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Foucault, Truth and the Death of God


Foucault, Truth and the Death of God


Dominika Partyga

Was Michel Foucault a nihilist?  Dominika Partyga turns to Foucault’s early work to explore how nihilism shaped his critique of modern humanism, his relationship to Nietzsche's thought, and the possibilities he opened up for new forms of truth and affirmation in the modern world.

The historical problematic of nihilism never appears explicitly in the works of Michel Foucault, who was much more interested in questions which begin with ‘how’ rather than in the elusive ‘why’. From the History of Madness to the History of Sexuality, Foucault’s genealogies have often been read as critical histories of the basic principles and values around which we organize our lives in contemporary society. However, he never explored the problem of life’s meaning in itself. Yet in The Order of Things, one of Foucault’s early works from the 60’s, we encounter the figure of the Übermensch as a 'promise-task' that is radicalized into the possibility of transcending the modern episteme. Reading Zarathustra’s teaching of self-overcoming in relation to the field of unspoken rules that govern the formation of knowledge, Foucault offers us a creative re-actualization of Nietzsche’s philosophy of affirmation. He even goes as far as to argue that Nietzsche signifies ‘a threshold beyond which contemporary philosophy can begin thinking again’, or at least reclaim its critical function in relation to the Kantian question of the possibility for knowledge. [1] Can we then understand the conceptual framework developed by Foucault in the 50’s and 60’s as a mapping out of the ways in which nihilism continues to haunt us as subjects of positive knowledge? And if we follow the scandalous promise of the Übermensch, can we think of nihilism as something that can be overcome in the epistemic field?

We might be tempted to think that these are irrelevant questions. After all, nihilism is not a term we will find in Foucault’s vocabulary, and Foucault will later regret that he had ever granted Nietzsche a metahistorical and privileged status in the Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, A Preface to Transgression and in The Order of Things. But paying close attention to the ways in which the death of God functions in those works rather than the terms with which Nietzsche and Foucault have respectively problematized nihilism in their projects, we can begin to unravel various kinds of tensions that lie at the heart of the modern episteme, and perhaps even glimpse some openings that arise on its edge.


The death of God both constitutes and limits our experience as a ‘doubly murderous gesture’ that is intimately linked with the death of man.

One of the most distinctive (and fiercely criticized) claims Foucault makes in his early works is that there is a fundamental gap between the temporality of discourse and modern subjectivity. If the individualized consciousness is just point of intersection in an exterior network of discursive regimes, bodies of knowledge, discourse proves unlivable for the humanist subject in his search for a lasting truth, timeless meaning and an authentic origin. In this sense, the death of God both constitutes and limits our experience as a ‘doubly murderous gesture’ that is intimately linked with the death of man. [2]

To some extent Foucault's metaphor follows from Nietzsche’s understanding of modernity as an advent of nihilism, but he seems to be moving beyond the problem of value in his reinterpretation of the death of God, bringing into sharp focus the very conditions under which man’s meaning-giving activity has been taking place historically since the end of the eighteenth century. The central question here is whether man is a figure that is in some ways correlative with God. By tracing the constitution and development of the human sciences as the source of knowledge about human beings, Foucault makes a strong case for the contemporary relevance of this parallel. Man might have metaphorically killed God as an all-knowing metaphysical entity, a source of all values and eternal ideas, but he does little to question the primacy of the space that God has occupied, situating ‘his language, his thought, his laughter’ at the centre of the post-Enlightenment world. [3]

In this sense, if we can talk at all about some kind of nihilism that is at stake here, it is surely not a final judgment about the lack of any overriding aims and values which would carry with itself an immediate dissolution of all foundations and boundaries, but a historical, distinctively modern condition that is impossible to escape as long as man takes the form of stubborn exteriority in the field of knowledge. This form can be traced back to Kant’s idea that the limits of knowledge exist entirely within the structure of the knowing subject and, more broadly, to the philosophical conception of the human subject who is both a source of reality and an object in the world, understood in terms of a representation.

On Foucault’s reading of modernity in The Order of Things, we are trapped in an episteme built precisely on this shaky assumption that man can be an object of socio-scientific knowledge and, at the same time, a condition of possibility for that knowledge. In this sense, human sciences are based on a paradoxical relationship to man’s finitude, because the subject is ultimately dispossessed in language and social practices which exceed him, yet his concrete, lived and socially situated experiences constitute the grounds for the positivity of knowledge. Foucault’s works on the fundamental experiences of madness, illness, death, crime and sexuality can be perhaps understood as an exploration of the empirical forms that finitude took over the discontinuous course of history. Rather than transcendental finitude, Foucault brings into sharper focus the ways in which experience has been actually ‘lived’ and structured alongside various divisions that underlie society, from the elusive boundary between madness and reason, to the shifting meanings of normalized versus deviant sexuality.

Nihilism is not a sickness but a historical horizon in which man experiences and comes to know his own subjectivity.

Nihilism, seen via the lens of Foucault’s reinterpretation of the death of God, is not a belief, not a sickness, not even a radical scepticism towards truth claims. Instead, it is a historical horizon in which man experiences and comes to know his own subjectivity through various games of truth, discourses and disciplinary regimes, such as the medical discourse of mental illness, the hermeneutics of desire or the normalizing techniques of (bio)power. In this history of subjectivity, the process of self-discovery can hardly be understood via existentialist vocabulary, as something that gives unique meaning to our lives. The reason for this is because self-knowledge is possible only through specific terms which govern the relations between the subject and the object, even the relation of the self to itself (such as the relation of the individual to his/her own sexuality, complicated via the pastoral and psychiatric practices of confession). In this sense, as long as the main question facing philosophy is ‘what is man’, as long as we ask ‘why’ rather than ‘how’, and as long as man as the speaking and living subject is the foundation for his own knowledge, God and his murderer are engaged in a deadly contest with more than one round.


Yet nihilism carries with itself the liberating promise that man himself will also disappear, ‘like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’, once we draw out the most radical consequences from the death of God and recognize contingency as a source of infinite possibilities in the field of knowledge, in which man is just a transitory figure. [4] What is at stake here is nothing less than the promise of a fundamental rearrangement in the conditions that govern the relations between the knowing subject and known object, intimately linked with the affirmative aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy. In his book on Foucault, Gilles Deleuze interpreted the death of man in terms of knowledge coming in relation with ‘new forces’ from the outside, radically different from the forces of infinity and finitude that were at work in the classical and modern epistemes under the God-form and Man-form. [5] In this movement of epistemic revaluation, we can glimpse the world of becoming and affirmation, symbolized in the figure of the never-attainable Übermensch.

On Foucault’s reading, the teaching of self-overcoming offers us a model for a radical critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity, which paves way towards a new economy of power-knowledge relations. Here finitude would no longer be what founds and limits man’s knowledge ‘but rather that cumber and knot in time when the end is in fact a new beginning’. [6] With the stark realization that truth grounded in empirical finitude falls back on itself, the death of God restores us ‘not to a positivistic world but to a world exposed by the experience of its limits’, the limits of what can be known, said and written in a given moment of history. [7]

The modern episteme opens up towards the Nietzschean figures, but not to incorporate them into the order of discourse in a way that produces the most sure and legitimate ways of knowing. Rather, it does so to sacrifice the disembodied and unified subject of knowledge in that brief moment when discourse breaks down, precisely at the limits of what can be said in a way that is intelligible, when a certain risk of unrecognizability is put into play. This experience of the limit wrenches the subject from itself, as he finds himself ‘upon the sands of that which he can no longer say’. [8] In this sense, nihilism emerges as a critical force that undermines epistemological authority not to deny the possibility of knowledge per se but to point towards radically different ways of knowing that might emerge at the limits of philosophical subjectivity.

Yet Foucault remains careful in his discussions on the prophetic role of the Nietzschean figures, not sure if the approaching light is ‘the reviving flame of the last great fire or an indication of the dawn’. [9] On this point, he seems to be following Nietzsche quite closely: both authors dedicate only a few brief (though vivid) passages to the figure of the Übermensch. When it comes to Foucault, it is tempting to read this as a hint that he is just as deeply implicated in nihilism as the universal modern subject. After all, the most telling manifestation of nihilism is its all-pervasive yet unconscious working upon the bodies and souls of the last man who cannot recognize himself in the murderer of God. The doubly murderous gesture is an event that is too distant for many ears: provoking laughter rather than sympathy, the madman fears that ‘the tremendous event [the death of God] is still on its way’. [10]

We are trapped in an episteme that is deaf to the Nietzschean figures precisely because of their transgressive status as those who speak from outside of discourse, from the other side of that normative divide between madness and reason, perhaps from the other side of knowledge. The only way in which we can attempt to make sense of madman’s words, or, more broadly, of signs that are not yet discursive statements, is to radically question the terms on which they become naturalized in discourse and through which we come to recognize ourselves as legitimate subjects. The madman’s voice is prophetic in this context precisely because of his liminal position as someone who has been marginalized, excluded and silenced over the entire history of the Western episteme, whether he becomes locked into an asylum, sent away onto the dark night on a ‘ship of fools’, or diagnosed with mental illness. [11]

Man’s obsession with finitude gives way to tragic nihilism which consists of intense affirmation of human reality at its very limit.

Seen via the lens of this opening in our discursive horizon, from that point which is hardly accessible, man’s obsession with finitude gives way to tragic nihilism which consists of intense affirmation of human reality at its very limit. This affirmation is tragic because it involves a stark realization that man in his finitude cannot be the ground for the structures of truth, meaning and knowledge, and that the possibility of overcoming nihilism is constantly deferred, as long as we are not prepared to state clearly whether ‘we wish humanity to end in fire and light or to end on the sands‘. [12] Faced with a vision of an apocalypse, we might be tempted to think that all the modern subject is left with is a radical questioning of the contemporary conditions under which man comes to know himself in what appears to be his own interiority (to put the task of self-fashioning in somewhat generic terms). This, more or less, seems to be Foucault’s position in the last decade of his work (mid-70’s to 1984), in which the question of the Übermensch no longer concerns the possibility of overcoming the modern episteme, but the creative practices of self-transformation that the subject might be engaged in once s(he) inhabits the space of radical epistemic doubt.


Yet in The Order of Things, Foucault makes one more critical move that he will later regret, reading Nietzsche’s thought of the eternal return in relation to the hermeneutical status of the sign as always already interpreted. The most mysterious question Foucault grapples with in relation to Nietzsche’s philosophy concerns then the role of language in its pure, objective and self-referential form beyond discourse, language that is ‘incompatible with the being of man’ and which would reappear on the horizon only if man is washed away. [13] Foucault complicates here the distinction between discourse and language, linking the latter to the possibility of pure knowledge that is free from power relations and thus closely connected to the promise of transgression. The problem of language, which, for Foucault, finds its most subtle literary expression in the works of Raymond Roussel, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, is of course not entirely absent from the history of the Western episteme, but Nietzsche was the first one to think about it philosophically as ‘an enigmatic multiplicity that must be mastered’, killing man and God in the interior space of his thought. [14]

Ultimately, if there is an outside to the order of discourse that governs all that can be known in a given moment of history, it arrives and ends under the mysterious sign of Nietzsche.

The fragmentation of language can be traced back to a shift from the classical to the modern episteme, precisely the shift through which man has been constituted as the centre of representational thinking. In this sense, the order of discourse has colonized language in the age of the human sciences, but language can regain its objectivity, return to its lost unity and perhaps even transcend the social field when man steps outside of the zone of metaphysical essences and finds himself ‘not at the very heart of himself but at the brink of that which limits him; in that region where death prowls, where thought is extinguished, where the promise of the origin interminably recedes’. [15] This is an intermediate region of madness and pure language that gave birth to the anguish haunting Artaud, Nietzsche and Roussel, figures Foucault was obsessed with in the 50’s and 60’s and whose work he read in close relation to their madness. The dissolution of artistic work in madness emerges as the precondition for its trangressive status, as it situates the writing subject outside of the regimes of intelligibility, in that region onto which God, man and the author disappear, as words and signs no longer contain any meanings but can be interpreted onto infinity. In this sense, Nietzsche’s questioning of who is speaking in the Genealogy of Morals - radicalized into a questioning of himself as a sovereign author in his late works - can be perhaps read as a practice of accomplished nihilism which unfolds beyond the fundamental limits of death, madness and the (un)thought. Ultimately, if there is an outside to the order of discourse that governs all that can be known, written and said in a given moment of history, it arrives and ends under the mysterious sign of Nietzsche.


Beginning with the Order of Discourse, his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France from 1970, Foucault changes the premises of his own work in a somewhat dramatic gesture when – perhaps not so coincidentally - the Nietzschean figures loose their transgressive status. Yet Nietzsche surely continues to haunt him, perhaps no longer as a radically privileged model for a critique of metaphysical humanism, somehow exempt from the rules that govern the production of all discourses, but as a foundation for the discourse of the critical historian who draws out the consequences from Nietzsche’s doubly murderous gesture. Genealogy – a method Foucault develops in close dialogue with Nietzsche in the 70’s - can be perhaps understood as a practice of continuous self-overcoming in the field of knowledge, as a kind of thinking that aims not only at the disruption of all certainties, but also at the affirmation of history over essence, contingency over necessity, and multiplication over unity. In this sense, Foucault’s Nietzsche reveals various strategies that emerge in the field of contemporary thought once the unified subject looses his privileged place in the epistemological field and the space vacated by God’s absence becomes a site of affirmation, (counter)power and politics. Genealogy might be then the best, if not the only, ‘Foucauldian’ cure to our nihilism.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 373. 
[2] Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), 124. 
[3] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 420. 
[4] Ibid., 422. 
[5] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), 132. 
[6] Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), 123. 
[7] Michel Foucault, A Preface to Transgression. In: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-84 Volume 2, edited by James D. Faubion (London: Penguin, 1998), 72. 
[8] Ibid., 77. 
[9] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 286. 
[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Random House, 1974), 182. 
[11] Michel Foucault, History of Madness (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 26. 
[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 388. 
[13] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 369. 
[14] Ibid., 332. 
[15] Ibid., 418.


Dominika Partyga studied philosophy and sociology at University College Maastricht, UC Berkeley and LSE. Her research interests lie at the intersection of social theory and continental philosophy.