Foucault: A Postmodern Kantian or Parodic Nietzschean?

Under the pseudonym Maurice Florence, Foucault writes that if it is possible for him to find a “home in the philosophical tradition,” then his at least semi-comfortable dwelling place is “within the critical tradition of Kant, and his undertaking could be called A Critical History of Thought.”[1] “Florence” then explains what comprises a Foucauldian critical history of thought. To begin with, such a history must not be equated with a history of ideas; rather, if we understand thought as “the act that posits a subject and an object in their various possible relations,” then Foucault’s project is “an analysis of the conditions under which certain relations between subject and object are formed or modified, to the extent that these relations are constitutive of a possible knowledge.”[2] Clearly, with his choice of terminology, Foucault is evoking Kantian resonances. Reference, for example, to “conditions” in conjunction with what constitutes “possible knowledge,” brings to mind Kantian concerns; yet, as “Florence” continues his explanation, we realize that the Kantian terminology has been infused with new meanings. For example, in contrast with Kant’s focus upon stable, transcultural structures of the human mind which make possible and intelligible the objects of our experience, Foucault’s critical history of thought is not concerned with “defining the formal conditions of a relation to objects”; nor is it “a matter […] of determining the empirical conditions that at a given moment might have permitted the subject in general to become conscious of an object already given in reality.”[3] Rather, with an emphasis on historical specificities, local context, and the contingent, mutable nature of our existence, Foucault is interested in how a subject comes to be a particular kind of subject at a particular moment in history.  As he explains,

the question is one of determining what the subject must be, what condition is imposed on it, what status it is to have, and what position it is to occupy in reality or in the imaginary, in order to become the legitimate subject of one type of knowledge or another. In short, it is a matter of determining its mode of “subjectivization.”[4]

Correlative to this process of subjectivization is the process of objectivization. That is, the subject itself, as the result of the emergence of various truth games—the rules structuring discursive fields and practices and thus creating the context for statements to be seen as true or false—becomes an object of possible knowledge. Here the idea is to analyze why, for instance, certain practices, institutions, and disciplines give rise to specific objects of knowledge.   The principal objects in view are, of course, subjects. As “Florence” explains, “Foucault also tried to analyze the constitution of the subject as it might appear on the other side of a normative distribution and become an object of knowledge—as an insane, ill, or delinquent individual.”[5] Since institutions along with established disciplinary practices tend to produce and to articulate norms, Foucault’s study of the subject-turned-object of knowledge involves examinations of psychiatric practices, the penal system, and other related fields which problematize subject-objects. Determining a subject’s mode of objectivization thus entails “determining under what conditions something can become an object of a possible knowledge, how it could be problematized as an object to be known, to what procedure of division it could be subjected, and what part of it is considered pertinent.”[6] In short, such an approach once again recalls Kantian themes, but themes reharmonized, transposed, and translated in order to address post-Kantian philosophical concerns.

In addition to his Kantian lineage, others emphasize Foucault’s Nietzschean heritage. Often when his Nietzschean notes are stressed, a dissonant and somewhat sinister Foucault emerges, one whose portrayal of power relations is more or less a postmodern variation on the will to power and the death of “Man” themes, both of which in some sense presuppose the death of “metaphysics.”[7] For example, in his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault opposes the genealogist to the metaphysician or at least to the historian whose account depends upon metahistorical criteria. The task of the genealogist it not “an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities”;[8] nor does it presuppose the “existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession.”[9] Rather, the genealogist attentive to the contours, fissures, fractures, and rugged topography of various historical landscapes must, for the sake of accurate analyses, recoil from placing his “faith in metaphysics.”[10]  If he does so, he will find that not only do the purported static essences “behind things” not exist as assumed, but likewise “their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.”[11] As if these claims are not sufficiently scandalous, Foucault continues,

[e]xamining the history of reason, he [the genealogist] learns that it was born in an altogether “reasonable” fashion—from chance;[12] devotion to truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition—the personal conflicts that slowly forged the weapons of reason.[13] Further, genealogical analysis shows that the concept of liberty is an “invention of the ruling classes”[14] and not fundamental to man’s nature or at the root of his attachment to being and truth.[15]

With this passage it appears that not only does reason itself have a history, a narrative of its various emergences and culturally contingent instantiations, but freedom is a ruse and is in no way constitutive of what it is to be a human.  For those who have not condemned at least some shared, universal human capacities to the flames, these statements paint (or seemingly paint) a rather bleak and despairing picture.  However, one of the difficulties with this passage and the essay as a whole is discerning precisely where Nietzsche ends and Foucault begins.  In other words, is every conclusion voiced in the text an expression of Foucault’s own position, or is he offering a detailed, sympathetic reading of Nietzsche? If the latter is the case (and I tend to favor this suggestion), then one need not equate every aspect, perspective, and stance articulated therein with Foucault’s own position, much less with his later views on freedom, resistance, and the interrelation between freedom and thought.


[1] Florence, “Foucault, Michel, 1926–,” 314.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314–15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 316.

[6] Ibid., 315.

[7] I am not, of course, denying Nietzsche’s influence on Foucault. After all, Foucault himself acknowledges his indebtedness to Nietzsche, whose insights no doubt aided the development of Foucault’s project.

[8] “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 78.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nietzsche, “Reason,” in The Dawn of Day, no. 123.

[13] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, no. 34.

[14] Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), in Complete Works, no. 9.

[15] “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 78–9.

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