By the time he died of AIDS in 1984, Michel Foucault was probably the most influential philosopher in the world, and certainly the most provocative. The formidable, elusive Frenchman with the shaved head, the champion of madness, revolt, and ''transgressive sexuality'' who experimented with hashish, opium, and LSD, who periodically disappeared into the sadomasochistic homosexual netherworld of San Francisco, proved that abstract thought and popular culture can be kissing cousins. In opposition to the subtle regimentations of modern life, Foucault celebrated ''the overwhelming, the unspeakable, the creepy, the stupefying, the ecstatic.'' We live in the age of Madonna and Stephen King, horror and splatter movies, S&M chic and shock tactics, an age when anyone who finds some new edge to go over is an ''artist,'' the highest and least exclusive honor our culture confers. Foucault, who had no apparent interest in pop culture, became a cult figure among those who did, as James Miller reminds us in this discerning study of his life and thought: ''Students weaned on the Talking Heads and David Lynch flocked to his public appearances, cherishing the bald savant as a kind of postmodernist sphinx, a metaphysical Eraserhead whose demeanor was weird, whose utterances were cryptic.''
In some respects Foucault is one more chapter in the long-running French comedy that consists of two characters, the French bourgeois and the French intellectual, thwacking each other with rolled-up newspapers. Like the surrealists and other predecessors, Foucault found reality discouragingly middle-class and poked around for utopia in odd places: drugs, derangement, revolutionary terrorism, crime, and, of course, the complete works of the Marquis de Sade. At various times in his life he worked up enthusiasm for Maoists, ayatollahs, and the legalization of incest, child molestation, and rape.
James Miller, a professor of political philosophy at New York's New School for Social Research who has written for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and this magazine, among others, is scrupulously objective in manner but makes clear his own doubts (and those of others) about Foucault's tendency to run to extremes. Yet The Passion of Michel Foucault has its intended effect of making you respect Foucault as you can't help respecting his greatest influence, Nietzsche, whether or not you agree with him. He asked the hardest questions; he lived dangerously, as Nietzsche recommended, and thought dangerously. He was austerely devoted to Nietzsche's cryptic quest ''to become what one is.'' Like the ancient Stoics to whom he turned at the sobered-up end of his life, he was unflinching. So is % Miller, who deals as meticulously with Foucault's dark, perhaps self-destructive, side as he does with his icy illuminations of modern cultural history (Madness and Civilization, etc.). Miller does a breathtaking job of rescuing the philosopher from the dogmatic clutches of his academic acolytes. A