I’d like to look here a little more at Foucault’s claim that Heideggerian ontology is internalist (see my discussion here), because I think it makes an important point about the political nature of context-setting. Although questions of context are of course very difficult, one can quite plausibly propose that Being and Time begins in Plato (as evidenced by the opening passage), and most of Heidegger’s career follows the sort of trajectory that opening might suggest, conducting an extended engagement with Greek philosophy, attempting to discover whatever mistake it was the Greeks (or maybe the Romans) made that led to modern technology, according to an intrinsic logic that is present at its inception. None of this is news, and I bring it up here only to notice why the shift in context (as evidenced in his rejecting the “Heideggerian habit” in the D’Eramo interview) in Foucault’s case is significant. Indeed, one can compare Heidegger and Foucault directly on the point. Foucault introduces the question of Being in the parrhesia lectures with reference to Leibniz, and Heidegger’s 1955 lecture course The Principle of Reason [= PR] basically reduces Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason to the Greeks. Heidegger, though talking about the atomic age, has Leibniz channeling the ancients:
“The claim of the fundamental principle speaks in the principle of reason. The appeal of the word of being speaks in the principle of reason. However, the appeal is much older than the claim. For during the uncommonly long incubation period of the principle of reason, the word of being always already appealed to Western humanity as the word of ground/reason. Without this appeal there would be no thinking in the form of philosophy. But also, without philosophy there would be no Western European science, no unleashing of atomic energy. But the appeal in the word of being as the word of ground/reason remains mute in comparison to the proclamations of the fundamental principle in the evermore noisy and generally alarming force of its claim” (PR, 128).
This is a variation on the same fundamental thought that has animated Heidegger since Being and Time, a point that emerges more forcefully in the next paragraph, when he proposes that our capacity to be those “to whom being appeals” is essential to our ability to “be the mortals that we are … only such beings are capable of dying, that means, to take on death as death” (PR 129). Here, though, note the Hellenic archaism: the seventeenth century is built-in to the Greeks, and so we really need to study the Greeks.
Now, Foucault of course also ties Leibniz to the Greeks, but it’s to point out a problem that Leibniz neglects: the question of philosophical life. It is Leibniz’s contemporary Spinoza that Foucault says is the “the last great figure for whom philosophical practice was inspired by the fundamental and essential project of leading a philosophical life” (CT 236). In Leibniz, the topic never arises, and “philosophy always manifested itself and was practiced through a number of what could be called modern activities: he was a librarian, a diplomat, a politician, and administrator, etcetera” (CT 236). Such neglect of the question of philosophical life leads to scientism, and it is from there that Foucault introduces the persistent historical marginalization of the question of philosophical life with reference to Heidegger (I quoted this passage last time, and reproduce it below).
Foucault and Heidegger, then, are both approaching problems of scientism and quantification, and both are reading the Greeks. But it matters a lot how you frame a question, and Heidegger’s framing of it never notices the narrowness of interpreting the History of Being as philosophy’s question.
Foucault, of course, rejects that sort of internalist history; one of the clearest moments is in “What is an Author.” In 1968, Roland Barthes published what has been called the “death of the author” thesis. In this short essay, Barthes argues that a focus on authorship misunderstands how text is constructed: a given piece of writing is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Individual authors, in other words, work in and through the expressions of others, and when we focus exclusively on an author’s originality, we fail to see the ways that creativity is always embedded in a specific literary context. Barthes wasn’t intending to praise Heidegger, but the view of a text presented there – and the assumption that it needs to be read in a literary context – is close enough to allow the contrast with Foucault’s “What is an Author?”
For Foucault, if authorship ignores the literary context – the textual context – in which given writing appears, a focus on textual context risks hiding the social and political context in which writing is produced. By studying text and writing, we treat them both as somehow outside of the worlds in which they are produced. Highlighting only the literary, but not the social and political, context in which writing and authorship occur then occludes the extent to which authorship assumes not a metaphysical function, but a political one. In other words, if the “author” is dead, and everybody knows it, then we really ought to spend some time trying to figure out why contemporary culture remains so obsessed with authorship and speaking of texts in terms of authorship (as we do in intellectual property, for example). This is a textbook Foucauldian move. Against Derrida, for example, he urges that the question in Descartes’ mention but hurried dismissal of the possibility that the meditator is insane is the juridical implications of insanity. In History of Sexuality I, he underscores that: the question isn’t sex, but what purpose talking about it all the time serves.
In short, setting the context for a reading is an artificial – and thus political – exercise. So when the Foucault of the parrhesia lectures looks at the Greeks in general – and the question of Being in particular – in a different context from Heidegger, it’s not innocent. It seems to me that his can be situated in a few ways. First, the lectures on parrhesia begin in Kant; the first lecture in Government of the Self and Others is on Kant (and very similar to what he says in the “What is Enlightenment” essay). But when Foucault does go to the Greeks, it’s not to Plato, but to Galen (and not to Parmenides or Heraclitus, either, a la Heidegger). Plato shows up later, explicitly framed in the context of Dionysius, via Plutarch’s recounting (GS 48ff). In other words, the Plato we get in Foucault (at least, in the parrhesia lectures) is embedded in “political” questions, not “philosophical” ones. This focus remains throughout GS and CT, and is part of what frames the critique of Derrida in the latter. Similarly, Socrates makes his appearance in the context of his trial. Part of this contextual difference can be accounted for by Foucault’s selection of parrhesia as a motif, but that of course is the point: Heidegger didn’t see parrhesia as a correct entry into Greek thought, even though the parrhesiast fairly clearly is an example of someone who meets Being and Time’s understanding of authenticity, insofar as his speech breaks from the discourse and practices of das Man and attempts to take responsibility for his life as a whole.
Let’s return to the passage on the history of being from Courage of Truth (this is the same one I cited earlier):
“In any case, I would simply like to suggest that if it is true that the question of Being has indeed been what Western philosophy has forgotten, and that this forgetting is what made metaphysics possible, it may also be that the question of the philosophical life has continued to be, I won’t say forgotten, but neglected; it has constantly appeared as surplus in relation to philosophy, a philosophical practice indexed to the scientific model. The question of the philosophical life has constantly appeared like a shadow of philosophical practice, and increasingly pointless. This neglect of the philosophical life has meant that it is now possible for the relation to truth to be validated and manifested in no other form than that of scientific knowledge” (CT 237).
It would be easy (and not particularly productive) to point here to the inverse relation between Heidegger’s attention to his career and his complicit inattention to the moral catastrophe unfolding around him. It would be more productive (even if one wants to arrive at the dismissal of Heidegger over his Nazism and apparently overt anti-Semitism) to follow Foucault’s logic and note that there is a sense in which the questions of a philosophical life are occluded by the very way that Heidegger sets his context. If Plato is presented as primarily interested in metaphysics, then that presentation itself helps to establish the “truth” of the proposition that Western philosophy is about metaphysics. The proposition that Western philosophy is about metaphysics (and its post-Kantian successor, epistemology) in turn serves to force questions of philosophical life to the margins. The Heideggerian repetition, in other words, becomes a founding event in a new form of philosophy that may or may not be original and revolutionary in one sense, but which does not question the marginalization of embodied practice within philosophical discourse. If anything, the revolutionary pretense might make the problem worse.
Indeed, on Foucault’s account, cynical practice is driven precisely by the unconcealment that philosophy claims to provide. It is of course unconcealment (aleitheia) that Heidegger takes to be the originary mode of truth in Greek thought. In the “Question Concerning Technology,” for example, he argues that the Aristotelian poiesis (bringing forth) had two primary modes, nature and art, distinguished by whether the principle of that motion is internal or external, respectively (this is the Aristotelian distinction; see Physics II.2). But Heidegger underscores that “bringing forth propriates [ereignet] only insofar as something concealed comes into unconcealment” (in Basic Writings, 2nd ed., 317-18). Against that background, we should read Foucault’s characterization of the cynics’ charge very carefully:
“Under the slogan of the unconcealed life, traditional philosophy basically assumed or renewed the requirement of propriety; it accepted its customs. Applying the principle of non-concealment literally, Cynicism explodes the code of propriety with which this principle remained, implicitly or implicitly, associated. This is the shameless life” (CT 255).
At the risk of sounding too Heideggerian, it should be noted that “ereignet,” on Heidegger’s own terms, carries both meanings – that of an event (Ereignis) that reveals something, and propriety (eigen: one’s own) – the logic of which Foucault connects. Foucault concludes:
“Cynicism is thus this kind of grimace that philosophy makes to itself, this broken mirror in which philosophy is at once called upon to see itself and fails to recognize itself” (CT 270).
What happens when philosophy approaches cynicism? The approach produces a gap between the scandalous cynic and the tidier one that Epictetus produces. This Stoically interpreted Cynic is to cynicism what Heidegger is to the history of philosophy: conducting a careful Wiederholung of cynic practices, Epictetus’ repetition is one that renders those practices safe for his own philosophy because it simultaneously admits the parrhesiast Cynic into the canon and defuses the fundamental challenge that the parrhesiast intends. In the process, the cynic becomes cast in the image of philosophy. For Epictetus, if the “Cynic life must be a manifestation of the truth,” then “the Cynic is therefore like the picture of the truth” (CT 310). As I suggested last time, the representational picture hints at what is lost, in particular all of the socio-political considerations that go into framing that picture.
In Heidegger’s case, the act of unconcealing that reveals the history of Being manages to lock in the propriety of philosophy’s autonomy from the social, such that the materiality of social practices and technologies are not worth studying in detail or for their own sake; one must always and only retreat to the essence of things. Thus at the beginning of the “Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger says that we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it” (311). In other words, we are not interested in any given artifacts, but in the essence behind them. We study things only in order to demonstrate that they are actually produced by this representation of what-a-thing is (this is his core claim about how modern technology precedes and produces modern science as quantitative). And, like a picture, there is nothing you can actually do: philosophy is reduced to logos. Or, maybe better: philosophy loses its dangerousness, its scandal.