The recent publication of Heidegger’s “black notebooks” caused controversy. It is now commonplace, not only in Heidegger circles, but more widely too, to raise the question of how Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism should affect our understanding of his philosophy. Can we separate the man’s personality from his philosophy? Should we? Or are they entwined? And if so, how?
It’s not my aim to examine those questions here.
Instead, I draw attention to two other philosophers—Nietzsche and Foucault.
Both, in his way, are titans of moral relativism. And though many analytic philosophers especially are quick to try to dissociate themselves from what they take to be the obscurities of Foucault’s postmodernism, the fact remains that relativism, skepticism, and nihilism are far from unusual in value theory. Foucault would approve.
The question therefore deserves asking: why do the humanities popularize Foucault’s views on humanity, when, in his own life’s case, such views led directly to his untimely demise? Is the fact that Foucault died from a lifestyle embodying his tastes irrelevant to assessing those ideas? Should we take the ideas seriously of a man who himself died in part from their enactment?
Then there is Nietzsche and the question of his madness. Until very recently, his acolytes were able to forestall the question of whether Nietzsche’s ideas are undermined by the fact of his mental disintegration, explaining away his madness as the unfortunate (but inevitable) result of syphilis. The syphilis hypothesis, however, is no longer tenable. Things are more mysterious.
So we are left with a man who died from frequenting bathhouses and another who descended into madness. Are these the kind of men to whom we should aspire to follow? Are they deserving of the academic admiration they receive?
Even if it’s become something of a cliche to note that the best words are those to live by, that measure is as relevant here as elsewhere. Are theirs to live by? No, with these two there is only death. In a society whose death wish becomes more evident by the day, is it any wonder that Nietzsche and Foucault are two of its greatest idols?
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