Two reviews of The Early Foucault (Polity, 2021) by Colin Koopman and Jasper Friedrich – and a note on Heidegger

There are two recent reviews of The Early Foucault by Colin Koopman at The Review of Politics (requires subscription) and Jasper Friedrich at Foucault Studies (open access). They are generous and appreciative, though not uncritical. I’m grateful to both for taking the time to engage.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of Koopman’s review:

Stuart Elden’s The Early Foucault is the third offering in a planned series of four volumes on the work of Michel Foucault. Succeeding Elden’s Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade in terms of publication order, the book’s subject matter is chronologically first with respect to Foucault’s life, tracing his earliest thought in the 1950s up until the publication of his first major book, History of Madness. The fourth volume will be published next year and will be concerned with Foucault’s archaeological writings of the subsequent decade. The entire collection of four volumes will offer a summative study of the geneses and transformations of Foucault’s thought. Elden’s project on the whole is truly requisite for any serious scholar of Foucault. 

Elden’s methodology throughout all four volumes, and especially notable in this one, is a straight positivism. He is a digger in archives. He is a collector of facts. He is a collator of minute details, variations in dates on sheets of paper, nuances of manuscript revisions, and once-thought-lost material that has come to light by digging through the multiple archives where Foucault’s unpublished writings are entombed. 

And here’s the closing paragraph of Friedrich’s review:

In sum, The Early Foucault represents a fantastic resource for scholars interested in Foucault’s intellectual development, and especially his thought on psychology and mental illness. Since mental health seems to be a topic very much in vogue today, the appearance of Elden’s book is highly welcome and will no doubt contribute to the growing interest in Foucault’s earlier psychological thought as well as post-war French thought on politics and psychiatry more generally. This is not to mention the book’s highly interesting discussions of Foucault’s more philosophical engagement with Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche and others, which my highly selective review has not done justice to. If there is a critical comment to be made about The Early Foucault, it is that Elden is at times too attenive to detail to the extent that the reader loses sight of the bigger picture and the significance of the stream of information. Elden generally leaves the task of interpreting the wider ramifications of his detailed analyses to the reader—but to anyone who wishes to undertake this task, The Early Foucault provides an incomparable source of information. 

I’m not going to respond to all the points, but one issue in Koopman’s review did stick out.

His criticism comes in part through the emphasis in this book on Foucault’s engagement with Nietzsche and Heidegger, especially my stress on the latter. Koopman links this back to my first book, Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History (Continuum 2001; now with Bloomsbury). I am certainly not disavowing that early book (even if there are things I might now revisit and revise) but I don’t think it overly shaped my approach in these newer books – neither with regard to Heidegger nor space. Rather, I wanted to revisit Foucault’s work in the light of a mountain of new evidence, some published, some archival, which was unavailable in the late 1990s when I wrote Mapping the Present.

While Colin and I clearly disagree on the importance of Heidegger to Foucault generally, I do want to pick up on one point, when he says:

The only two figures from the history of philosophy who are given five lines worth of page references in Elden’s index are Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Heidegger is discussed a lot in this book, The Early Foucault, but that’s because he was someone Foucault was clearly reading very intensely in this period, as the archive shows. The preserved notes are extensive, much more so than other figures who might be seen as influential. Heidegger is also really important in Foucault’s work on Ludwig Binswanger, as has long been recognised, and the engagement with Binswanger is also crucial to this period.

I don’t discuss Heidegger nearly so much in the other books in this series, but in this one, yes, I do give him a lot of attention. Do I over-privilege him in the series as a whole? I really don’t think so. And all the other figures Koopman mentions are discussed in the series. Even in the book under review here, there is one chapter almost entirely devoted to Foucault’s translation and analysis of Kant’s Anthropology. The Heideggerian aspect of that reading is minor: much more attention is paid to Foucault’s translation choices. With Canguilhem, I wrote a whole book on him as a side-project to this Foucault series and he plays a significant role throughout. Deleuze is discussed particularly in Foucault: The Birth of Power and the forthcoming The Archaeology of Foucault.

The index-counting approach Colin uses is an imperfect way to gauge the importance of thinkers to a text, but the other volumes would give quite different balances. I actually think this series emphasises Nietzsche’s role in Foucault’s development far more than Heidegger. And here again I think the archival evidence supports my choice of focus. But I hardly underplay Kant, or for that matter, Hegel, or many other figures.

But again, I am grateful to Colin, and to Jasper, for taking the time to do these reviews.

This entry was posted in Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Mapping the Present, Georges Canguilhem, Foucault's Last Decade, Foucault: The Birth of Power, The Early Foucault, Ludwig Binswanger, Canguilhem (book), The Archaeology of Foucault. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Two reviews of The Early Foucault (Polity, 2021) by Colin Koopman and Jasper Friedrich – and a note on Heidegger

  1. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

  2. Pingback: Our existence, the world showing up for us and holding up a mirror | From guestwriters

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