Beyond Nietzsche and Marx

Richard Rorty

  • Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon
    Harvester, 270 pp, £18.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 85527 557 X
  • Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth by Alan Sheridan
    Tavistock, 243 pp, £10.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 422 77350 6
  • Herculine Barbin by Oscar Panizza and Michel Foucault, translated by Richard McDougall
    Harvester, 199 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 85527 273 2

Russell and Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre are dead, and it looks as if there are no great philosophers left alive. At the end of his book, Alan Sheridan hesitantly stakes a claim for Foucault: ‘It is difficult to conceive of any thinker having, in the last quarter of our century, the influence that Nietzsche exercised over its first quarter. Yet Foucault’s achievement so far makes him a more likely candidate than any other.’ This judgment is probably right. Foucault offers the two things which people want from a philosopher: a view about what values to place on current knowledge-claims, and hints about how to change the world. More specifically, he combines a sceptical judgment about the nature of science with concrete suggestions about how power might be taken from those who presently possess it. His view of knowledge derives from Nietzsche. His view of power derives from Marx. But he uses each of these men to criticise the other. The common complaint about Nietzsche is that he offers no social hope, no sense of human community. The common complaint about Marx is that he is in bondage to simple-minded 19th-century ideas about philosophy as ‘science’, that Marxist theory is a hindrance to Marxist practice. People who like Nietzsche on the subject of knowledge are embarrassed by Nietzsche on power. People who like Marx’s analysis of power-relations in modern society are embarrassed by his (not to mention Engels’s and Lenin’s) pretentions to methodological and epistemological theory. Foucault offers one a chance to be as sceptical about science and philosophy (and ‘theory’ generally) as Nietzsche, while being as socially concerned and politically-minded as Marx.

If Foucault can bring this off, he will have worked a combination which no other important philosopher of our century (except Dewey) has managed. Russell had both epistemological and social concerns, but the two had nothing in particular to do with each other. In this, he resembled most academic philosophers: e.g. Husserl and Quine. Wittgenstein and Heidegger resembled Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in thinking mostly about other philosophers. They spent their lives detecting the self-deceptions into which their predecessors had fallen, in diagnosing their spurious claims to philosophical knowledge. This left them little time, or inclination, to speak to, or about, society. Sartre tried to combine the kind of writing about other philosophers which exposes their self-deceptions with the kind of writing which mobilises men and women to create a better world. But his attempt failed. The more Sartre used themes from his early ‘existentialist’ writings to recast Marxist analyses in a new jargon, the better straightforward, old-fashioned Marxism looked. The more he tried to associate particular political initiatives with an over-all philosophical view, the more he seemed merely a knee-jerk revolutionary, able to offer a fast philosophical apology for anything which might hurt the French bourgeoisie.

Foucault’s attempt to get philosophy and politics together is much more wary, complicated and generally intelligent than Sartre’s. Sartre was a great writer who happened to be sucked into academic philosophy early on. He took it too seriously to be able to use it effectively (and thus produced, in Being and Nothingness, tedious neo-Husserlian ‘conditions for the possibility’ of this and that). Later he came to despise it, but by then it was too late for him to abandon it. I suspect that eventually we shall begin to neglect Sartre’s philosophical work, and remember instead short stories like ‘The Childhood of a Leader’, and some of the novels, plays and literary essays. If we drop ‘existentialism’ (not to mention ‘phenomenology’ and ‘structuralism’) from our vocabulary, we shall be able to see the mainstream of ‘Continental’ philosophical thought more clearly. We shall see it as an attempt to draw the consequences of Nietzsche’s claim that faith in ‘science’ is as hopeless as faith in God – that both are forms of ‘the longest lie’. The two most powerful of such attempts are those of Heidegger and Foucault.

Heidegger shrugged off Husserl and academic philosophy fairly quickly, and Foucault seems never to have taken either seriously – nor, for that matter, to have paid much attention to Heidegger. Like Heidegger’s, however, his work divides into a pre-Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean period – or, more exactly, an early period in which Nietzsche is not an important figure, and a later one in which finding the right response to Nietzsche becomes all-important. Foucault’s early writings – including the 1967 book which made him famous, The Order of Things – were histories of institutions, disciplines and vocabularies. They pointed a philosophical moral: that what counts as ‘science’ and as ‘rationality’ is a matter of rather suddenly formed ‘grids’, ways of ordering things. In these books, he showed us how what counted as ‘medicine’, ‘disease’, ‘madness’, ‘logic’, ‘history’, and the like, changed in startling ways at various periods. He was trying to exhibit the radical contingency of the concepts used at a given time, the looseness of fit between what went on and what people said and did about it.

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