Foucault and Nietzsche: Sisyphus and Dionysus

Michael Vincent Ure, Federico Testa

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This paper shows how Foucault adopts and reconfigures Nietzsche’s Hellenistically inspired model of the philosophical and cultural physician. It elaborates and explains Foucault’s Nietzschean model of the philosophical physician and its normative underpinning. In section 1 we establish the philosophical background to this model by demonstrating how Nietzsche conceives genealogy as a medical interpretation and diagnosis of phenomena. For Nietzsche genealogy is an art of interpretation that enables the philosophical physician to diagnose health and sickness. In section 2 we turn to Foucault’s own debt to the Nietzschean idea of the philosophical physician. We argue that Foucault’s genealogical method commits him to the ideal of the philosophical physician. Nietzsche conceives the genealogist as a physiologist or doctor who interprets phenomena in terms of health and sickness. By adopting Nietzsche’s genealogical method Foucault therefore explicitly frames his analysis of modern power in terms of this ancient ideal. Yet, if Foucault deploys Nietzsche’s method he too is faced with the difficulty of circumscribing and defining norms of health and illness. We argue secondly that Foucault’s own normative judgements are partly informed by a Nietzschean ideal of ‘vital normativity’, and its corresponding distinction between the normal and the pathological. Like Nietzsche Foucault acknowledges that flourishing requires the capacity to invent new norms and ways of life, and in doing so to become different to oneself, to go astray from oneself. We therefore describe Foucault’s ethical experimentalism as an ethics of errancy. And like Nietzsche, Foucault also investigates and deploys Hellenistic philosophies as technologies that transform logos into ethos, truth into a way of life.

Nevertheless, as we show in the final section, there remains a significant difference between Nietzsche’s ethical experimentalism and Foucault’s ethics of errancy. While Nietzsche formulates a principle for distinguishing between health and sickness, Foucault’s skeptical genealogy of the present leaves him without the conceptual resources to discharge the role of the philosophical physician. Foucault takes up Nietzschean genealogy but omits the philosophical quest for eternity to which Nietzsche was committed. For Nietzsche self-transformation is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of ‘the great health’. (GS 382) Nietzsche’s ‘great health’ requires not just ethical experimentation, not just an art of going astray from oneself, but experimentation that tests and enhances one’s capacity to be affected by and incorporate the widest possible range of experiences or stimuli. Nietzsche endorses tragic pessimism as a sign and symptom of great health precisely because, as he conceives its, this type of pessimism actively seeks out “the fearful and questionable that characterises all existence.” (HH 2, P7) Nietzsche’s ethical experimentation aims at the realising the greatest possible margin of tolerance for all that threatens or endangers the self, or the luxury, as he puts its, of tragic insight into the eternal repetition of same. Nietzsche’s great health is an affirmation of tragic fate. Nietzsche therefore frames his philosophical askēsis in terms of the classical problem of fate. Foucault reclaims the ancient philosophies, but not as therapeutic responses to the tragic character of existence, but simply as technologies of open-ended self-transformation. Nietzsche’s philosophical physician sets free spirits the Dionysian task of affirming the tragic character of existence to the extent of affirming its eternal repetition. Foucault’s philosophical physician sets modern subjects the task of perpetually going beyond the limits of the present to the extent of pursuing the Sisyphean task of always starting anew on the same task.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFoucault and Nietzsche
Subtitle of host publication A Critical Encounter
EditorsAlan Rosenberg, Joseph Westfall
Place of PublicationLondon UK
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781474247405
ISBN (Print)9781474247382
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NameBloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy

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