Foucault behaving badly

Foucault and Heidegger are two philosophers in a new book called Philosophers behaving badly. (Good title, named after a TV show I think.)

Here’s a review in Philosophy Now.

Heidegger you’d think would get some coverage here and indeed he has long been a source of debate in terms of how much do you take into account the life of the man vs. the philosophy. And it’s interesting that we don’t scale this as much for other disciplines (asshole geographers can still be interesting, but philosophers and anthropologists can’t be?).


In Heidegger, Rodgers and Thompson paint a portrait of an essentially selfish and ruthless man. He saw the Nazis as the political movement best expressing his basic concept of Dasein (‘there-being’). When it served his immediate purposes, he was quick to betray, among others, his mentor (Edmund Husserl), his lover (Hannah Arendt) and his friend (Karl Jaspers). Later he half-heartedly attempted to distance himself from his Nazi past.

In some ways, Heidegger emerges from the Rodgers and Thompson book as perhaps the philosopher who has the most to answer for. But there are seven other strong competitors.

No surprise there. Here’s the scoop on Foucault:

Due to his many excesses, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is almost too easy a target for criticism. Certainly he deserves to be celebrated for the boldness of his works as well as their originality, and his unflinching eye for the truths embodied in life, society, and especially the power politics of social relationships. His analysis of patterns of thought, the nature of language, and his exploration of madness, sex and punishment, while certainly not standard fare for philosophers, brilliantly merges the study of philosophy with history, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

It is still debated whether Foucault knowingly transmitted AIDS to many men through unprotected sex. Sad too is his legacy at Berkeley, where he was known among students of the day as “that mad French leather queen who whips anyone who’ll let him at San Francisco gay bath houses.” Rodgers and Thompson write, “In the final year of his life, in discussing the risk of AIDS, he said, ‘Besides, to die for the love of boys: what could be more beautiful?’”

This material is less happy. I don’t know who it is who is still debating if “Foucault knowingly transmitted AIDS to many men through unprotected sex” but it is not Foucault scholars.

And if we had to disqualify “sad” academics, the halls of academe would be markedly unpopulated. This stuff seems to be based on the purest speculation, but perhaps in the book we are provided with tons of interviews with former Berkeley students who knew him?


4 Responses

  1. Most great minds are misunderstood. It seems silly to obsess over the philosopher behind the philosophy, and you’re right to point out critics’ inconsistency in attacking philosophers but not “scientists.” Perhaps this is because of a blind acceptance of the positivist assumption of a distinction between the scientist and the object of study.

  2. It is now an established ritual that every year or so there will be a public outcry about Foucault’s alleged deliberate spreading of AIDS. Anything to sell copy – who cares if there is absolutely no empirical evidence to back up the allegations.

    You’d think people would be bored with it by now – but it is always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed and find an excuse not to do any challenging philosophical thinking -since all the philosophers were clearly such losers.

  3. Didn’t Foucault ever learn that “ignorance is bliss”?

  4. He was a selfish bastard, interested only in self-gratification, whether intellectual or sexual. The record is straight on that, pardon the pun.

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