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Historical Figures You’ll Hear About Whilst Learning French In France – Michel Foucault

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Historical Figures You’ll Hear About Whilst Learning French In France - Michel Foucault

I want to dedicate this article to one of the best characters from history I have learnt about since I came to Montpellier to learn French at the ILA Immersion School; Michel Foucault. I have heard about a lot of cool people in my French classes and talking to my French host family but this guy wins it due to a combination of his challenging ideas and dramatic personal story.

Essential Foucault Summary for Your French Immersion Course

  • Paul-Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist and literary critic.
  • He was born in Poitiers into an upper-middle-class family.
  • He primarily dealt with the relationship between power and knowledge and how these things are used as a form of social control through social institutions.
  • He has been hugely influential in academic circles particularly in the fields of sociology, cultural studies, literary theory, feminism and critical theory.
  • His work has been very influential in activism.
  • He himself joined many activist groups for a number of causes: left-wing politics, anti-racist groups, human rights groups and penal reform.
  • He subsequently became a highly revolutionary figure.
  • His was an important figure in the LGBT movement as a lot of his work revolved around sexuality.
  • He was one of the first public figures to die of AIDS in France.

One of France’s Great Philosophers I’ve Discovered During My Language Stay

He spent the bulk of his career criticising the power of the modern state and fighting the illusion that things were the best they had ever been in the 20th century. When we talk about power here we are referring to the criminal justice, health, education and political systems. He wanted to find out how power worked and redirect to something better and this lead to him being a revolutionary figure.

If you are thinking that this is never going to be useful, think again. Since I have been studying French in Montpellier I have been lucky enough to meet many different French host families and I find a large majority of the big family dinners, the smaller takeaway nights and even afternoon coffees involve conversations on these heady topics. Foucault is a good man to know something about either for that or the debates you will have in your French classes at the ILA Immersion School.

He was somewhat ashamed of his deeply privileged background and it came to embody a lot of what he disliked about modern society. He suffered from depression and after trying to commit suicide at the age of 22 he was forced to see one of France’s most famous psychiatrists in Paris. The psychiatrist diagnosed that a lot of Foucault’s trouble came from having to hide and cover up his homosexuality as well as other inner desires. In a bid to de-shackle his sexuality Foucault travelled to many different countries exploring Europe and himself.

Alongside this grand voyage he was developing academically. Foucault became interested in some work by Nietzsche which examined how history was learnt and taught as a purely theoretical subject whereas he believed that the only reason to study history was to use it to improve the current situation. This had a huge impact on the Frenchman.

Foucault began a quest to find useful information from the past and apply it to the urgent issues of his own time. A sentiment I have seen echoed by many since I started my French language stay in Montpellier.

He first turned his attention to the treatment of people with mental illness in his book ‘Madness and Civilisation’ (Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique – 1961). He argued that the accepted wisdom that we treat people better in modern times than in the past was actually false. In his next work ‘The Birth of the Clinic’ (Naissance de la clinique – 1963) he applied a similar critique and argued that although healthcare is considered far kinder now the opposite is actually true. He poses that doctors now only look upon people as a collection of organs in a way that has a dehumanising effect.

He went on the attack the accepted views of modernity’s superiority in other areas like punishment and sexuality and developed a position of scepticism towards the view that things are so much better now in the shiny new future.

I find his irreverence to accepted wisdom very inspiring and freeing and he has been one of the French historical figures I have enjoyed learning about the most since I began my language stay here. I have discussed his theories and his interesting life a lot with my host family as they are keen amateur philosophers and I love everything in the French culture and it was great to debate his ideas with my fellow students at the ILA Immersion School in Montpellier.