Foucault and Heidegger

Foucault and Heidegger

Two of the most influential philosophers in the 20th century are Heidegger and Foucault. Foucault offers us a genealogical account of power where the self is turned into subjects. Such an account acts as a blueprint that allows subjects to maneuver around the terrine of subjugation. On the other hand, Heidegger offers us an understanding and history regarding the nature of being: allowing self-deliverance from the world of inauthentic self to the authentic self so that we no longer view ourselves as objects. Both philosophers want to give an account of freedom through the notion of “Care”. In Heidegger, Care is a property of Dasein that interacts with the world. In Foucault, Care is a form of particular discipline that people imposed on themselves to become better, and to lift themselves out of their “everydayness”. First I will map out the Foucauldian subject through the chapter in Discipline and Punished called “Docile Body”; I will then compare that to the notion of care in Heideggerian terms. After giving these two accounts, a theoretical convergence can take place.

Foucault: The Care of the Docile

Foucault examines normalizing processes by which power subjugates humans and the self into the subject in a chapter in Discipline and Punished called Docile Body. He gives an extreme example of the Docile Body relatable to our daily lives: the soldier. For to become a soldier, a person must go through rigorous training to carve the meaning of what it is, be a soldier into their body. Foucault writes, “A body is docile and can be subjected, used, transferred, and improve.” (Rabinow 1984, P 180). A docile body is similar to clay: the lump of clay is always being subjected to the power of the molder. The subjugators found that they could have control over others. They (being the subjugators) set out three techniques of control: one being scale, rather than en masse, an “indissociable unity.” They focused on individuals by “exercising upon it a subtle coercion…at the level of the mechanism itself, an infinitesimal power over the active body.” Secondly, the object of control was no longer over the linguistic functions of the body: through moods and emotions, they would use their power to control others by their “efficiency of movement, their internal control.” Lastly, there is a constant stream of coercion; it is uninterrupted, ensuring that the control was throughout all aspects of their body and mind.”
Thus, Foucault defines discipline as “…The meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility, might be called disciplines.” Discipline is used to dominate people.
Foucault differentiates and clarifies the difference between these forms of subversive domination different than that of slavery, which operates in the appropriation of the other body. This separates discipline from other forms of domination that are based on utility and the usefulness to the subjugator. (Rabinow 1984, P 181-182).

Foucault believes that “discipline is a political anatomy of detail” and precisely this was what Foucault was studying in The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self. Within the normalizing networks of power, there is a possibility for intentional creativity to bring forth new ways of cultivation. These new cultivations or new modes of subjectivization bring forth a new form of knowledge that is self-violating and thus breaks open new spaces for new formation knowledge of the self. Once one understands the power structure of society, one can newly theorize about it, and bring forth change in the relationship of oneself towards the society governing oneself.
Heidegger: The Care of Dasein

According to Heidegger, Dasein is Care. Ontically speaking, he shows that Dasein protects, repairs, and takes into consideration things in the world about the self and another. Due to the decaying physicality of all things, Care is alertness to death. Care is not a project that Dasein takes on any more than death as a fundamental and primordial object of cognition. Rather, Dasein is a being that is always concerned with the nature of being; it always exists. Dasein is moving towards the potential for a greater possibility of self-altering and self-becoming. The movement of Dasein through the world means that Dasein is ahead of itself.
The Care nature of Dasein replaces the Cartesian subject as a substance with qualities, since Dasein is a constant source of becoming, by interacting with the world (the clearing, or Lictung). While thinking about Dasein, and the effort of thinking Dasein as Care, that thinking “Self” becomes another “Self.” Constantly, a reflection of reflection begets more reflection, allowing us to engage in and with the agent of that which thinks. This form of reflection differentiates from the traditional Cartesian meditation, where the thinking thing considers the object out in the world ultimately separating from us, and thus does not interact change us.
Care requires three dimensions: Throwness, projection, and fallen-ness. Fallen-ness is “Dasein has, in the first instance, fallen away from itself as an authentic potentiality for Being its Self, and has fallen into the world”. Fallenness is manifested in idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity. Each of those manifestations of fallenness blinds Dasein of its full potentialities in the world, the closing up of fascination. Fallenness is the leveling process, by which Dasein goes from authentic understanding to inauthentic understanding. Heidegger offers us a superb quote here:

In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into a kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness. (Heidegger, 1984 p.164)

Convergence: The Subjectivizing Power of the They.

It is through the previous quote that I combine Foucault’s and Heidegger’s respective theories. Upon first reading Foucault’s rejection of subjectivity as a primary analytic category, and Heidegger’s important attention to Dasein as the phenomenology of the subject place, it may seem that these two thinkers are in severe opposition. However, a careful reading of both can generate appreciation for the similarities in their conceptualization of care and freedom. Foucault and Heidegger both give us accounts of normalization and processes by which we can attain a sense of liberty in the world. However, instead of separating the two theorists, one can see them on top of each other. Heidegger tells us the normalizing force of the “they”, and we can tell by Foucault that the normalizing force can be a force of actualization and freedom. Through the care of the self, self-cultivation, like the ancient Greek shoemaker, uses constant practice as a form of new creativity and liberty. For Heidegger, we can become authentic and for Foucault, authentic existence is very much a viable option within the realm of subjugation.

Both philosophers emphasized on the philosophy of life that is always to question one’s relationship towards the world. For Foucault, it was askesis, and for Heidegger too, philosophy is a transformative exercise of living. Both emphasized the danger of centralized ideas of history, of philosophy, and of dogma. Philosophy for them means to dance continuously in a vast ocean of conservatism, to abandon oneself in stasis, and essential identity…in the end, to become constantly queer.


Foucault, M., & Rabinow, P. (1984). The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.
Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (2008). Being and Time (Harper Perennial Modern Thought). New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought.
McWhorter, L. (1999). Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.


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