Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15 October 1926 in the city of Poitiers, west-central France, as the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family.
Family tradition prescribed naming him after his father, Paul Foucault, but his mother insisted on the addition of "Michel"; referred to as "Paul" at school, he expressed a preference for "Michel" throughout his life.
His father (1893–1959), a successful local surgeon born in Fontainebleau, moved to Poitiers, where he set up his own practice and married Anne Malapert. She was the daughter of prosperous surgeon Dr. Prosper Malapert, who owned a private practice and taught anatomy at the University of Poitiers' School of Medicine. Paul Foucault eventually took over his father-in-law's medical practice, while his wife took charge of their large mid-19th-century house, Le Piroir, in the village of Vendeuvre-du-Poitou. Together the couple had three children – a girl named Francine and two boys, Paul-Michel and Denys – who all shared the same fair hair and bright blue eyes. The children were raised to be nominal Roman Catholics, attending mass at the Church of Saint-Porchair, and while Michel briefly became an altar boy, none of the family was devout.
||I wasn't always smart, I was actually very stupid in school ... [T]here was a boy who was very attractive who was even stupider than I was. And in order to ingratiate myself with this boy who was very beautiful, I began to do his homework for him—and that's how I became smart, I had to do all this work to just keep ahead of him a little bit, in order to help him. In a sense, all the rest of my life I've been trying to do intellectual things that would attract beautiful boys.
|— Michel Foucault, 1983
In later life, Foucault would reveal very little about his childhood. Describing himself as a "juvenile delinquent", he claimed his father was a "bully" who would sternly punish him. In 1930 Foucault began his schooling, two years early, at the local Lycée Henry-IV. Here he undertook two years of elementary education before entering the main lycée, where he stayed until 1936. He then undertook his first four years of secondary education at the same establishment, excelling in French, Greek, Latin and history but doing poorly at arithmetic and mathematics. In 1939 the Second World War broke out and in 1940 Nazi Germany occupied France; Foucault's parents opposed the occupation and the Vichy regime, but did not join the Resistance. In 1940 Foucault's mother enrolled him in the Collège Saint-Stanislas, a strict Roman Catholic institution run by the Jesuits. Lonely, he described his years there as an "ordeal", but he excelled academically, particularly in philosophy, history and literature. In 1942 he entered his final year, the terminale, where he focused on the study of philosophy, earning his baccalauréat in 1943.
Returning to the local Lycée Henry-IV, he studied history and philosophy for a year, aided by a personal tutor, the philosopher
Louis Girard . Rejecting his father's wishes that he become a surgeon, in 1945 Foucault went to Paris, where he enrolled in one of the country's most prestigious secondary schools, which was also known as the Lycée Henri-IV. Here he studied under the philosopher Jean Hyppolite, an existentialist and expert on the work of 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hyppolite had devoted himself to uniting existentialist theories with the dialectical theories of Hegel and Karl Marx. These ideas influenced Foucault, who adopted Hyppolite's conviction that philosophy must develop through a study of history.
École Normale Supérieure and University of Paris: 1946–1951
Attaining excellent results, in autumn 1946 Foucault was admitted to the élite École Normale Supérieure (ENS); to gain entry, he undertook exams and an oral interrogation by Georges Canguilhem and Pierre-Maxime Schuhl. Of the hundred students entering the ENS, Foucault ranked fourth based on his entry results, and encountered the highly competitive nature of the institution. Like most of his classmates, he lived in the school's communal dormitories on the Parisian Rue d'Ulm.
He remained largely unpopular, spending much time alone, reading voraciously. His fellow students noted his love of violence and the macabre; he decorated his bedroom with images of torture and war drawn during the Napoleonic Wars by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and on one occasion chased a classmate with a dagger. Prone to self-harm, in 1948 Foucault allegedly attempted suicide; his father sent him to see the psychiatrist Jean Delay at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center. Obsessed with the idea of self-mutilation and suicide, Foucault attempted the latter several times in ensuing years, praising suicide in later writings. The ENS's doctor examined Foucault's state of mind, suggesting that his suicidal tendencies emerged from the distress surrounding his homosexuality, because same-sex sexual activity was socially taboo in France. At the time, Foucault engaged in homosexual activity with men whom he encountered in the underground Parisian gay scene, also indulging in drug use; according to biographer James Miller, he enjoyed the thrill and sense of danger that these activities offered him.
Although studying various subjects, Foucault soon gravitated towards philosophy, reading not only Hegel and Marx but also Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl and most significantly, Martin Heidegger. He began reading the publications of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, taking a particular interest in his work exploring the history of science. He graduated from the ENS with a DES (
diplôme d'études supérieures, roughly equivalent to an MA) in Philosophy in 1949. His DES thesis under the direction of Hyppolite was titled La Constitution d'un transcendental dans La Phénoménologie de l'esprit de Hegel (The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit).
In 1948, the philosopher Louis Althusser became a tutor at the ENS. A Marxist, he influenced both Foucault and a number of other students, encouraging them to join the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF). Foucault did so in 1950, but never became particularly active in its activities, and never adopted an orthodox Marxist viewpoint, refuting core Marxist tenets such as class struggle. He soon became dissatisfied with the bigotry that he experienced within the party's ranks; he personally faced homophobia and was appalled by the anti-semitism exhibited during the 1952-1953 "Doctors' plot" in the Soviet Union. He left the Communist Party in 1953, but remained Althusser's friend and defender for the rest of his life. Although failing at the first attempt in 1950, he passed his agrégation in philosophy on the second try, in 1951. Excused from national service on medical grounds, he decided to start a doctorate at the Fondation Thiers in 1951, focusing on the philosophy of psychology, but he relinquished it after only one year in 1952.
Foucault was also interested in psychology and he attended Daniel Lagache's lectures at the University of Paris, where he obtained a BA (licence) in Psychology in 1949 and a Diploma in Psychopathology (Diplôme de psychopathologie) from the University's Institute of Psychology (now
Institut de psychologie de l'université Paris Descartes ) in June 1952.
Early career: 1951–1955
In the early 1950s, Foucault came under the influence of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who remained a core influence on his work throughout his life.
Over the following few years, Foucault embarked on a variety of research and teaching jobs. From 1951 to 1955, he worked as a psychology instructor at the ENS at Althusser's invitation. In Paris, he shared a flat with his brother, who was training to become a surgeon, but for three days in the week commuted to the northern town of Lille, teaching psychology at the Université de Lille from 1953 to 1954. Many of his students liked his lecturing style. Meanwhile, he continued working on his thesis, visiting the Bibliothèque Nationale every day to read the work of psychologists like Ivan Pavlov, Jean Piaget and Karl Jaspers. Undertaking research at the psychiatric institute of the Sainte-Anne Hospital, he became an unofficial intern, studying the relationship between doctor and patient and aiding experiments in the electroencephalographic laboratory. Foucault adopted many of the theories of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, undertaking psychoanalytical interpretation of his dreams and making friends undergo Rorschach tests.
Embracing the Parisian avant-garde, Foucault entered into a romantic relationship with the serialist composer Jean Barraqué. Together, they tried to produce their greatest work, heavily used recreational drugs and engaged in sado-masochistic sexual activity. In August 1953, Foucault and Barraqué holidayed in Italy, where the philosopher immersed himself in Untimely Meditations (1873–76), a set of four essays by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Later describing Nietzsche's work as "a revelation", he felt that reading the book deeply affected him, being a watershed moment in his life. Foucault subsequently experienced another groundbreaking self-revelation when watching a Parisian performance of Samuel Beckett's new play, Waiting for Godot, in 1953.
Interested in literature, Foucault was an avid reader of the philosopher Maurice Blanchot's book reviews published in Nouvelle Revue Française. Enamoured of Blanchot's literary style and critical theories, in later works he adopted Blanchot's technique of "interviewing" himself. Foucault also came across Hermann Broch's 1945 novel The Death of Virgil, a work that obsessed both him and Barraqué. While the latter attempted to convert the work into an epic opera, Foucault admired Broch's text for its portrayal of death as an affirmation of life. The couple took a mutual interest in the work of such authors as the Marquis de Sade, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka and Jean Genet, all of whose works explored the themes of sex and violence.
||I belong to that generation who, as students, had before their eyes, and were limited by, a horizon consisting of Marxism, phenomenology and existentialism. For me the break was first Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a breathtaking performance.
|— Michel Foucault, 1983
Interested in the work of Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger, Foucault aided family friend Jacqueline Verdeaux in translating his works into French. Foucault was particularly interested in Binswanger's studies of Ellen West who, like himself, had a deep obsession with suicide, eventually killing herself. In 1954, Foucault authored an introduction to Binswanger's paper "Dream and Existence", in which he argued that dreams constituted "the birth of the world" or "the heart laid bare", expressing the mind's deepest desires. That same year, Foucault published his first book, Mental Illness and Personality (Maladie mentale et personalité), in which he exhibited his influence from both Marxist and Heideggerian thought, covering a wide range of subject matter from the reflex psychology of Pavlov to the classic psychoanalysis of Freud. Referencing the work of sociologists and anthropologists such as Émile Durkheim and Margaret Mead, he presented his theory that illness was culturally relative. Biographer James Miller noted that while the book exhibited "erudition and evident intelligence", it lacked the "kind of fire and flair" which Foucault exhibited in subsequent works. It was largely critically ignored, receiving only one review at the time. Foucault grew to despise it, unsuccessfully attempting to prevent its republication and translation into English.
Sweden, Poland, and West Germany: 1955–1960
Foucault spent the next five years abroad, first in Sweden, working as cultural diplomat at the University of Uppsala, a job obtained through his acquaintance with historian of religion Georges Dumézil. At Uppsala he was appointed a Reader in French language and literature, while simultaneously working as director of the Maison de France, thus opening the possibility of a cultural-diplomatic career. Although finding it difficult to adjust to the "Nordic gloom" and long winters, he developed close friendships with two Frenchmen, biochemist Jean-François Miquel and physicist Jacques Papet-Lépine, and entered into romantic and sexual relationships with various men. In Uppsala, he became known for his heavy alcohol consumption and reckless driving in his new Jaguar car. In spring 1956, Barraqué broke from his relationship with Foucault, announcing that he wanted to leave the "vertigo of madness". In Uppsala, Foucault spent much of his spare time in the university's Carolina Rediviva library, making use of their Bibliotheca Walleriana collection of texts on the history of medicine for his ongoing research. Finishing his doctoral thesis, Foucault hoped it would be accepted by Uppsala University, but Sten Lindroth, a positivistic historian of science there, was unimpressed, asserting that it was full of speculative generalisations and was a poor work of history; he refused to allow Foucault to be awarded a doctorate at Uppsala. In part because of this rejection, Foucault left Sweden. Later, Foucault admitted that the work was a first draft with certain lack of quality.
Again at Dumézil's recognition, in October 1958 Foucault arrived in the capital of Polish People's Republic, Warsaw and was placed in charge of the University of Warsaw's Centre Français. Foucault found life in Poland difficult due to the lack of material goods and services following the destruction of the Second World War. Witnessing the aftermath of the Polish October in which students had protested against the governing communist Polish United Workers' Party, he felt that most Poles despised their government as a puppet regime of the Soviet Union, and thought that the system ran "badly". Considering the university a liberal enclave, he traveled the country giving lectures; proving popular, he adopted the position of de facto cultural attaché. As in France and Sweden, homosexual activity was legal but socially frowned upon in Poland, and he undertook relationships with a number of men; one was a Polish security agent who hoped to trap Foucault in an embarrassing situation, which would therefore reflect badly on the French embassy. Wracked in diplomatic scandal, he was ordered to leave Poland for a new destination. Various positions were available in West Germany, and so Foucault relocated to the
Institut français Hamburg (where he was director in 1958–60), teaching the same courses he had given in Uppsala and Warsaw. Spending much time in the Reeperbahn red light district, he entered into a relationship with a transvestite.