Foucault on crime, truth, confession and justice: Post Four

On to my fourth post on Mal faire, dire vrai [Doing bad, telling truth], published a few weeks ago by Presses Universitaires de Louvain, based on lectures Foucault gave in Louvain in 1981.  English edition out in December of next year.

Foucault’s lecture of 29th April 1981 looks at the nature of truth in early Christianity.  Foucault sees a new form of truth in Christian attitudes to self-knowledge, confession and penitence.  That new form of truth has precedents but its developed form is a Christian phenomenon.  Tt is the truth of what is in the self obscured from view, which expresses itself in inner contemplation, confession of those truths where they refer to sin and undertaking penance for those sins.  The Christian idea of the inner self is largely based on the idea of sin, the need to find it inside yourself, confess it and do penances.  This new form of truth is at the centre of hermeneutics which Foucault sees as something that arises with Christianity.  That is a topic he expands on in his Collège de France lectures on 1981-1982, The Hermeneutics of the Subject. The choice of the word hermeneutics suggests that Foucault wishes to situate hermeneutics in philosophy historically.  The idea of hermeneutics is usually taken back to the German Protestant theologian of the Enlightenment-Romantic era, Friedrich Schleiermacher.    It is then largely associated with the work of Wilhelm Dilthey on the nature of understanding in the social sciences.  In twentieth century philosophy, hermeneutics is one of the major themes of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, followed up by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method.  The most notable late 20th century hermeneutical philosopher after Gadamer was Paul Ricoeur.  After Ricoeur, it is not easy to say who the great figures in hermeneutics are, and it is now perhaps to be considered part of any interest in interpretation.  Foucault’s approach in these lectures is then suggestion that hermeneutics, usually seen as drawing on a mixture of classical philology, Biblical interpretation and legal interpretation, Aristotelian notions of rhetoric and ethics, comes from an attitude to subjectivity which exists in institutions and individual actions and habits, as much as in theoretical reflection.  Foucault’s work as a whole suggests that he sees the ‘hermeneutic’ approach as secondary to the care of the self, art of existence and self stylisation which he traces back to Plato’s Athens, and which is where theory emerges from awareness of nature and the self.  The later influence on law on hermeneutics has a religious background, since the ‘juridification’ of the Middle Ages, as Foucault likes to term the rediscovery of Roman law along with the growth in canon (church) and civil (state).  Foucault sees value in the hermeneutics of the subject but sees it as an expression of forms of self-relation which allow both self-creation and a relation with nature.

Foucault discusses three aspects of the hermeneutic approach of early Christianity, as we have seen.  That is the truth of inner subjectivity, the role of confession, the role of penance.  Confession requires a relation with a priest, in the general relation of the believer to the church, which is the relation of a floc of sheep to a shepherd.  The Confession of sins reinforces the verbalisation of the deep contents of consciousness, and so is a way of defining what is in consciousness.  The penance connect consciousness reflecting on itself and the verbalisation of sin with social rituals, and a way of defining the life of the believer.  The concern with the truth of what is in the consciousness of the believer creates a tension with the role of church doctrine.  How can we be sure that the results of hermeneutics attempts at self-knowledge will correspond in its truths with the Bible and church theology?  Foucault sees this problem as what underlies the Protestant Reformation, in its attempt to give subjectivity more of a role.

The hermeneutics of self-knowledge, confession and penance has precedents in Pagan antiquity.  Foucault refers to Stoicism and Pythagoreanism, paying particular attention to the Roman Stoic, Seneca.  Seneca’s approach is one of inner self-understanding but it is much less concerned with the supposed truths of deep consciousness.  There is not the kind of radical difference between inner consciousness and outer appearance which Christianity fosters.  Christianity encourages the idea of finding the origins of ones thoughts in consciousness.  There is a concern with the starting point, which is connected with the issue of whether thoughts have evil or good origins.  What Foucault says about the search for the pure origins of contents of consciousness itself refers to some of the later writings of Edmund Husserl, the Phenomenological philosopher.  Husserl became concerned with the relation between the ideational purity of a concept and the empirical-temporal moment of its origin.  For Husserl, we only understand science fully when we can grasp the unity of its concepts and its historical beginnings, but we are always caught by the difference between the pure concept and the moment of its appearance, the difference between conceptual grasp and an act of consciousness grasping something at a moment in time.  Foucault situates both hermeneutics and phenomenology in the early Christian ideas of truths of consciousness, confession and penance.  In ethical and political questions, Foucault both suggests that the early church subordinates individuals and that it creates a deeper kind of individuality. The deeper individuality may itself be a restriction on self-creation for Foucault.  The reaction to Christian hermeneutics can be given a more positive emphasis for Foucault if we think of the ways he follows on from Michel de Montaigne, as he occasionally hints who engages in self-insquiry and revelation of the self in the Essays, but in an endlessness of interpretation in which there is no deep truth self or unchanging individuality.


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