First Impressions on the New Foucault Volume: Inaugural Lecture.

As I have reported in recent posts, Presses Universitaires de Louvain has recently published Mal faire, dire vrai [doing bad, telling truth] a volume based on a lecture series Foucault gave in Louvain, edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt.  I have now had time for a first reading.  I was intending to restrict myself to one post on impressions of the book as a whole.  I find that very difficult, as the book covers a lot of ground, and my reading was a straight read through without notes, or even marking the book itself.  I will post chapter by chapter summaries which will be guided by my  general understanding of the book from the first quick reading.

The fist chapter is the inaugural lecture.  Foucault starts with a disturbing record of psychiatric practice in France in the 1830s, which is what we would now  regard as the abuse and torture of a patient.  The psychiatrist (Leuret) pours icy water over a patient until the patient admits to being mad and to having irrational ideas.  The shocking scene at the beginning of a Foucault text may make us think of the opening pages of Discipline and Punish (Surveillir et Punir) where Foucault presents the execution of the last man in France to receive execution through Medieval  cruelty.  That is Damiens who attempted assassination of Louis XV.  The torture and mental abuse of the psychiatric patient is of a lesser order of cruelty, but is bad enough.

The context of Leuret’s psychiatry through abuse is the new legislation in France with regarded to non-culpability for a crime due to lack of mental responsibility.  In that context Leuret’s abusive psychiatry can be a way of rescuing someone from criminal sanctions, but also suggests that psychiatry itself can be a form of punishment.  There is a continuation here of Foucault’s demystification of Enlightenment humanism ,with regard to change in the punishment of of criminals, which is a central preoccupation of Discipline and Punish.

Foucault compares Leuret’s practices with the Catholic Inquisition and suggests that the steps Leuret follows are like the Inquisition goal of a double confession: first the confession obtained under torture, then the confession repeater later in a ‘voluntary’ manner and which is the basis of a legal case against the sinner.  The confession obtained  by inquisitors can be seen as the dark side of the Catholic confessional, that is the Catholic sacrament in which a member of the church confesses sins to a priest hidden from view, and accepts instructions on penance for those sins.  That is a practice originating in the fourth and fifth centuries, as Foucault emphasises as the Catholic church emerges as the state church of the Roman Empire in the west.

Foucault is concerned here with the history and intersection of the religious, psychiatric and legal practices with regard to the obtaining of truth from an individual through speech, which is tied up with the exercise of authority over that individual.  It also tied up with issues of the relation of the self to itself which Foucault explores elsewhere, particularly with regard to techniques of care of the self in antiquity.  Truth telling can only be fully understood with regard to institutional power and with regard to economic interests.

Foucault refers to the phenomenological aspects of the extraction of truth from individuals on the part of power.  he does not refer directly to philosophical phenomenology, but the discussion of hiddenness and bringing into the light connects with Heidegger, and with Foucault’s teacher Merleau-Ponty.  There is a bringing into light of truth, so that truth is what starts off as hidden and maybe can only be grasped as a perpetually incomplete movement from hiddenness to openness.  The references to madness takes us back to Foucault’s first book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Reason) and the implicit phenomenology there of the limits of reason, experience and subjectivity.

The final aspect for this post is the implicit link Foucault establishes with his much earlier book Archeology of Knowledge when he refers to the counter positivism of his approach to truth.  That is he is not offering a contradiction to positivism but an approach which contextualises positivism (as a counterpoint) through different approaches to truth in discourse.  By positivism, Foucault means an approach in which truth is defined through technical and scientific means.  Foucault refers to the positivism of Comte and Saint-Simon, rather than the Logical Positivism of Carnap, Schlick and other member so the Vienna Circle, but his thoughts can be applied to the philosophy of logical positivism as well.  So for Foucault, we need to see truth as what belongs to various linguistic and institutional conventions about what truth saying, what confirms truth.





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