This page contains a list of the best books on or by Michel Foucault. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on Foucault. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about Foucault. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by Michel Foucault in no particular order.
Foucault: A Very Short Introduction – Gary Gutting
Publisher description: Foucault is one of those rare philosophers who has become a cult figure. Born in 1926 in France, over the course of his life he dabbled in drugs, politics, and the Paris SM scene, all whilst striving to understand the deep concepts of identity, knowledge, and power.
From aesthetics to the penal system; from madness and civilisation to avant-garde literature, Foucault was happy to reject old models of thinking and replace them with versions that are still widely debated today. A major influence on Queer Theory and gender studies (he was openly gay and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1984), he also wrote on architecture, history, law, medicine, literature, politics and of course philosophy, and even managed a best-seller in France on a book dedicated to
the history of systems of thought.
Because of the complexity of his arguments, people trying to come to terms with his work have desperately sought introductory material that makes his theories clear and accessible for the beginner. Ideally suited for the Very Short Introductions series, Gary Gutting presents a comprehensive but non-systematic treatment of some highlights of Foucault’s life and thought. Beginning with a brief biography to set the social and political stage, he then tackles Foucault’s thoughts on literature, in particular the avant-garde scene; his philosophical and historical work; his treatment of knowledge and power in modern society; and his thoughts on sexuality.
How to Read Foucault – Johanna Oksala
Publisher description: Michel Foucault was a philosopher of extraordinary talent, political activist, social theorist, cultural critic, and creative historian. He irreversibly shaped the way we think today about such controversial issues as power, sexuality, madness, and criminality.
Johanna Oksala explores the conceptual tools that Foucault gave us for constructing new forms of thinking as well as for smashing old certainties. She offers a lucid account of him as a thinker whose persistent aim was to challenge the self-evidence and necessity of our current experiences, practices, and institutions by showing their historical development and, therefore, contingency.
Extracts are taken from the whole range of Foucault’s writings―his books, essays, lectures, and interviews―including the major works History of Madness, The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality.
The Lives of Michel Foucault – David Macey
Publisher description: When he died of an AIDS-related condition in 1984, Michel Foucault had become the most influential French philosopher since the end of World War II. His powerful studies of the creation of modern medicine, prisons, psychiatry, and other methods of classification have had a lasting impact on philosophers, historians, critics, and novelists the world over. But as public as he was in his militant campaigns on behalf of prisoners, dissidents, and homosexuals, he shrouded his personal life in mystery.
In The Lives of Michel Foucault — written with the full cooperation of Daniel Defert, Foucault’s former lover — David Macey gives the richest account to date of Foucault’s life and work, informed as it is by the complex issues arising from his writings.
The Cambridge Companion to Foucault – Gary Gutting
Publisher description: For Michel Foucault, philosophy was a way of questioning the allegedly necessary truths that underpin the practices and institutions of modern society. He carried this out in a series of deeply original and strikingly controversial studies on the origins of modern medical and social scientific disciplines. These studies have raised fundamental questions about the nature of human knowledge and its relation to power structures, and have become major topics of discussion throughout the humanities and social sciences. The essays in this volume provide a comprehensive overview of Foucault’s major themes and texts, from his early work on madness through his history of sexuality. Special attention is also paid to thinkers and movements, from Kant through current feminist theory, that are particularly important for understanding his work and its impact. This revised edition contains five new essays and revisions of many others, and the extensive bibliography has been updated.
The Foucault Reader – Michel Foucault
Publisher description: Michel Foucault was one of the most influential philosophical thinkers in the contemporary world, someone whose work has affected the teaching of half a dozen disciplines ranging from literary criticism to the history of criminology. But of his many books, not one offers a satisfactory introduction to the entire complex body of his work. The Foucault Reader was commissioned precisely to serve that purpose.
The Reader contains selections from each area of Foucault’s work as well as a wealth of previously unpublished writings, including important material written especially for this volume, the preface to the long-awaited second volume of The History of Sexuality, and interviews with Foucault himself, in the course of which he discussed his philosophy at first hand and with unprecedented candor.
This philosophy comprises an astonishing intellectual enterprise: a minute and ongoing investigation of the nature of power in society. Foucault’s analyses of this power as it manifests itself in society, schools, hospitals, factories, homes, families, and other forms of organized society are brought together in The Foucault Reader to create an overview of this theme and of the broad social and political vision that underlies it.
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison – Michel Foucault
Publisher description: In this brilliant work, the most influential philosopher since Sartre suggests that such vaunted reforms as the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have merely shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner’s body to his soul.
The History of Sexuality – Michel Foucault
Publisher description: Michel Foucault offers an iconoclastic exploration of why we feel compelled to continually analyze and discuss sex, and of the social and mental mechanisms of power that cause us to direct the questions of what we are to what our sexuality is.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Foucault
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Foucault
Interested in philosophy but don’t know where to start? Check out these resources:
- An Organized Collection of Online Philosophy Resources and Reading Lists
- A History of Western Philosophy in 66 Quotations (and 300+ online resources)
- A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations
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