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Michel Foucault

Born: 15 October 1926

Died: 25 June 1984

Nationality: French

Paul Michel Foucault - generally known as Michel Foucault - was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist and literary critic. Paul Michel was born in the city of Poiters, in an upper-middle-class family: the philosopher’s father was a successful surgeon with his own practice and Michel’s mother was the daughter of prosperous surgeon. It would make sense that Michel would continue the family tradition and become a surgeon, but he rejected his father’s wishes and in 1945 went to Paris. There he enrolled into a prestigious secondary school and developed an interest in philosophy and history of ideas. Foucault became particularly influenced by the ideas of Marxism, Phenomenology and Structuralism and soon he created his own philosophical stand. For his own personal reasons, the philosopher also studied in depth Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry, and later these interests merged and surfaced in his work.

His first book, ‘Mental Illness and Personality’ (Maladie mentale et personalité), presented a theory that illness has always been culturally relative. Subsequently, in 1960, his primary thesis for his State doctorate was entitled ‘Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age’ (Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique). The main theme of the book is how Western European society had dealt with madness throughout time, proving that it was a social construct, which differs from mental illness. Foucault continued to write influential books questioning powerful social institutions, namely prisons, mental health facilities and religion, as well as on more abstract issues such as power, knowledge, sexuality and selfhood.

Foucault was also politically active as a leftist supporting prisoners’ rights, he campaigned in anti-racist campaigns, and more generally protested against abuses on human rights around the world. In 1975 the great philosopher was at the University of California, Berkeley for the first time - as a result of his works’ growing popularity in America. Foucault was also very engaged in the San Francisco gay scene, which he would praise in interviews with the gay press. Foucault contracted HIV, which eventually developed in AIDS. Little was known about the virus at that time and in June 1984 he died. His partner Daniel Defert founded the first national HIV/AIDS organisation in France. Michel Foucault is a Great Utopian for his ground-breaking work not only for philosophy and psychology, but also for gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, literary criticism, anthropology, sociology and governmentality.

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