The Illusion of Influence: On Foucault, Nietzsche, and a Fundamental Misunderstanding

Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia Law School


We often say that Foucault was influenced by Nietzsche or, more simply, that Foucault was Nietzschean. That is a gross misunderstanding that fundamentally distorts our reading of Foucault’s writings and, worse, does violence to the critical method. Foucault was no more Nietzschean than he was “mad” because he studied madness or “neoliberal” because he studied Gary Becker’s economic writings. Instead, Foucault took Nietzsche’s discourse as an object of study – in a similar way that he took the discourse of madness, of the prison, and of sexuality as objects of study throughout his intellectual lifetime. Writings of Nietzsche became, at various times, an epistemological, linguistic, alethurgic, or political object of study for Foucault in furtherance of his political-philosophic projects.

This has crucial implications for the critical method. What we do with texts and ideas, as critical theorists and practitioners, is not to follow or apply them, but to interpret, test, and deploy them in pursuit of our own political projects. We often refer to “Nietzsche” or “Foucault,” but they do not exist and those terms do not have coherent meanings. Those terms are shorthand for their various written traces, often internally contradictory. It may be that we typically anthropomorphize philosophers, books, or their oeuvre; but that is just human weakness, not a critical method. The only way to do justice to our critical task of writing, theorizing, and, more importantly, engaging in critical praxis, is precisely to put these critical texts to work in furtherance of our own political project.