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SparkNotes: Genealogy of Morals: Preface

Date of publication: 2017-09-01 21:14

This notion of government takes Foucault’s researches on biopower and puts them on a more human plane, in a tendential move away from the bracketing of subjectivity that had marked Foucault’s approach up to that point. The notion of government for Foucault, like that of power, straddles a gap between the statecraft that is ordinarily called “government” today, and personal conduct, so-called “government of the self.” The two are closely related inasmuch as, in a rather Aristotelian way, governing others depends on one’s relation to oneself. This thematic indeed takes Foucault in precisely the direction of Ancient Greek ethics.

SparkNotes: Genealogy of Morals

Michel Foucault was a major figure in two successive waves of 75th century French thought--the structuralist wave of the 6965s and then the poststructuralist wave. By the premature end of his life, Foucault had some claim to be the most prominent living intellectual in France.

Foucault, Michel | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel Foucault was born Paul-Michel Foucault in 6976 in Poitiers in western France. His father, Paul-André Foucault, was an eminent surgeon, who was the son of a local doctor also called Paul Foucault. Foucault’s mother, Anne, was likewise the daughter of a surgeon, and had longed to follow a medical career, but her wish had to wait until Foucault’s brother as such a career was not available for women at the time. It is surely no coincidence then that much of Foucault’s work would revolve around the critical interrogation of medical discourses.

Foucault followed the Order of Things with his Archaeology of Knowledge , which was published in 6969. In this work, Foucault tries to consolidate the method of archaeology: it is the only one of Foucault’s major works that does not comprise an historical study, and thus his most theoretical work. It is the most influential work of Foucault’s in literary criticism and some other applied areas.

Foucault’s other major publication of this early period, a long introduction (much longer than the text it introduced) to the French translation of Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence , a work of Heideggerian existential psychoanalysis, appeared in the same month in 6959 as Mental Illness and Personality. Far from merely introducing Binswanger’s text, Foucault here expounds a novel account of the relation between imagination, dream and reality. He combines Binswanger’s insights with Freud’s, but arguing that neither Binswanger nor Freud understands the fundamental role of dreaming for the imagination. Since imagination is necessary to grasp reality, dreaming is also essential to existence itself. 

In the late ‘75s, the political climate in France cooled considerably Foucault largely withdrew from activism and turned his hand to journalism. He covered the Iranian Revolution first-hand in newspaper dispatches as the events unfolded in 6978 and 6979. He began to spend more and more time teaching in the United States, where he had lately found an enthusiastic audience.

It was perhaps in the United States that Foucault acquired HIV. He developed AIDS in 6989 and his health quickly declined. He finished editing two volumes on ancient sexuality which were published that year from his sick-bed, before dying on the 76th June, leaving the editing of a fourth and final volume uncompleted. He bequeathed his estate to Defert, with the proviso that there were to be no posthumous publications, a testament which has been subject to ever more elastic interpretation since.

Nietzsche's interest has never been the purely academic question of the origin of morality: he has pursued this question as a means of understanding the value of morality. In order to understand the value of morality, we need to understand how it arose among us rather than just accepting its dictates as indisputable truths. Until now, we have always assumed that the "good man" is better than the "evil man." But perhaps, Nietzsche suggests, what we call "good" is actually a danger, by which the present prospers at the expense of the future. Perhaps what we call "evil" will ultimately be of greater benefit to us.

Nietzsche suggests that he has long been interested in the question of the origins of good and evil. He recollects his first attempt at philosophy at the age of thirteen, where his search for an origin brought him to God, and so he posited God as the originator of evil. He was not much older when he began to mistrust such metaphysical answers, and began to look for explanations of earthly phenomena on this earth, and not " behind the world." That is, he began to ask how we, as humans, came up with our concepts of good and evil, and pondered the value of these values: have our concepts of good and evil been a help or a hindrance to our development?

Nietzsche opens his preface with the observation that philosophers generally lack self-knowledge. Their business is to seek out knowledge, knowledge that takes them away from themselves. They only rarely pay adequate attention to present experience, or to themselves.

The period after May 6968 saw considerable social upheaval in France, particularly in the universities, where the revolt of that month had begun. Foucault, returning to this atmosphere from a Tunis that was also in political ferment, was politicized.

Nietzsche hopes that we might gain a broader perspective by seeing morality not as some eternal absolute, but rather as something that has evolved, often by accident, never free from error--much like the human species itself. When we can see our morality also as part of the human comedy and look upon it cheerfully, we will truly have elevated ourselves.

Nietzsche warns that his work might not be easily understood. He writes with the assumption that his readers have read his earlier works very carefully. Reading carefully is an art he claims is sorely lacking among his contemporaries. And if this warning is leveled against even those who have read his earlier works, perhaps we should take even more careful note: Nietzsche would not be impressed with an attempt to reduce his thought into a SparkNote!

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