Foucault’s Encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche

Foucault’s Encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche


Hans Sluga




How fruitful is it to relate Foucault to Heidegger and Nietzsche? What can be learned about the genesis of Foucault’s thought from such a comparison? How does it illuminate the nature and content of his thought? How does it expand our understanding of the phenomena that Foucault explores? Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow have shown us how much one can gain from reading Foucault and Heidegger together.[1] Their book inspired Foucault to say to an interviewer: “Two of my friends in Berkeley wrote something about me and said that Heidegger was influential. Of course it was quite true, but no one in France has ever perceived it.”[2] That does not mean, however, that Foucault should be read as a genuinely Heideggerian thinker for one must also remember that he told the same interviewer that “Nietzsche was a revelation to me… I read him with great passion and broke with my life, left my job in the asylum, left France.” He never said, on the other hand, that Heidegger had played an equally crucial role for him. In contrast to the thesis put forward by Dreyfus and Rabinow, I consider it, in fact, more fruitful to read Foucault in Nietzschean terms. One must remember what he said in his last interview in 1984. “I am simply a Nietzschean, and try as far as possible, on a certain number of issues, to see with the help of Nietzsche’s texts – but also with anti-Nietzschean theses (which are nevertheless Nietzschean!) – what can be done in this or that domain. I attempt nothing else, but that I try to do well.” (FL, p. 327) [3]  That declaration still leaves open to what extent we can consider Foucault a Nietzschean philosopher, but since he does not declare himself to be a Heideggerian in this passage we can, at least, conclude that Nietzsche weighed more for him in the end than Heidegger. However, that assessment is, in turn, made more difficult because Heidegger’s own relation to Nietzsche needs to be brought into the equation. Is it possible that Foucault read Nietzsche under Heidegger’s influence and with Heidegger’s eye? We know, of course, that he also said in 1984: “I tried to read Nietzsche in the fifties, but Nietzsche by himself said nothing to me. Whereas Nietzsche and Heidegger – that was the philosophical shock.” (FL, p. 326) But does this mean that Heidegger enlightened him with respect to Nietzsche or that he abandoned Heidegger in favor of Nietzsche? I believe that something like the latter is true, but to make that belief compelling one would have to establish not only how Heidegger read Nietzsche and how Foucault read Heidegger, but also how Foucault read Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche and how he read Heidegger after reading Nietzsche himself.

Anyone setting out to examine Foucault’s encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche and, hence, the degree of his reliance on these two thinkers must take note of Foucault’s own words on this matter. “Heidegger has always been for me the essential philosopher,” he declared in his last interview in 1984. “But I recognize that Nietzsche prevailed over him… Nevertheless, these were my two fundamental experiences… [T]hese are the two authors I have read most.” In elaborating those claims, he also said on the same occasion: “I started reading Hegel and Marx, and I began to read Heidegger in 1951 or 1952; then in 1952 or 1953, I no longer remember, I read Nietzsche. I still have the notes I took while reading Heidegger – I have tons of them! – and they are far more important than the ones I took on Hegel and Marx. My whole philosophical development was determined by my reading Heidegger.” (FL, p. 326)     The words make evident that Foucault, at least at the moment of speaking, considered himself indebted to both Heidegger and Nietzsche. However, those words cannot be taken entirely, impressive as they indubitably are. While they are too specific to be dismissed offhand, they appear problematic for a number of reasons and first of all because nothing quite anticipates them in Foucault’s writings and earlier interviews. There are admittedly numerous references to Nietzsche in his work, but nowhere else does Foucault pay such fulsome tribute to Heidegger. Is it possible that in the face of his imminent death he was creating a new myth for himself with no or little foundation in his actual life? Had he not, after all, presented himself once as “the masked philosopher” and begged his readers on another occasion to “leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order”?[4] Or are we to assume that, having been silent so long (for political reasons) about the extent of his philosophical debts, he found it necessary to set the record straight in this final interview? There are still other questions to ask about this last interview. How are we to reconcile Foucault’s claim that Heidegger was one of the authors he had read most when he asserts in the same breath: “I don’t know Heidegger well enough: I practically don’t know Being and Time nor the things recently published. My knowledge of Nietzsche is much greater”? (FL, p. 326) What are we to make of the fact that the tons of Heidegger notes which he claims to have still in his possession have never shown up?[5] And what about the contradictory dates? On the one hand, Foucault says that he read both Heidegger and Nietzsche in the early nineteen-fifties, but he also maintains that Nietzsche meant nothing to him in the fifties. Does this mean that he read Nietzsche first in the fifties without the help of Heidegger and then once more after the fifties when he was familiar with Heidegger? Are we to conclude that Foucault’s decisive encounter with both Heidegger and Nietzsche came only in the nineteen-sixties?

We know, of course, that Foucault often extemporized in his interviews, that he took occasionally liberties with the facts, and often accommodated himself to the assumptions and inclinations of his interviewers. A year before his last interview he had, in fact, offered a substantially different account of how he had come to read Nietzsche. He had claimed then to have read him initially “by chance” and, “curious as it may seem, from a perspective of inquiry into the history of knowledge – the history of reason: how does one elaborate a history of rationality?” In the same interview he had described how he had considered the problem of reason, rationality, and the history of rationality originally from a phenomenological (Husserlian) perspective and how reading Nietzsche had proved “the point of rupture for me” by showing that “there is a history of the subject just as there is a history of reason.” He had gone on to say at the time how he had found these same concerns in Canguilhem who had also been “very interested in Nietzsche and was thoroughly receptive to what I was trying to do.”[6] To this he had added somewhat later in the same interview that it had just come back to him why he had first read Nietzsche: “I read him because of Bataille, and Bataille because of Blanchot.”[7] These claims made in 1983 correspond, in turn, what he had told Duccio Trombadori in yet another interview in 1978. On that occasion he had spoken of his discovery of Nietzsche “outside the university.” (IT, p. 249)  Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot together, he had added “were the authors who enabled me to free myself from the dominant influences in my university training in the early fifties – Hegel and phenomenology.” (IT, p. 246) He had tried at the time look for something different also from (Sartrean) existentialism and “I found it in my reading of Bataille and Blanchot and, through them, of Nietzsche.” (IT, p. 247) It strikes us that none of what he said in either 1978 or 1983 – neither the claim that he read Nietzsche by chance and outside the university, nor that he read him because of an interest in the history of rationality and the subject, nor the belated observation that he read him because of Bataille and Blanchot – makes any reference to Heidegger and it is far from obvious how Heidegger would have contributed to what, according to the 1978 and 1983 statements, concerned him in Nietzsche.

The two narratives can be reconciled, if we assume that Foucault is not quite accurate about the actual dates of his reading of Nietzsche. His 1984 sentence “I tried to read Nietzsche in the fifties” may well have been intended to say “I tried to read Nietzsche in the early fifties” and this could easily be explained as a slip of the tongue. That first reading may well have been influenced by Bataille and Blanchot. Foucault may, indeed, have considered it also a chance encounter in so far as was not part of his academic program at the time. While the final interview suggests that he came to understand Nietzsche through Heidegger, his remarks in 1978 and 1983 interviews suggest then a more complex trajectory in which: (1) He first read Nietzsche with the help of Bataille and Blanchot. We can date this event fairly precisely, if we accept Foucault’s statement that his interest in Nietzsche and Bataille did not interfere with his Marxism and that in 1950 he joined the Communist Party as a “Nietzschean communist.” (IT, p. 249) Foucault’s first, Bataille-inspired reading of Nietzsche took place, then, at the beginning of the fifties. (2) This reading led him to distance himself from the dominant influences of Hegelian, Husserlian, and Sartrean thought and, more broadly speaking, away from the prevailing academic opinions and attitudes. (3) That development, in turn, opened his eyes to the merits of Heidegger whom he began to read in 1951 or 1952. (4) From this he turned, once more, back to Nietzsche and now read him in 1953 inspired by his new, philosophical enthusiasm for Heidegger. (5) But this new reading of Nietzsche proved a philosophical shock and turned him from an incipient Heideggerian into the man who could say “I am just a Nietzschean.”

The year 1953 must therefore not be taken as the year when he first opened Nietzsche’s books but, rather the date when he began to read them in a new way. It is in this sense that we must understand the comments of a number of witnesses cited in Didier Eribon’s biography. Thus, Maurice Pinguet speaks of his friend’s discovery of Nietzsche during a summer vacation in Italy in 1953: “Hegel, Marx, Freud, Heidegger – this was his framework in 1953, when the encounter with Nietzsche took place. I can still see Michel Foucault reading his Untimely Meditations in the sun, on the beach at Civitavecchia.” That date is also given by Paul Veyne who claims to have got it from Foucault himself. (E, p. 62)[8] From that moment onwards, Nietzsche appears, in any case, to have played an increasingly important role in Foucault’s philosophical life. Certainly, by the end of his time in Lille – that is, by the middle of 1955 – “Foucault began to talk a lot about Nietzsche and the book he wanted to devote to his new philosophical passion.” (E, p. 62) By 1961, he was even contemplating a series of studies “in the light of a great Nietzschean inquiry.” These were to draw on Nietzsche’s demonstration “that the tragic structure on which the history of the Western world is based is none other than the rejection and forgetting of tragedy and its silent fallout.” Relying, thus, broadly on themes from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Foucault suggested that one of the topics to be studied was to be our culture’s “absolute dividing off of the dream,” its basic rejection of dreams as mere hallucination even though man finds it impossible not to consult the dream “on the subject of his own truth.” Another topic was to be the history of sexual prohibitions, “the constantly shifting and obstinate forms of repression in our culture, and not to write a chronicle of morality or of tolerance, but to reveal how the limits of the Western world and the origins of its morality are its tragic division from the happy world and from desire.”[9]

The evidence assembled so far confronts us with three questions: (1) to what extent was Foucault actually influenced by Heidegger, (2) to what extent was he influenced by Nietzsche, and (3) what was the nature of his transition from Heidegger to Nietzsche? Some readers have suggested that Heidegger’s influence was surely minimal while others have attached considerable importance to it. That Foucault mentions Heidegger only rarely by name is surely not enough to show that he had little significance for him. Only a comprehensive comparison of the two bodies of thought can settle that question. That Foucault mentions Nietzsche more frequently is, in turn,

insufficient to establish a deep connection between the two. Here, too, a comprehensive comparison is needed to settle the issue. With regard to third question, it appears safe to assert that Foucault’s early interest in Heidegger helped to stimulate his concern with Nietzsche. But it must also be said that Foucault’s turn to Nietzsche was multiply overdetermined. Not only Heidegger and phenomenology seem to have contributed to it but also Bataille and Canguilhem, as well as Foucault’s preoccupation with the history of rationality and the history of the subject, with tragedy, dream, and repression. A fully compelling story of how Heidegger and Nietzsche fit into the framework of Foucault’s thought would evidently require an account of his total intellectual and philosophical development and of all the diverse forces that came to bear on it. This essay cannot undertake such a far-reaching project; it will, instead, seek to provide a series of specific suggestions on how one might go about in answering our three questions.


Foucault and Heidegger

Foucault’s claim in 1984 that Heidegger had always been for him “the essential philosopher” has led some interpreters to postulate a deep and lasting affinity between the two. But the remark is less decisive than they make it out to be, for the question is whether Foucault identified with the project of an “essential philosophizing.” Given his often voiced ambiguity towards philosophy and his hesitations over calling himself a philosopher at all and given the way he sought to combine philosophical reasoning with scholarly, historical inquiry, it appears possible to conclude that essential philosophy was not Foucault’s concern. If Foucault meant by “essential philosophy,” moreover, a thinking that proceeds at the highest level of generality and concerns itself with “Being,” “Nothingness,” “Dasein,” “the Earth,” and so on, one might even conclude that Foucault’s characterization of Heidegger as an essential thinker was meant to distance him from that philosopher and to align him instead with Nietzsche. Foucault certainly never said “I am just a Heideggerian” (not even in his last interview) in the way he declared himself to be “just a Nietzschean.” He did admittedly say that his reading of Heidegger had determined his whole philosophical development, but this is not the same as saying that Heidegger’s thought had substantively determined his course of development, or that he had held Heidegger’s positive doctrines at any time, and it certainly does not mean that he remained in any sense a Heideggerian for the rest of his life.[10]

If Heidegger had a lasting influence on Foucault’s thought, it will require “deep” reading to bring that out. The authors of a recent collection of essays on Foucault and Heidegger show what effort it takes to unearth the supposedly Heideggerian elements in Foucault’s work. First and foremost among these is Hubert Dreyfus who has expanded and modified his earlier account of Foucault’s relation to Heidegger by arguing now that there are “rough parallels” between the two thinkers which “suggest that it might be illuminating to see how far the comparison of Heidegger’s ‘Being’ with Foucault’s ‘Power’ can be pushed.” (MR, p. 30) According to Dreyfus, the two thinkers employ these concepts roughly analogously for the understanding of cultural “practices.” He concludes that “we will find Foucault’s view approaching Heidegger’s, as the two thinkers focus their analysis on the understanding of being characteristic of modernity.” (MR, pp. 36-37) They differ, however, in the practical conclusions they draw from their corresponding insights. In contrast to Heidegger, Foucault follows Nietzsche “in affirming a continual instability in the practices defining both self and culture.” Nietzsche, thus, won out in Foucault’s ethical thinking (but, according to Dreyfus, only there). Once we bracket such concerns, Dreyfus concludes, “the structure of Foucault’s thought is thoroughly Heideggerian.” (MR, p. 50) This account of Foucault’s relation to Heidegger is certainly ingenious. It seeks to make a precise distinction between Heidegger’s contribution to Foucault’s thought and Nietzsche’s and locates the dividing line in Foucault’s later writings whereas most interpreters find Heidegger’s influence most clearly expressed in Foucault’s early work. In support of his interpretation, Dreyfus sets out to detail multiple parallels between Heidegger concept of Being and Foucault’s concept of power. In other words, he finds an affinity between the two thinkers precisely where most interpreters consider Foucault indebted to Nietzsche. In this undertaking Dreyfus is, however, not primarily interested in tracing the exact genealogy of Foucault’s thought; his concern is, rather, to make the phenomena Foucault describes work for his own essentially Heideggerian project.

Other interpreters are, by contrast, primarily concerned with what they see as the historical truth and find it easiest to tie Heidegger’s name to Foucault’s earlier writings. Thus, Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg argue in the introduction to their volume that “the presence of Heidegger is overwhelming” in Foucault’s earliest texts. (MR, p. 4) They have in mind here his introduction to Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence and his book on Mental Illness and Personality. Both works were published in 1954 and thus may belong to the period in which Foucault had discovered Heidegger but when Nietzsche had still come to him as a shock. Heidegger is, indeed, mentioned in both texts but it is rash overstatement to say that his presence in them is overwhelming. In the first of these texts Foucault undertakes to situate Binswanger’s existential analysis “within the development of the contemporary reflection on man.” (DIE, p. 31)[11] The working dimensions of this kind of “anthropology” are, he says, defined by “the context of an ontological reflection whose major theme is presence-to-being, existence, Dasein.” In the two pages that follow he lays out a framework of idea that is most familiar to us from Heidegger’s Being and Time but that he appears to ascribe mostly to Paul Hamelin’s 1941 book Der Mensch: Eine Philosophische Anthropologie. This is a curious since Häberlin provides him, in fact, only with the idea of a philosophical anthropology but uses none of the language and concepts of Heideggerian philosophy. Häberlin was, in fact, in no way attached to Heidegger’s ideas. In his 1952 book Philosophia Perennis he chided Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein, indeed, as fatally flawed.[12] We must conclude then that Foucault deliberately obscured his debt to Heidegger in his contribution to the Binswanger book. This may support the conjecture that Foucault kept consciously silent about the influence Heidegger had on him. But even when we grant this it does not follow that Heidegger’s influence was overwhelming in 1954 and that Foucault was deeply familiar with the intricacies of Heidegger’s Being and Time. And that because after the first two pages of his introduction Foucault sets his broadly Heideggerian considerations abruptly aside with the remark: “Detouring through a more or less Heideggerian philosophy is not some initiatory rite which might open a door to the esotericism of the analysis of Dasein. The philosophical problems are there; but they are not preconditions. Therefore, we may dispense with an introduction which summarizes Being and Time in numbered paragraphs, and we are free to proceed less rigorously.” (DIE, p. 33) He then proceeds to discuss dreams, Freud, Husserl, and dreams again to return finally to the philosophical concerns with which he had begun by asking how “the essential directions of Existenz, which form the anthropological structure of its entire history” are constituted. (DIE, p. 64) The answers he provides are, once again, cast in a Heideggerian language, but they are hardly Heideggerian in content. Binswanger’s analysis, he says, has brought out the structure of temporality. It has shown that “time is in essence nostalgic,” that “the time of the epic is circular or reiterative,” and that “in the opposition of light and dark” time is “marked by oscillations” in which “absence is always a pledge of return, and death, the pledge of resurrection.” (DIE, p. 64) It is in the same non-Heideggerian tone that he goes on to speak also about authenticity and historicity. In Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology Heidegger’s presence is even more uncertain. Heidegger appears only once directly in reference to Roland Kuhn’s study of schizophrenics. Foucault writes that “for the patient, the world of Zuhandenen, to use Heidegger’s term, is merely a word of Vorhandenen.”[13] The question is whether this casual remark justifies a Heideggerian of the whole text which is, after all, for the most part concerned with psychiatry rather than philosophy.

More common is the identification of a Heideggerian element in Foucault’s Order of Things. Thus, Kevin Hill is convinced that a comparison of that book and Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge “with the central views of Being and Time strongly suggests that it is primarily Heidegger that Foucault has in mind.” (MR, p. 8) And Michael Schwartz postulates that “the principal terms of investigation” in Foucault’s Order of Things “are decidedly Heideggerian.” The book, in fact, “rewrites the history of Being as an epistemic history of the experience of order.” (MR, p. 163) These judgments are based on the observation that both Heidegger and Foucault advance an epochal conception of history. But such conceptions have been familiar since Nietzsche and are reflected in the work of Oskar Spengler and Max Weber, among others. Foucault’s periodization differs, moreover, from Heidegger’s and his critique of the idea of origin in The Order of Things may, indeed, reflect an implicit critique of Heidegger. Stuart Elden argues, by contrast, that “Foucault’s connaissance/savoir distinction parallels Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference” and deduces from this a “continuity between two of the twentieth century’s foremost thinkers.” (MR, p. 202) But this overlooks the fact that discourses are, for Foucault, situated at the level of historical specificity and not that of ontology.

I do not want to claim that these summary objections are at all decisive; they are meant to indicate only that all these Heideggerian readings of Foucault require further buttressing and that in all of them supposedly Heideggerian elements are assumed to lie deep beneath the surface of Foucault’s texts. Other interpreters seek to argue more broadly like Jean Zougrana, that Foucault sought throughout “to think with Heidegger, but beyond Heidegger.” (MR, p. 6) Or they assert with Ladelle McWhorter that “a careful reading” of the two thinkers “can generate an appreciation for the similarities in their critiques of traditional conceptions of subjectivity” and that the paths of these thinkers, “however different they may be … converge in the nonplace of difference.” (MR, p. 124) Or they maintain, as Béatrice Han has done in another context, that “the Heideggerian ontology could be read as the unthought of Foucault’s oeuvre” and, hence, as that “which worked within it without being able to be clearly formulated.”[14] One need not dismiss such interpretative strategies offhand, but they surely call for extreme caution. The repeated appeals to “reading” and “careful reading” of what is not immediately visible to the human eye, the references to the “structure” of Foucault’s thought, to its “principal terms,” the attempts to identify what Foucault had “in mind,” all the talk of “suggestions,” “structural correspondences,” “similarities,” “convergences,” “parallels,” “continuities” and “the unthought” indicate that the interpreters have been engaged in the sort of deep hermeneutics of which Foucault himself expressed suspicion when he vowed: “We shall remain, or try to remain at the level of discourse itself.”(AK, p. 48)[15] Foucault also warned us that “there is no sub-text. And therefore no plethora. The enunciative domain is identical with its surface.” (AK, p. 119) In consequence, he sought to steer us away from “the obstinacy of a meaning transmitted, forgotten, and rediscovered.” (AK, p. 119) Following this advice, we should probably pursue other strategies than those employed by the interpreters and seek to determine at the level of positivities where Foucault employs the names of Heidegger and Nietzsche and where not, where he uses one kind of word and where another, where his object of discussion and the strategies of his thought are those we find also in Heidegger or Nietzsche. In short, we should probably forgo the attempt at a deep reading of Foucault’s texts and the wish to discover behind their discursive forms the face of one German philosopher or another.

It might be objected here that Foucault himself in his last interview distinguishes between “three categories of philosophers: those I don’t know; those I know and discuss; and those I know and don’t discuss.” While he has never written on Heidegger and only one short article on Nietzsche, he also says that it was “important to have a small number of authors with whom one thinks, with whom one works, but on whom one doesn’t write.” And he suggests that “perhaps some day I’ll write about them, but at that point they will no longer be instruments of thought for me.” (FL, p. 326) These remark should not, however, be taken to justify uncontrolled speculation about the Heideggerian or Nietzschean character of this or that Foucauldian text. If we are to say that Heidegger is present in these texts and Nietzsche in those others, that fact must show itself in some fashion or other at the surface of the text itself. There may, for all we know, be entirely hidden influences on Foucault’s thought but they must be left where they belong, at the level of the unthought. A final caution is, moreover, that Foucault’s claim that Heidegger and Nietzsche are authors with whom he works and whom he uses as “instruments of thought” does not imply that the substance of his thought is Heideggerian or Nietzschean. In other words, more hesitation is in place, more uncertainty is called for than some of Foucault’s interpreters display.


From Heidegger to Foucault

It seems plausible to assume that Heidegger’s formative influence on Foucault’s thinking (if there was such a thing) must have come in the period before Nietzsche proved a philosophical shock for him. That was a relatively short period, extending, according to Foucault’s own estimate, from 1951 or 1952 to 1953. We must ask ourselves then what part of Heidegger’s oeuvre Foucault would have read in this time. Given his own admission that he never became very familiar with Being and Time (nor with Heidegger’s later work) and given the state of publication of Heidegger’s writings, this must have been a small number of texts. A first clue as to which texts these might have been comes from Didier Eribon’s report that Foucault went regularly to hear Jean Beaufret in 1949 and that “Beaufret’s performances made rather an impression” on him. (E, p. 31) Beaufret was lecturing on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the time but was also talking a great deal about Heidegger. He was, moreover, Heidegger’s most ardent disciple France during those years, a fact that Heidegger had acknowledged by addressing his “Letter on Humanism” to him in the Fall of 1946. The Beaufret-Kant-Heidegger connection might suggest that Foucault would have read Heidegger’s book on Kant. If so, that reading left no further trace in his thinking apart, perhaps, from stimulating him to study Kant himself. Foucault’s interest in Kant’s anthropology, to whose importance Béatrice Han has so vividly drawn our attention, may well have originated at that point. But it is more fruitful to think that Foucault may have begun his study of Heidegger with the “Letter on Humanism.” There would have been certainly much to attract him in that work. Given his own intellectual background in Hegel and Marx, he is likely to have appreciated Heidegger’s call for a productive engagement with Marxism. And given his longstanding hostility against Sartre, he may also have been drawn to Heidegger’s biting critique of Sartre’s “humanism.”  Two other themes in the Letter may have been of even greater philosophical significance for him. The first is Heidegger’s emphasis on the importance of language, his characterization of language as “the house of Being,” and the accompanying call for “less literature and more concern with the letter.” Foucault’s other point of interest may have been the particular form which Heidegger was giving to the epochal conception of history when he argued “the truth of Being” manifests itself in distinct ways in different historical epochs.

The “Letter on Humanism” is most likely not to have been the only piece of Heidegger’s writing that drew Foucault’s attention in the period between 1951 and 1953. Apart from Heidegger’s Kant book he may also have become familiar at the time with the collection of essays Heidegger had published in 1950 under the title Holzwege. A comparative reading of this volume with Foucault’s work suggests that not everything Heidegger had to say would have been of concern to him. The introductory essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” – perhaps the most important piece in the whole volume – has, indeed, little to correspond to in Foucault’s writings. Foucault’s conception of art would always be more influenced by Nietzsche. Of greater interest to him may have been, however, the essay on “The Age of the World Picture” since it elaborates further on the epochal conception of history and addresses, in particular, the question of the history of modern rationality. It is also plausible to assume that Foucault read Heidegger’s essay on Nietzsche in that volume. If so, we may begin to see why Nietzsche came afterwards as a shock to him. For the Nietzsche whom Foucault discovered from his own reading, the one reflected in his writings, is not at all like Heidegger’s Nietzsche.[16] Where Heidegger treats Nietzsche as a metaphysician, Foucault will come to see him as being predominantly a moralist. Where Heidegger makes Nietzsche’s Will to Power the centerpiece of his interpretation, Foucault will concern himself first and foremost with The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and with On the Genealogy of Morals. Where the will to power is for Heidegger a metaphysical hypothesis and conjoined to an equally metaphysical notion of the eternal recurrence of the same, power is for Foucault an anthropological, sociological, and political notion and the eternal recurrence the experience of a subject losing its identity. (IT, p. 248)

We still have to answer the question in what way Foucault’s return to Nietzsche was to come to him as a shock, after reading the “Letter on Humanism,” Holzwege, and other assorted Heideggerian writings. How did Nietzsche ultimately win out over Heidegger? The question becomes more acute when we consider that, according to Pinguet, it was Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations that caught Foucault’s attention in 1953. What could it possible have been in those essays that came to Foucault as a shock and a challenge? Certainly not Nietzsche’s attacks on David Friedrich Strauss and also not his eulogies on Schopenhauer and Wagner. A more likely candidate for Foucault’s interest might have been Nietzsche’s essay on the use and abused of history with its distinction between monumental, antiquarian, and critical history and its call for a life-affirming use of historical knowledge. But even that can hardly have seemed shocking to him from the perspective of the mid-twentieth century and the essay (as, indeed, the whole of the Untimely Meditations) strikes us today as one of Nietzsche’s less provocative texts. It is, in any case, far from obvious how much of an impact that essay had on Foucault. When he wrote “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History” only one of the sixty-four footnotes refers to it. But if it was not the content of the Untimely Meditations that came as a shock to him, it must have been their style and their style of thinking. The book is certainly not written in the traditional philosophical manner, that is, from a perspective of high philosophical abstraction. Nietzsche seems to stand, rather, in the middle of life in the Untimely Meditations, ready to comment on the most mundane things that surround him, oblivious of the conventions and refinements of the philosophical discourse. Here was, indeed, a new way of doing philosophy – one that ignored the long-established distinction between the philosophical and the ordinary or, as we might say with Heidegger, the distinction between the ontological and the ontic. Foucault’s comments in 1983 confirm that it was this deviation from the philosophical norms, this refusal to engage in a pure, “essential” philosophizing that came as a shock and challenge to him in his reading of Nietzsche. “When you open The Gay Science after you have been trained in the great time-honored university traditions – Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl – and you come across those rather strange, witty, cheeky texts, you say: Well, I won’t do what my contemporaries, colleagues or professors are doing; I won’t just dismiss this.” (SP, p. 447) The outcome was for Foucault not an interest in “the actual history of Nietzsche’s thought” but in the “maximum of philosophical intensity,” in “the current philosophical effects” that could be found in Nietzsche’s texts.


Foucault and Nietzsche

We may ask at this point what this maximum of philosophical intensity, what the philosophical effects were that Foucault derived from Nietzsche. No single answer will, however, suffice, for there are, in fact, different Nietzsche’s in Foucault’s life corresponding roughly to the different phases in his thinking that he himself once distinguished. (FL, p. 318) The first Nietzsche was, no doubt, the one who was in Foucault’s mind associated with Bataille and Blanchot. “The idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself is what was important to me in my reading of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot,” Foucault said of this period in 1978. (IT, p. 241) This limit-experience was to be conceived in contrast to the phenomenological experience which sought to bring its reflective gaze to bear “on the everyday in its transitory form,” whereas Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot  he said had been trying “to reach a point in life that is as close as possible to the ‘unlivable’.” (IT, p. 241) Experience served for them the function of wrenching the subject from itself, “of seeing that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its destruction.” (IT, p. 241)  From this derived for Foucault eventually a second Nietzsche who helped him to describe the history of knowledge and reason freed from the phenomenological assumption of a founding, transhistorical subject. What mattered to him in this second Nietzsche was the realization that there is a history of the subject as well of reason. That was, however, a lesson that dawned on him only gradually for he later complained that even Madness and Civilization, published in 1961, “was still close to admitting an anonymous and general subject of history.”[17] A new aspect of Nietzsche appeared to Foucault, however, in the late 1960’s. This third Nietzsche was the genealogical thinker, the philosopher of the will to power. His discovery may have due in part to publication of Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy in 1962. For Deleuze, Nietzsche’s essential problem was “the value of values, of the evaluation from which their value arises, thus the problem of their creation.”[18] And since this creation of values was to be explained in terms of a notion of force or will, Nietzsche was for Deleuze primarily the philosopher of the will to power. With the help of Deleuze, Foucault began to see himself now as a genealogist of morals and in 1975 spoke accordingly of a new kind of affinity with Nietzsche: “It was Nietzsche who specified the power relation as the general focus, shall we say, of philosophical discourse … Nietzsche is the philosopher of power, a philosopher who managed to think of power without having to confine himself within political theory in order to do so.” (PK, p. 53)[19] We find this third Nietzsche most clearly reflected in works like Discipline and Punish (1975) and the first, introductory volume to his History of Sexuality (1976) where Foucault sets out to show how social and moral norms are to be understood as transfer points in relations of power. Yet, he was not to remain with these themes. As he was breaking with Deleuze in the late seventies, his philosophical concerns were also taking once again a new direction. When questioned, he said now that he was no longer doing the genealogy of morals. (DR, p. 240) The question of power, he declared, no longer interested him, nor the problem of sex. Instead, he announced a new concern with “problems about techniques of the self.” (DR, p. 229) His crucial question, he said, was how we “create ourselves as a work of art,” how to conceive of an “aesthetics of existence.” And in this, he saw himself once again indebted to Nietzsche. Rejecting any suggestion that this move was bringing him close to Sartre’s concern with authenticity, Foucault resolutely declared himself “much closer to Nietzsche’s than to Sartre’s.” (DR, p. 237) Where Nietzsche had initially meant for him the destruction of the subject, he now identified him with its aesthetic production. This forth and final Nietzsche was, thus, in a way a complement to the first.

Since the story of Foucault’s appropriation of Nietzsche is too complex to be told here in full, I will restrict my attention now to the genealogical Nietzsche, the one who stands in the middle of Foucault’s engagement with Nietzsche. In narrowing my focus to this particular significant period in Foucault’s appropriation of Nietzsche I hope to be able to address two crucial questions: first, to what extent Foucault was actually in debt to Nietzsche and secondly to what extent he nevertheless went beyond him. Having identified such a middle period, one must add that Foucault’s concern with the genealogical Nietzsche was by no means disconnected from his earlier interests in him. We can see him rather as trying to integrate his earlier take on Nietzsche into this new one. This becomes evident, for instance, in his seminal essay on “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in which Foucault’s announces a threefold agreement with Nietzsche concerning (1) his conception of the genealogical method, (2) his understanding of the goals of the genealogical enterprise, and (3) his assessment of its broad implications. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” harks, however, at the same time back to Foucault’s earliest concerns with Nietzsche. Published in 1971, the essay may, indeed, incorporate some earlier material. This is suggested by three characteristics. The first is the essay’s concern with “the destruction of the subject,” a theme that had originated in Foucault’s earliest engagement with Nietzsche. The second characteristic is that Foucault does not employ his own notion of power even though the concept had become important to him by 1971. Instead he speaks of the “hazardous play of dominations” and interprets that play in terms of Deleuze’s notion of force. (NGH, pp. 148-150)[20] The third indication that “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” has earlier roots lies in the peculiar style of the essay, its occasionally ecstatic, almost dithyrambic tone which differs markedly from the colder, more scientific prose Foucault was otherwise writing in the seventies. If these conjectures are right, it would follow that Foucault had been interested in Nietzsche’s genealogical method long before he himself became a genealogist.[21]

In order to appreciate Foucault’s take on the genealogical enterprise and in order to settle the question to what extent it was meant to continue Nietzsche’s genealogy, one must throw a glance, first, at the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche writes there that his ultimate goal is to construct a “real history of morals.” He warns us accordingly against an “English hypothesis-mongering into the blue.” The genealogist, he declares, must concern himself, instead, with “that which can be documented, which can actually be confirmed and has actually existed, in short, the whole, long, hard-to-decipher hieroglyphic script of man’s moral past.” (GM, preface, 7)[22] It is, however, important to note that Nietzsche neither delivers nor promises such a history in his book. The “On” in its title implies, in fact, that the work is meant to explore the possibility of a genealogical inquiry, not to provide a worked-out genealogical deduction. Nietzsche is, in any case, certain that no single person could carry such a project to completion. In an appendix to the first essay he expresses, instead, the hope that his book “might serve to give a powerful impetus in such a direction” and he calls for a concerted effort to advance the historical study of morality. (GM, 1, note) In Foucault’s essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” we find him largely agreeing with these methodological principles. Paraphrasing Nietzsche’s words, Foucault speaks of genealogy as “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary.” The enterprise, he writes, “operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times…Genealogy, consequently, requires patience and a knowledge of details and it depends on a vast accumulation of source materials…. In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition.” (NGH, pp. 139-140.) It demands, in other words, the kind of sustained scholarship that Foucault himself practiced over many years and that led him to speak fondly of “one of the more ancient or more typical secret societies of the West,…. the great warm and tender Freemasonry of useless erudition.” (PK, p. 79)

In his essay Foucault also expresses agreement with the goal of Nietzsche’s genealogical inquiry: the determination of “what origin our terms good and evil actually have.” (GM, preface, 3) But he points out that the word “origin” (Ursprung) is deeply ambiguous. It is sometimes meant to denote the place from which something derives its legitimation. However, he writes, we must understand that Nietzsche uses the word “Ursprung” interchangeably with the more neutral “Herkunft” and speaks thus not only of the “Ursprung”, the origin of good and evil” but also the “Herkunft”, the descent or ancestry of our moral prejudices. Even the latter formulation has to be interpreted properly according to Foucault for he wants to see Nietzsche not as specifically focused on the question of the historical beginnings of morality but on that of its validity and legitimation. That Nietzsche’s genealogy intends no legitimation of moral values is, of course, made patently clear in his rude persiflage of the Platonic allegory of the cave. Where Plato had insisted that the philosopher must escape from the human cave in order to discover the origin of value, Nietzsche asserts that “ideals are made on earth”, in the dark, smelly cave of human life and are manufactured from falseness and self-deception. (GM, 1:14) Against all forms of moral absolutism, the genealogist maintains thus a resolutely historical and critical stance and Foucault entirely agrees with that judgment. He insists for this reason that “the work of the intellect is to show that what is, does not have to be, what it is.” (FL, p. 252) and for the same reason admonishes us “to dig deep to show how things have been historically contingent, for such and such reasons intelligible but not necessary.” (FL, p. 209) In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” he argues accordingly that the genealogist must seek to find behind things “not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.” (NGH, p. 142) Genealogy, understood as a history of descent, does therefore not involve the “erecting of foundations; on the contrary, it disturbs what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself.” (NGH, p. 147) Every search for the origin of morality will, in consequence, take the form of a critique of values.

In the last part of his essay Foucault confronts genealogy with history in the traditional sense. He points out that Nietzsche questioned the traditional form of historical investigation with its claim to a suprahistorical authority. The genealogist, by contrast, “will push the masquerade to its limit and prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing. No longer the identification of our faint individuality with the solid identities of the past, but our ‘unrealization’ through the excessive choice of identities.” (NGH. p. 160f.) Genealogical inquiry is, in other words, meant to deprive the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature. It is here, in this last part of the essay, where Foucault appears to be most in tune with the Nietzsche he had discovered through Bataille and Blanchot, the Nietzsche who had been concerned with the destruction and annihilation of the subject. Two points stand out from these dense formulations as to the broad implications of  a genealogical inquiry. And these implications hold presumably still in this post-Bataille, post-Blanchot reading of Nietzsche. The first is that the inquiry cannot lay claim to a detached, objective, and timeless truth, but must understand itself as a practical tool for the critique of values. The second is that such a critique of values must destroy at the same time the idea of a fixed human identity. The genealogical enterprise, far from being a search for human identity, is, in fact, committed to its dissipation. Instead of postulating solid identities we must learn to engage in radical “experimentation with ourselves.”

Though Foucault voices broad agreement with Nietzsche’s conception of the genealogical project, he does not, however, mean to follow him in every respect. His writings show rather that he freely appropriated the Nietzschean project, adapting it to his own purposes where he saw problems, obscurities, or shortcomings. Most problematic for him was evidently Nietzsche’s obliviousness to the difficulties in the path of the genealogical project. A complete history of morals and, in particular, an account of the historical origins of morals, would, presumably, have to reach back into the deepest past, into the evolution of man and the millennia stretching from the appearance of our species to the advent of recorded history. Nietzsche seems insufficiently concerned with the fact that a fully documented history of the whole “hieroglyphic script” of morality may be in principle unavailable because the history of morality coincides with the whole history of our species. For this reason any totalizing account of the ancestry and descent of morality would have to be precisely what Nietzsche seeks to avoid: a mere “hypothesis-mongering” – plausible at best but inevitably contestable. Nietzsche’s treatment of the history of morals is, indeed, largely speculative, even though he restricts his attention almost entirely to the moral history of Europe. What concerns him most in The Genealogy of Morals is the transition from master- to slave-morality, an event coinciding roughly with the end of the Graeco-Roman age and the rise of Christianity. Even here his treatment is summary. He subsumes the whole Christian age under the heading of slave-morality with no acknowledgement of the significant differences between ancient, medieval, and modern forms of Christianity. The speculative character of Nietzsche’s genealogy becomes most evident in his treatment of what he takes to be the initial phase of moral history. There existed, according to him, at the beginning a populace great in numbers but shapeless and shifting. On these “a conqueror and master race” which is “organized on a war footing, and with the power to organize, unscrupulously lays its dreadful paws.” Nietzsche asserts that “the shaping of a population, which had up till now been unrestrained and shapeless, into a fixed form, happened at the beginning with an act of violence and could be concluded only with acts of violence.” The oldest state appeared thus “as a terrible tyranny, as a repressive and ruthless machinery and continued working until the raw material of people and semi-animals had been finally not just kneaded and made compliant but also shaped.” (GM, 2:17) In Nietzsche’s story the conquered race eventually came to resent their master’s domination. “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.” (GM, 1: 10) Since our system of values is the product of this slave revolt and is for that reason inherently flawed, Nietzsche envisages the prospects of a new revolution that will reverse the destructive damage of the earlier event. He writes: “But at some future time, a time stronger than our effete self-doubting present, the true Redeemer will come, whose surging creativity will not let him rest in any shelter or hiding place,… so that when he comes forth into the light he may bring with him the redemption of that reality from the curse placed upon it by a lapsed ideal.” (GM, 2: 24)

I have summarized Nietzsche’s account because it generates a number of problems which Foucault sets out to resolve in his own genealogical inquiry. We want to ask Nietzsche: from where does the original division between an unformed populace and a conquering master race come? Why is the history of morals as a whole to be understood as the struggle between a ruling and a ruled class? How can the supposedly weaker, subservient class ever come to overthrow its masters? Why is the history of morality inevitably one of great revolutions and counter-revolutions? What justifies the hope for a coming revolution in morality? Why is that revolution to be conceived in terms borrowed from the Christian logic of sin and salvation? And, more generally: why is the use of power ultimately always that of an unrestrained violence? Behind Nietzsche’s whole account of the history of morality lies, in fact, a distinctive understanding of the nature of power. Relations of power are for him always inherently hierarchical: a suppressive power is always exerted by a stronger group on a weaker one. There is therefore, never a genuine balance of power. There is only domination and there are sudden reversals in domination. This story is justified by Nietzsche in terms of a global conception of the world as will to power in which the will to power is interpreted as being always an overpowering force. Moral phenomena are, hence, epiphenomenal to the will to power but the validity of the underlying view of the world is never seriously tested.

We can read Foucault’s genealogical work, particularly in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, as a redoing of Nietzsche’s genealogical project – one that seeks to bypass its problems. In contrast to Nietzsche, Foucault makes no attempt at a totalizing history of morals and altogether ignores the question of the initial emergence of morality. He concerns himself, instead, with specific historical moments and seeks to show how they shaped our view of ourselves. He concerns himself, in other words, with telling, paradigmatic tales, assuming evidently that a critique of morality does not call for an over all historical narrative. Even a single revealing interlude may be sufficient to establish the conditioned and historical nature of our values. In contrast to Nietzsche and his concern with historical origins and totalizing historical and perspectives, Foucault’s genealogical investigations are pointedly specific, concerned with particular phenomena at particular moments of time. Foucault is, indeed, profoundly suspicious of the intellectual as “spokesman of the universal” and calls, instead, for the emergence of a new type of intellectual: the specific intellectual who concerns himself with the particular, the local, and the temporally circumscribed. In conversation with Deleuze he says in 1975: “The intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of  the collectivity; rather it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘discourse.’ In this sense theory does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice: it is practice. But it is local and regional… and not totalizing. This is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious… A ‘theory’ is the regional system of this struggle.” (LCP, pp. 208-209)

In the first volume of The History of Sexuality Foucault focuses accordingly on the historically specific manner in which we have come to create behaviors, codes, discourses, and institutions incorporating the facts of sex. The investigation is historically specific in the sense that it deals only with norms that have developed in Western Europe since the sixteenth century. But the particular narrative is meant to illuminate at the same time the larger arena of moral life. Where Nietzsche had sought to understand human relations in terms of the global concept of the will to power, Foucault’s sees power relations as exclusively social, multiple, and variable in character. Adopting what he calls a strictly nominalist point of view, he denies altogether that there is a single phenomenon to be called power or will to power. “Power”, he writes, “is constructed and functions on the basis of particular powers, myriad issues, myriad affects of power.” (PK, p. 188) To this he adds succinctly in another place that power “is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.” (HS, p. 94)[23] And these relations are meant to be exclusively social in character – “economic processes, knowledge relations, sexual relations.” (HS, p. 94)

Having freed himself from Nietzsche’s master narrative, Foucault is no longer obliged to think of power as inherently an overpowering. Instead he can look at the diverse manifestations of power and can, thereby, come to understand that that the creation and enforcement of moral norms does not inevitably involve acts of violence. Drawing attention to the rise of pedagogical, medical, and psychiatric practices and to the emergence of organized processes of surveillance, examination, and classification of social phenomena, he notes that sexual norms are, in fact, today primarily constituted and maintained through a discourse that permeates the various layers of modern society. Foucault rejects therefore Nietzsche’s assumption that power relations are inevitably relations of domination, that power descends necessarily in a linear direction from those who have it to those subjected to it, and that the history of morals can therefore be summarized as the struggle between a ruling class and a ruled one. He declares, instead, that he does not have in mind “a general system of domination exerted by one group over another, a system whose effects, through successive derivations, pervade the entire social body.” (HS, p. 92) He has therefore also no need to commit himself to the assumption of historically fixed social stratifications and can account for social transformations in ways that are effectively cut off for Nietzsche.

Foucault does not exclude the possibility of systems of domination. He connects the emergence of modern sexuality indeed with the rise of the bourgeoisie as a new ruling class. But he does not regard hierarchical domination as essential to the working of power. He insists, rather, that, even where we can distinguish a ruling and a ruled class, power must be assumed to circulate through the entire social system. There are as a result counter-currents in every system of domination. Hence, as he famously said, “where there is power, there is resistance.” (HS, p. 95) [24]  And for that reason there is “no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix.” (HS, p. 94) Because he sees power as circulating through the entire body of society and because he also assumes that it flows sometimes in large currents and sometimes invisibly through the social capillaries, he does not believe that moral change inevitably involves revolutionary upheaval. “Are there no great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions, then?” he asks himself in The History of Sexuality and he answers himself in uncompromisingly anti-Nietzschean words: “Occasionally, yes. But more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds.” (HS, p. 96)  Foucault issues, therefore, no call for a radical revaluation of all values. He does not foresee an overman who could transform the culture in a radical fashion. He assigns, accordingly, also a different and more modest role to the intellectual and the philosopher. On his account, the critical intellectual can help transform an oppressive system of values but he can do so only by gradually undermining it by exposing the mechanisms through which it functions. For Foucault, political power is effective only as long as it succeeds masking itself. “Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.” (HS, p. 86) The intellectual’s contributes to the transformation of a system of power by helping to bring to light its underground operations. There is, according to Discipline and Punish, a historical explanation for this peculiar function of the modern, specific intellectual. While power has in the past always shown itself publicly, it is “exercised through its invisibility” in modern, rule-governed, “disciplinary” society.[25] To make these invisible mechanism appear, to show up their multiple effects is the principal task of the Foucauldian intellectual. Since power relations are pervasive and since there is no escape from them, the intellectual’s analyses of these relations, and of the nature and effects of power must, however, be understood as internal to the network of power relations. The Foucauldian intellectual knows of no great escape from the existing system of power. He can, for that reason, not take on the role of a great redeemer who can bring about a radical revaluation of all values.

We can see Foucault, then, in his middle period as engaged in a genuinely Nietzschean project, but pursuing it in his own ways and for that reason ending with conclusions that differ radically from Nietzsche’s. “Genealogy of morals,” broadly understood, can certainly serve as the title of what Foucault was doing at the time. But as an intellectual living a century after Nietzsche, he was evidently skeptical of Nietzsche’s large-scale historical perspectives, skeptical also of his global conception of the will to power, and skeptical finally of Nietzsche’s post-Christian faith in the redemptive power of the intellect. It is useful to recall at this point Foucault’s characterization of himself as a Nietzschean who concerns himself with anti-Nietzschean theses which he understands, nevertheless, in Nietzschean manner. It is obviously not only in his agreement with Nietzsche, but just as much in his questioning of Nietzsche’s assumptions that Foucault sees himself working in Nietzsche’s spirit.  It must be admitted that Foucault’s anti-Nietzschean Nietzscheanism comes at a price. Can a general critique of morality be derived from specific genealogies of the sort that Foucault constructs? Nietzsche’s own project, if it were possible, would certainly lead to the devaluation of all values hitherto. Specific genealogies, by contrast, can only destruct specific moral claims. The Foucauldian genealogist will find himself therefore forced to engage in a never-ending diagnostic and destructive process. Whenever he has unmasked one form of moral absolutism, he will find himself compelled to take on another one. This does not detract from the importance of his undertaking, but his efforts will yield at best always partial successes. We must also observe that Foucault cannot escape as easily from the call for a general theory of power as he might wish to. For one thing, we find him often speaking of power not as an array of various mobile and unequal social relations, but as something flowing through the veins of society. He then seems to employ the notion not only as a descriptive term but as an explanatory principle. Has he not at such points simply substituted his own global conception for Nietzsche’s? Foucault’s belief that power circulates continuously and that wherever there is power there is resistance certainly seem to be global claims about the nature of power and these are no more justified than Nietzsche’s assertion that the will to power is inevitably an overpowering.

Such doubts may explain why Foucault eventually left the field of genealogical investigations behind and no longer concerned himself with the concept of power. Always open to changes in direction, he now began to see himself engaged in the study  of “problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought.” The phrase certainly evokes Heideggerian associations, but when he spoke of problematizations he was, in fact, relating them to “the arts of existence” which he explained in terms as “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.”[26] His concern was, in other words, in effect once again more Nietzschean than Heideggerian. What he wanted, after all, was the exploration of “new life-styles not resembling those that have been institutionalized.” (FL, p. 229) It was from this interest in “the exercise of the self on the self” that his fourth and final take on Nietzsche emerged. (EST, p. 282)

We must not think that these considerations settle the problem of Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s influence on Foucault. My discussion is meant only to indicate the questions that need to be answered for such a settlement. It is meant to reveal the complexity of the enterprise. We should not, however, assume that these questions have easy answers. Let us conclude then with a passage from Nietzsche’s Gay Science which tells us how difficult, how impossible, how vain our search may prove to be:

We, too, associate with ‘”people”; we, too, modestly don the dress in which

(as which) others know us, respect us, look for us – and then we appear in

company, meaning among people who are disguised without wanting to admit

  1. We, too, do what all prudent masks do, and in response to every curiosity

that does not concern our “dress” we politely place a chair against the door. But

there are also other ways and tricks when it comes to associating with or

passing among men – for example, as a ghost, which is altogether advisable

if one wants to get rid of them quickly and make them afraid. Example: One

reaches out for us but gets no hold of us. That is frightening. Or we enter through

a closed door. Or after all lights have been extinguished. Or after we have died.[27]





[1] Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1982 (The second edition of 1983 hereafter cited as “DR”). We know now that Dreyfus was more committed to a Heideggerian reading of Foucault than Rabinow. The matter was important to him not only for setting the historical record clear; he was just as much interested in asking to what extent he could use Foucault’s thought for his own Heidegger-inspired account of human practices.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Truth, Power Self,” in Technologies of the Self, edited by Luther H. Martin and others, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 1988, pp. 12. He had added that Being and Time was difficult reading “but the more recent works are clearer.” It is not at all obvious, however, what he meant here by “the more recent works. I will argue below that they are likely to have been Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism and the essays collected in Holzwege. I do not assume that Foucault was referring to the work of the late Heidegger which he claims in his 1984 interview not to have known. Though he recognizes the influence of Heidegger in the 1982 interview he goes on, just as would do in 1984, to put even greater emphasis on the importance of Nietzsche for him. . “Nietzsche was a revelation to me… I read him with a great passion and broke with my life, left my job in the asylum, left France.” (p. 13) He never ascribed such a crucial role to Heidegger.

[3] “FL” refers to Michel Foucault, Foucault Live, translated by John Johnston, edited by Sylvere Lotringer, Semiotexte, New York 1989.

[4] Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” in Michel Foucault, The Essential Writings, vol. 1, p. 321 and Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Harper, New York 1976, p. 17.

[5] Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg, “Toward a Foucault Heidegger Auseinandersetzung,” in Foucault and Heidegger. Critical Encounters, edited by Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2003, p. 4. The book will be cited hereafter as “MR.”

[6] On these points see also see also the “Interview with Foucault” conducted by Duccio Trombadori in Michel Foucault, Essential Works vol. 3, ed. By James D. Faubion, New Press, New York 2000, p. 256. This interview will be cited hereafter as “IT.”

[7] Michel Foucault, “Structuralism and Post-structuralism,” in Michel Foucault, The Essential Works, vol. 2, pp. 438-439. The interview is referred to hereafter as “SP.”

[8] “E” refers to Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault,

[9]  Michel Foucault, Folie et déraison, first edition, 1961, p. ix, as quoted in E, p. 94.

[10]  When Foucault told Trombadori in 1978 of his early interest in “existential analysis,” or, as he also called it, “phenomenological psychiatry,” he added: “Ronald Laing was impressed by all that as well,… (he in a more Sartrean and I in a more Heideggerian way.” To this ha added dryly: “But we moved on to other things.” (IT, p. 257)

[11] “DIE” refers to Michel Foucault, “Dream, Imagination and Existence,” translated by Forrest Williams, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 19, 1986

[12] Paul Häberlin, Philosophia Perennis, Springer, Berlin 1952, p. 66.

[13] Michel Foucault Mental Illness and Psychology, Harper, New York 1976, p. 52.

[14] Béatrice Han, Foucault’s Critical Project. Between the Transcendental and the Historical, Stanford U. P., Stanford 2002, p. 13.

[15] “AK” refers to Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Harper, New York 1976.

[16] Hans Sluga, “Heidegger’s Nietzsche” in That Blackwell Companion to Heidegger, edited by Mark Wrathall (forthcoming).

[17] AK, p. 16. I owe this reference to Erin Beeghly who has helped me in various ways to achieve a better understanding of Foucault.

[18] Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Columbia University Press, Ithaca, NY 1980, p. 1.

[19]“PK” refers to Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, translated by Colin Gordon etc., edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, New York 1980.

[20] “NGH” refers to Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Countermemory, Practice, translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, edited by Donald F. Bouchard, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1977. The book is hereafter referred to as “LCP.”

[21] Continuities in Foucault’s reception of Nietzsche are also suggested by his 1973 lectures on “Truth and Juridical Forms” (Essential Works, vol. 3). The lectures were meant to show “how social practices may engender domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts, and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge.” (p. 2) Foucault added that “what I say here won’t mean anything if it isn’t connected to Nietzsche’s work.” (p. 5) He hoped that “by using the Nietzschean model,” we would be able “to do a history of truth.” (p. 15) Drawing on Nietzsche’s Gay Science, a text he admired and had once edited in collaboration with Deleuze, he spoke of “the subject in its unity and sovereignty” as one of the shadows of God and then repeated Nietzsche’s old question: “When will we complete our de-deification of nature?” (p. 10) Nietzsche, he also declared, had said in the same work that understanding was a compromise or settlement between “laughter, lament, and detestation.” It followed that the drives which lie at the root of knowledge involve a distancing from the object and “a will, finally, to destroy it.” (p. 11) Behind knowledge there lay thus “a radical malice of knowledge” which manifested itself in a relation of distance and domination, “not unification but a precarious system of power.” (p. 12) In a Nietzschean “politics of truth” knowledge was seen as “a certain strategic relation in which man is placed.” (p. 14) Its perspectival character derived directly from ‘the polemical and strategic character of knowledge.” (p. 14) Such remarks refer us back all the way to the Nietzsche whom Foucault had come to know through Bataille and Blanchot; they speak also of the Nietzsche who mattered to him in relation to a history of knowledge; they clearly reflect Foucault’s genealogical concerns with knowledge and power, and the finally even gesture forward to the question of the construction of the subject.

[22] “GM” refers to Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Carol Diethe, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994.

[23]  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, translated by R. Hurley, Pantheon Books, New York 1978,

[24] Foucault provides, in fact, few reasons for the global terms in which he sometimes characterizes power relations. In a late interview he argues somewhat weakly that “power relations are possible only insofar as the subjects are free.” For if anyone were completely at someone else’s disposal and thus subject to limitless violence, “there wouldn’t be any relations of power.” In order for there to be power relations, he says, “there must be at least a certain degree of freedom on both sides… This means that in power relations there is necessarily the possibility of resistance.” But this makes the claim, implausibly enough, a matter of definition rather than a substantial insight into the working of power. (Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self” in The Essential Works, vol. 1, translated by R. Hurley, edited by Paul Rabinow, The New Press, New York 1997, p. 292.

[25] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, translated by A. Sheridan,  Pantheon Books, New York 1977, p. 187.

[26]  Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, translated by R. Hurley, Vintage Books, New York 1986, pp. 11 and 10.

[27]  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 365, translated by Walter Kaufmann. My thanks to Hubert Dreyfus for his comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Comments are closed