Last modified on 23 July 2009, at 20:28

Student's Guide to Michel Foucault/Introduction

Many people have been introduced to Foucault while attending a college or university class: a professor of literature mentions one of Foucault's ideas while making a point about a novel, or a footnote in a history book refers the reader to one of Foucault's writings. Like me, you might have met Foucault elsewhere—either as a name dropped casually in a magazine article to garnish a high-brow remark, or, at the other extreme, in the form of a bad photocopy of yet another bad photocopy of an article. Whatever the occasion, you were likely eager to learn more about Foucault, and you probably tried to do just that, so you became a student of Foucault.

Like most newcomers to Foucault, however, your initial excitement probably turned into frustration. Although his writing is often clear and straightforward, it is also peppered with descriptive language that can be quite poetic and elaborate at times. This can be refreshing, but it can also be challenging. Moreover, many phrases are simply lost in translation from the original French. The biggest challenge, however, is that Foucault's writing departs from familiar contexts and breaks new intellectual ground. To help you make sense of it all, you may have read other introductions to Foucault, only to be disappointed once again (some of these merely re-tell general points that you have already learned about Foucault, while others are too technical or academic to be of much use to you as a beginner).

This Wikibook clears a path through the rough spots in order to help you gain a solid understanding of Foucault's ideas. It briefly discusses his life, his place in the history of thought, and his tremendous legacy. Of most interest to you, though, is the way in which this book uses everyday English to introduce, point by point, the main ideas in his major writings. Therefore, it is not an encyclopedia article, and it is definitely not an academic essay that obsesses over obscure points that are of no interest to you. Rather, this Wikibook is a true companion—a step-by-step guide that will serve you well until you are comfortable enough to read Foucault's brilliant writing on your own.