the milieu in James Miller's Passion of Michel Foucault
The consequence of “a thinking that is shattered” may thus be tragic: in the “Letters on Humanism,” Heidegger refers more than once to the poet Hölderlin, who, like Nietzsche, spent the last years of his life insane. (The blood sacrifice of the recent war also weighs silently, and ambiguously, on the philosopher’s words.) Still, “if such thinking were to go fortunately for a man,” Heidegger adds in typically portentous tautology, “no misfortune would befall him. “He would then enjoy “the only gift that can come to thinking from Being.” Emerging from his “adventure” into “the unthought,” the thinker would find the world, as before, untouched and unaltered, but with its aura of primordial mystery (and possible horror) restored. The vocation of the thinker was now to evoke that aura, as a poet would, by laying “inconspicuous furrows in language.” Perhaps the seeds scattered there would bear fruit; the time to reap what had been sown might yet come; but in the meantime, the thinker would be a living example of how to “let Being-be.”
Foucault would later say that he did “not know Heidegger well enough.” This is probably true-his knowledge of Heidegger certainly cannot compare with his subsequent command of Nietzsche. But that he took heart from Heidegger’s approach to philosophy can be doubted.
In his first published writing, in 1954, he would refer with erudition and war sympathy to the work of the great Heideggerian psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. And years later, he would speak in even warmer terms about the philosophical outlook Heidegger had expressed in “The Letter on Humanism.” Writing in The Order of Things in 1966, Foucault welcomed a “form of reflection far removed from both Cartesianism and Kantian analysis” that, “for the first time,’ reveals “the being of man in that dimension where thought addresses the unthought and articulates itself upon it,” Thanks to Heidegger (who Foucault clearly alludes to without explicitly naming), there appears “an ontology of unthought” that “short-circuits the primacy of the ‘I think,’” facilitating the exploration of “somber mechanisms, faceless determinations, a whole landscape of shadow.” Traversing the dim, nocturnal terrain-in Foucault as in Sade and Goya, it is images of darkness that prevail—“modern thought is advancing towards that region where the Other of man must become the Same as him.”
As Foucault confides on his deathbed, of all the notes that he took in these years, none outweigh those on the imposing sphinx of twentieth century German thought: “I still have…the notes that I took when I was reading Heidegger. I’ve got tons of them! And they are much more extensive than the ones I took in Hegel or Marx.”