human cultures, institutions and practices were invented at some point in history. A knowledge (even rudimentary) of the history of these matters allows one to see that existing medical knowledge, healthcare practices and institutions are not fixed in stone - even if changes can't necessarily be made overnight.

(ii) No element in the system is insignificant in producing change. Everybody participates to some degree in either the continuation or modification of existing power relations. The smallest changes can eventually lead to significant improvements in the way things are done, as long as one remains aware that each solution brings new problems.

(iii) Medical knowledge is only partial, not absolutely true. There are complex relations between medical knowledge and institutions of power, which does not mean to say that health care or medical knowledge are not scientifically valid.

(iv) Contemporary Western society functions primarily according to a medical rather than a legal model - that is, people's existence and actions are defined in relation to the medical concepts of the 'normal' or the 'healthy' rather than in relation to whether or not they obey the law. Even failure to adhere to the law can mean in this setting, that one can be regarded as in some sense 'sick' or 'abnormal'.

(v) One of the principal objectives of the modern state is the health of its population. A healthy population is a productive population. Health replaces salvation in the modern state.

Foucault and Jean Daniel

I am a mid-grade nurse slaving away in a hectic inner-city hospital. Off duty I prefer studying Hello magazine, tabloid newspapers and TV soap operas to Foucault. Am I missing anything?

Yes and no. If you are not happy with your situation, an appreciation of Foucault's ideas might give you a wide general perspective and understanding that your situation is not unique and that the structures in place are not the only or necessarily the best ones. One can then go forward to imagine and enact even tiny changes that would improve things on a day to day basis and give you more control over your situation, although there is a slight risk that you might be perceived as a troublemaker! On the other hand, reading Foucault is difficult and would require effort after a long day! Knowing other people who are also interested in discussing Foucault's work would be helpful.

Would modern health care be any different if Foucault had become a plumber, not a philosopher?

It probably would, but there are also many other thinkers and influences at work here. He has helped a lot of health workers to understand that things have not always been the way they are now and need not stay the same and they have worked to improve conditions. In the psychiatric domain Foucault has helped to modify perceptions of how madness should be treated at an institutional level.

Madness and Civilization - summarise in a paragraph

This book is a history from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century of how Western culture has conceptualised madness and how it has treated mad people. It deals with the economic, institutional,medical, philosophical, ethical, political, artistic and literary practices which helped define madness as a cultural and social category and as an object of science and knowledge during this period. The author shows that the ways madness has been viewed and mad people have been treated have varied considerably in Western history, but not in the sense of a relentless progress from ignorance to science.

Foucault and Jean Daniel

The Birth of the Clinic - summarise in a paragraph

This book traces the origins of modern clinical medicine in France between 1769 and 1825. Foucault argues that a change took place in the notions of what illness and the doctor were. It was not a matter of 'progress' from a dubious reliance on Ancient texts and ignorant superstition to an enlightened scientific attention to the visible 'facts'. A new way of 'looking' at ill patients and a new relation between the doctor and patient was invented. Foucault traces this transformation by examining changes in medical theories and practices as well as in political, institutional and social contexts during this period.

What one thing about Foucault should people try to remember?

Through the rigorous examination of history we can see that the present situation in any domain is not set in stone and is merely the product of a whole collection of actions and decisions made by many people over a long period of time. Things have not always been as they are now and can be changed even at the most mundane and seemingly insignificant levels so that they eventually become different tomorrow.