Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, II.1

Lecture of 14th January, 1981

Foucault begins with a recapitulation of the last lecture. One aspect of this is worth mentioning here, since he does add to his discussion of the relation between subjectivity and truth, and his historical-philosophical approach. His formulation is striking and worth considering in itself. The classical philosophical problem, Foucault suggests, is what rights does subjectivity have to found the knowledge of truth? Foucault’s alternative is defined by him as an inversion of a kind. What experience can we have of ourselves, what field of subjectivity can the subject open for itself, what historical fact creates the possibly and obligation of a connection with a discourse of truth.

The topic is of how these are accepted as truth and produce the self as true. What are the effects of the existence of this truth and the discourse of truth for the experience we have of ourself? What is our relation with reason and madness such that there is a science of madness, a knowledge of madness which claims to be true? He has similar remarks about knowledge and truth with regard to sexuality. Mentioning madness brings up the limit situation of a subject that has knowledge about a situation where the subject is not what has reliable knowledge, and defining that must be part of knowledge as defining its limit, which means knowledge defining itself by where there is no knowledge. The mention of sexuality brings up a very purely subjective part of subjectivity, since what Foucault said in the previous lecture refers to sexuality as something that is know purely through subjective report, which is partly developed in confession (a topic explored by Foucault in other texts).

Foucault explains his discussion of fables of the sex life of the elephant in the previous lecture partly with regard to a ‘minor genre’ of of writing on the art of conduct, the arts of live, advice on being. This literature is widespread in antiquity, particularly in the Hellenistic (that is Greek culture after the conquests of Alexander the Great) and Roman period which overlaps with early Christianity. This was a form of writing, which existed for a long time, but has now disappeared. No one now writes about avoiding anger, leading a tranquil life, attaining happiness, and so on. Since Foucault wrote there has been a growth of popular writing on these themes, claiming inspiration from Ancient Stoicism, accompanying an increase in academic work on Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. There is an art of conduct in our time, according to Foucault, but is has no autonomy. It is now within pedagogy along with social stereotypes, which give models for proper comportment through literature, writing and images. Schemes of existence, or proper conduct, also exist within the ‘human sciences’.

Foucault expresses an interest in in the aspects of the art of living that deal with the limits of life such as death and mourning. He extends this into other limit situations such as evil, exile, and ruin. They all come under the heading of essential moments of life or existence. The art of living also includes advice about public speaking on texts on rhetoric, and at the limit of that art the art of memory. A large part of Greek and Roman medicine was concerned with the art of living rather than the cure of diseases. There was a regime of general existence, which included the regime of the soul. The regime of the soul was concerned with the passions and treatises on anger, with regard to control of, were particularly widespread. There was a concern with defining the different modes of life that individuals mitt wish to access, such as public life and private life, active life and contemplative life. Christianity carried the rules of contemplative life over into the institution of the monarchy.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, writing on the art of life moved in the direction of the active life, of how to do something. There was a move away from the art of dying to books on gestures, attitudes, clothing, speech. The art of living takes over the art of death, and from the Hellenistic-Roman-Christian concentration on being and the manner of being, which gives away to more specific arts of living. In antiquity the art of living was concerned with a complete transformation of what one does and one’s gestures in order to be something. This follows on from some discussion of rhetoric as concerned with a public style of life, the use of language in political and judicial institutions, relations with others in collective life. More recently the art of life has beed displaced by professional training, in a process going back to the end of the Middle Ages.

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, II.1

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

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