Truth, Science and Religion. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 5

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of February 6th moves between discussions of truth in general and the understanding of truth in early Christianity.  In his remarks on truth in general, Foucault defends what we can call a pluralist view of truth.  There is no single definition of truth, there are different regimes of truth.  The explanation of this point leads Foucault from social questions to discussions of the history of philosophy, and of the nature of logic.  The idea of regimes of truth is compared with political and legal regimes.  These are clear in the sense that they apply to a territory where some entity is sovereign, and has the power to enforce political and legal decisions, what is usually known as the state.  The state is not engaged in deciding what is true, or what the truth is in that way.  Decisions about what is true are too numerous and diverse for the issue of a state regime to arise, even where the state is enforcing its power in an extreme way. Truth does enter into state regimes and sovereignty as we can see with the role of confession in the state criminal justice system.

The diverse natıre of the situations in which we can say there are truths in the social context, or different methods of finding  leads Foucault to more general considerations of truth.  He refers to the letters of Benedict de Spinoza with regard to the idea of the the truth which is true of itself, which is the index of itself.  Foucault considers this to have limited application.  He does not reject the idea that the definition of truth must be true of itself (though he is perhaps sceptical about this, it is certainly an issue worth exploring).  The issue is that the truth as a general definition is not king, by which Foucault means it does not adequately cover all the ways we can speak of truth.  Truth is often used in the context of an avocation, witnessing or inner report of some kind, which is an act of communication that creates truth in the act of communication.  My saying I believe something, or something is true on the basis of what I have observed is not open to challenge in  the same way as some other truths are from a neutral position, outside the subjectivity of the individual using that truth referring language.  The religious confessional communication that Foucault deals with in these lectures is a major example of that kind of truth.

Foucault compares these more subjective kinds of truth with truth in Descartes’ Cogito’ and truth in logic.  As I noted in the last post, Foucault discussed Descartes in his first book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), which became the subject of a bad tempered debate with Jacques Derrida, who had been his student (apparently on a psychology course at the École normale supérieure ), coming out of Derrida’s long review article ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, which claimed Foucault had misread Descartes, or at least had missed something that Derrida had noticed.  In the present context, Foucault’s concern is with the famous sentence in Descartes’ Mediations, often referred to in English through its Latin version (Descartes wrote in both French and Latin, and French editions sometimes contain both), Cogito ergo sum.  That Latin sentence translates as ‘I think therefore I am’.  Descartes focuses on the French version, asking the questions: what does ‘therefore’ means? How do we know that it is truthful in this context?  The claim that if I think I must exit, seems obvious, but as others have asked before Foucault, what is the ‘therefore’ doing?  What does it add or smuggle in as unargued assumptions to the connection between my thoughts and my existence? The overall point here is to question the idea of absolute unquestionable truths, particularly as pertaining to issues of subjective experience.

Foucault moves onto a discussion of truth in logic, where it has to be said it does not show any knowledge of formal logic.  This certainly distinguishes Foucault from Paul Feyerabend, who as I mentioned in the last post, is mentioned favourably by Foucault in the context of anarchy in knowledge.  Truth in logic is something that Foucault treats as part of a game, and a  constraint within that game.  I don’t see anything incorrect with what Foucault says there, but does get into any discussion of formalism, use any examples or note any differences of views about logic.  Foucault denies what he regards as the Positivist claim that the definition  of truth is exhausted by logic, and emphasises plurality of kinds of truth, referring bad to the idea of archaeology which he explored at length in is 1969 book, Archaeology of Knowledge.

He also denies a complete separation between ideas of knowledge and politics.  There are always political issues about what ind of knowledge exist, and how knowledge is used, and politics itself must rely on ideas of what is known to be the case, and therefore of what knowledge is.  The different ways in truth can become manifest are to some degree tied up with different forms of power, institution and state.  These are issues that Foucault explored at length elsewhere, the best known example is Discipline and Punish, which brings us back to the idea of confession in Foucault.  The Christian origins of ‘confession’ is taken back by Foucault to one of the founders, Tertullian in this lecture.  Foucault sees Tertullian as combining three kinds of truth in Christianity: the truth of Baptism (the innocence point of view of the young who have washed away sins in the Baptismal water and been brought into a Christian community of truthful behaviour); the truth of the choice between good and evil (truth and falsity); the truth of the Fall (loss of goodness/truth) and the struggle of the Christian to overcome evil/falsity.  Evil and falsity are linked because the devil is a deceiver and the good Christian is truthful, including the meticulous truthfulness of confession.  Foucault refers to the Christian attitude to truth as arising out of Pagan antique concerns with the care of the self, and the active relationship of the self with itself, which Foucault explored in various places including History of Sexuality: Volume Three.

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