While Foucault excelled at philosophy and intended to pursue an academic career, his father insisted that he follow the medical profession like the rest of his family. Foucault, however, rebelled and went so far as to drop the 'Paul' from his name to merely Michel.
In 1945 Foucault moved to Paris just after the end of the war to take the entrance examinations for the prestigious institution of humanities the École Normale Supérieure d'Ulm. He then entered in 1946 whereupon he was taught by Jean Hyppolite (the French Hegelian), Maurice Merleau-Ponty and mentored by Louis Althusser. Foucault's studies were primarily in philosophy, but he also obtained qualifications in psychology. During his years at the École Normale, Foucault struggled with depression and an attempted suicide due to difficulty in coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Michel Foucault is considered the founder of a new French tradition in philosophy known as 'postmodernism', which puts the emphasis in philosophy on the subject of experience as positioned in an external world. With the arrival of 'the linguistic turn' the emphasis was on the meanings of concepts rather than the impact that concepts have had upon the world. Foucault was most concerned with the historical retrospective or 'archeology' aspect of this point. His most important works in this regard include: Madness and Civilization, Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison and The History of Sexuality.
Foucault's works, in turn, take French philosophy on a new course in the latter part of the 20th century. The theme that underlies all of his work is the relationship between power and knowledge. To show how power and knowledge interact to produce the human subject, or the self, he drew upon the disciplines of philosophy, history, psychology and sociology.
He intended to show that human beings are constituted as knowing, knowable and self-knowing subjects in relations of power and discourse. For this he needed to rethink the concept of power and analyze the connection between power and knowledge.
Foucault claimed that modern western societies are characterized by three modes of objectification which constitute human beings as subjects. These modes are: dividing practices, scientific classification and subjectification. Dividing practices objectify people by differentiating and separating them from their fellow human beings by categorizing them as normal and abnormal, sane and insane, the permitted and the forbidden. These categories provide humans identities by which they recognize themselves and allow other to recognize them.
As exemplified in Madness and Civilization, Foucault analyzed the means by which madness was established as a category of human behavior and one which legitimized the detention of individuals in institutions. He also showed how the emergence of the human sciences in the late 19th century led to the human body being treated as an 'object' to be analyzed, labeled and cured. This is still characteristic in modern medicine today and in this regard power is used to define knowledge.
According to Foucault, what authorities claim as 'scientific knowledge' is just the means for social control. As an example, he points out how the eighteenth century 'madness' was used to categorize and stigmatize not only the mentally ill but the poor, the sick, the homeless and anyone whose expressions of individuality were unacceptable.
For Foucault objectifying the human subject corresponds to historical changes in the nature of power and to developments in human and scientific knowledge. His intent, however, was to highlight how what we consider to be knowledge and the concepts through which we understand ourselves, such as 'reason', 'normality' and 'sexuality' are conditional, variable and ahistorical. In other words, they do not evolve along a 'path of progress' or represent an ongoing development, instead they change in response to the desire of authority to control and regulate the behavior of the individual.
Foucault's thought and work endeavored to show us how we must strive to build social structures that lessen the tendency for domination and to re-examine what we think we know about the effect that knowledge has on our lives. Foucault lived his life as if driven by the desire to transcend both physical and cultural limitations.