Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault
Hubert L. Dreyfus
At the heart of Heidegger's thought is the notion of being, and the same could be said of power in the works of Foucault. The history of being gives Heidegger a perspective from which to understand how in our modern world things have been turned into objects. Foucault transforms Heidegger's focus on things to a focus on selves and how they became subjects. And, just as Heidegger offers a history of being, culminating in the technological understanding of being, in order to help us understand and overcome our current way of dealing with things as objects and resources, Foucault analyzes several regimes of power, culminating in modern bio-power, in order to help us free ourselves from understanding ourselves as subjects.
These rough parallels suggest that it might be illuminating to see how far the comparison of Heidegger's "Being" with Foucault's "Power" can be pushed. Do these terms designate equivalent functions? Do Heidegger's epochs in the history of being match Foucault's regimes in the genealogy of power? To what extent do these two interpretations of our history lead these thinkers to criticize our current cultural condition in similar ways? What does each see as the danger? How does each envisage resistance? And, of course, we must also ask whether these thinkers differ in any important ways?
After all, Heidegger's early support of National Socialism and later recommendation of political passivity seem totally opposed to Foucault's emphasis on social freedom and his political activism. Obviously Heidegger is some sort of conservative and Foucault clearly is on the left. But lest the striking difference between Heidegger's and Foucault's political attitudes makes this project seems hopelessly misguided, we must remember Foucault's comment on Heidegger in his last interview:
This last remark of Foucault's, when his immanent death freed him to tell the truth even in Paris, forces us to ask how Foucault, in spite of his radically different political ethos, can nonetheless claim, in some important sense, to be following Heidegger?
I. The Functioning of Being and Power.
It is important to realize at the outset that for Heidegger being is not a substance or a process. Being, in early Heidegger, is "that on the basis of which beings are already understood." One might say that the understanding of being is the style of life manifest in the way everyday practices are coordinated. A culture's understanding of being allows people and things to show up as something -- people show up as heroes in Greece and as Saints in the Middle Ages, for example, and things for the Homeric Greeks were flashing up to be admired, while for Christians they were creatures to be mastered and interpreted.
Put generally, the shared practices into which we are socialized provide a background understanding of what counts as things, what counts as human beings and what it makes sense to do, on the basis of which we can direct our actions towards particular things and people. Thus the understanding of being creates what Heidegger calls a clearing (Lichtung). Heidegger calls the unnoticed way that the clearing both limits and opens up what can show up and what can be done, its "unobtrusive governance (Waltens)."
For Heidegger the history of being in the West has been the history of misunderstandings of the clearing. From Plato on, philosophers have sensed that something beyond ordinary beings was responsible for their existence as anything, but since the clearing always stays in the background -- or, as Heidegger puts it, withdraws -- philosophers have replaced it with a highest being that is the ground of beings and the source of their intelligibility. For Plato the highest being was the good, for Aristotle the unmoved mover, for the Christians the creator God, and after the Enlightenment it was man himself. Heidegger calls all these attempts to replace the clearing with a "beingest being", onto-theology or metaphysics.
We will see later that, according to Foucault, power has suffered a parallel misunderstanding. In general, many of Foucault's difficult remarks concerning power make sense if we take him to be getting at a social clearing with an emphasis on the way the everyday practices of individuals and groups are coordinated so as to produce, perpetuate, and delimit what people can think, do and be. For Foucault, power, like Heidegger's being, is no fixed entity or institution, but is incarnated in historical social practices. "One needs to be nominalistic," he tells us, "power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society." This strategical situation arises from specific individuals and groups opposing one another. These actions, taken together, open a social space in which people, things, and the real are defined. Like the clearing, power is productive. Foucault tells us: "[P]ower produces; it produces reality," that is, it determines what it makes sense to believe and to do.
For Foucault, power, as opposed to violence, controls actions while nonetheless leaving them free:
Like Heidegger, Foucault speaks of this non-violent way of guiding action as governance:
One might say, paraphrasing Heidegger, that power is that on the basis of which human beings already understand each other. As Foucault puts it:
Since Foucault is not interested in how things show up but exclusively in people, "Power", which is normally used to describe the way governments govern people's actions, seems an appropriate, if perhaps misleading, name for what controls the way people understand themselves and others. It should be clear that some type of power in this ontological sense, like some particular understanding of being, is essential to any society. According to Foucault, "A society without power relations can only be an abstraction."
II. Seinsgeschichte and Genealogy.
Heidegger and Foucault agree that in the West the clearing that governs human activity by determining what counts as a thing, what counts as human, and what it makes sense to do, is not static, but can be seen as falling into a series of epochs or regimes.
Both Heidegger and Foucault, no doubt influenced by Nietzsche, begin their account of these epochs with a pre-history in pre-Socratic Greece. Heidegger devotes many pages to showing that, although the pre-Socratics did not think about the clearing, they did not deny it either. They sensed that showing up or presencing depended upon what was absent or withdrawn. But this understanding was lost when Plato took the Good to be the purely present ground of the phenomena, and truth to be the correspondence of theoretical propositions to an independent reality.
Foucault too points to the emergence of theory among the Greeks as the great turning point in our history. The pragmatic and poetic discourse of early Greek civilization was destroyed by the rise of theoretical truth: "The Sophists were routed ... [from] the time of the great Platonic division onwards, the [Platonic] will to truth has had its own history ..." This change in the style of the practices presumably altered all aspects of Greek life. For example, Foucault tells us that "[T]he West has managed ... to annex sex to a field of rationality ... [W]e are accustomed to such "conquests" since the Greeks ..."
According to Heidegger, in the next major stage, the Roman understanding of beings as finished works (res) -- produced rather than coming-forth or being-brought-forth -- set up the possibility of the medieval account of hierarchically ordered substances produced by a creator God.
Foucault has less than Heidegger to say about Greek philosophy, but he has much more to say about how the Self was produced, worked over, and administered in Antiquity. He also gives, at the beginning of Discipline and Punish, his own brief description of the stage of hierarchical, top-down monarchical power.
[Notes on History of Being and Power:
Finally, Heidegger's and Foucault's concerns converge upon the transformation that issues in modernity and our current understanding of things and of human beings. Both view the interest in representation in the thought of the Classical Age as showing the emergence of new practices and as the crucial but unstable beginning of modernity -- a starting point that is not yet clear about its radically new subject-centered understanding of being. This understanding first becomes explicit in Kant's interpretation of man, and finally works itself out in our contemporary technological understanding of being.
At this point the parallel between the two thinkers comes into sharp focus, as we can see when we compare Heidegger's account of the origin of the notion of man in "The Age of the World Picture" and Foucault's account in The Order of Things. Heidegger tells us of a radical transformation in our understanding of being which took place in the 17th century. The change was implicit in Descartes introduction of representation. Kant then made Descartes unthought explicit in the centrality of his notion of Vorsetellung. The age of representation differs in fundamental ways from all other ages: "What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth." Heidegger emphasizes the fact that man objectifies everything:
Foucault emphasizes that for Kant man also objectifies himself. So, for Foucault, "Man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as subject that knows."
With Kant, man becomes the source of the meaning of everything and so philosophy becomes anthropology. In Heidegger's terms:
For Foucault, philosophy, which Kant claimed to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber, thus falls into an anthropological sleep.
Both Heidegger and Foucault reach rhetorical heights as they look forward to the end of the humanistic understanding of being. Heidegger:
But not long afterwards each thinker realized that man was, indeed, being erased, but that this post-humanism was not the liberating development each had expected. (Strangely, Foucault seems to have to repeat Heideggers mistakes, even though, by the time Foucault wrote, Heidegger had already corrected them.)
III. Our Contemporary Understanding of Being/Power.
Heidegger understands our current understanding of being by looking at one of its greatest achievements, scientific research. His account of modern scientific practices is similar to Thomas Kuhn's in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What Heidegger calls research resembles what Kuhn calls normal science. Research operates by setting up a total interpretation of some region of reality and then attempts to show that the anomalies that emerge can be fitted into this total account. Heideggers researchers, like Kuhnian normal scientists, keep busy by taking for granted that their general plan is correct; that the anomalies it reveals have no truth to tell, so that in the end they must all be brought under the projected total order. Thus scientific research is made possible by Descartes unthought fully focused in Kant, that rationality consists in human beings imposing a total, systematic order on all that is. Heidegger calls this totalizing understanding of being, technological.
Like many current critics of the modern age, Heidegger at first failed to distinguish the of modern epoch that was coming to an end from the beginning of the post-modern epoch. Thus he was for a time under the illusion that the danger of technology was still that man was dominating everything and exploiting all beings for his own satisfaction. As if man were a subject in control, and the objectification of everything were the problem. He says in 1940:
By 1946, however, Heidegger saw that the modern understanding of being was coming to an end. The exploitation and control was not the subject's doing, and "man" never was anything but an effect of other forces.
In his final analysis of technology, Heidegger is critical of those who, still caught in the subject/object picture, think that technology is dangerous because it embodies instrumental reason. Modern technology, he insists, is "something completely different and therefore new." Heidegger describes the hydroelectric power station on the Rhine as his paradigm technological device because for him electricity is the paradigm technological stuff. He says:
But we can see now that electricity is not a perfect example of technological stuff because it ends up finally turned into light, heat, or motion to satisfy some subjects desire. Heideggers intuition is that treating everything as standing reserve or, as we might better say, resources, makes possible endless disaggregation, redistribution, and reaggregation for its own sake. As soon as he sees that information is truly endlessly transformable Heidegger switches to computer manipulation of information as his paradigm.
The goal of technology, Heidegger then tells us, is more and more flexibility and efficiency simply for its own sake. There is no longer, as there was in Kant, an onto-theological center that provides a goal for all activity. There is ordering but no orderer. Heidegger says:
Heidegger seems to waver on the question whether, as technology reaches its final stage, it will accentuate subjects and objects or eliminate them.
In the end, however, he seems clearly to hold that technology can treat people and things as resources to be enhanced without setting meaning-giving subjects over against objectified things. A year after the previous remark about subjects and objects reaching extreme dominance Heidegger appears to retract his view about objects at least, in his observation that nature has become "a system of information" and a modern airliner is not an object at all, but just a flexible and efficient cog in the transportation system. Passengers are presumably not autonomous subjects either, but resources recruited by the tourist industry to fill the planes. Heidegger concludes: "Whatever stands by in the sense of standing-reserve no longer stands over against us as object."
Foucault, in the social realm, like Heidegger thinking of natural things, went through a stage, expressed in Madness and Civilization, where he thought the problem was that some groups dominated and excluded others. He announces dramatically that:
Foucault felt he had to expose this sinister repression and liberate the repressed. Later he saw that repression, calling for liberation, was not the problem. He rejected:
For Foucault, postmodern power is not an instrument of exclusion, but a pervasive pressure towards ever greater inclusion. It does not serve to objectify, exclude, coerce or punish, but rather to order and enhance life. Power creates docile bodies and self-absorbed, deep subjects so as to produce ever greater welfare for all. The resulting practices embody what Foucault calls disciplinary bio-power.
Foucault, in a variation on Heidegger's account of research, sees that our current practices, supposedly grounded in sciences such as social psychology, produce anomalies, such as delinquents, and then take every anomaly, every attempt to evade them, as an occasion for further intervention to bring the anomalies under scientific norms. All this is done, of course, for the anomalys own good, so that everyone gladly accepts this order. Heidegger emphasized the tendency toward total ordering in technology by calling it, "total mobilization"; Foucault refers to the totalizing tendency of disciplinary power as "normalization."
Normalization is, of course, more than socialization into norms. Socialization into norms is the universal way the understanding of being or power governs the actions of the members of any society. In the new arrangement which has emerged more and more clearly since the Classical Age, however, norms are progressively brought to bear on "all aspects of life" What makes normalization different (and dangerous) is that it seeks to cover all practices. Heidegger, quoting Nietzsche, says, "the wasteland grows."
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explains the way postmodern power is something entirely new. Unlike monarchical power, whose exercise was top-down, centralized, intermittent, highly visible, extravagant, and stable; postmodern power is bottom-up, diffuse, continuous, invisible, operating in the micro-practices, and constantly on the move colonizing new domains. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. I. Foucault adds:
This raises an important question. When Foucault describes power as "coming from everywhere" is he describing power in general, i.e. the social clearing, or is he describing bio-power, which is uniquely discrete, continuous and bottom-up?
This seeming problem is cleared up, I think, if we remember Heidegger's account of onto-theology. Like the understanding of being, power, always, in fact, "comes from everywhere," in that it is embodied in the background of everyday practices. But what these background practices have made possible up to recently is monarchical and state-juridical power, i.e. power administered from above. But now, Foucault tells us, things have changed:
Just as for Heidegger the technological understanding of being, by treating everything as resources, levels being to pure ordering, and so gets rid of all onto-theology --the idea that some entity is the ground of everything -- so bio-power reveals the irrelevance of questions of the legitimacy of the state as the source of power. Foucault says:
That is, just as total mobilization cannot be understood by positing subjects and objects, so normalization works directly through new sorts of invisible, continuous practices of control Foucault calls micro-practices. The everyday person to person power relations whose coordination produces the style of any regime of power are, indeed, everywhere. But in earlier regimes of power they are not micro-practices. Only disciplinary power works meticulously by ordering every detail. So, while for Foucault all forms of power are bottom up and the understanding of power as monarchical misses this important fact, nonetheless bio-power is bottom-up in a new and dangerously totalizing way, so that understanding power on the model of the power of the king (the equivalent of onto-theology) covers up an important change in how our practices are working.
[We can schematize the above relations as follows:
Heidegger: ontological: mode of revealing: (Gestell) enframing
Their common critique of techno/bio-power does not, however, lead Heidegger or Foucault to oppose the use of technological devices, nor specific welfare practices. Heidegger is clear that it is the essence of technology -- the technological understanding of being -- not technology, that causes our distress. That the technological understanding of being can be disassociated from technological devices is clear if one looks at contemporary Japan where a traditional, non-technological understanding of being -- or, perhaps better, no single understanding of being at all, but a pluralistic understanding of multiple realities -- exists alongside the most advanced high-tech production and consumption.
Heideggers goal is to use technological devices but, by thinking the history of the West, to free himself from the technological understanding of being. He claims:
Foucault, like Heidegger, is, of course, not opposed to modern welfare techniques, e.g. specific practices like mass vaccination. Late Foucault even has suggestions on how to improve the welfare state, but he is opposed to taking for granted that welfare practices, based on the social sciences, should, in the name of efficiency and optimization, be extended without critical questioning to all aspects of our lives. For both thinkers the danger seems to be that out current understanding of being and power leaves no place for marginal practices. Why this is a danger remains to be seen.
IV. What Resists and Why.
Neither Heidegger nor Foucault think that we can resist techno/bio-power directly because what ultimately needs to be resisted is not particular technologies nor particular strategies but rather a tendency in the practices towards ever greater order and flexibility that produces and sustains them. Thus the current understanding can only be resisted by first showing that it is not inevitable but is an interpretation of what it is to be, second by connecting our current style with our current discomfort and then by taking up marginal practices which have escaped or successfully resisted the spread of techno/bio-power.
Characteristically, Foucault is concerned solely with what is happening to people, while Heidegger focuses on what is happening to things. Each sees what is endangered as, at the same time, a source of resistance.
Middle Heidegger's basic idea was that Western human beings are essentially disclosers of a series of total worlds. One way to open new worlds is to reconfigure the practices by making marginal practices central and central practices marginal. This would result in a new understanding of being focused in a new god. So we can see why, for Middle Heidegger, the way Kants world picturing has worked itself out as total mobilization and so tends towards the incorporation of all marginal practices, is the greatest danger. It eliminates those very practices on the basis of which new worlds could be disclosed and dooms us to the eternal return of the same.
For Later Heidegger, the gathering of local practices around things such as a jug of wine or a family meal produces temporary, self-enclosed, local worlds that resist the totalizing and dispersing effects of the flexible and efficient ordering demanded by the technological understanding of being. Thus cultivating what Albert Borgmann calls focal practices gives a new center, or better new centers to our lives. Human beings still have the job of world disclosing and preserving, now called dwelling on earth
Foucault, for his part, bases resistance on the self. He finds in Antiquity a practice in terms of which to question the direction our current practices are taking, and to resist this trend. He explains:
He proposes "opposing to categories of the law and of prohibition those of the art of living, techniques of self, and stylization of existence." Foucault grounds resistance in these "practices of creativity."
Now we come to the important difference between Heidegger's and Foucault's ontologies. For Heidegger, the basic way the background practices work is by gathering and so bringing things into their own. Human beings, as world disclosers, must preserve and respond to these practices. For Foucault, on the contrary, the background practices reveal, as they do in Nietzsche, a constantly shifting struggle. Thus there is no way to be receptive to them.
Thus finally when it comes to the difficult normative question, just why we should resist at all, Heidegger and Foucault take quite different paths, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks. Heidegger, as we have seen, understands our essence to be receptive to the way the background practices can gather to disclose new worlds. Foucault explicitly denies any appeal to our human essence -- even the weak claim that our essence is to be receivers and preservers of worlds. This saves Foucault from essentialism but, of course, denies him any account of why bio-power should generally be felt as distressing. In contrast to Heidegger, he holds that human beings must resist the current form of power without being able to give an argument why totalization is dangerous and with the realization that no form of power is without its problems. He thus adopts an attitude he calls "hyper and pessimistic activism."
There is, nonetheless, an important kind of resistance these two thinkers share. Thinking the history of being, for Heidegger, and the genealogy of regimes of power, for Foucault, opens a space for critical questioning by showing that our understanding of reality need not be defined by techno/bio power -- that we need not be dominated by the drive to order and optimize everything. They both show that we had a different relation to being and to power once which suggests that we could have again. Thus an understanding of our historical condition weakens the hold our current understanding has on us and makes possible disengagement from the direction our practices are taking. Both thinkers were once prophets of the dawning of a new world, but both gave up that stance. They both came to share later Heideggers modest claim that:
Or, as Foucault put it in an interview:
He wanted, he said, "to participate in the difficult displacement of forms of sensibility,"
Thus both emphasize the thinker's ability to enable us to think differently and thereby to get into a free relationship to the unique danger posed by our current practices. END
Foucault does not say much about the regimes of power before the modern one, but, since every social space is structured by power we can be sure there is something to be said. It is left for us to figure out what sort of power corresponds to physis and to poesis. Presumably the first is a loosely organized power of clans organized around heroes, who like the gods whoosh up at crucial moments and then subside. Poesis would correspond to the ideal of democracy we find in Aeschyluss Orestiea where the power of Athenian democracy is that it is an expressive order that brings each thing out its own, even the Furies become humanities. It is easier to see what Foucault thinks of power in Roman antiquity. I presume the emphasis is not on the glorious monarchies but on the bureaucracy which administers the empire the way the nobles administer their selves. This imposition of order on rebellious matter is clear in Virgils account of how the leader is able to calm and control the mob. In Heidegger this is the period of the understanding of being as res which is the imposition of form on matter to produce a finished work. Finally, we see that for an understanding of being as createdness the mode of power will be parochial power where God and his envoys on earth are concerned with each and every soul.
Why isnt Foucault interested in working out the different structures of different regimes of power before parochial power, or in discussing power at all, for that matter, after his detailed discussion of monarchical power and disciplinary power in his books after History of Sexuality Vol. 1? We might get a clue, as usual, from looking to Heidegger.
It is a striking, surprising, and little noticed fact, that in the late 50ies when Heidegger is writing about things and dwelling he never mentions being at all.. (With one single exception that I know of, where, when he is speaking of mortals, Heidegger reverts to the language of being and time.)
When he was thinking of modes of resistance to the technological understanding of being, Heidegger came to think that there was an essential antagonism between a unified understanding of being and local worlds. Of course, he always realized that there would be an antagonism between the style set up by a cultural paradigm and things that could only be brought out in their ownness in a style different from the dominant cultural style. Such things would inevitably be dispersed to the margins of the culture. There, they will shine in contrast to the dominant style but will have to resist being considered irrelevant or even wicked. But if there is a single understanding of being even those things that come into their own in the dominant cultural style will be inhibited as things. Already in his "Thing" essay Heidegger goes out of his way to point out that, even though the original meaning of thing in German is a gathering to discuss a matter of concern to the community, in the case of the thing thinging, the gathering in question must be self contained. The focal occasion must determine which community concerns are relevant rather than the reverse.
Given the way local worlds establish their own internal coherence that resists any imposition from outside there is bound to be a tension between the glorious cultural paradigm that establishes an understanding of being for a whole culture and the humble inconspicuous things. The shining of one would wash out the shining of the others. The tendency toward one unified world would impede the gathering of local worlds. Given this tension, Heidegger abandoned in a late seminar what he had considered up to then his crucial contribution to philosophy, the notion of a single understanding of being and its correlated notion of the ontological difference between being and beings. He remarks that "from the perspective of appropriation it becomes necessary to free thinking from the ontological difference." He continues, "From the perspective of appropriation, [letting-presence] shows itself as the relation of world and thing, a relation which could in a way be understood as the relation of being and beings. But then its peculiar quality would be lost." What presumably would be lost would be the self- enclosed local character of things. It follows that, as mortal disclosers of worlds in the plural, the only comprehensiveness we can hope to achieve is our openness to dwelling in many worlds and the capacity to move among them. Only such a capacity allows us to accept Heideggers criticism of technology and still have a genuinely positive relationship to technological it.
The moral seems to be that, when one is looking for marginal practices that could support resistance to the dominant regime of power, rather than thinking of resistance as a new regime that is dawning or a new god that can save us, one should think of the marginal as what is outside power. It is precisely not power but things and selves which will be what one studies. Thus in the last works of Heidegger and of Foucault the discussion of epochal understandings of being drops out for Heidegger and discussion of the structure of regimes of power seem to drop out for Foucault. (By an odd quirk I cant explain, Foucault seems to turn into middle Heidegger for a moment in the introduction to Care of the Self where he talks of studying the problematizations that "being gives us to be thought." I have no idea what being means for Foucault, unless it is a new way of referring to the problems in Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality.)
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