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

On to my sixth 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.

In the lecture of thirteenth May, 1981, Foucault looks at how Christian hermeneutics of the self gives rise to tensions which are the bassi of early modern philosophy and religious movements.  Tensions exist between knowledge of the self, knowledge of religious texts, and knowledge of reason.  The possibility that these three might not cohere becomes increasingly significant.  Descartes’ philosophy is one reaction to this, in its attempt to present truths of the  self as cohering with truths of reason.  Self-introespect in Descartes leads to discovery of truths which are also truths of reason.  God comes into this, because Descartes provides a proof of the existence of God, and because Descartes’ philosophy follows the practices of Christianity with regard to self-introspection.

Foucault refers to British empiricists as providing another response to the problems of the hermeneutics of the self.  It’s clear that he refers to Locke but not who else.  We could take a British empiricist interest in observing nature and clear perception back to Francis Bacon writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and we could go onto Thomas Hobbes.  Locke was writing soon after Hobbes, and is usually considered the leading British empiricist along with George Berkeley and David Hume.  Foucault’s point is that perception in these thinkers is the way of grasping inner truth and truths of reason.

The Reformation aims to give more freedom to the search for truth in the self, and the search for truth in religious texts, against the power of Church institutions to determine such truths.  The Reformation cannot end all problems with the harmony of these three areas, and creates problems for itself with people whose sense of truth in self leads to a rebellion against the authority of the Reformed Church.

The Medieval monastic orders themselves are conditioned by  a tension between the Augustinian ideal and the recurrence of those views Augustine rejected.  The Augustinian ideal is that we completely submit ourselves to God’s will in the knowledge that God’s will is completely sovereign and that we cannot resist it.  For Augustine, there is no possibility of salvation, of rising above sin, through the will of the individual.  This is in contrast with Origen in Foucault’s account.  He could have mentioned Pelagius, the English theologian who was an antagonist of Augustine.  Pelagianism is a frequently used word for the ‘heresy’ that individuals can achieve salvation through individual effort.  We do not know much about Pelagius’ arguments as Augustine was so successful in combatting Pelagius that the man himself disappeared from the Roman world, and his writings disappeared.

Over time an Origen like attitude to salvation emerges in monasteries.  Monasteries evolved from the practices of isolated single ascetics.  However, over time, too many people wanted to follow a pure religious life, and the institution of monasteries emerged to accommodate all those people.  They become hierarchical, bureaucratised, regulated organisations.  There are some hints of Max Weber in Foucault’s account, but Weber is not brought directly into the lecture.   The life of the monastery cannot be that of a collection of isolated ascetic individuals who happen to be in one building.  Inevitably the life of individuals changes when part of an organisation. The monastery becomes the place of a highly developed organisation of rules, routine and administration.  As such it becomes the model of organisation for the outside world.  The monastery is an army of the religious, and the way that is organised influences armies outside the monastery.

The monastery, in its ideal form, excludes juridificaiton  because submission to the spiritual adviser displaces obedience to law.  The rule governed nature of the monastery itself restricts the role of the spiritual adviser, so that the adviser is subordinated to  law of some kind.  The role of the priest in defining the penance for any sin mentioned in confession is also caught between the ideal and a juridified practice.  The priest has absolute authority with regard to deciding on penance, but norms develop of what the priest demands, and that restrict the authority of the religious adviser, again bringing in law as a moderating constraining force.   So the anti-juridical nature of monastery becomes a model for juridification.

The philosophical consequences of these developments carry on into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Kant brings the attempted harmonisation of self and reason to a peak, in a philosophical tradition going back to Descartes which tries to eliminate illusion from thought.  That tradition itself comes from the Christian practice of removing those thoughts that come from Satan, so that we are only influenced by the word of God.  After Kant, Schopenhauer brings illusion back into philosophy.  Foucault is presumably referring to the way that Schopenhauer makes an opposition between will and representation, which is the difference between truth and the illusions of appearance.  Foucault suggests that he has a dominating influence over nineteenth centıry philosophy.  That influence carries on into Freud who is concerned with finding the truth behind illusions in speech.

The monastery becomes an example of government, and Foucault argues that Christian leaders bring back the Greek ideal of government, the techne  technes, the skill of skills in which the art of government, that builds on medicine and piloting, is preferred to the despotism of a king-shepherd.  Foucault refers to Oedipus the King with the techne  of technes, so the tensions about a king who is a tyrant as a practitioner of the art of government.  This all seems to look forward to what Foucault describes as governmentality in the eighteenth century, based on the art of government as an art of self-limitation.  The monastery provides a  bridge between the antique ideas of a polity-republic of self-government and law, and more recent ideas of governmentality.


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