Intro Philosophy 12: Heidegger, Sartre & Foucault
Last time, we looked at Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Today, we will look at three thinkers who were influenced by Nietzsche and who remain some of the most important and influential of German and French Continental thought: Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault.
Just as Nietzsche had studied to be a Lutheran minister before turning to philosophy, Heidegger (1889 – 1976) originally studied to be a Catholic theologian, but after exposure to medieval European Neo-Platonism he switched to philosophy and wrote his thesis on the Neoplatonist Duns Scotus. Husserl, the phenomenologist, took Heidegger under his wing as his star pupil at the University of Freiburg, and as Husserl’s phenomenology rose to fame and gathered followers Heidegger began to gather fame and followers of his own. Husserl wanted a science of the mind, a radical criticism of all philosophy and psychology up through Kant’s metaphysics and Hegel’s phenomenology. Husserl is famous for the idea of intentionality, that consciousness is always directed toward something or away from something by intention.
Husserl studied the various and often subtle ways we are intentional in our world. Husserl kept writing and expanding his work, but rather than develop a new alphabet for thought as he had originally intended his work snowballed out of control and continued to amass until his death. Heidegger picked up Husserl’s work, but merged it with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and took it in an Existential direction.
Heidegger wrote his central work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), in 1927. Unlike the work of Nietzsche, it was immediately popular. Heidegger argued in Being and Time that philosophy is a beginning and a questioning, the way one weighs anchor while setting sail out into the vast ocean. This recalls Schopenhauer’s ship, bobbing on the stormy sea. For Heidegger, we are thrown into the world and towards the future out of the past, which Heidegger calls ‘thrownness’, and we find ourselves in an inhabited world as a ‘there-being’, or ‘Dasein’, a term Heidegger borrows from Hegel just as Sartre would later borrow the term ‘existential’ from Heidegger. For Heidegger, the goal is not the system of absolute knowledge as it was for Hegel, but attaining an authentic transparency of one’s own self and purposes.
Heidegger asks: How do we experience reality before and as we arrange it? What is the ground of being that supports our views and values? We approach the world, each other, and objects either as closed and identified or as mysterious, uncanny and miraculous. For Heidegger, industrialization and technology have disenchanted the world, and so we must question the world and re-enchant it to live authentically in a world of manufactured commodities. In one piece, Heidegger uses the example of a packaged and labeled bar of soap, and worries, as Nietzsche did, that our reality is becoming to safe and docile for provocative thinking.
Mystery and truth appear only in the cracks when things break or go missing. My good friend who got me interested in philosophy and was also a Heideggerian used the example of dropping the soap as you take your morning shower. Objects and persons all but disappear, are part of the flow, until they are out of place, misused, or are problematic, and then we become conscious of them. Consider a poster on a wall that we stop seeing after time, which then becomes new again and leaps out if we call attention to it.
Heidegger argues that every revealing is a concealing, that being and time both gives us our meanings as others are removed from our sight, using the metaphor of a forest clearing, an open space that is also enclosed, revealing what is within while concealing what is outside. Time continuously gives us the present as it takes the present from us. Meaning is always historical, always has “historicity” for Heidegger. Remember that Hegel’s great contribution to philosophy was thought as a historical process. For Heidegger, being is always bound up with time, and thus his title, “Being and Time”. Time is the horizon of being. Time gives us our meanings and then threatens to take them away as it stretches beyond. As time and being are seen and unseen, so there can be no absolutely grounded judgment, interpretation or meaning. Care and life are always as much for oneself as much as for something else that never fully arrives, just as we never reach the horizon no matter how far we can see or walk.
For Freud, thought is denial of sex. For Heidegger, thought is denial of death. Understanding oneself as a simple and singular being, the conception of closed facts and categorical, eternal, absolute truth is the way we cope with the fear of death. We are in a basic state of anxiety towards our world that extends over the horizon just as we are afraid of particular people and objects. The things in front of us distract us from our more basic and fundamental fear of the world. Nietzsche gives Heidegger this picture, arguing that we can ignore the void by turning to absolute immutable morality, or we can give up, find no universal meaning in life and embrace nihilism, but rather than either of these we should create our own meaning, though Nietzsche sees this as an individual activity that is corrupted by participation in social movements.
Heidegger agrees that we must make our way from absolute being to nihilism and beyond to understand ourselves as essentially becoming and transformation. Out of the basic state of anxiety spring love, fear, rejoicing, suspicion, and a variety of ways we interact with our world, transforming it as we are transformed by it. True freedom is realizing this and gaining self-conscious transparency. We must resist reducing ourselves, our truths and even objects as “ready-to-hand” if we wish to truly live. We kill the world and ourselves continuously in the attempt to avoid death, but if we accept death and meaninglessness, we are free to live and give our lives meaning. Recall that Hegel saw Kant’s categories as dead, not dynamic and in tension as life and reason are. For Heidegger, if we realize we are running off into the woods to avoid being lost, we can learn to dwell comfortably at home.
For Hegel, to recognize being is non-being is to understand becoming. For Heidegger, to recognize we, our world, and everything and everyone in it are enclosed but remain open and alive is to live authentically. To get what one truly wants, one has to accept and encompass its opposite. Nietzsche also argued for just this sort of encompassing, a rejection of exclusive limitation and an embracing of inclusive limitation. For Heidegger, there can be no metaphysics, either Platonic rules of the world or Kantian rules of the mind. For Heidegger, there can be no complete theory about how theory is possible. This is terrible news for philosophy, in that it will never be complete, but good news for philosophers, who will always have more to do, and thus can continue to eat if they can find employment in the first place.
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger argues that things can always be variously interpreted, as can the process of interpretation itself. Heidegger called this ‘hermeneutics’, a term which was originally used to refer to the interpretation of religious texts but that Heidegger applies to all interpretation of meaning. Heidegger argues that we cannot fully understand our understandings, nor would we want to. The basic way that we are in the world is only partly articulated, only partly controlled and explicit. Like self-contradiction for Nietzsche, this is both a good and a bad thing, good when it is authentic and accepted, bad when it is inauthentic and dishonest. Our reality is unclear, not fully determined, which is what makes choices meaningful. We must choose for ourselves how we interpret the world self-consciously if we wish to be authentic.
Our being, which Heidegger is open-ended, always at issue for itself. We are constantly projecting ourselves into the future, and interpreting ourselves in terms of the past. Dasein is often thought of as an individual being, but it is in fact any identity an individual takes on, any ‘they’ in which we participate. In the same way that I propose to speak for my left hand, in one way giving it no say in the matter, but in another speaking for it as it, our projected being is social, as are our various forms of identity. To work with a group is to be the group, to assume its identity, while also ambiguously remaining an autonomous individual. We are our culture and subcultures as we are ourselves.
Heidegger also places emphasis on language, as we define ourselves using whatever language we use. Children learn culture and language without the need to fully articulate it as a system of explicit rules. Dreyfus, the Heidegger scholar at Berkeley, rightly points out that Heidegger’s thought is very similar to the later work of Wittgenstein, who we will study soon. When we are not fitting together with our culture, we are uneasy even if we do not know an explicit reason. Dreyfus uses the example of standing too close during a conversation, which varies with culture.
Zizek cynically uses the example of actually explaining how one’s day has been after being asked casually by a waiter, when the ‘correct’ reply is to simply say, “Good”, regardless of how good or bad it has been. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which things are largely ready-at-hand, and quite disposable and replaceable. Heidegger fears this, setting the stage for the Frankfurt School’s fear of the culture industry and commercialism, which they considered to be the new highly evolved form of fascism we live in today.
Human being is essentially self-interpretation. We are constantly trying to close and ground our being, give ourselves a limited meaning, but this is inauthentic and ignorant, as we are interpretation and nothing more specific than this. Heidegger refers to inauthentically trying to fix one’s meaning and identity as ‘falling’ and ‘fleeing’. We are thrown into an opening, into uncertainty, and when we are inauthentic and unaware of our condition we try to flee from being thrown, unaware that this is throwing ourselves into our situation itself. We can run from our true selves into socially constructed meanings as set and given, or we can take up our being as authentically open-ended, diving into the unknown to explore. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Heidegger allows for this to be social as well as individual. As long as choices are recognized as open and remaining at issue, we can take social as well as individual stands authentically.
We are the things we live with, as well as the others. One is the food one eats, the clothes one wears, even the ground upon which one walks. We automatically and unconsciously use the things that are involved in our daily routines, just as we do the social roles we inhabit. We are surrounded by equipment, as Heidegger says, which we use automatically without articulating it. It becomes a part of us, an extension of ourselves, as we use it. Heidegger uses the example of a walking stick, through which we feel the ground. Groups of equipment belong together in systems that, like culture and language, need never be fully understood or articulated. We best use equipment when we are not paying particular attention to it, when we and our world are in sync. It exists for us, but as “unthought”, just outside of focus.
The interesting cases, where we focus on equipment, is when there is a problem that interrupts the flow. Originally, shamans were often individuals who survived near-death experiences or other ordeals, that caused them to look at the world differently. Great periods in the history of human thought often involve terrible crises and times of trouble. We only pay attention, giving things articulation, when there are problems. There can be slight problems, total breakdowns, as well as things and people completely missing. The worse the problem, the more long term planning must be involved, the more we are concerned with time.
The greater the issues, the farther forward in time we must project ourselves, the larger and longer view that we must take. Heidegger uses the example of a hammer, which one could find is too heavy or light for the job at hand, or missing entirely. Things are not articulated, are not different from other things, unless we are paying attention to them.
Heidegger argues that the equipment which best allows us to be absorbed into its use while also calling our attention to the situation of its use is the sign. Signs became important for later Structuralist, Poststructuralist and Postmodern thought in France. Heidegger uses the example of a turn signal on an automobile, which seems oddly secondary to road signs, an example Wittgenstein uses around the same time writing in Britain. Signs orient us in a situation, revealing the social situation of their use to us. Later, members of the Frankfurt School such as Adorno and Marcuse consider the more problematic example of mass advertising, which they argue distracts our attention from the present social situation.
Much as Schopenhauer argued that it is conceptualization that individuates the world, creating individuals, Heidegger argues that our world is not articulated, does not consist of individual things, unless we articulate and individuate it with our thinking. Given that there are no absolute vacuums in the universe, no complete exclusive separations outside of our conceptions of exclusive difference, this is surprisingly plausible. Our actively disclosing things as problematic, of concern and at issue, is the separation and bounding of all individuality and exclusivity. We are constantly oriented in our world by care, but when care becomes a problem things are brought to attention and given limitation. When our absorption in the world is disturbed, things become distinguished. While it appears that our world originally consists of individual things that are exclusive, whether or not we are paying attention to them, this is only because anything that comes to our attention is then distinguished and individuated, unlike the majority of our experience which lies just outside of our attention but is still part of our experience. As Yoda says, things are only different in your mind.
Just as for Hegel reality is both subjective and objective together, a social construction, for Heidegger the world is not dictated by the subject, but neither is the subject dictated by the world. Both are in a symbiotic relationship of mutual affectation. Heidegger argues that we can inauthentically ignore the role of the subject, and believe our world to be simply objective, or we can inauthentically ignore the role of the world, and believe our world to be simply subjective, but if we grasp things authentically we understand that each is empowered to codetermine the other. Our environment determines us, but we can recreate our environment. While a sign directs us, orienting us in our shared world, we can, individually or socially, ignore, redesign and reappropriate our equipment and social roles. This recalls the work of the Dada artists, some of the first modern artists, who as Heidegger wrote Being and Time were recontextualizing familiar objects as art, as well as question social roles by making them obscure and obscene.
For Heidegger, knowing is primarily a familiar how, not a given what. Outside of a context of use, structures and measurements are irrelevant. Things are meaningful for us only given what we have done and what we are going to do. A hammer is only useful given that it has been located, materials for its use have been gathered, there are hours in the day left, and it is not lunchtime. Similarly, Wittgenstein uses the example of the brake lever of a train cabin, arguing that it is meaningless when detached from its complex situation. Heidegger is adding temporality to this picture, arguing that our situation is also a temporal situation.
Times are socially coordinated, such that activities have appropriate times as well as appropriate scopes of time. These are not simply given in the world, or entirely determined by a culture or an individual, but codetermined by the interaction. I could decide all on my own to use a hammer to build a bookcase, but I will have difficulties if I decide to build it at night over my neighbors’ objections. The possibilities are not entirely enclosed, but relatively disclosed, and we are constantly moving from one situation to another, with different concerns and expectations. We share space and time publicly and privately, without any complete gap between these two. Our concerns conform to and are opposed to the concerns of others, and this determines how we experience space and time.
Heidegger calls this distancing, the process by which we are near to that which concerns us and far from that which does not concern us. ‘Near’ and ‘far’ here are super-spatial, not merely concerned with physical distance in space but with the focus of our concern, across time, space and the social. We are mentally near to what concerns us, to where our mind is, and far from where it isn’t. Consider that intimacy is considered ‘closeness’, or the song title, I Left my Heart in San Francisco. Heidegger says that Dasein is essentially “distantial”, becoming whatever it is concerned with, as it is its concerns. We make things present to us regardless of distance in space or length in time. Consider that when we say, ‘humanity’ or ‘science’, we are bringing before ourselves, as ourselves, countless people and things that span continents and millenia.
For Merleau-Ponty, who was very influenced by Heidegger along with his friend Sartre, recognized that we use the word ‘grasp’ to signify understanding, as well as ‘see’ to signify reasoning. Heidegger uses the example of the ground beneath our feet, which we use but do not feel, as more distant from us than the friend we see from across the street. Just like Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger would argue that this is not “merely metaphorical”, but rather fundamental, even if also metaphorical, to our world, which is our experience of it.
For Heidegger, we are thrown into a world occupied already by the They, which we are a part of even as we are opposed to it in our individuality. Consider the expression, “You know what they say”. Heidegger believes that one can participate in the They authentically, as a true calling and creation of new meaning, but also like Nietzsche, Heidegger argues that that the They can easily make us inauthentic, presenting us with meanings that we are afraid to question, making us feel bound to conform, enraptured by culture as an open opportunity and terrified of culture as a closed conformity. This is increasingly dangerous in a highly industrialized and technological society.
The They is just as basic to our world as our individual selves. In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say that often our own selves are more the They then they are anything else. We are as certain of others as we are of ourselves, and only question the existence of others (like the solipsist, who questions whether anyone other than themselves exist) or question the existence of ourselves (like the Buddhist, who questions whether we in fact have a self) when we engage in deep philosophical questioning.
The fact that we are a part of the They is both a blessing and a curse. While our social world gives us all of our opportunities, including countless pieces of equipment that are designed for anyone to use and social roles that many can act out, if we question the They too much, we feel that we have lost our ground, the bedrock of all meaning. However, if we look at things authentically, we realize that neither the They nor our own selves can give complete grounding to any meaning. Our individual selves and the They/World are symbiotic, influencing each other openly, without either being simply basic or primary. Just as Nietzsche argued, if we face this courageously, this is the greatest opportunity for the creation and recreation of meaning.
Heidegger says that there are various moods or attunements by which we experience the world. These moods can be individual or social, the mood of a classroom, a culture, or an age. Consider German pessimism, and how it affected popular culture and intellectual thought for a certain culture at a particular historical period. In his later thought, Heidegger claimed that the ancient Greeks experienced the world primarily as wonder, that modern society experiences the world primarily as anxiety, and that Germans should seek to recreate the mood of the ancient Greeks for themselves, to re-enchant a world enclosed by technology and information. Consider the hippies and the revival of primitivism in the wake of the Vietnam war. Moods determine how things are for us, determine our relationship to them and what opportunities they present us with.
Heidegger does not give a complete catalog of moods, but he does distinguish fear from anxiety. We fear particular things and flee from them, but anxiety has no object. We experience anxiety when we do not know what to do, when our situation breaks down and opportunities evaporate. Heidegger argues that in anxiety we face the total groundlessness of our world and all possible meaning. Just as Schopenhauer said that in the ecstasy of art and music distinctions and individuality disappears, for Heidegger anxiety is the eruption of nothingness into our lives. If I want to build a bookcase, but find that my hammer is missing, I experience the anxiety of not knowing who took my hammer or what they are doing with it, as well as the loss of the possibilities that a hammer gives me. If one’s child is kidnapped, whatever one was doing today, next week or years from now completely disintegrates.
Just like Nietzsche, who argued we must have the courage to face the void and then create for ourselves, Heidegger argues that we can inauthentically run from anxiety by finding something or someone to fear, or we can face it, learning to transform it into excitement that is ready for gaining or losing any particular opportunity.
Many scholars have compared this to Buddhist enlightenment, while many others have attempted to draw distinctions. It is known that Heidegger had a copy of the Dao De Jing in his personal library, that he once read aloud the passage of Zhuangzi arguing with Hui Shi about happy fish to an academic gathering to demonstrate what he means about being-with-others, and there are passages of his works that look as if they have been lifted out of Daoist texts, though scholars argue about whether Heidegger knowingly “borrowed” the passages or was simply inspired after reading them.
Authenticity is an acceptance of anxiety and the world, and the joy that results from this acceptance is the ability to appreciate the world as open and groundless just as it is. The earth is not grounded, but floating in space. Authenticity is not so much a choice as an ability acquired through questioning and learning to dwell in a world that is endlessly questionable. One is able to see more opportunity for growth and overturning than before, which is why philosophy should not grounded in metaphysics but engaged in open questioning. In every situation there are unique opportunities that have never been present before. In his later work, Heidegger sought how this could be greater achieved for a culture, as he hoped that the modern Germans would return to the ancient Greek mood of awe. Unfortunately, ancient Germanic culture was largely obliterated by the Romans, or Heidegger might have well wondered, like new age neo-pagans, how to return to the mood of the ancient Germans.
The Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s was the time when Heidegger did his critical writing and gained fame and position, a time when many feared the fall of Western European civilization. Heidegger, like Rousseau and Nietzsche, was an anti-modernist anti-technology romantic who spoke of Greece as a more glorious and meaningful time and idealized the simplicity of the German common Volk. We will only briefly in this class cover Heidegger’s political involvement with the Nazis.
For a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1938, Heidegger was a member and supporter of the fascist Nazi party as it rose to power and took authoritarian control of Germany and Austria. Though he eventually came to doubt the party, spoke critically of its development, was put under surveillance by the Gestapo after giving suspicious lectures reinterpreting Nietzsche, and was even put temporarily in a work camp, Heidegger did enthusiastically embrace the Nazi’s rise and seizure of power, spoke at propaganda rallies in several cities, and openly spoke of the Nazis as a rebirth of Western civilization, a return to the revolutionary times of ancient Greece.
How is it that he believed the Nazis, a fascist regime enthusiastic about racism, censorship, and brutality were a magnificent chance for questioning, renewal and transformation? Heidegger told the Allied De-Nazification committee that he had hoped the Nazis would drop the racism eventually. Heidegger had, in the early 30s, been having an affair with a Jewish student named Hannah Arendt, who went on to become a political philosopher and remained a supporter of Heidegger after WWII.
Arendt became famous, for some infamous, for her idea of the banality of evil. Watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt argued that the terrible atrocities of modern times, such as the industrialized genocide at Auschwitz, was carried out not by demons or monsters, but bureaucrats and accountants. Though Arendt stood by Heidegger to the end, journals of Heidegger have recently been published which show that after writing Being and Time his thinking grew progressively unhinged as he supported the Nazi movement. For myself, I always admired the anti-racism of Nietzsche and found the affinity Heidegger had for Germans and Greeks disturbing. Thankfully, another thinker, this time French, came along who loved Heidegger’s thought but hated the racism of both the Germans and French.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), pronounced, ‘Sart’ (though the British pronounce it ‘Sar-truh’), who coined the term ‘Existentialism’, is often known better as an author of novels and plays than as a philosopher in Britain and America, where Nietzsche and Heidegger are not always taught but are much more so than Sartre. This is in part political. With Stalin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia, many European intellectuals had to choose whether to continue to be Marxists or to abandon Communism all together, often remaining socialists, but identifying as ‘post-Marxists’ who no longer have faith in the entirely planned economy of Communism.
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), a friend of Sartre, author of The Stranger and The Rebel, chose to abandon Marxism, while Sartre decided to continue to identify with Marxism and Communism, continuing to believe that violent revolution was unfortunately necessary and in the interests of the common people. Camus was often called an existentialist, but he rejected the label and called himself an absurdist, like the Dada and Surrealist artists we will look at near the end of the course. In his novel The Stranger, his most famous work, a man is put on trial for killing an Arab teenager who tried to stab him. The judge and jury are not vindictive, as the Arab is a stranger to their culture, but then when it is revealed that the man never truly loved his mother, who was distant and cold to him, and that he did not really feel anything when she died, they turn against him and give him a harsh sentence, as he is now the stranger. This fits nicely with the way that Sartre turned the thinking of Heidegger about inauthenticity and technology towards social roles and racism.
Sartre saw his own philosophy as an extension of the work of Heidegger. In response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre wrote his Being and Nothingness. In it, he argues like Heidegger that the basic condition of humanity is anxiety, fear in the face of the unknown, and that most of the time we avoid this deeper fear by becoming involved with the world, trying to keep what we like and avoid what we hate. In the process, we become ignorant of ourselves, of the world, and of our relationships with our fellow human beings.
Sartre, as a Heideggerian, argues that there is a consistent way that we inauthentically try to avoid the dynamic life of our relationships with others, both those who are intimate (family, friends, partners) and those we pass on the street or encounter in a shop. Sartre uses his famous example of a waiter in a cafe to illustrate. Sartre did much of his writing in the cafes of Paris, and he describes the scene as if he is witnessing it firsthand.
The waiter in a cafe plays his role, overemphasizing the rigidity and seriousness of the gestures, the bows, the distribution and collecting of menus, the seriousness with which orders are taken, to define himself as a waiter, as filling his role, his work. We and he come to inauthentically see him as merely a waiter, and not as a human being. The waiter becomes a robot, and his individuality disappears, both for his and our comfort. We find it easier to interact with a role than with the actor as a person, and the actor finds it easier to lose himself in the role than to try to retain individuality while serving in his position. For Sartre, it becomes easy for us to lose sight of the situation as a whole, that this is not a waiter in essence but a human being playing the role of a waiter. While it would be tiresome to say, “Excuse me, authentic human individual playing the temporary role of a waiter, can I have another espresso?”, our substitution of the word ‘waiter’ for the individual does violence to our awareness of the situation.
Sartre, like his friend and fellow Existentialist philosopher Fanon, extended this idea to racism and Postcolonialism just as Simone De Beauvoir, Sartre’s friend and lover, extended it to Feminism. De Beauvoir and Sartre also met with Che Guevara, extending the idea to Communism. In all of these directions, the idea is that when we are inauthentic, not truly living, the individual is treated not as a who, but a what, and this is because we are afraid of how others and their judgements can transform our lives. We do not know whether the transformation could be good or bad, and so we avoid it, staring at a menu in order to avoid their gaze. In 1952, Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks as an expansion of his doctoral thesis, arguing that colonialism had a destructive impact on the physical and mental health of black people. Soon after writing the book he moved to Algeria to practice psychiatry, soon becoming the head of service for a major psychiatric hospital. Fanon began experimenting with therapy that took cultural background of Arabic and African patients and the effects of racism into account.
Sartre wrote Antisemitism and Jew in 1944, as Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Like Nietzsche, Sartre argues that racism, that the Nazis had for Jews as well as that which the French had for North Africans (Arabs and native Africans), is a similar violent inauthentic effort to box up the other rather than deal with the complexity of our fellow human beings face to face.
In one of his plays, No Exit, Sartre’s main character famously says, “Hell is other people!”. We are constantly faced with others who do and do not know themselves as we do and do not know ourselves. Like the horizon of time for Heidegger, the Other threatens to give us new meanings while simultaneously take all meaning away. To face this authentically is to have a good and positive faith in life and the generation of meaning. To have what Sartre calls ‘bad faith‘ is to trust that meanings are closed and dead, that the waiter is nothing more to oneself than a waiter, that the Jew or African is nothing more to oneself or one’s nation than another who is simply other with no relation.
Sartre, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, believed that art can liberate us from the common human condition, however, most art for Sartre is inauthentic. Much literature reinforces our prejudices and ideas, giving us a shallow and false substitute for meaning in an increasingly mechanized and commodified world. Sartre sought to write and entertain in ways that opened up audiences to examine themselves, their world, and each other with new possibilities of meaning and activity. This is as true of the individual, who could come to identify with the waiter as a friend, as it is of society, which could come to identify with the marginalized and oppressed. Rather than try to hold up the barriers between self and other, we must, as Hegel argues, seek resolution of contradictions not merely to gain the powers of reason, but to truly be alive.
Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) is now a very celebrated and well studied thinker not only in philosophy but also in history, sociology and political science. He also taught briefly at Berkeley. His books are critical historical studies of social institutions and practices such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, science and sexuality. Foucault called himself a Nietzschean and his critical philosophy centers on the idea of the human tendency to privilege what is labeled as good while marginalizing and dominating what is labeled as evil. Foucault went on vacation to the French Riviera and brought Nietzsche, who he had not yet read, with him, and then stayed in his hotel room the entire time reading Nietzsche, overcome with his criticism of all institutions. Foucault, already a psychiatrist, became fascinated with the complexity of good and evil Nietzsche unearthed, not merely as morality but as ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ in the history of psychiatry, of ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ in the history of sexuality, of ‘law-abiding’ and ‘criminal’ in the history of prisons.
As a Nietzschean, Foucault is deeply critical of any claim to absolute or objective knowledge, distrusts binary dichotomies such as good/bad, true/false, opinion/knowledge or sane/insane, and understands truth as a struggle between competing forces, institutions and interpretations. Institutions must support binary divisions to maintain power and pronounce themselves objective holders of genuine knowledge and truth. This bends our view of reality such that the dominant system (religion, science, politics, etc) is simply identified with truth and the messy historical process and evolution of systems of thought is obscured.
On one side, giving an institution the right to distinguish the sane from the insane is quite sane and sober. On the other, when one looks at the complex history of uses and abuses of these categories, one can find much that is outright insanity. Are the institutions sane or insane? How can we know so simply, when these are the complexes that determine their own sanity, their own ability to be good or embody justice and truth? Foucault was a psychiatrist, like Fanon, as well as a homosexual at a time when psychiatry openly diagnosed homosexuality as a disorder and form of insanity. Today, homosexuality is no longer classified as a disorder, but being transgender is, known in the field as gender identity disorder.
For Foucault knowledge is always involved with serving power, just as for Nietzsche truth is always involved with serving desire. We have all heard “Knowledge is Power!” as a good thing, but for Foucault knowledge is not only enabling power, it is repressive domination. Truth is not outside power, but is a thing of this world.
Foucault held a chair in ‘History of Systems of Thought’. Just as for Nietzsche, institutions and their systems grow and thrive on opposition and problems. Foucault studies the complicated historical situations when one form of power, knowledge and dominance shifts to become another form as circumstances change. A dominant theme of his work is that with industrialization people are increasingly independent but also under surveillance, such that they come to police and dominate themselves. Marcuse, above with his student Angela Davis, describes something similar in his One-Dimensional Man.
The famous metaphor Foucault uses is the Panopticon, a prison designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, teacher and friend of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill. The Panopticon is a prison designed so that everyone can be watched but they never know when they are being watched. Never seeing their observers, they learn to behave as if they are always being watched, and so even when there are no guards they police themselves in constant self-conscious anxiety.
Zizek argues that consumerism convinces people that they should always be happy, like a parent watching the reaction of a child opening a gift, and that therapists tell him that many of their patients feel guilty for not being happy enough. Modern society increasingly convinces us that we are authentic individuals when we are actually doing what our culture expects of us. Even Existentialism can be an abused and inauthentic, as many said of the Beatniks who read Nietzsche and Sartre. Being an individual is not necessarily wearing black sunglasses and playing the bongos.
Institutional forms of knowledge, such as the science of Psychiatry, serves powerful interests while claiming to be disinterested objective truth, and the average person believes that they are smart and free for believing what they are told by psychiatrists rather than understanding the complicated and brutal process of various forms of truth that compete with each other. Foucault believes that we should push for what we want and strive for greater understanding while knowing that we are naturally greedy, abusive, marginalizing, and ignorant.
Power is not just a negative thing, but everything, so the form of the bad is the form of the good. One can see the influence of Nietzsche and a philosopher who is “beyond good and evil”. Communists who declare themselves to be liberators are also oppressors, and people who feel oppressed by society are also helping to oppress themselves through their own individual fear and desires. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but the two together. While not openly calling himself an anarchist, Foucault distrusted all forms of authority and became disenchanted with communism and other forms of left wing thought, even while he protested with Sartre and students in the streets of Paris in the 60s.
In a debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault argues that the very idea that we will achieve a good and just society as opposed to this now or another outside is the domination, oppression and ignorance that characterizes human history. While we should always strive for the best, we should always remain aware that we are always capable of the worst, and that it is the very striving to separate ourselves from the worst that often brings the worst itself about. To truly be aware of our lives and our possibilities, to live responsibly and with greater awareness, means recognizing that there is always risk, that nothing is ever absolutely safe. All we can do is strive as best we can, and this constant becoming. Here is the debate, in full. You should turn on the closed captions if you do not speak French.