Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

In working on my lecture on Foucault’s 1970-71 course I have been rereading some related texts, including the “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” essay. I know this text well, as I’ve taught it and it was a fundamental text in my PhD thesis, which was on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault (and was reworked into Mapping the Present).

The final lines particularly struck me in relation to the newly available course. This is where Foucault is suggesting that the three modalities of history in Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation are reworked within genealogy. The key one, for me, is the third. The translation in the Aesthetics volume of the ‘Essential Works’ (itself a modification of the earlier translation in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice) reads:

The critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge [connaissance] by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge.

My standard practice is to check all quotes to the original language. That reads:

La critique des injustices du passé par la vérité que l’homme détient aujourd’hui devient destruction du sujet de connaissance par l’injustice propre à la volonté de savoir.

I’m not convinced that’s very good. It is a bit clunky in the summary of the 1874 notion;  but it gets downright misleading in the understanding of genealogy. Sujet is translated as man; ‘maintains’ appears for nowhere to make sense of that choice, when sujet de connaissance has a very different meaning; and propre is something of a false-friend in this context. Here’s another attempt (comments welcome).

The critique of past injustices by the truth held by man today becomes the destruction of the subject of connaisssance by the injustice specific to the will to knowledge.

The last phrase, forming both the 1970-71 course title and the title of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, is itself complicated. Depending on context it also means ‘the will to know’, and Foucault clearly means both senses to be in play.

[Update: Clare O’Farrell has kindly posted this retranslation and comments to her Foucault site]

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3 Responses to Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

  1. Clare says:

    Hi Stuart,
    There are indeed a number of problems with the translation of this article and thanks for offering a retranslation of this sentence! It also confirms my argument that English translation has often introduced a sexist tone which is not in Foucault’s original. I have a retranslation of another rather well-known passage from this article up on my website http://www.michel-foucault.com/trans/ngh.html
    One of the difficulties with Foucault is that when you read him in French it all makes perfect sense, but then when it comes to actually translating him into English, one runs into unanticipated problems!

    With your permission, I will add your retranslation to this page.

    Great to see you getting back to your Foucault roots again 🙂

  2. Shawq Assed says:

    hello,
    I am writing an essay on Nietzsche that’s why I’m here 😀 I think your translation would be most accurate if you replaced ‘connaissance’ with knowledge. I believe the intended meaning was ‘knowledge of the subject’. ‘Connaissance’ is less than ‘savoir’ ( = to know – savoir translates literally to knowledge) whereas ‘connaissance’ has a less deeper meaning to curiosity, if that makes any sense. In french you say: ‘Je connais cette personne’ –> I know this person / but you can’t say ‘je sais (of the verb savoir) cette personne’. Similarly, here you cannot say ‘le sujet de savoir’ it sounds wrong, so you say ‘le sujet de connaissance’ but the meaning is more knowledge than it is a surface ‘connaissance’.
    N.B: ‘faire une connaissance’ in French = making an acquaintance in English, therefore connaissance has a more superficial flair than knowledge. However, it would be worth discussing this with a linguistics scholar for a more accurate correction.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, the distinction between connaissance and savoir is the key aspect here. It’s one that is there in everyday French, as you highlight, but there is a more technical sense in Foucault’s work. There is a discussion of this distinction in the English translation of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge – and throughout the secondary literature. I think whatever choice is made in English it’s important in difficult passages, such as this one, to mark the French terms being used. If you simply translate both savoir and connaissance with ‘knowledge’ you obscure the distinction Foucault is making.

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