It is the intention of this paper to answer two questions that arose while reading Foucault’s discussion of genealogy. The first question involves an investigation of the relationship between the practice of genealogy and the human body. The second question is concerned with the epistemological implications inherent in his notions of pathology.
As a result of this analysis, it appears that Foucault’s genealogy is praxis oriented: a means to an end. His discussions of genealogy suggest that the end in question is the liberation of new knowledge, new ways of thinking, and new forms of behavior by the historical deconstruction of moral and metaphysical absolutes. Such liberation is claimed to entail the mitigation of psycho-physical maladies resulting from the inscription of moral hang ups and metaphysical assumptions upon the body.
His genealogy mitigates the oppressive rigidity of these cultural complexes by exposing their historical construction. Such an analysis shatters the illusions created by absolute truth claims with the revelation that “…there is something altogether different behind things: not a timeless and essential secret but the secret that they have no essences, or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.” (Foucault p. 371)
Foucault demonstrates his point by deconstructing some of the idealized notions of modern reason: the notion of enlightened thinking portrayed in an aura of humanistic altruism, objectivity, and progress in which human emotions and bias self interest are transcended. However, when examined under the genealogical lens, modern reason appears to be a much more modest phenomenon: “…devotion to truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and un-ending discussions, and their spirit of competition-the personal conflicts that slowly forged the weapons of reason” (Foucault p. 371)
Another example of metaphysical beliefs can be found in his discussion of divine origins, followed by a fall into physical and bodily existence: “The origin always precedes the Fall. It comes before the body, before the world and time; it is associated with the gods, and its history is always sung as a theogony.” (Foucault p. 372)
According to Foucault, these metaphysical notions of origin or ‘descent’ have a negative effect on the body. In the previous example, embodied existence is considered imperfect at best or an abomination at worst, and is likely to inform various behaviors that treat the body as such. In this sense ‘descent’ is both figuratively and literally inscribed on the body, whether in various forms of sexual repression, or out right mutilation as demonstrated in history by various cultures and religious sects.
When describing the pathology of metaphysics he writes: “Finally descent attaches itself to the body. It inscribes itself in the nervous system, in temperament, in the digestive apparatus; it appears in faulty respiration, in improper diets, in the debilitated and prostrate bodies of those whose ancestors committed errors.” (Foucault p. 375)
The idea here is that certain behaviors correspond with specific physiological conditions which then become idealized and reinforced through various metaphysical narratives. Such an example occurs with the idealized role of the contemplative life lived by the priest, philosopher, or prophet. Foucault quotes Nietzsche who identifies the ironic and historical circumstances behind such aspirations: ‘“During barbarous ages… if the strength of an individual declined, if he felt himself tired or sick, melancholy or satiated and, as a consequence, without desire or appetite for a short time, he became relatively a better man, that is less dangerous. His pessimistic ideas only take form as words or reflections. In this frame of mind, he either became a thinker and prophet, or used his imagination to feed his superstitions.”’ (Foucault p. 375)
In this example Nietzsche has deconstructed the idea of a prophet or philosopher being a chosen messenger or servant of ‘God’ who is considered pious and altruistic; in this instance, the prophet, or philosopher is shown to be a product of historical accident. He or she is simply lacking vitality, with the consequence of expressing the typical human motives in modes that are deemed to be physically harmless. The fact that such behavior is conducive to an organized and peaceful society naturally makes these physiological circumstances desirable; thus leading to a metaphysics which idealizes and reinforces these behaviors and their inherent bodily circumstances.
In this context Foucault’s genealogy acts as a form of therapy concerned with releasing an individual’s mind/body complex from the oppressive effects of metaphysical assumptions. He alludes to this therapeutic function with the following: “Historical sense has more in common with medicine than philosophy; and it should not surprise us that Nietzsche employs the phrase historically and philosophically, since one of the philosopher’s idiosyncrasies is a complete denial of the body.” (Foucault p. 382)
The next issue of this analysis is concerned with the epistemological implications of his therapeutic praxis. Foucault’s assertion that metaphysical assumptions have a destructive effect on the body suggests a normative health standard. The question is: does he consider his understanding of pathology to be an objective truth claim? If such is the case, he would be contradicting and undermining his own deconstructive operation.
A closer examination of his work reveals that he is presenting his pathological claims in an ironic manner, simply as another historically constructed and fragmented perception; albeit one that acknowledges its own historical character. Foucault indicates throughout his work that his own normative judgments and historical arguments within the genealogical framework are themselves simply interesting and well argued points of view being devoid of any absolute objectivity. He writes: “These are in the final analysis, just fragments, and it is up to you or me to see what we can make of them…Genealogies are therefore not positivistic returns to a more careful and exact science. They are precisely anti-sciences.” (Foucault p. 84)
In this context, it appears that despite Foucault’s practical use of empirical language, his assessments of metaphysical beliefs and their effects on the body are not intended as an objective authority; rather, they are expressed as one of many finite, partial perspectives acting as the impetus for his praxis of metaphysical deconstruction. In conclusion, it may be suggested that Foucault is simply inventing a new language game, a narrative possessing new rules intended to confuse, and trip up the other players, particularly those players that hold on tightly to centralized modes of thinking expressed in such forms as positive science and traditional metaphysics.
Foucault, Michel, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” James D. Faubion ed., Aesthetics,
Method, and Epistemology vol. 2 of The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1854-1984 (New York: The new Press, 1998), 369-391.