Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Oktober 2000

Radical Perspectivism and the End of Theory: Nietzsche and Foucault

Anette Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)


In view of the growing complexity and differentiation of global systems and processes, it has become increasingly difficult and indeed problematic to propose and to maintain a coherent and consistent theory of the universe and everything. Although chaos theory and systems theory have tried to fill the void left by the 'grands récits' of the Western philosophical canon from Socrates and Plato to Kant and Schopenhauer, they haven't addressed the question of values and ethics in any convincing way. This is the question which Nietzsche posed most succinctly in his anti-philosophy with its nomadic attacks on the sedentary systems of the metaphysical tradition in which he shows up the underlying value judgements of their founders that reveal the negation of life as the precondition of their power. He counters this with a life-affirming dietetics that is as much physiological as it is psychological but can claim any kind of 'truth' only for the subject from whose perspective it is made. More recently, Foucault seems to have taken up this dietetic impulse in his History of Sexuality.

In Volume three of this history, entitled The Care of the Self(1), Foucault investigates the transition from the Greek use of pleasure, which although regimented to a certain degree, as evidenced by the interpretation of dreams, in which different types of intercourse between members of the family, household or the community were considered as good or bad omens, depending on the relationship of dominance between the dreamer and the object of his or her dreams, were not given much philosophical attention, as long as social and political relations were kept intact. In Aphorism 170 of Daybreak, entitled "A different perspective of feeling", Nietzsche points out that the love of his contemporaries for the ancient Greeks was based on a fallacy, because the preconditions of their ideal of beauty were radically different from the 19th century ones. He goes on to say:

What is our chatter about the Greeks! What do we really understand about their art, their soul -- which is the passion for male naked beauty! -- From this point of view only they felt female beauty. Thus they had a completely different perspective from ours. And it was similar with their love of woman: they adored differently, they despised differently. (KSA 3.152)(2)

This perspective gave way to a more intense reflection on the relationship between the spouses in Roman times, as emerges from, amongst others, Plutarch's writings. Foucault stresses, however, that this sudden interest in the self did not occur at the expense of an active involvement in public affairs, but rather marks a shift in the organisation of public and private life. He situates the Greek term 'care of the self' between a political movement that would be conservative in nature and call for a return to the old ways and the vague ideological notion of individualism. What is at stake is the claim of philosophy as an "art of existence". (Foucault, 44.)

The cultivation of the self entailed the view that one had to become master of one's passions and anxieties in a life-long process of learning that encompassed every aspect of everyday life from eating and drinking to reading and writing to love and sex. Thus it was not considered improper for a respected adult man to consult a philosophical teacher for advice on how to master his life. The philosopher seems to have acted as philosophical physician, a term that goes back to Plato, much like the psychoanalyst today, except that the person in need of such care did not consider himself a patient with a pathological condition, but rather as a pupil in search of illumination and improvement of his or her self. It is probably because individual salvation was sought in the privacy of the home that the relationship between husband and wife became privileged: equal, but also more tender.

As the husband began to share in the domestic affairs with his wife, he also became more concerned with the soul, that part of the self that is neither entirely physical nor rational, neither body nor mind, but something in-between that manifests itself in love and friendship, and which seems to have found its privileged site in marriage. This Platonic idea of a marriage of souls seems to anticipate the Christian non-sexual idea of love, but Foucault stresses that this is not the case in late Roman society, where sexual desires were not frowned upon but were incorporated into a regimen or system of control that sought to refine them and assign them their rightful place in a hierarchy of values where austerity, self-restraint and the concentration on marriage and pro-creation formed part of a new discourse on morality that centered on self-respect. So self-interest as the driving force of our actions was not repressed, but was carefully balanced by a system of voluntary restrictions on the self in order to become master of its bodily passions and desires. This implies that the improvement of oneself became a value which individuals strove for but also that this was esteemed and emulated by the wider society. The idea was that one could not govern a city or state, if one was not able to master one's own life. The idea of the body politic thus subtly insinuates itself into the discourse on the care of the self. This suggests a new understanding of what constitutes the political. A system of relays now regulates the play of power from the emperor and monarch to the senator at the local level. Both are not in power for their own gain but are governed by a system of rules and regulations themselves. The state is therefore something that needs to be cared for and improved just as much as the body of the individual.

Foucault excludes the question whether this rather idealistic view of politics was likely to have any effect on the way political affairs were conducted, but simply describes the empirical fact of this discourse on the self and analyses the laws that underpin it. It could be argued that Machiavelli's political principles which he revealed in The Prince bear a closer resemblance to the way politics was conducted at the time and probably still is today. Perhaps this suggests the normative nature of Plutarch's writings in the sense that he held an ideal mirror up to society to show what it ought to be like, or it could be read as an insight into the futility of the political endeavour and a mark of resignation which tries to find a refuge in the sanctity of the home.

But what does this digression have to do with the topic of my paper, radical perspectivism and an end of theory? Two things: firstly, it traces the break in a belief in the efficacy of theoretical systems, that seem to turn away from the experience and perspective of real subjects in terms of their class and gender within a specific culture at a given historical moment, in favour of an abstract ethical ideal, as emerged e.g. in the Socratic ideal equation of knowledge, virtue, and happiness or in the Christian ethic of meekness or the Kantian ethic that one should act in such a way that one's own behaviour could become the general ethical standard and secondly, it turns our attention to the actual practices that individuals subjected themselves to willingly because they believed that they could become better, wiser and more complete in the process.

In his Unpublished Writings, Nietzsche notes that there was as yet never "enough suspicion amongst thinkers". He explains that "perhaps it was a great danger for scientifc insight that it wanted to conflate virtue and insight. Things are ordered in an excessively cruel way -- to speak figuratively". (KSA, 11.183.) Nietzsche saw an equally great danger in a limitless will to knowledge which characterised the age of universal suffrage. He warned that his age lived under the "good-natured and enthusiastic preconditions of the previous century". (KSA, 11.183.)

Whereas the Socratic system and Christian ethic seems to be anchored in such an abstract knowledge or belief system, from which good actions and happiness will follow, Nietzsche and Foucault focus on the body and the subject from whose perspective knowledge and practices are tested in terms of their benefit for the subject and the heightening or enhancement of its power as a will-to-power and will-to-life. Nietzsche formulates the insight, that all valuations revolve around a specific perspective:

Maintenance of an individual, a community, a race, a state, a church, a belief, a culture - due to forgetting, that there is only a perspectival valuation, everything is teeming with contradictory valuations and consequently with contradictory drives in a person. This is the expression of the malady of man, in contrast to the animal, where all available instincts fulfil certain tasks.

At the same time, Nietzsche sees a chance in the contradictory nature of man which he elevates to a method of insight:

he feels many pros and cons -- he elevates himself to a position of justice -- to an understanding beyond valuing as good or bad. The wisest man would be the richest in contradictions, who has, as it were, sensory organs for all kinds of men: and in-between he has his grand moments of grand harmony -- the great coincidence within us! -- a kind of planetary movement -- (KSA 11.181.)

A perspective presupposes a horizon, and this is precisely what Nietzsche and Foucault aim at: to say that what I want to know and want to do it bounded by the limits of what is good for me, of what enhances my powers to reason, to feel and to act in the world. This does not imply a purely hedonistic approach to life, as periods of weakness, illness, lack and even death could strengthen the individual's powers of perception which will help it avoid the pitfalls in future which have led it into its present state of lack. So certain deprivations, such as hunger or abstinence are even necessary, as Foucault points out, to master one's desires and to savour them more intensely.

What Nietzsche suggests, therefore, is that a subject can have different perspectives at different stages of its life, as he radically questions the concept of the subject as the free agent of its actions, implying that this is merely a grammatical effect, i.e. the sentence "I want to climb the Eiger wall" suggests that the grammatical subject "I" is also the agent of the act to "climb the Eiger wall" or that the act is caused by the free will of the I. Instead Nietzsche proposes that the subject is the battle-field of many wills-to-power, which each have their own perspective and depending on which will-to-power is dominant, is also the dominant perspective. Thus he writes:

"While I want, a veritable movement occurs: should this movement unknown to me not be regarded as efficient cause? After all, the act of willing itself is the conclusion of a 'battle of motives' - but these themselves -- -- --." He concludes these incomplete reflections with the following notes: "rejection of final causes" and "rejection of efficient causes: they too are mere attempts, to -- -- -- to ourselves a process." (KSA 11.184.)

Dominant in this sense does not necessarily mean strong, but simply that it won the upper hand at a certain moment in time. This could be a weak will-to-power which triumphed over the self due to negative influences, such as the wrong career-choice, animosities within the family, a society which suppresses individual freedoms, or physiological factors such as diet and physical movement, or climate. A first step towards changing this parlous state of affairs would be to change some or all of these factors by moving to another place or choosing another occupation, in which one's strong will-to-power and will-to-life can once again re-emerge. A different mental outlook or perspective might also help, as Nietzsche knew when he suggested: "Fun and jokes serve recovery, they are a kind of cure, whereby we regain strength for new activity. 'Serious is better' -- is Aristotelian." (KSA 11.183.)

Foucault and Nietzsche seem to agree that this cannot happen through political action, perhaps because modern politics always turns its attention away from the individual in favour of the masses, who will decide which party will win in a democratic system or it will rule in the name of the masses as in the case of socialism or fascism. It is therefore based on the premise that everyone is the same, whereas Nietzsche and Foucault are concerned with the individual and the ways of strengthening its stubborn resolve to become itself. This does not mean that everyone can become an Übermensch but simply that each one finds the courage not to blame one's misfortune on society or someone else, but that one actively tries to change one's lot in such a way that one can honestly say that this is the way I wanted to live my life and that I would want to live it again and again in all eternity in exactly the same way. Nietzsche called this the "most dangerous point of view": "What I do now or omit, is as important for everything that is to come as the greatest event of the past: in this enormous perspective of the effect all actions are equally great and small." (KSA 3. 512.)

With this ethic Nietzsche attempts to transcend the Christian ethic which tried to teach compassion with our fellow humans as the highest goal. Instead Nietzsche sees this goal as too easy, because it assumes and accepts the broken nature of the majority. Against this ethic which he terms an ethic for prostitutes, he holds up his proud ethic of self-overcoming:

An easy prey is something despicable for proud natures, they have a pleasant feeling only when looking at unbroken people, who could become their enemies, and similarly when gazing upon all goods that are hard to gain access to; against the suffering person they are often hard, because he is not worthy of their striving and pride, -- but against their equals they show themselves all the more obliging, against whom a battle and wrestling would be honourable, if for once an occasion for it would present itself. Under the pleasant feeling of this perspective persons of the aristocratic caste accustomed themselves to an exclusive politeness. -- Compassion is the most pleasant feeling amongst those, who have little pride and no chance of great conquests: for them an easy prey -- and that includes every sufferer -- is something delightful. One praises compassion as the virtue of prostitutes. (KSA 3.386.)

Similarly, Foucault speaks of an ethics of control, although in contrast to Nietzsche he stresses the aspect of self-mastery rather than the agonal; it is the idea of being answerable to oneself and delighting and taking pleasure in oneself that he finds articulated in Plutarch's and Seneca's writings:

This relation to self that constitutes the end of the conversion and the final goal of all the practices of the self still belongs to an ethics of control. Yet, in order to characterize it, moralists are not content with invoking the agonistic form of a victory over forces difficult to subdue and of a dominion over them that can be established beyond question. This relation is often conceived in terms of the juridical model of possession; one 'belongs to himself', one is 'his own master' [...]; one is answerable only to oneself, one is sui juris; one exercises over oneself an authority that nothing limits or threatens; one holds the potestas sui. But apart from this rather political and judicial form, the relation to self is also defined as a concrete relationship enabling one to delight in oneself, as in a thing one both possesses and has before one's eyes. [...] And the experience of self that forms itself in this possession is not simply that of a force overcome, or a rule exercised over a power that is on the point of rebelling; it is the experience of a pleasure that one takes in oneself. The individual who has finally succeeded in gaining access to himself is, for himself, and object of pleasure. Not only is one satisfied with what one is and accepting of one's limits, but one 'pleases oneself'." (Foucault, 65f.)

This point perhaps also marks an important distinction between Nietzsche and Foucault: Whereas Foucault appears to yearn for this conservative ideal past where such self-mastery among great men still seemed possible, Nietzsche invents the goal of being able to bear as many contradictions in oneself as possible. Perhaps his concept is more difficult but also more humane because more honest in an increasingly complex world, in which it becomes imperative to think in a non-linear network? Complexity and many contradictions as a new value then? Or an openness towards complexity and contradictions that would be debated and enacted in a polylogue(3) of different contradictory subject positions as regards culture, class, gender. This could become a new project for our time.

If one takes Nietzsche´s concept of perspectivism seriously, then there is no theoretical position from which the perception of an objective truth would be guaranteed, because the positing of an object always takes place from the point of view of a subject. Whereas traditional theories of objective truth have led to an instrumentalisation of subjects in the name of technological progress, the end of theory neither means the reign of an unfettered subjectivity nor an end of thinking. On the contrary, it would require a more precise, more intricate and more imaginative response to the situations real subjects find themselves in. One would have to see what theories with their globalising tendencies have done at a local level. And one could perhaps learn to understand how infinitely more complex and beautiful natural and/or existing cultural systems are if we don't interfere with them. Perhaps an ethics of minimal interference and respect for the other would flow out of this. Not out of indifference but an active participation and prevention of a global disaster such as a clash of cultures. Listening, speaking in many languages, many dialects. Learning to respect diversity just as much as one's embodied self.

© Anette Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)

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(1) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume Three: The Care of the Self. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1984 (1986). Further references to this edition will be given within the text as (Foucault).

(2) Nietzsche, Friedrich. Kritische Studienausgabe. Herausgegeben von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag/de Gruyter, 1988. Further references to this edition will be given within the text as (KSA). Translations of the German quotes by A.H.

(3) Cf. Franz Martin Wimmer: Thesen, Bedingungen und Aufgaben interkulturell orientierter Philosophie. In: Polylog. Forum for International Philosophizing. [24. August 2000].

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