At the beginning of a 1974 interview (D&E II, 521), M. D’Eramo puts the following question to Foucault: “you always start your analyses at the end of the Middle Ages, without ever speaking of antiquity, but it seems to me that ancient Greece is important for constructing what you call an ‘archaeology of knowledge.’ Are you avoiding the subject intentionally?” Foucault’s response, which is one of the very few times in which he mentions Heidegger by name other than in the context of existentialism, should be quoted at length:
“I would say there has, for several years, been a Heideggerian habit: all philosophy which takes up a history of thought or of a branch of knowledge ought at least to start from ancient Greece and really never go beyond it … This type of history in the form of a metaphysical crystalization establishes a basis for everything in Plato, [and] taken up here, in France, by Derrida, is distressing to me …. There are at least one or two [more recent - GH] centuries that seem to produce a number of phenomena which are tied to our social structures, our economy, our way of thinking with a force at least comparable to that which is produced in the first Greek cities. It is true that I avoid speaking of Greece because I do not want to fall into the trap of Hellenic archaism, in which we have for a long time enclosed the historians of thought.”
(aside: I take it the reference to “Hellenic archaism” is a nod to Nietzsche’s critique of antiquarianism in his Untimely Meditations.) A paragraph later, Foucault points to the historical specificity of philosophy and its tendency to forget this specificity:
“If you say to me: ‘philosophy speaks in general,’ I respond that when a philosopher affirms that he is not speaking of anything in particular, but of experience in general, he is really speaking of something very particular, that is to say about the definite historical experience which is his own viewpoint, but which he has transformed and asserted as a general experience. To speak of being signifies speaking from the interior of an historical tradition …. These things are boring.”
As I suggested in a previous post, there are a number of aspects of the post-Kehre Heidegger’s approach to historicity and historical events that might, in principle, appeal to Foucault. Heidegger, after all, wants to retrieve the historical specificity of the question of Being. At the same time, we see here the reason why any Foucauldian enthusiasm is necessarily tempered: the Heideggerian effort to move to the history of Being strikes Foucault as a move to not talking about anything, to, as he will put it in Courage of Truth, “mere logos.” Thus, when Heidegger reads the Greeks as being engaged in ontology (or in the process of forgetting some sort of originary receptivity to ontological thinking), Heidegger is reading the Greeks both out of their own context – interpreting the Heideggerian problem as the Greek problem (Nietzsche on the antiquarian: “the history of his city becomes for him the history of his self” (“On the Advantage…,” Pfc., §2) – and as presupposing what really ought to be proven: that the history of philosophy is properly interpreted with reference to an ongoing (if unwitting) engagement with Being.
The further reference to Derrida allows us to see what Foucault sees as the danger of this move, which one might briefly refer to as its tendency to make philosophy irrelevant. As I argued earlier, in his critique of Derrida in the parrhesia lectures, Foucault suggests that the Derridean discussion of orality and literacy (the grammatology argument, first in “Plato’s Pharmacy”) obscures the extent to which the Greeks are more concerned that philosophy remain active in the world, achieving ergon, and not “mere logos.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to tie the 1974 remarks on Heidegger and Derrida with the lecture comments to propose that, for Foucault, Heideggerian approaches to philosophy as the history of Being, which rotate around Plato (recall that Being and Time literally begins in a Platonic dialogue), tend to produce philosophy as logos, and disable it as ergon. The mechanism by which they do so is the removal of context, or the collapse of contextual frames into a metanarrative about Being that turns out, by way of claiming relevance to everything, to actually be relevant to nothing (I am aware that Heidegger attempts to anticipate this objection in Being and Time, but want to leave full discussion of that aside here; briefly: based on the passage above, Foucault would say that Heidegger is confusing his own subject position with the most general position of all. So for Foucault, it isn’t exactly that Heidegger isn’t talking about anything; he is talking about himself).
Foucault’s critique thus serves to locate his own work. Later in the interview quoted here (and elsewhere), Foucault describes his work as offering a “toolbox.” He adopts this language at least in part to distance himself from orthodox Marxists, whose dictates of theory he consistently finds counterproductive because they are too top-down. In another interview, this from a year later and on Discipline and Punish, he connects these several points:
"[Discipline and Punish] is only a little history, at the margins, at the side of current struggles … It is by the way necessary that historical analysis really takes part in the political struggle; it isn’t a matter of giving to struggles a unifying thread or a theoretical apparatus, but of constituting possible strategies” (D&E II, 724).
He then immediately notes that Marxism fails to provide such tools; a little later, he articulates implications of the tool-box view of his own work:
“Fundamentally, I don’t like writing; it’s an activity that’s very difficult to execute. Writing only interests me in the measure where it’s incorporated into the reality of a combat, as the title of an instrument, of tactics, of lighting. I would like that my books be some sort of lancets, Molotov cocktails or mining tunnels, and that they be burned out after their use, like fireworks” (D&E II, 725).
This response to Marxism is also familiar from his interviews with Trombadori. But the concern with bossy theory that forgets its own historical situatedness (and its reason for being written) also extends to Heidegger and Derrida. To them he is saying, more or less: ok, let us read the ancient Greeks – not for whatever they might tell us about sex (where he showed that the fact the Greeks approached sex so differently suggests that our own ways aren't inevitable), but as philosophers concerned with the polis – and if we don’t presuppose a particular history of philosophy as our leitmotif, we will discover that the Greeks cared much less about logos and much more about ergon than you suppose. That is, Foucault has a plausible claim that the Heideggerian return to the Greeks repeats unquestioningly one of the main things that it ought to problematize: the coronation of Plato and Aristotle as the archetype philosphers of antiquity, and the path dependence of subsequent philosophy on those thinkers. And in so doing, it completely occludes the question of the philosophical life and of practice more generally.