Jiwon Hahn | On the Genealogy of Truth and Knowledge

By Jiwon Hahn

Probably the most prominent common denominator of the philosophies of Nietzsche and Foucault would be genealogy as their method of philosophizing. The fact that Foucault entitled his piece on Nietzsche, written as part of Hommage à Jean Hyppolite (1971), as “Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire” (“NGH”) is strongly indicative of this parallel. Around the same time, Foucault gave lectures at Collège de France—between 1970 and 1971—whose compilation is published as Lectures on the Will to Know (“Lectures”). In her essay “Foucault Lecteur de Nietzsche,” Judith Revel identifies the principal difference between NGH and the Lectures as the latter’s focus on “les conditions de transformation, ou de redoublement, de l’archéologie par la généalogie.”[1] She writes that in Lectures, “[g]énéalogie devient . . . l’historicisation d’une description qui était demeurée dans un premier temps statique, et que Foucault avait appelée jusqu’alors épistème.” Archaeology is another method that is similar to genealogy, but distinguished from it in that genealogy traces development or evolution, while archaeology uncovers the past, original, and often forgotten. Yet the fact that “original” or originaire implies the changes made since the origin, which is what genealogy aims to identify, makes the distinction between the two complicated. Gary Gutting notes that “neither method is the exclusive vehicle of any given Foucauldian analysis, and neither has precisely the same sense in its various applications.”[2] This study explores Foucault’s “l’archéologie par la généalogie” (Revel) on the subjects of history, truth, knowledge and will in NGH and Lectures in order to where Foucault’s concept of history comes from and where it is headed to.

In NGH, Foucault follows his declaration that the genealogy “s’oppose à la recherche de l’« origine »”[3] with a study of etymology and nuances of three German words that may all be translated as simply “origin”: Ursprung, Herkunft, and Enstehung. His methodology reminds the reader of Nietzsche’s etymological studies of “good,” “bad,” and “evil” in the First Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals. Foucault, by examining the words Nietzsche employs in his Genealogy, creates a type of meta-genealogy—one with a web-like structure of Foucauldian episteme.

According to Foucault, Ursprung, which is perhaps closest to the meaning of origin as a source, serves to refer to the origin in Nietzsche’s work. Signifying “l’essence exacte de la chose, sa possibilité la plus pure, … sa forme immobile et antérieure à tout ce qui est externe, accidentel et successif” (148), Ursprung embodies what is a priori right and true. As a result, it corresponds to the God whose death Nietzsche declared: « [l]’origine est toujours avant la chute, avant le corps, avant le monde et le temps ; elle est du côté des dieux, et à la raconter on chante toujours une théogonie » (149). Since Nietzsche’s philosophy commences with the declaration of God’s death, as seen allegorically in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it is only natural that his genealogy “s’oppose à la recherche de l’« origine »” (146), especially when the origin is Ursprung. On the other hand, Herkunft refers to « la provenance » and « la vielle appartenance à un groupe – celui du sang, celui de la tradition » (151). While Ursprung has a vertical aspect of the Fall from “la haute origine” (148), Herkunft cradles a horizontal sharing of characteristics across members of a group. Herkunft is situated temporally and conceptually after Ursprung which is a priori by definition and “toujours . . . avant le corps” (149). Foucauldian Herkunft consequently collapses the vertical Fall and the corresponding passage of time on the body which becomes the “surface d’inscription des évènements” (154). As a result, “[l]a généalogie. . . est donc à l’articulation du corps et de l’histoire,” yet “[e]lle doit montrer le corps tout imprimé d’histoire, et l’histoire ruinant le corps” (154). Barbara Stiegler explains why Foucault writes that « l’histoire ruin[e] le corps » (154) by noting that « il n’y a pas de forces vitales, naturelles ou biologiques des corps qui se tiendraient en retrait de l’histoire et de ses discours »[4] for Foucault. The body, as a result, becomes the site for archaeology, the horizontal site with a vertical depth. Lastly, Enstehung “désigne plutôt l’émergence, le point de surgissement” (154) according to Foucault. Origin as Enstehung and emergence becomes critical in Foucault’s analysis of Nietzsche. On the plane of archaeology and genealogy, both horizontal and vertical, emergence introduces force, movement and change. Emergence, which « se produit toujours dans un certain état des forces » (155), is « l’entrée en scène des forces » and « désigne un lieu d’affrontement » (156). However, this « loi singulière d’une apparition” (154) does not designate “un champ clos” where “les adversaires seraient à égalité » (156). Instead, it is “non-lieu” and “une pure distance” where “les adversaires n’appartiennent pas au même espace » (156). The « pure distance » annihilates any possibility for Hegelian resolution of opposing forces, which would mean an end, direction, and linearity without complexity. In order to allow for the constantly changing web of episteme to evolve, the emergence should correspond to the “non-lieu.”

These three meanings of origin illustrate Foucault’s viewpoint, as quoted by Revel, that history is essentially “un jeu de transformations spécifiques.” Foucault articulates that three uses of genealogy–“l’usage parodique et destructeur de réalité,” “l’usage dissociatif et destructeur d’identité,” “l’usage sacrificiel, et destructeur de vérité”—oppose three Platonic modalities of history, which are « réminiscence ou reconnaissance, » « continuité ou tradition, » « connaissance » (167). The modalities of history roughly coincide with the concept of history in relation to three different words for origin. “[R]éminiscence ou reconnaissance,” symbolized as « masques » (168) of giants of Western philosophy, resembles Ursprung, while “tradition” can be matched with Herkunft, that bestows identity, especially because “le pluriel l’habite” (168). The last one, “connaissance,” is the most difficult concept to directly associate with Enstehung, and from this difficulty arises Foucault’s contemplation on truth and will to know in relation to genealogical studies of history.

Foucault finishes NGH by noting that Nietzsche “s’agit de risquer la destruction du sujet de connaissance dans la volonté . . . de savoir” and that his genealogy, or « la critique des injustices du passé par la vérité que l’homme détient aujourd’hui devient destruction du sujet de connaissance par l’injustice propre la volonté de savoir » (172). Perhaps it is symbolically significant that Foucault ends NGH with the word « volonté de savoir, » and continues to expand on the concept in his Lectures on the Will to Know, whose title alone clearly conveys such purpose.

In Lectures on the Will to Know, Foucault rigorously explores the essence of truth and knowledge in relation to history of philosophy, in order to outline and identify what he means by the will to know. Truth and knowledge are both the most likely objects of “know” as a verb, but with critical differences. First of all, since the history of philosophy is “always organized in terms of an interplay between the individual oeuvre and an historical destination of the truth,”[5] truth serves to advance it in both macro and micro level. Truth is thus not only “material,” but also “final cause of philosophy” [emphasis added] (34) as the “destination” (37). However, what Foucault refers to by truth is not a monolithic, canonical and a priori set of the absolutes. “[L]inked to an exercise of sovereignty” (78), truth interacts with the sovereignty of the time, and the contemporaneous power structure shapes and defines in what context truth is enunciated and accepted as “justice,” and consequently, what truth is. But truth is not a mere object to be figured out, something solid and immobile in the dark so that the light can illuminate it in Foucauldian philosophy. Instead, it is another form of power, in contest with the sovereignty or political power. Foucault writes that truth is “an autonomous force” to which “[o]ne is not morally or legally required to submit” and “which has its own power of intimidation” (75).

On the other hand, “knowledge is an invention,” according to Foucault, since it is “not inherent in human nature” and lacks a “prototype of knowledge [which] preceded human knowledge” (203). The express denial of “an external guarantee in something like a divine intellect” (203) reminds the reader of the Fall embedded in Ursprung as well as the masks whose parody is required to conduct true genealogy. Knowledge is thus an invention because it is both human (as opposed to divine) and not human (as opposed to natural). But knowledge is an invention most importantly because it “will always be perspective, incomplete” (203) and relative. Foucault denies the common perception of both truth and knowledge as something that should be known and something that is already known. Perspectivist understanding of knowledge also conflates the role of individual, just as Foucault’s definition of history of philosophy emphasized “individual oeuvre” (37).

The relative and individual aspect of knowledge, along with the constantly changing power dynamics of truth and sovereignty, makes “[t]he justice-truth linkage and knowledge-power break” impossible to “be definitively established” (120). The uncertainty translates into the impossibility to know, which leads to constant emergence, permanent “non-lieu,” and therefore, perhaps ironically, unending will to know. The relationship between truth and knowledge further enhances the uncertainty. Early in Lectures on the Will to Know, Foucault articulates three roles of the truth in relation to desire and knowledge which are: (a) “assur[ing] the transition from desire to knowledge,” (b) “found[ing] the precedence of knowledge over desire,” and (c) “giv[ing] rise to the identity of the subject in desire and knowledge” (24). Considering Foucault’s later comment that “[k]nowledge was invented, but truth was invented even later” (206), one is left to wonder whether truth or desire comes first after knowledge. But through the power dynamic of truth and desire, they probably “emerges” simultaneously, but with an unresolvable distance of difference between them–which does not, however, translate into a temporal one. As a result, the triangular complex of knowledge-truth-desire, which was already dynamic due to truth’s role to assure the transition from desire to knowledge, becomes further unstable, as the distance between desire and truth is questionable.

The third role, “giv[ing] rise to the identity of the subject in desire and knowledge” (24), introduces the theme of subject-object relation to this dimension of truth-knowledge-desire. As a matter of fact, the subject-object relation is the point of departure for Nietzsche from the conventional Western philosophy in Foucault’s eyes. While “[a]ll philosophies have founded knowledge on the preestablished relation of subject and object,” Foucault notes that “Nietzsche wanted to account for knowledge by putting the maximum distance between subject and object” (212). What Foucault means by “putting the maximum distance between subject and object” can be learned from his explanation of why Nietzsche speaks of knowledge as lie: “because it distorts reality, because it is perspectivist, because it erases difference” (213). The perspectivist aspect of knowledge distorts reality by collapsing the difference between subject and object, and as a result, “it is something altogether different from knowledge, this relation is its untruthful product” (213). Revel explains that “[c]e qu’il s’agit de mettre à distance, c’est donc l’existence d’un critère de vérité, d’un mètre d’évaluation fixe, d’un repère en fonction desquels faire jouer telle ou telle représentation dans l’histoire. » Consequently, she identifies and opposition between « un historicisme philosophique » and « une pratique historienne de l’historicisation » since the latter is « la construction des objets dans l’histoire. » This is why Foucault writes that « the Nietzschean task » is « to think the history of truth without relying on truth » (217). Will to power, according to Foucault, is “breaking point at which truth and knowlege come apart and destroy each other” (218), liberating the reality from “being” to become “becoming” (219).

Will, which Foucault views that Nietzsche put at “the root and raison d’être of truth” (214), of the subject which is liberated from object, is what empowers this becoming. Will to know, freed from knowledge, no longer has a sense of direction towards knowledge, and consequently corresponds to “instinct, struggle, the Will to power” (197). “Will to know [which] is not originally linked to the Truth . . . is deployed in a space of fiction where the truth itself is only an effect” and as a result, “the subject is only a kind of [its] product” (197). Masks are parodied, destroyed, to give rise to another subject, which renders the masks into objects. But the process defies any stable definition of either subject or object. And the constant battle between subject and object produces truth as an “event” (198). Revel recapitulates this theory by writing that “[l]a vérité ne préexiste pas à l’histoire qui en fixe la forme et les critères » in Foucault’s philosophy so that he « transforme l’histoire de la vérité en une histoire des différents jeux de vérité, ce qui l’amène à perdre tout repère. »

Revel, in her essay, asks “comment faire pour produire l’histoire de quelque chose, si ce quelque chose n’est précisément pas une chose mais à son tour une construction historique, le produit d’une histoire, un produit qui ne préexiste jamais à l’histoire qui l’a fait. » Foucault, in his Lectures, mentions that “[t]hings are not made to be seen or known” and that “[t]hey do not turn towards us an intelligible face which looks at us and waits for our gaze to meet them” (203). By defining that “[t]he world is essentially a world of relations which are unknowable in themselves” (211), Foucault ensures that will to know continue. It can never be satisfied, unless the subject settles for a mere mask of the past, a fiction that has been told many times. But this sense of externality of truth, fiction, and knowledge, is endangered when the subject-object relation’s distance collapses, which can occur when in the constantly changing power dynamics of truth and sovereignty. In the preface of Genealogy, Nietzsche writes that “[w]e are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves: this has its own good reasons. We have never searched for ourselves—how should it then come to pass, that we should ever find ourselves?” Perhaps, no matter where the will to know is directed—to the history, philosophy, truth, knowledge, or even oneself—all we can do, according to Foucault and Nietzsche, is to identify the pattern of the will’s operation, instead of where it comes from and where it goes, especially because origin alone has multiple meanings and cradles a site for constant emergence, relativity, and therefore, uncertainty.



[1] Judith Revel, Foucault Lecteur de Nietzsche, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/judith-revel-foucault-lecteur-de-nietzsche/.

[2] Gary Gutting, “Introduction: Michel Foucault: A user’s manual” in Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2005) 14.

[3] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire,” Hommage à Jean Hyppolite (1971), 146. Available at http://works.bepress.com/r_gould/49/.

[4] Barbara Steigler, « Le demi-hommage de Michel Foucault à la généalogie nietzschéenne », 201.

[5] Michel Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know: Lectures at the Collège de France 1970-1971 with Oedipal Knowledge (2013), ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell, Kindle edition, 37.

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