In 1950, and again in 1951, Michel Foucault undertook the agrégation de philosophie, which his biographer David Macey describes as a ‘fiercely competitive national examination’ and ‘one of the most severe forms of intellectual trial by ordeal to have been devised in any country’ (Macey, 1993, p. 43). This exam is a requirement for teaching philosophy in France at the lycée and university levels, and involves the writing of three day-long papers. If a candidate passes the written exam – which only one out of four typically do (Schrift, 2008) – he or she moves on to two oral exams. In the 1950s the first oral exam was on a topic that the candidate pulled from a basket, while the second oral exam involved a lesson on a fixed theme and three commentaries on texts in French, Latin and either Greek or a modern language. The first time Foucault attempted the agrégation he was eliminated in the first oral exam, for which he had pulled the topic ‘hypotheses’. The second time Foucault attempted the agrégation, after writing papers on experience, theory, Bergson and Spinoza, the topic he pulled from the basket was ‘sexuality’. According to Macey, Foucault’s ‘fluent discussion of [sexuality’s] natural, historical and cultural aspects convinced his examiners of his worth’, and he was ranked third
ex aequo in the agrégation de philosophie (Macey, 1993, p. 45). Despite his success in passing the exam,
At this time, Foucault’s academic interests were in the philosophy of Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger, and he felt that the topic of ‘sexuality’ did not provide him with a serious or appropriate opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual calibre to some of the most senior academics in France.