Foucault’s Nietzschean Meta-Epistemological Critique: The Study of the Body Subjected as Mind


Where in The Order of Things Michel Foucault offers us an archeological account of classical and modern conceptions of what knowledge is, in Discipline and Punish he instead focuses his attention on the construction of the modern knowing subject. Is Foucault’s work epistemological? Epistemology traditionally asks first-order questions concerning what knowledge is and how knowledge is acquired. Meta-epistemology asks second-order questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired. Foucault is clearly not concerned with first-order normative epistemology. He is not concerned with analyzing what knowledge is, and he is not concerned with what we ought to do in order to arrive at justified beliefs. His work is not proscriptive, but instead is descriptive and critical. What he offers us in Discipline and Punish is a radical critique of the knowing subject. He destabilizes the knowing subject by genealogically describing how the knowing subject is constructed. In doing so, I suggest that he offers us a meta-epistemological critique.

For this paper, I attempt to draw out Foucault’s meta-epistemological critique in Discipline and Punish by, in part, utilizing Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals. I begin by considering Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject, as I read it. What is Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject? How is Foucault’s knowing subject constructed? Next, I consider Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive and critical project. What is his project and how does it destabilize the knowing subject? Finally, I consider how Foucault’s project relates to central questions in meta-epistemology. What is Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is; that is, our ability to know the extent of our ability to acquire knowledge, and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired? I argue that Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive critique asserts that the disciplines (1) construct the mind, (2) structure and delimit the field of knowledge, and (3) make the body a docile object to be controlled. Thus, I argue, the study of epistemology, for Foucault, is a study of the knowing subject. In other words, epistemology, for Foucault, is the study of the body subjected as mind.

Foucault’s Nietzschean Inspired Conception of the Knowing Subject: The Body Subjected as Mind

What is Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject, and how is Foucault’s knowing subject constructed? The knowing subject is, as I read Foucault’s genealogical account, a construction within a historical process. The knowing subject is a body subjected via knowledge-power relations within a historical process.

If we reflect on the word “subject,” then I think we can gain a fuller understanding of what the knowing subject is and how the knowing subject is constructed for Foucault. As a noun, “subject” relates to a person whom is under another person’s (e.g. sovereign, priest, etc.) rule or control. To be a subject is to be ruled and controlled. However, to be a subject is also to essentially be a mind. It is an essential attribute, the underlying substance, of a thing. It is also “A being (or power) that thinks, knows, or perceives (more fully conscious subject, thinking subject); the conscious mind, esp. as opposed to any objects external to it.”[1] It is also to be an object of attention. It is a person: “under investigation or surveillance” by authorities, or “receiving or requiring medical, surgical, or psychological treatment,” or “suffering from a particular disease,” or “as the object of research or experimentation.”[2] However, “subject” is also “a body of knowledge” in which “one studies or is instructed” “as part of a curriculum for the purpose of examination.”[3]

Subject understood as an adjective is “In a state of subjection or dependence; under the control, rule, or influence of something” or “in a state of subjection to the power, law, command, etc., of another.”[4] As a verb, “subject” means “To make a subject or bring into subjection to the rule, government, power, or service of superior,” as well as “To bring under the operation of an agent, agency, or process; to submit to certain treatment; to cause to undergo or experience something physically.”[5]

For Foucault, as I read him, the knowing subject is a construction that emerges in the historical transition from sovereign power to modern power. In sovereign power, punishment extracts from the body. Crimes against society are crimes against the sovereign in that the sovereign embodies the society. Punishment, states Nietzsche, was due to “anger at some harm or injury, vented on the one who caused it – but this anger is held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit.”[6] The offender’s flesh is the site for the sovereign to extract the repentant obedience the offender owes to the sovereign.

There occurs, however, for both Foucault and Nietzsche, a shift in forms of punishment in the transition to modern power. For Nietzsche, “as power increases, a community ceases to take the individual’s transgressions so seriously, because they can no longer be considered as dangerous and destructive to the whole as they were before […] As the power and self-confidence of a community increase, the penal law always becomes more moderate.”[7] Two aspects of Nietzsche’s claim here are important for Foucault: (1) correlation between power and punishment, and (2) the change in the type of punishment. For Foucault, punishment no longer extracts from the body, but instead infuses the body; it “no longer addresses itself to the body,” instead it affects “the soul.”[8] Punishment that “once rained down upon the body” is replaced “by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[9] Foucault states, “The history of this ‘micro-physics’ of the punitive power would then be a genealogy or an element in a genealogy of the modern ‘soul.’”[10] So, for Foucault, punishment against the body may have become more lenient, but the power of the community shifted to a form of punishment that created the modern soul, consciousness, citizen, i.e. subject.

What Foucault presents us with is a history of the construction of the modern “soul,” with “soul” entailing the “subject” in all of its multivalent senses. The subject as the person, as a mind accessed through the body. Foucault states, “it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.”[11] It is the body that is subjected. To be a subject (as a noun) is to be subjected (as an adjective and as a verb); subjected as in being constructed as a mind, subjected as in being controlled, subjected as in being an object of examination, observation, classification, and correction. Subjection is a continuous process, not an essential state of being. When Foucault states “The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body,” he is speaking of subjection in this multivalent and continuous sense.[12] The knowing subject is a subjected body; a subjected body that is continuously constructed through its subjection.

Foucault’s Nietzschean Meta-Epistemological Descriptive and Critical Project

How does Foucault destabilize the knowing subject? One point to begin to examine this question is in Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Nietzsche states,

But precisely because we seek knowledge, let us not be ungrateful to such resolute reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness and futility, raged against itself for so long: to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future ‘objectivity’ – the latter understood not as ‘contemplation without interest’ (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as the ability to control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge.[13]


Nietzsche’s perspectivism is an epistemological technique. It is a technique that calls on the knower to, first, rally against the ways they have been subjected through discipline to “know” the world, to rally against a position of disinterested “objectivity.” Second, it calls on the knower to want to seek out different ways of positioning themselves as a knower. This want, as I read it, is necessary because it instills in the knower interests and interests are multifaceted and continuous. Third, as knowers have been disciplined to approach knowledge from a position of disinterestedness, it calls on knowers to avoid removing interests in the process of contemplating the world. Instead, knowers are to approach contemplation through a variety of interest positions, considering each position from a multiplicity of divergent, contrary, and conflicting perspectives. Perspectivism, is then, an epistemological technique that treats knowledge as rhizomatic, progressing multidimensionally as opposed to linearly.

In relation to Foucault, power-knowledge is continuous. New forms of discipline emerge to continuously subject the body through the mind. To instill the idea of a knowing subject into humans is a process of continuous subjection. Perspectivism is a technique by which the idea of the knowing subject can be continuously critiqued. Where disinterestedness is intended to solidify the idea of the knowing subject, interestedness fluctuates. “Objectivity” solidifies human thought into a static way of contemplating the world and themselves within the world. Conversely, as interest fluctuates, the stability of human thought fluctuates.

Human thought contemplates the world from everchanging perspectives. Consider, for a moment, Vulcans from Star Trek. Vulcans are completely disinterested, completely within the mindset of logical objectivity. As such, they cognitively inhabit only one perspective. Consider how having a wide variety of interests shift which perspective we take. For example, as one’s interests shift from caring for one’s own needs, to caring for another’s needs, to exploring the natural and nonhuman world, one’s perspectives would shift as well from one’s self, to another, to nonhuman animal ways of inhabiting and engaging with the world. Who the human thinker is in this continuous contemplative movement is never the same. As the human thinker is never the same, the idea of the knowing subject can never be solidified.

For Foucault, the knowing subject is not an ontological entity, but an effect, a construction, of a continuous process. As subjection is a continuous process that occurs beyond the level of awareness, understanding the process is a way to destabilize the process. For both Foucault and Nietzsche, the body is situated in a historical (spatial-temporal) process, and this process is not neutral. It is imbued with power-knowledge relations. In regard to the question of the purpose of punishment, Nietzsche states “purposes and utilities are only signs” within a power relation where the powerful has “imposed upon the character of a function […] the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom, can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.”[14] This “evolution” is neither a teleological nor a logical process, “but a succession of more or less profound, more less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions. The form is fluid, but the ‘meaning’ is even more so.”[15] For Nietzsche, the purpose and meaning of punishment is foundationless process that shifts and adapts in response to societal conditions. The illusion of a static purpose and meaning is imposed upon punishment as a method of subjection.

For Foucault, the body is necessarily and “directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”[16] To be sure, Nietzsche’s conception of power is something that one possesses while Foucault’s conception of power is something that is not able to be individually possessed, it is a socio-political force. Nonetheless, for both Nietzsche and Foucault, power is continuous, relational, and fluid. The body is caught up in a continuous and fluid process of power relations that discipline it in particular ways for particular purposes and uses. These methods and effects are signs that can be traced and deciphered to reveal the development of the system of power relations. The body reveals its subjection.

Foucault describes this historical process of subjection through three epochs: “[1] the sovereign and his force, [2] the social body and [3] the administrative apparatus,” each associated with, respectively, the “mark, sign, trace.”[17] The sovereign is further associated with “ceremony,” “the vanquished enemy,” and “the tortured body.”[18] The social body is further associated with “representation,” “the juridical subject in the process of requalification,” and “the soul with its manipulated representations.”[19] The administrative apparatus is further associated with “exercise,” “the individual subjected to immediate coercion,” and “the body subjected to training.”[20]

The modern subjected body emerged from this process. While the sovereign marked the body, it was with the reformers that the “soul,” i.e. mind, emerged. Punishment developed with the reformers to incorporate and give primacy to an entire system of symbolic representations. This system no longer focused on extracting from the body via methods designed to inflict pain, but instead focused on infusing the mind, “or rather a play of representations and sign circulating discreetly but necessarily and evidently in the minds of all.”[21] As Foucault states, the point of application for power “is no longer the body, but the soul,” with the soul understood as the subjected body.[22]

Symbolic representations which linked the idea of offence necessarily with the idea of pain were imbued in the subjected body. Nietzsche describes this technique as “mnemotechnics,” and states, “‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in memory’ – this is the main clause of the oldest (unhappily also the most enduring) psychology on earth.”[23] Every form of torture and sacrifice “has its origin in the instinct that realized that pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics.”[24] “The severity of the penal code,” he states, “provides an especially significant measure of the degree of effort needed to overcome forgetfulness and to impose a few primitive demands of social existence as present realities” upon the body being subjected.[25] Foucault elaborates on this idea of bodily punishment as a means of inculcating knowledge. Sovereign power, marks of pain, morphs and links to modern power through the epoch of the social body. Marks on one’s body are replaced by signs of punishment that bring to recall the marks. Then, the signs become imbued in the subject to such an extent that the subject subjects themselves.

For Foucault, this is a “natural mechanics” in which the idea of punishment outweighs the idea of crime.[26] The idea of pain is necessarily, automatically, and perpetually linked with the idea of crime through techniques that: (1) focus on the entire population and not just offenders, (2) create mechanisms of surveillance that instill a sense of certainty in the population that the offense will not go unpunished, (3) create an exhaustive code that classifies and defines all offences and fixes their concomitant penalties, and (4) create social mechanisms for observing, examining, documenting, categorizing, and classifying every offender’s individualized “nature.”[27]

The link between the idea of punishment and the idea of crime is a system of symbolic representations that appear as natural in their ubiquity. These “obstacle-signs” must “circulate rapidly and widely; they must be accepted and redistributed by all; they must shape the discourse that each individual has with others and by which crime is forbidden to all by all.”[28] These obstacle-signs will continuously be universally recoded into the social imaginary through their uptake into everyday discourse.[29]

The techniques utilized by the reformers developed once more to become coercive disciplines, these disciplines make biopower possible. The system of power-knowledge relations becomes completely naturalized in this transformation. In becoming naturalized, the system of power-knowledge relations moves to a level beyond awareness. Two particular aspects of disciplinary power are of interest here. The first is the examination. The examination, Foucault states, “manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected […] It is not simply at the level of consciousness, of representation and in what one thinks one knows, but at the level of what makes possible the knowledge that is transformed into political investment.”[30] The examination, as in to observe the subjected in order to determine and assign their place in the gradational hierarchy of “ab/normality,” is a technique par excellence that constructs the subjected body. In the examination, thought is turned into an object to be observed, collected, hierarchically classified and categorized, utilized to define the norm, and utilized as a measure for correction.

The second is surveillance. In modern power, the individual becomes the agent of their own subjection; the individual subjects themselves as an object. Foucault states, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”[31] Under the threat of constant surveillance, the individual becomes an agent in their own subjection, constructing their own subjected body in accordance with the power-knowledge relations in which they are immersed. The individual becomes both the observer/observed and examiner/examined. The individual hierarchically categorizes and classifies themselves, creates and measures themselves against the norm, and corrects themselves.

Examination and surveillance are two techniques of disciplinary power. Disciplines collectively are spatial-temporal techniques that habituate subjection by training the body. It is a method of training that utilizes the repetition of movement within spatial-temporal parameters.[32] Disciplines utilize techniques that work at the level of micro details, the increasingly smaller spaces and times, to habituate the body in the minutest movements. These techniques seek to construct “the obedient subject, the individual subjected to habits, rules, order, an authority that is exercised continually around him and upon him, and which he must allow to function automatically in him.”[33] The subjected are continuously surveilled or under threat of being surveilled, individualized, examined, hierarchically classified and categorized within a gradation, measured against the distribution norm, and corrected.[34]

Disciplines are techniques that “invest human bodies” as subjects and “subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge.”[35] Foucault states, in reference to incarceration, “the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.”[36] In other words, the subjected body is a construction of knowledge and an object of knowledge. Furthermore, panoptic observation, a carceral mechanism, “gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behavior; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.”[37] A proliferation of objects of knowledge emerge within the system of power relations based on the system’s disciplinary mechanisms.

For example, the human sciences were made possible due a “carceral network,” a network of mechanisms such as examination and surveillance that began in the prison system but have become imbued in everyday life throughout the entirety of society. Foucault states, “Knowable man (soul, individuality, consciousness, conduct, whatever it is called) is the object-effect of this analytical investment, of this domination-observation.”[38] The subjected body is both an object and an effect of subjection. The knowable is an object and an effect of the system of power relations in which it is situated.

For Foucault, within the carceral system of modern disciplinary power, knowledge is structured by the system. But, I read Foucault as making an even stronger claim. Knowledge is not only structured by the system, it is also delimited by the system. The system of power-knowledge relations determines what is epistemologically conceivable because it constructs the mind as a subjugated body. The subjected body is both a construction and object of knowledge. Subjects of knowledge emerge from subjection. These aspects occur in accordance with the system of power-knowledge relations, and the ubiquity of this system means that there is no way out. However, given that the process of subjection is continuous, the process can be disrupted, and this is what I take Foucault to be doing. He states, “The critical ontology of ourselves must be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it must be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment in the possibility of going beyond them.”[39] Foucault’s critique, his genealogical description, challenges the construction of the subjected body as well as the structuring and delimiting of knowledge through its radical critique of the ongoing construction of the knowing subject.

Foucault’s Meta-Epistemological Descriptive Critique

How is Foucault’s descriptive critique a meta-epistemological challenge? What is Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired? As I read Foucault, the following passage is crucial in understanding his meta-epistemological descriptive critique, thus I cite it in full:

We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. These ‘power-knowledge relations’ are to be analyzed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations. In short, it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.[40]


Foucault does not define knowledge because he is not concerned with what “knowledge” is as an abstractly knowable concept. Power and knowledge are continuously co-constituting. The knowing subject, knowable objects, and the possible types of knowledge available to be known are all continuous effects of historical processes imbued with disciplinary power. To be subjected is to be a mind, it is to be controlled, it is to be an object of study. Knowledge in the system of modern disciplinary power, is structured and delimited by the system. No subjected body is outside of these power-knowledge relations, and it is not possible to remove oneself from these power-knowledge relations. If it is the case that the body is subjected in these multivalent ways, and if it is the case that knowledge (whatever it is) is structured and delimited by a system of power relations, then what does it mean for knowledge as traditionally conceived of in epistemology – that is, knowledge as a relation between truth and justified belief?

A Foucauldian response, as I interpret Foucault, would assert that the system of disciplinary power would dictate what is epistemically conceivable within the system. Epistemology, as a study (a subject) of knowledge, is an object of study that emerges within a particular historical process and as such is no less imbued with power-knowledge relations. Within such a system, terms like “knowledge,” “truth,” and “justified belief” are subjected. These terms reveal the subjected body, the knowing subject, a mind, becoming both observed/observer and examined/examiner, hierarchically classifying and categorizing itself, creating and measuring itself against a norm, and correcting itself.

For example, epistemology largely asks “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for S to know that p?”[41] Largely, to have knowledge of a proposition, p, it must be the case that (1) S believes p, (2) p is true, and (3) S is justified in believing p either based on reasonable evidence or objective probability due to “reliable cognitive processes and faculties.”[42] The first part of the disjunct in the third criteria refers to evidentialism and the second part of the disjunct refers to reliabilism. Evidentialism largely holds that experiences of mental states, such as introspection, perception, memory, intuition, count as reasonable evidence for belief.[43] Reliabilism adds the caveat that such experiences serve to justify belief if and only if the experience results from cognitive processes and faculties that have tended to result in true beliefs, which gives the experience a higher probability of resulting in further true beliefs.[44]

Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive critique speaks primarily, as I conceive of it, to the third of these criteria. Epistemological discourse becomes much more involved and complex, but nonetheless, at the core of the study of knowledge is the study of justified beliefs and what makes beliefs justified. However, justified beliefs are based on experiences of mental states; mental states as experienced by the knowing subject, the knowing subject as a construction and effect of power-knowledge relations. Those mental states may indeed be supplemented by reliable cognitive processes and faculties, but all of this nonetheless occurs within a particular system of power-knowledge relations. There is a high probability of an individual acting in a particular way when the person has been subjected to act in that way. One can reliably count on one’s cognitive processes and faculties to perceive in the ways that their cognitive processes and faculties have been disciplined to perceive.

Knowledge (again, whatever it is), in this sense then, is entirely contained within and is a reflection of the system of power relations. If this is the case, in studying epistemology, one is simply studying their own body as it has been subjected as a mind, as a knowing subject. As such, the subject of epistemology is the body subjected as mind.


My aim in this paper has been threefold. First, I aimed to explore what Foucault’s Nietzschean inspired conception of the knowing subject is and how that knowing subject is constructed. Second, I aimed to explore Foucault’s Nietzschean radical, genealogical, meta-epistemological critical description of the knowing subject and suggest how such a description destabilizes the knowing subject. Third, I aimed to explore Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is; our ability to know the extent of our ability to acquire knowledge, and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired. Ultimately, I have argued that, for Foucault, the knowing subject is a continuous construction of power-knowledge relations. These power-knowledge relations (1) construct the mind, (2) structure and delimit the field of knowledge, and (3) make the body a docile object to be controlled. As such, the study of knowledge, epistemology as a subject, is a study of body subjected as mind.

[1] “subject, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “subject, adj. and adv.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[5] “subject, v.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 63.

[7] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 72.

[8] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 16

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 29

[11] Ibid., p. 25

[12] Ibid., p. 30

[13] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 119.

[14] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 77

[15] Ibid., pp. 77-78

[16] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 25

[17] Ibid., p. 131

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 101

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, p. 61

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 104

[27] Ibid., pp. 94-96; 99; 104; 126

[28] Ibid., p. 108

[29] Ibid., p. 112

[30] Ibid., pp. 184-185

[31] Ibid., pp. 202-203

[32] Ibid., p. 167

[33] Ibid., p. 129

[34] Ibid., pp. 181; 183; 183

[35] Ibid., pp. 28; 181

[36] Ibid., p. 217

[37] Ibid., p. 204

[38] Ibid., p. 305

[39] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York City: The New Press, 1994), p. 319

[40] Ibid., pp. 27-28; italics mine.

[41] Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.


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