Saturday, April 30, 2016


259. Voice and parrhêsia

In this blog, I have used the notion of voice, proposed by Albert Hirschman, in a discussion of the practical wisdom of trust. Here I make a connection with the notion of parrhêsia, discussed by Michel Foucault in his late work (in the form of lectures at the Collège de France, in 1984).

Parrhêsia is a form of truth telling, different from other forms, such as confession, prophecy, teaching, reporting, scientific and philosophical discourse. Those forms mostly entail technical or factual matters (techne, in ancient Greek), and they are mostly one-directional, keeping distance, staying aloof.

Parrhêsia, by contrast, is a matter of morality (ethos), requires commitment, and is bilateral, interactive. It accepts the uncertainty of what one effects in the other, and of his/her response. In being honest, it puts the relation at risk, the risk of a break, or of a defensive, aggressive response, or exit, to adopt that other notion from Albert Hirschman. Hence, it requires courage.

This makes it very much like voice, if not identical. Perhaps the notion of parrhêsia deepens the notion of voice. But also the other way around: voice complements parrhêsia.

Voice/parrhêsia is a form of benevolence and requires benevolence also on the part of the interlocutor, to be open to criticism, extending benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to conclusions and falling into suspicion when meeting opposition, or running away from it.

In other words, voice/parrhêsia requires trust and reciprocity in openness and benevolence. Trust is a condition for it as well an outcome of it. When voice meets voice it deepens.  

I propose that it does not entail ‘telling it all’, as Foucault suggested. Trust should not be blind and openness has its limits, to limit relational risk, for oneself and the other, and not to overtax the absorptive capacity and benevolence of the interlocutor, and indeed also one’s own. It is fragile and requires care.

Foucault also discusses the extreme form of cynicism, in the classical sense, of a brutal, offensive, uncompromising telling of stark, naked truth, often combined with an exhibitionist renunciation of worldly goods. If that is a form of voice, it is an exit form of it.