Focuault vs. Nietzsche on the Emergence of the Soul

Foucault and Nietzsche seem to define the soul in at least somewhat similar ways. Both see the soul as a human construction, and for both it plays the role of something interior that exists behind a person’s actions. For Nietzsche, as we know, the idea of the soul really emerges and is popularized around the time of the slave revolt in morality: the slaves internalize their will to power, they self-reflect, they create “bad conscience,” etc., and thus we now have a “doer” behind the deed. I’m a little bit more unclear as to the point in history during which the soul emerges for Foucault. From what I can gather, it seems like it is a much later process, around the time that modern penal systems evolve. As he discusses, penal systems start to focus more on remedying the “drives and desires” behind a criminal’s actions, rather than just the actions themselves (e.g. pg. 17). The difference from Nietzsche here is that—rather than people creating their own internal “doer”—this doer is a product of power being exercised on people.

So, each writer’s conception of the soul has important similarities (though of course I am sure there are many differences as well), but the biggest difference seems to be in how each views the soul’s origins. I’m a huge skeptic about Nietzsche’s historical accuracy, but in this case it actually seems to me that Nietzsche’s arguments have the edge in terms of historical grounding, which would date the soul’s origins earlier than Foucault’s estimates. Nietzsche situates the soul’s emergence around the climax of the slave revolt in morality, which happens around the time of the shift from Judaism to Christianity, after which Christianity becomes the dominant western system (this obviously takes place over a period of several hundred years). It dawned on me today, though, that we can interestingly see this idea of the internal “doer” emerging in Judeo-Christian writing from the time period in which this shift takes place.

The traditional Jewish laws from the Hebrew Bible are largely focused on actions: restrictions on what to eat and wear, how much money to give, categorical commandments of the type “thou shalt not commit adultery.” However, during Nietzsche’s “slave revolt” period, the focus largely shifts from deeds to doers: in the Gospels, Jesus replaces commandments like “do not commit adultery” with commandments like “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”; the early Christians decide that Gentile converts to Christianity do not need to follow Jewish laws bout diet, circumcision, etc. A really good example of these types of shifts from outward action to interior disposition is Mark 7:14-23, which I’ll link to so as to avoid lengthy quotation:

It’s interesting to me that in passages like these we can see that judgment is being passed on the actor’s “drives and desires,” rather than his or her actions, which is exactly what Foucault says leads to the construction of the soul but at a much later period in history. Although, I also might be reading Foucault wrongly—maybe he can recognize that these ideas existed for a long time, but that it wasn’t until the modern penal system the state’s motivations for punishing criminals began to focus on interior motivation rather than just actions.

Ultimately, I don’t mean to say that Nietzsche is correct or Foucault is wrong, but just to point out that within western, Judeo-Christian thought (the limited scope to which Nietzsche and Foucault mostly stick), the idea of this type of soul or internal self does seem to emerge as early as Nietzsche says it does. But, I’m interested to keep reading Foucault and see where his discussion of the matter goes.

3 thoughts on “Focuault vs. Nietzsche on the Emergence of the Soul

  1. danielanderson

    Hey Daniel,

    I had the exact same thought as you while I was reading Foucault! However, I’d take it one step further than even Nietzsche does. You see a lot of talk about the soul arising in David’s Psalms and Solomon’s writing. It occurred to me that perhaps the soul arises from projecting one’s own values as a Deity (see Feuerbach), and not, as Nietzsche thought, only a response to imposed suffering. I’ll write my blog post on it as a response to yours! Cheers.

  2. alanj

    I am interested in what you are saying about the soul ’emerging’ around the same time as the emergence of the modern penal system for Foucault. I wonder if Foucault is stating that this is the point where the legal system first considered the soul as a way of judging crimes, or if they had considered it previously but decided to focus on the body instead. I consider this because Foucault does mention that the torture that the criminal received would be subtracted from any torture they would undergo in the afterlife. This implies to me that the soul was at least taken into consideration, for what else would connect the criminals earthly life to his heavenly one.

  3. Christina Hendricks

    Thanks for pointing to the differences between the Torah and the New Testament–that’s an interesting support for Nietzsche’s views. Though there’s a way to read Nietzsche’s second treatise that suggests that there were two developments of the bad conscience:

    1. Bad conscience as internalization of the instincts that can’t be discharged outwards (Section 16), which N says happens when we are enclosed in society and peace, having to follow rules that don’t allow us to just vent instincts against others however and whenever we want.

    2 Bad conscience as including moral feelings of guilt, of a deeper sense of self-denigration, which occurs when the bad conscience is tied to the idea of a god as a debtor who can never be paid off. This, of course, then becomes connected the ascetic ideal and the human as sinful and unworthy in comparison to God.

    The first one may have happened significantly earlier than the rise of Christianity, given Nietzsche’s story.

    As for Foucault’s claims about the soul, I do think he goes a bit far when he suggests that he’s doing a genealogy of the soul. Though I think he says near the end of the first chapter that he’s going to do a genealogy of the “modern soul,” which would mean a genealogy of the sense of ourselves as individuals and the study of humans as individuals that develops through the human sciences (psychology, medicine, criminology, pedagogy, are ones he often mentions). So this may not be a genealogy of the idea of a soul at all, but of the type of “soul” that we think we now have, which has developed relatively recently. Still, at times he speaks as if he is talking about the soul generally as having developed around this time, and I think there he’s possibly exaggerating for effect. What is indisputable is that there was a notion of the soul before disciplinary power developed, clearly, in Christianity, in ancient philosophy in various parts of the world, etc.!

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