Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, I.2.

Foucault explains why he is starting his lecture series on subjectivity and truth with animal fables. He mentions three reasons, which are expanded: the nature of the question he is posing, the historical domain for which this question is proposed, the method he would like to employ. The question posed is round in what it is that subjectivity and truth consist. There is a tradition Foucault mentions from Plato to Kant in which the question is posed of what the conditions are for knowing truth, and what is connected with this question is the question of how knowledge from the experience of the subject is possible. Truth depends on a subject that knows the truth, and the subject is what has access to the truth, in this tradition.

Foucault says we can opposes a positivist formulation of the question to the philosophical (from Plato to Kant formulation). The positivist formulation: is it possible to have true knowledge of the (conscious) subject, on what conditions is it possible to have this knowledge? Another formulation, distinct from the philosophical and positivist formulations: on what conditions can the subject have experience of itself sufficient to recognise something that is true of itself? What rapport must he subject have with itself for self for discovery of truth about itself? This formulation is historical according to Foucault. It is a question of fact. In any society there are discourses about the self, which are true. In our society there are a number of discourses which are institutionally and collectively recognises as true about the subject. The historical problem is how do these discourses influence our experience ourselves. What constraints or what liberation is imposed on the subject by the idea of a truth, which can be said.

The historical-philosophical way of posing the question about the problem of the subject and truth is to ask what the effects on subjectivity are of the existence of a discourse which claims to speak truth. Foucault says this is what he has been doing in all his inquires over the years, with regard to discourse that claim to speak truth about madness, criminality, and illness. Subjectivity is what constitutes and transforms itself in its rapport with its own truth. Truth is not formal and universal in this account, it is a system of obligations. The system of obligations is regarded as true, with regard to enunciation and verification, if present in the roots of discourse. Truth as obligation, truth as political, rather than content or formal structure of consciousness. The point is not to study historical relativity or change with regard to truth or the subject. The point is to study in which fashion subjectivities as experiences of the self and of others constitutes themselves across the obligations of truth and the lines of verification. It is a political history of verifications.

The study of sexuality in this way differs from studies of crime, madness, illness, and death since these are rejected and negated. Sexuality is not rejected even though there is regulation, disqualification and repression. Sexuality is also different in that it does not exist through the other, and from the outside ,in the same way as madness, death, illness, and criminality. Foucault refers to the account of speaking truth about oneself in Hellensitic and early Christian times in the lectures of the previous year (Du gouvernement des vivants, Seuil/Gallimard 2012, forthcoming as On the Government of the Living from Palgrave in September of this year).

The true discourse of sexuality was institutionalised as a discourse obligatory for the subject with regard to itself. It was organised around confession rather than observation and examination. The discourse of sexuality and desire has been organised around something in us we detest, and wish to purify, but is necessarily part of ourselves. The question is what experience and what subjectivity is necessary for me to have the possibility and right of saying ‘yes it’s true, I desire’. The history of the elephant is connect with this issue of sexuality as having a very particular relation with subjectivity.

The Pagan and Christian evolution of attitudes towards sex and morality can be seen in the development of the elephant fable. The Pagan thinking anticipates Christian thinking in this area in advocating monogamy, limitation of the amount and form of sexual activity within marriage, and the separation of sexual acts from the rest of daily life, raising the question of what if any difference there is between Pagan and Christian attitudes. We cannot isolate them and find a pure origin to our morality. Both Paganism and Christianity exist in multiple and fractured ways.

Our sexual morality (presumably referring to the seventeenth century versions in religious and natural history texts as it lingered on rather than Foucault’s own views) comes out of the first century of the common era, just as physics has a starting point in the time of Galileo and Newton, and political questions have a particular starting point in the French Revolution. Here Foucault seems very close to the idea of founding epistemological break as science emerges from pre-science in Gaston Bachelard, and seems to be following a rather absolutist version of shifts between systems of thought. At this point a philosophical-historical approach may come into tension with the ahistorical systems of thought succeed each other, the intrusions into history when the system of thought changes. A familiar issue around Foucault commentary.

The reference to a philosophical-historical approach sounds like Vico, as mentioned above, though also like Nietzsche and Montesquieu, and maybe Rousseau. The emphasis on self-relation sounds like Kierkegaard and Foucault does occasionally refer to the importance of Kierkegaard in this issue, though seems very reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s own formulations and patterns of writing here. The phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty is probably also important on this point, along with the essayistic or aphoristic self-conscious self-reflective writing of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014


One thought on “Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, I.2.

  1. Pingback: Next installments of Barry Stocker’s reading of Foucault’s Subjectivity and Truth lectures | Progressive Geographies

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