Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present Day

By Joy A. Palmer | Go to book overview
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MICHEL FOUCAULT 1926-84

The central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope, remain the question, What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers? How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to practising a rationality that is unfortunately criss-crossed by intrinsic dangers… 1

Michael Foucault was born in Poitiers in 1926 and he died of AIDS in 1984 at the age of fifty-seven years. In his short life span Foucault became an emblem for a generation of intellectuals-someone who embodied in his work the most pressing intellectual issues of his time. Jürgen Habermas was to remark: 'Within the circle of the philosophers of my generation who diagnosed our times, Foucault has most lastingly influenced the Zeitgeist.' 2 Yet to characterize his work and his ideas is very difficult, because not only did he change the direction and emphasis of his thought over his lifetime but also he did not fit into any of the normal academic categories. Georges Dumèzil, the historian of religion-a mentor and strong intellectual influence upon Foucault-said that there were a thousand Foucaults: 'he wore masks, and he was always changing them'. 3 Indeed, Foucault himself indicated the difficulty of locating his politics in traditional terms:

I think I have in fact been situated in most squares on the political checkerboard, one after the another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal etc. An American professor complained that a crypto-marxist like me was invited to the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern Europe for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean. 4

Foucault had attended both Kojève's and Hyppolite's lectures on Hegel. In his inaugural lecture at the College de France he named as his closest supports and models, Dumèzil, Canguilhem (the philosopher of biology who succeeded Gaston Bachelard at the Sorbonne) and Hyppolite. He was a student of both Louis Althusser and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He grew up in the tradition of a history of philosophy that dominated the French university, a history that gave pride of place to Hegel and helped to legitimate the, then, contemporary emphases on phenomenology and existentialism, especially as it developed in the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. He was classified by the popular press as a member of the structuralist Gang of Four, along with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Foucault indicated his intellectual debts in an early essay entitled 'Nietzsche, Freud, Marx' 5 yet his relationship to Marx and Marxism was more complex and problematic, than his engagement with Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals (1887) provided a model for historical study. Foucault

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Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present Day
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