is a biography
of the eponymous philosopher, political theorist, and historian of ideas by French historian and philosopher Didier Eribon. Attentive to both Foucault’s personal life and the political and social forces of the Western world that ultimately shaped him, the book is a historical survey as well as a biography. It covers the time roughly from World War II through the 1980’s, the decade in which Foucault tragically died from AIDS. Eribon memorializes Foucault’s contributions to historical analysis, sexuality studies, social studies, and psychology, which continue to inform advances in these fields.
Foucault was born in 1926 in the beautiful but relatively insular city of Poitiers, France. He was privileged enough to have wealthy parents who ensured he received a great education. In 1943, the young Foucault attempted to gain admission to one of France’s top schools, the École Normale Supérieure. Around the same time, German forces began their occupation of France, and Foucault made his first forays into philosophy. His first inspirations were Plato, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, and Bergson. Foucault failed his entrance exams to the École Normale Supérieure, and moved to Paris to resume his studies. There, he met Jean Hyppolite, a gifted philosopher who became his mentor and introduced him to the works of Hegel.
In 1946, Foucault attempted to enroll in the École Normale Supérieure, and was at last admitted. He also joined the Communist Party and took up his own self-taught liberal arts education. After a few years, he had forever changed the intellectual community of France by successfully advocating a more cross-disciplinary approach to philosophy, critical theory, and political studies. In 1961, Foucault successfully defended his thesis, on the relationships between madness and culture, at the Sorbonne.
In the 1960s, Foucault lived in Paris and taught at the Université de Clermont-Ferrand. His extravagant teaching style and public persona was often interpreted as arrogance. He caused conflict when he appointed his lover, Daniel Defert, as his assistant in the philosophy department. Foucault’s open acknowledgement of his homosexuality in this instance contrasts starkly with his unwillingness, in other areas of life, to express himself on a more intimate level than the sharp and sardonic self he projected publicly.
In 1966, Foucault accepted a job at the University of Tunis. There, he focused on Cartesian and Nietzschean philosophy, making new connections between the long-dead thinkers and the newer fields of psychoanalysis and aesthetics. Many of Foucault’s students were surprised by his staunch opposition to Marxist ideology. Still, he became a celebrated thinker in Tunis for his ideas on literary analysis, structuralism, and madness. Foucault spent the rest of the 1960s and the 1970s moving between European universities and into political activism. He protested abusive police practices in France, the execution of protesters without a fair trial in Spain, and various injustices in Poland.
Foucault entered the 1980s with no idea that it would be his last decade of life. He moved to the United States, where he enjoyed relatively expanded liberties to speak, teach, and explore his sexuality. Foucault intended to move to California and settle permanently, but was blindsided by a tragic AIDS diagnosis in 1984, one of the peak years of the epidemic. Prior to his official diagnosis, Foucault denied that a disease like AIDS, which allegedly targeted gay men, blacks, and other marginalized groups, was more than an invented plague that reinforced anti-liberal rhetoric. The disease was all too real, and he died some months later, leaving behind a huge wealth of unfinished work that nevertheless had already become foundational to the modern tradition.
Eribon paints a compelling portrait of a man who struggled with his private life and public persona, but never backed away from fighting against the assumptions and injustices of his time. The most pressing, yet most unanswerable question, is what Foucault might have contributed if he had not become victim to the United States’ largely unacknowledged AIDS epidemic that was a failure of the nation he wished to call home.