Many philosophers had scattered interests and wrote on diverse topics, but Foucault, despite his massive erudition, really had only one interest: power. His work forms one of the most systematic explorations of a topic that any philosopher has produced. He looked at the power of norms, in other words, what is considered normal and abnormal – as a gay man, he had a particular interest in the latter. By examining forms of abnormality – criminality, insanity, sexual deviance, ill health – and how they changed over time, he theorized they ways in which power functions as a form of control over populations and individuals.
Michel Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France, the son of a doctor. His father wanted him to become a doctor as well, and their somewhat strained relationship seems to have left traces in his work and life. He sat for the entrance exam to the prestigious Ecole Normal Superior, and at first failed to gain acceptance (he was 101st – only 100 were admitted!). He studied for one more year and placed fourth on the exam (placing first was the feminist philosopher Simone de Bouvior). At the Ecole Normal Superior, he was influenced by Freidrich Nietzsche, who remained influential throughout Foucault’s career. Foucault said that Nietzsche had gotten right the centrality of power in human affairs.