Saturday, May 14, 2016


261. The truth of Foucault

Foucault tugged at the notion of truth in several ways. In his earlier work on power embodied in social systems (prisons, clinics, asylums, ..) he proposed that those constitute ‘regimes of truth’ that ‘make something that does not exist able to become something’, such as notions of insanity or illness. ‘They are things that do not exist and yet which are inscribed in reality under a regime of truth dividing the true and the false’. Such a regime ‘.. is not an illusion, since it is precisely a set of practices, which established it and thus imperiously marks it out in reality’[i] How, I now ask, are we to understand things that ‘do not exist yet are inscribed in reality’?

In this blog I proposed the notion that abstract, theoretical notions, such as madness and illness, and happiness, justice, and meaning, are subject to an ‘object bias’ (see item 29 of this blog). They are conceived of like objects in time and space, while in fact in important ways are not like objects at all. In that sense they are not real, but they are real in their consequences of being accepted and enacted. Is that how we might understand ‘inscription in reality’?

In this blog I adopted the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’ (item 104), as supporting argument with warrants of purported facts, logic, and tested theory. 

In his later work, Foucault turned from systems of power, regimes of truth, to the construction of the subject, the self, that is entangled in such regimes. He rejects Platonic notions of truth in terms of contemplating ideal, universal eternal concepts in another world, removed from the empirical world we live in. He also turns away from truth as identity (x = y), or as correspondence with something in reality, towards a view of praxis, action in this world, which is a view of difference and development, not of identity, universality and constancy. It is not oriented towards another world but to another life in this one.

That, I propose, is close to the dynamic, pragmatist stance (items 26, 108), ‘philosophy and imperfection on the move’,  that I have taken throughout this blog, building on the work of the American pragmatist philosophers (Peirce, Dewey, James), and the practical wisdom of Aristotle.

The classical Greek ‘taking care of the self’ that Foucault adopted is not aimed at discovery of one’s soul but at the aesthetics of existence, life as a work of art, plus a truthful accounting for one’s conduct, in parrhêsia, being truthful. It works with anecdotes, narratives and exemplars rather than theory and analysis.

Here we have truth not in the epistemological sense, of an accounting in terms of logic or facts, also not in the sense of warranted assertibility, but in the sense of talking about a ‘true human being’, or ‘true hero’, or true ‘love’ or ‘friendship’. It is not the truth of science but of conduct, not of knowledge but of ethic, in what I called ‘debatable ethics’.

Foucault recognized four dimensions of this truth:
1.      Unhidden, not absconded, no occlusion, but open, revealed
2.      Unadulterated, pure. In some places this becomes: independent.
3.      Straight, no deviance. In some places this becomes: in accordance with nature
4.      Constancy, standfast. In some places this becomes: sovereign.

Perhaps authenticity can be clarified as ‘being true to oneself’. This, in turn, may be clarified with Foucault’s four dimensions of such truth: being open, straight, independent, and sovereign.

According to Foucault, classical Greek cynics (such as Diogenes) take this, and their truth telling, to extremes. Openness, disclosure becomes living out in public spaces, as a vagabond, exhibitionist, in squalor. Life is reduced to pure, elementary nature. Conduct is uncultured, primary, direct, without shame, confrontational, militant. The cynic is staunchly independent, sovereign, uncompromising. All this is in the service of holding up unadulterated truths to people, exposing their laziness, materialism, gluttony, hypocrisy, artificiality, slavery, bondage, …

What to think of all his? I think it is overly pretentious, and counter-productive in part.
1.      Disclosure presupposes self-knowledge and transparency, while in fact much is hidden in our subconscious.
2.      Independence and sovereignty are an illusion: we need others to constitute ourselves. We need their opposition to mend our prejudices and to attain some freedom from them
3.      We rarely go straight, but amble around in improvisation, bumping into errors and novel opportunities and then changing direction.

So, while the ideals of this truth are commendable, normatively laudable, worth striving for, they are hardly realistic and harbour a risk of hubris and self-delusion. My objections are the same as the ones I had against Nietzsche (item 60), in the illusion of developing oneself as a subject by oneself, overcoming oneself, like the baron of Munchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his bootstraps. 



[i] In a lecture at the College de France on 10th January 1979.