Review of Sandro Chignola, ‘Foucault’s Politics of Philosophy. Power, Law and Subjectivity’

Review of Sandro Chignola Foucault’s Politics of Philosophy. Power, Law and Subjectivity
Routledge, 2019, 144 pages, £92.00
Reviewed by Irene Dal Poz
Book website:


Does philosophy have a critical task? What is the political role of critique and history in our present time? Is sovereignty a paradigm still helpful to interpret, code and re-negotiate power relations? These are some of the crucial questions that Sandro Chignola’s publication, Foucault’s Politics of Philosophy, addresses through an investigation of Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in the ‘70s and ‘80s.


Sovereignty – Governmentality – Disciplinary Power – Subjectivity – Law – Critique

“Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting”, claims Michel Foucault in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (Foucault, 1984, 88). Echoing Foucault’s words, Sandro Chignola latest book addresses the problematic status of philosophy and it delves into the political function Foucault ascribes to critical thinking. In order to investigate Foucault’s political philosophy, Chignola focuses on Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France from the 1970 onwards, embracing the so-called axes of power and ethics. Chignola’s book does not aim to offer a comprehensive reconstruction of Foucault’s thought but rather seeks to expand and explore Foucault beyond Foucault. It intends to test Foucault’s actuality for an investigation and critique of our present. It pursues this critical goal by engaging with some of the most debated issues in Foucauldian scholarship: What is the role of the law in a contemporary governmental framework? Can we resist and renegotiate norms? What is the Foucauldian debt or distance from Marx? Is Foucault’s turn to Antiquity political?

In this sense, Chignola’s book contributes to two debates in contemporary Foucauldian scholarship.  Firstly, he spells out the political nature of Foucault’s work. Chignola shows how Foucault’s reflection is always political, even when he turns to Antiquity to study philosophical schools traditionally deemed as non-political, such as the Stoics. The driving motivation of Foucault’s work is indeed the analysis of “different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (Foucault, 2000, 327). Secondly, Chignola explores the interplay between sovereignty and neoliberal political rationality, which is at the heart of particularly prolific critical strand in American and Anglo-Saxon academia (e.g. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, Bernard Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order or Miguel de Beistegui, The Government of Desire. A Genealogy of Liberal Subject). In line with this strand, Chignola questions what practices of subjectivation and resistance neoliberal governance allows. How can the homo oeconomicus, who has internalised the economic principles of competiveness and self-responsibilisation, promote new forms of life and practices of counter-conduct?

The distinctiveness of Chignola’s book lies in the non-linear and non-progressive narrative he builds. Foucault’s Politics of Philosophy is composed of six self-contained chapters, which can be independently read and mobilized to intervene in specific debates and discourses. This non-thematic structure, which inevitably implies some repetitions and the overlapping of some contents or arguments, allows Chignola to approach the problems of governmentality, subjection and self-government from an array of different angles. It is possible, however, to retrospectively reconstruct some overarching themes between some of the chapters. Chapter 1 and 3, for example, clarify Foucault’s conception of philosophy by connecting it with other crucial notions in his reflection, such as truth, subjectivity and power. Chapters 2 and 5 explore Foucault troublesome dialogue with Marx and Weber regarding the notions of power and subjectivity. Finally, Chapters 4 and 6 look at ancient philosophy as the place to rethink subjectivity and political practices.

So, what is the function of philosophy, according to Chignola’s reading of Foucault? The first chapter, The Impossible of the Sovereign, clarifies Foucault’s conception of the philosophical task in relation to some crucial notions such as critique, truth and power.  In the wake of the Kantian lesson on Enlightenment, Foucault conceives the philosophical task as a critique and diagnosis of our present. Critique is an ethos and “general form of thinking” (4). In Chingola’s account, this critical attitude intersects with a politics of truth, which means that the critical ethos coincides with “a decoding of – and a positioning into- the power strategies that organise veridiction ‘on a daily basis’” (6). Chignola thus puts great emphasis on the distinctive meaning that the notions of truth and power gain in the Foucauldian reflection. Once de-substantialised, power reveals its productive and fluid nature: power relations produce forms subjectivities and truth claims. The clarification of Foucault’s understanding of the philosophical task in relation to truth and the present allows Chignola to take the argument a step further and engage with one of the most problematic topics in the Foucauldian scholarship: Foucault’s controversial position on sovereignty. Initiated by Hunt’s and Wickam’s seminal book, Foucault and Law, the debate revolves around the following questions: Is Foucault pursuing a post-representative agenda? Does his analytics of power marginalise and instrumentalise the law? As Chignola explains, the sovereign traditional political paradigm, inaugurated by Hobbes’ Leviathan, relies on the juridification of power in a state-centred model and on the legitimation of the sovereign authority. In Chignola’s account, the key to understand Foucault’s position on sovereignty is the urgency of the present and the emergency of the Neoliberal rationality. In light of the triangulation of sovereignty, discipline and governmental management, Chignola believes that the juridical apparatus “slowly and inexorably withdraws from its central position as it is absorbed by problems of governmental decision and controlling mindset that it embraces” (18).

The problematic interpretation of sovereignty in Foucault’s work is also at the heart of the second chapter, Body Factories: Foucault, Marx. In the second chapter, Chignola addresses this issue by engaging with the controversial dialogue between Foucault and Marx. Antonio Negri’s Marx and Foucault and Jacques Bidet’s Foucault with Marx have recently brought the relationship between Foucault and Marx back at the centre of the philosophical and political debate. Chignola in his essay demonstrates how Marx influences Foucault’s understanding of the corporality and productivity of power relations in a non/extra-legal way (29-30). Particularly, Marx provides Foucault with the tools to de-juridify power in his analysis of disciplinary technologies and to conceptualise the modalities of fabrication of the social working body.  In the first book of The Capital, for Chignola, Marx captures a fundamental lesson about power’s investment in the productive potential of the body conceived as labour-force. Borrowing Marx’s insight into the valorisation of corporality, then, Foucault breaks with “the enchantment that only attributes power to the state, [and he] gains access to the whole set of –legal and disciplinary- strategies that concretely actualise market institutions and produce their agents” (32). Once the focus is shifted from the abstract juridical scheme to the corporality of power, the economic logic regulating power’s productivity in different institutions (e.g. prisons, schools, hospitals) is unmasked. The modalities of fabrication of the useful and docile body become the new object of investigation (Foucault, 1995). What are the leeway of resistance or counter-conducts in this economisation of life and bodies though?

The themes of resistance and subjectivation return in chapter five, ‘Phantasiebildern’/‘histoire fiction’: Weber, Foucault. Here, Chignola puts Foucault into dialogue with Max Weber about their surprisingly similar conceptions of rationality and history, based on their common anti-essentialist Nietzschean matrix. Chingola point of departure is “how badly Foucault misunderstood Weber” (87). The misinterpretation of Weber’s reflection, as Chignola points out, is partly strategic, as Foucault opposes his notion of ‘programme’ to Weber’s ‘ideal type’: “Multiple rationalities and local strategies (…) against the idea of one process of ‘rationalisation’” (88). While Weber locates power in the institution of the state, which has the legitimate monopoly of violence, Foucault re-thinks power extra-legally and he locates it in the everyday institutions, namely schools, hospitals, prisons. But, as above-mentioned, Foucault would take a step further, since he historicises and politicises reason, debunking the myth of scientific objectivity and the absolute epistemic status of truth: “Each truth is the truth of a game of ‘veridiction’ (which is always a game of power)” (93). Rebuilding the history of rationality is a fictional work (94). According to Chignola’s interpretation, however, Foucault’s account of history as a fiction is precisely the second-hand re-elaboration and appropriation of the Weberian notion of ideal-types (95). Contrarily to an objectivistic reading, Chignola suggests that Weber embraces a perspectivist view, which rejects the possibility or the necessity of a “true” knowledge.

In Chignola’s reading, then, the Weberian lesson is important also to shed some light on Foucault’s interest in the practices of subjectivation, resistance or self-government (99). Chignola suggests that Weber and Foucault’s interpretations of practices of subjectivation present some strong similarities. Particularly, the Foucauldian reading of the technologies of the self as practices of counter-conduct and askēsis evokes the Weberian ethics of individual responsibility. What attracts Foucault in the practices of self-mastery in Antiquity is indeed their existential and experimental dimension. As Chignola points out, then, this existential dimension is present also the Protestant ethics, which is an ethics of action and conduct rather than renunciation (104-105). Puritan ascetism and Ancient askēsis are both examples of what Chignola calls the “intensification of subjectivity” (105).

Foucault’s “Greco-Latin trip” (Foucault, 2011, 2) and the aesthetics of existence are then again object of investigation in the conclusive chapter, The Courage of Truth: Parrhēsia and Critique. In this chapter, Chignola reconstructs Foucault’s analysis of the political dimension of different practices of truth-telling in Antiquity. Particularly, he explores the connections between the notion of parrhēsia and the ideas of governmentality and critique (108). Chignola’s hypothesis is that Foucault’s interest in parrhēsia should be situated in the broader and transversal frameworks of a critical ethos (110-111) and of power as government or action upon actions (114). This coincidence of parrhēsia, critique and government is embodied by the Cynic alēthēs bios, true life, which Foucault studies in The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth. As Chignola stresses, the Cynic true life is characterised by the risk of publicly speaking the truth and challenging the corrupted conventions of the polis. For Foucault, the scandalous behaviour of Diogenes the Cynic embodies the provocative and unconventional life style, which is above all an attack on the traditional discourses of power and political institutions.

Overall, Chignola presents a new perspective on Foucault’s political view of philosophy. He also originally explores the problematic and multifaceted interplay between the juridical apparatus and Neoliberal rationality by putting Foucault into dialogue with Marx and Weber, two thinkers often ignored or sidelined in Foucauldian scholarship. Some quotes and references in French and German unfortunately complicate the intelligibility of the text. Their translation and a clearer definition of the overall aims of each chapter would have helped the reader appreciate the elements of originality and the innovations presented in this book. In this sense, even though Foucault’s Politics of Philosophy clearly seeks to address and engage with some crucial problems in the broader contemporary political debate (e.g. the possibility of resistance or the polymorphy of Neoliberal governance), it inevitably speaks to an audience already familiar with the Foucauldian lexicon and scholarship.


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I am an Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Warwick University. I am interested in contemporary political theory and, particularly, in the current debate about citizenship, political participation and migration.
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