Foucault on Truth and Ethics; Nussbaum’s Error

Recently I read Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech (edited by Jospheph Pearson, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles CA, 2001), based on lectures he gave in California about parrhesia in Ancient Greek philosophy, literature and politics.  Parrhesia is translated in my abridged Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1891) as ‘free speaking’.  It does not appear in Georg Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary (translated by Robert Keep, Duckworth, London, 1984), which is only to be expected, because as Foucault points out it’s a word that comes into use in Golden Age Athens.  It does appear in Alexander Souter’s Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1916) as ‘boldness, freedom, liberty, shown especially in speech’.  All of this, and more is incorporated into Foucault’s discussion of the negative and positive uses of the term in Euripides’ tragedies, commentary on Athenian democracy, Cynic philosophy, and so on.  In a rather indirect way Foucault himself develops a position on ethics, communication and liberty.  More of that on another occasion I hope.


Recently I was also listening to a podcast of Martha Nussbaum being interviewed  on Australian radio about Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, on the reissue of her recent classic The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (original edition: Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994) with a new introduction.  Click here to go directly to the podcast. Click here to go to the relevant link at the podcast aggregator site earideas.


A great summary of her work in that area, and it is a great body of work.  Nussbaum has some grudging respect for Foucault, in contrast to her attacks on anyone else who might be regarded as influenced by, or adjacent to, Foucault’s approach.  Her somewhat prejudiced mindset gets the better of her in the podcast, when she shows some regard for Foucault’s work on antique ethics.  Nussbaum claims that Foucault ignores  truth in his discussion of self-formation through ethics in the ancient world.


The lectures in Fearless Speech focus in the importance of truth, the right fort he lower classes to speak truth in a vulgar manner in Athenian democracy, the value and danger Euripides sees in unrestrained truth telling.  There are ways in which Foucault would say that these truths are subjective not absolute, but that is not the same as devaluing truth.


In an approach reminiscent of Mill in On Liberty, Foucault emphasises the value of struggle for truth, the great agon.  No one condemns Mill as a dangerous sceptic, subjectivist etc, for emphasising the value of a permanent conflict over truth in which no one ever has a complete victory, so maybe there’s no need to condemn Foucault on the basis of such accusations.

Mill:Liberty/Socialism, Principles of Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Returning here to a topic I addressed on September 9th. The ways in which Mill seems to depart from On Liberty in Principles of Political Economy, though he was working on it at about the same time. The several editions the Principles went through somewhat confuses that interpretative issue.

More ways in which Mill departs from the On Liberty perspective, in Book II on Distribution (which does not appear in all versions currently in print).

Wages are at least to some degree determined by custom rather than markets. Mill here seems to be referring to those upper professions which tend to be linked with the upper classes and have social power, law, medicine and so on. One might expect Mill to suggest that that non-economic power had enabled members of these professions to increase their welfare through restricting entry, monopoly of practice of that profession through compulsory member of a professional body, and so on. Adam Smith had already made similar points. However, Mill seems to regard these examples as evidence that distribution of income can generally be separated from supply and demand in the market.

The previous point feeds into the consideration he gives to the possibility of communism, which I have already mentioned. In connection with what he says on custom determining income, he suggests that income distribution could be flattened and there would still be an efficient economy.

The last point itself connects, if indirectly, with the suggestion that there could be a static economy, with no further development. It might be easier to conceive of a state reallocation of income, of the economy has reached some kind of plateau, in which case rearranging who gets what income might not seem like to harm the economy. Mill thinks such a state could be reached if existing materials and technology have been exploited to the full. This ignores the tendency to innovate with regard to the use of materials, technological innovation and the possibilities of innovation in the organisation of labour.

There may be societies which have reached some stasis. I would guess irrigation based agricultural communities in Pharonic Egypt, or pre-Columbian Guatemala. In both cases, a despotic political system presided over, and was reinforced by control of irrigation. In both cases, the political and economic stasis killed innovation and I believe led to a lack of adaptation which led to catastrophic collapse in the face of climate change or over use of fixed resources. Mill’s hypothesis of a static economy would be the product of political despotism, and a connected killing off of incentives to innovate. If that is part of Mill’s argument for the possibility of socialism, then it’s a rather dark picture, counteracting Mill’s growing tendency to believe over time that personal liberty might co-exist with communism.

FNS 09: War and Liberty; Aristocracy and Liberalism

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In my first post (three posts ago) on the Friedrich Nietzsche Society 2009 conference, I mentioned a point I made in the discussion after Brian Leiter’s presentation. I suppose this might be making a big deal out of a question, but I was dealing with some things I find important and have been working on for some time.

My point was in response to two claims from Leiter

Nietzsche links fighting in war with liberty, and no other philosopher has done so. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

Nietzsche attributes different moral worth to different kinds of individuals. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

My counter claims

Kant refers to war fought according to the laws of humanity as sublime in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The experience of the sublime is way, for Kant, in which we encounter out transcendental self which stands outside natural determinism. This is our free self. This itself connect with remarks in the Metaphysics of Morals about the positive freedom, with reference to a will to perfection in following moral law which goes above mere minimal obedience, and again refers to our freedom in the most perfectionist way of rising above mere impulse and determinism. This clearly connects with Kant’s view of politics as a kind of perfectionist liberal republicanism, that is citizens rise to the highest levels of human personality in respect for law, as the basis for freedom in a state based on political participation. It also feeds into discussions about the liberty of the moderns and ancients in Benjamin Constant, and Wilhelm von Humbldt’s discussion of positive and negative welfare, two great figures of liberalism. Humbold also linked war with liberty saying that power of the state was less dangerous to liberty in the Ancient Greek states because constant war enhanced independence and strength of character. This is in Humboldt’s great contribution to political philosophy, The Limits of State Action.

Various major liberal thinkers have not been purists with regard to moral equality between humans. Before Alexis de Tocqueville they mostly assumed that only the propertied classes should have political rights. Tocqueville accepted the inevitability, and desirability, of democracy but with reservations and thought it would require a new kind of aristocracy in the legal profession and political leaders. John Stuart Mill thought the educated should have more political rights and that backward peoples should have no political rights until educated to the necessary level. Mill even suggests that some people are just lacking in moral character, suggesting that universal education would not make everyone equal. In politics, William Ewart Gladstone, the great British Liberal Prime Minister, and symbol of democracy and liberty throughout Europe, explicitly believed in aristocracy in the political system rather than pure democracy. As Tocqueville pointed out, representative government under law tends to produce its own aristocracy in any case. These liberal thinkers were picking up, though also revising, ancient republicanism in Aristotle, Cicero, Tactitus etc, which was rooted in the belief that liberty required an aristocracy proud of its rights and national independence. This continued into early modern republicanism, and then fed into Classical Liberalism.

Mill: Liberty/Socialism in Principles of Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Since I worked out that John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy contains ideas in contrast with those of On Liberty I have obtained two copies of the book. Getting a definitive edition of the Principles is more difficult than I realised. I bought the OUP Oxford World’s Classics edition before realising that it had left out the first two books, though it did add Chapters on Socialism which were written at the time of the 7th edition of the Principles. The OUP edition is based on the 7th edition, and I suppose the original 7th edition left out the first two books, but I’m not sure. If that is not the case then OUP’s behaviour is very poor. The only way, I am aware of, for getting a definition version with all variations from all editions is the to get the Liberty Fund edition in two volumes. Liberty Fund editions are very cheap but not widely distributed. Their edition is also freely available online at the Online Library of Liberty.

I am looking now at a rather interesting edition a friend lent to me. It is edited by J. Laurence Laughlin and published by D. Appleton and Company of New York in 1901, though as Laughlin’s preface is dated 1884, I presume this is a reprint. The notable thing about Laughlin is that he was the founding chair of the Department of Economics at Chicago University. That means he founded one of he world’s great economics departments, associated most famously with Milton Friedman. Other major economists associated with the department include Hayek, Robert Lucas (the biggest figure in Rational Expectations), Gary Becker (the biggest figure in Behavioural Economics) and many other significant figures.

Laughlin provides a bridge between Mill and those figures, and seems to have been a major figure in market orientated thinking in his own time. Laughlin edits Mill’s Principles as part of the cycle in which the book was a major economics text book. Laughlin’s appropriation is somewhat crude, he adds an essay on the history of economic thought. interpolates his own comments, maps and charts, mostly referring to the United States. On some occasions he says he has deleted comments by Mill and replaced them with his own. It wouldn’t happen now, fascinating to see how it happened then.

The main points I have picked up from my reading so far, and checking through the online version is that Mill is less of what we would now call a free market libertarian in his economics than in On Liberty. This is surprising, at least by present standards, because on the whole economists are much more inclined towards free market thinking than other social scientists. Surveys show most academic economists to be left of centre, but nevertheless favour market mechanisms over collective and state solutions in ways which would startle most of the left inclined.

What I’ve noticed so far is that Mill does explore socialism, or even communism, favourably as a hypothesis, and became more influenced by this hypothesis over time. He never abandoned a belief in markets but thought distribution of income could be detached from the market mechanisms of prices. What I also notice is the élitism and anti-liberalism compared with On Liberty. In the Principles, Mill suggests that labourers cannot regulate their own lives and expenditure competently and that there should be laws to prevent the poor from marrying early and producing too many children. Mill’s socialist side is very patronising, arrogant and tends to deprive workers of freedom. It fits into the criticisms that classical liberals/libertarians make of socialists. It’s quite close to what Hayek accuses socialism of leading towards in The Road to Serfdom, The even greater irony is that Hayek was a real Mill fan in his earlier years, following Mill’s journeys and editing some of his letters.

Mill on Equality and Distribution: Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

On 7th August I posted ‘Rawls in Relation to Mill, Nietzsche and Sophists’. There, amongst other things I suggested that Rawls engaged in a rather tortuous attempt to turn Mill into an an egalitarian liberal (in the Rawlsian sense which implies restraints on the permissible level of inequality in a society). I am certainly not withdrawing that view, but I have a qualification. Rawls went down the wrong road in thinking that it’s Mill’s ethical theory in Utilitarianism which supports egalitarian liberalism. Rawls jumps from there being a utilitarian concern with the welfare of society as a whole to the idea that this requires egalitarian liberalism.

Rawls would have been better off invoking Principles of Political Economy, and maybe it was in the back of his mind. The Principles suggests that a socialist, or even communist, economical and social system might be possible at some time in the future. Mill argues that distribution of income is a distinct issue from the existence of markets. Income distribution is decided by public institutions rather than the market. This itself rests on separating the discussion of wages from the discussion of costs and prices, and placing the discussion of wages before the discussion of prices. Wages are treated as if they are not a normal cost, and can be changed at will on a political basis. Mill ads detail, suggesting that communism might undermine economic incentives, but that markets as currently organised also deprive the low paid worker of incentives. Mill seems to be arguing for the future possibility of socialism, and in a very hypothetical way, but it certainly undermines any view of Mill as a completely seamless limited state free marketeer, even if most of what he says does lean in that direction. Since Mill thinks that production and prices to the consumers are determined by markets, he is certainly not a seamless socialist or communist. This aspect of Mill does open the way to market socialism, welfare or egalitarian liberalism, social democracy and any other system which might try to combine markets with major state led reallocation of resources.

This seems at odds with what Mill generally says about the role of markets in economics in that book, and is certainly at odds with On Liberty which is not separated from it by a major chronological gap. Principles is not as widely read than On Liberty or Utilitarianism, but the ‘socialist’ aspect of it seems to have influenced a lot of people’s understanding of the two more famous texts, and certainly what Mill says in Principles does justify a search for egalitarianism in the other texts, i just don’t think such a search can succeed. The reason for the influence of the more egalitarian reading may be that the Principles was a major economics text book for some decades. So during that time it must have been at least as widely read as On Liberty and Utilitarianism, and probably influenced the interpretative tradition as it was being formed. Some guess work here, but it looks very likely to me that something like that happened.

Rawls in relation to Mill, Sophists, and Nietzsche

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

I’ve been looking at ‘Justice as Fairness’ (1958), ‘Distributive Justice’ (1967) and ‘Distributive Justice: Some Addenda’ (1968) in Collected Papers (1999), as a result of thesis supervision work.

I noticed a Nietzsche moment at the beginning of section IV of ‘Justice as Fairness’. He refers to the ‘Sophist’ idea of justice arising from a balance of power between two hostile parties. He refers this to Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Book II. Glaucon was Plato’s elder brother and is explaining the Sophist view of power, after the Sophist Thrasymachus storms off in Book I. In some ways this is just setting up a position to knock it down, as Socrates quickly does. We do not have to accept Plato’s apparent dismissal, particularly as I believe Plato is more engaged with Sophist thought than his most brutal remarks would suggest,. I don’t think that’s a terribly new or controversial claim, but it’s a good thing not to forget about that aspect of Plato.

Rawls’ interest here is to take the example of justice arising from an egotistical contest. Rawls wants to pull this into the contractual situation where we agree to obey a common authority independent of our particular interests. But, this seems rather fast and I don’t think Rawls refers to this again in A Theory of Justice (1971), which is where he is heading with those earlier papers. The Sophist moment is a Nietzschean moment, in that Nietzsche somewhere refers to justice only being possible between people with equal power. I’m not going to find that quote right now, but I think I will post on it when I stumble across it. The later omission is not surprising, Glaucon’s attempt to stand in for Thrasymachus just comes too close to a way of thinking Rawls does not want to deal with: a way of thinking in which society is in a permanent state of changeable power relations between individuals, and between individuals and the state. This is a disequilibrium, always changing and does not fit in with Rawls’ rationalism. That would be rather like Foucault, as well as like Nietzsche.

The 1968 essay contains references to J.S. Mill at the ends of sections VI and VII. At the end of VI, Rawls sets up an account of Mill as egalitarian by emphasising the equality between individuals in Utilitarian ethics (ethics which derives rules from calculations of the greatest utility for the greatest number). At the end of VII, the strategy kicks in. Rawls now emphasises that in Utilitarianism, Mill refers to the greater concern individuals have for each other over history, a feeling of unity between persons, in the emergence of a society where everyone’s interests have to be consulted. Rawls now takes the jump into claiming that this is his own ‘difference principle’ (economic inequality is only justified if it maximises he income of the poorest in society compared with any other distribution of inequality).

This is too much too claim. Rawls may think Mill’s Utilitarianism leaves the way open for economic egalitarianism, and suspicions about this have certainly disturbed purist free market liberals like Hayek, and the even more purist Mises. But, Mill’s idea of utilitarianism has ideas of ranking of kinds of utility which would prevent state redistribution of income if it interferes with liberty as ‘free trade’, an important idea for Mill. Mill supports a minimum level for the poorest, but not a reduction of inequality except as a secondary effect of the minimum level. Rawls thinks of inequality as something that has to be justified, Mill thinks of interruption to ‘free trade’ (including free markets in general) as a something that has to be justified and usually there is no adequate justification.

These ideas of individuals becoming more interested in each other are nothing to do with egalitarianism. Mill was an enthusiast for Humboldt’ Limits of State Actions (1792), which has a more extreme position that that of Mill with regard to a minimal state. Humboldt thinks of such a minimal state allowing more free interaction between individuals and growing sympathy, than can be achieved by the machine like associations between people resulting from state intervention. Something similar can be found a bit earlier in Adam Smith and David Hume, who thought human society is moving towards greater unity through increasing moral sympathy, together with the work of free trade. Neither thought that would lead to, or should lead to, state directed redistribution of income beyond what is entailed by relief for the poorest. Rawls brings Kant behind the ‘difference principle’ as well as Mill and some similar reservation apply. He is also trying to do something similar with Hume and Smith.

Rawls account of the ‘difference principle’ is itself quite ambiguous, sometimes the need to let the market economy works seems to be a very strong constraint, sometimes equality for its own sake seems to be the really strong constraint imposing a pattern of income distribution in a designed way, difficult to reconcile with the constant change, feedback and unpredictability of the market.

The instability of power relations and income distribution are both troubling for Rawls. His tendency to try and repress them, he economic side in particular, may explain his tendencies to try to deny the recognition of the unpredictability of interactions between individuals, including economic relations.

Link of the Day: Me on Mill’s On Liberty

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with added visual content.

A short essay introducing On Liberty by John Stuart Mill to readers to LiberalVision. It looks like I will be writing regularly there on important liberal texts.

Custom in John Stuart Mill: Possible Paradoxes

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link!

Image above is a picture of John Stuart Mill.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill mentions custom as a bad thing. Custom is what prevents independent thinking. It blocks the inquiry for truth, because it puts conformity to established thinking above testing the possible truth of new ideas. It subjects us to a tyranny of the majority, where we feel bound to accept what most people say because of the moral pressure of knowing that most people think something, and the pain of insisting on a different idea. The pressure of custom is as much a danger to liberty as excessive state power, and the two forces combine in restricting liberty.

One paradoxical outcome is that though Mill wants strong limits on state power, he thinks state power is justified in overcoming ‘barbarism’, which is his justification for colonialism. Even within a developed educated society. Mill worries about those who follow custom rather than rational thought, He is very inclined to identify rational thought with being on the progressive side in politics, which for him means being for free markets, individual freedom, education, and secularism. This leads to a rather contemptuous view of the rationality of people on the other side of the debate as in his famous suggestion that the Conservative Party in Britain was the stupid party. Though he favoured decentralisation and localism in government, he had very little regard for those who wished to maintain local. and regional, languages, cultures and customs. For Mill, it was very much better to be a full part of the greatest language and culture of a nation, and this was closely connected with his notion of rationality. He makes this clear in Considerations on Representative Government (1861) The paradox here is that disregard for custom leads to disregard for certain kinds of liberty, those associated with keeping a minority identity.

Another paradox is that sometimes Mill appeals to custom as a justifiable punitive force. Mill refers to situation where the law should not be involved, but public opinion should be. The main example is of the man who drinks too much too look after his children well. Mill does not think the coercive power of the state should intervene here, but we should keep away from friendship with such a person and put moral pressure on him. In this instance the paradox is that habits which come from custom should be used as a form of social control. The issue in this instance is not of freedom of speech. which is at the centre of Mill’s view of liberty. but appealing to custom in one instance will have spill over effects in other kinds of instance.

In some degree the limited state ideas Mill has come from people who think strength of custom can make state coercion unnecessary. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Limits of State Action, which Mill quotes several times in On Liberty, sees its ideal of a state with no function other than national defence and internal law and order, includes the idea that peoples who live by custom can achieve this state. Mill’s ideas of the state were less minimal, and there is evidently some tensions in Humboldt about the values of diversity and the values of custom, but this just increases the sense of paradox around opposing both state and moral oppression. Going back further, Montesquieu and Rousseau both linked the freedom of the more pure republic with a lack of much of a state, because citizens follow virtue by habit rather than the coercion of law. Mill, like many, saw Montesquieu as a founder of liberalism and Rosseau as a source of state despotism. The differences and similarities between Rousseau will have to wait for another occasion, but for now I will say that like many Mill is bit too quick in his way of opposing Rousseau and Montesquieu, not completely wrong but not completely right either.

The status of custom, or habit, or public opinion, of whatever way we can think of for referring to moral non-coercive pressures, does provide a paradoxical source of benefit and danger to liberty for Mill. The problem is not unique to him, and we should recognise that public opinion is a way of referring to something changeable and custom refers to something more permanent. Nevertheless, they both refer to moral force, and their duality brings out Mill’s difficulty.

John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link.

John Stuart Mill picture in the image above.

I always find it creates a bit of a shock if I suggest that John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche had much in common about anything. It’s true that Nietzsche was rather rude about Mill and that they expressed contradictory views about parliamentary democracy and the women’s movement. However, it is also true that it would be absurd to interpret Nietzsche according to the first impression his provocative rhetoric gives; and it would be absurd to say that two philosophers who disagree could not have underlying agreement in the area where they have some disagreement.

Nietzsche’s criticisms of 19th Century liberalism need two major qualifiers:

He expressed admiration for liberal figures like Voltaire, Mirabeau (a leading moderate in the early stages of the French Revolution) and Kaiser Friedrich (very briefly German Emperor between William I and II, and unlike them a supporter of liberals in German politics).

His criticisms of parliamentary democracy, and democratic culture, are expressions of the same criticisms that 19th Century liberals had of the culture and politics of the time.

The general context for this, is that 18th and 19th Century liberalism was very anxious about the consequences of a democracy which incorporated voters with little, or no education and property. As much as anything, liberals of that time were concerned with restricting the possibilities of levelling down egalitarianism and incoherent populist surges in democratic politics threatening individual righys, and in the earlier part of that period tended to prefer limitations on voting rights. I would say that idea broke down with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), a major influence on Mill, which really established the idea that it was only a matter of time before all developed countries became fully democratic. Mill himself thought political rights should be denied to ‘barbarous’ peoples, like Tocqueville he thought such peoples should be educated for civilisation and democracy through colonialism. Even in the advanced countries, Mill was concerned with uneducated voters participating in the political process and suggested giving more votes to the more educated. Sometimes, Mill comes very close to suggesting a new aristocracy of education, and intellect, should be ruling in ways that insulated them from waves of popular feeling, amongst the uneducated. In some sense, the existence of a constitution and laws, interpreted by judges not popular assemblies, makes that true of all modern democracies; something Tocqueville who was from an old aristocratic family noted with great interest.

That’s the background, let’s list some specific points where Mill and Nietzsche agree

Modern society promotes conformity and uniformity which undermines the existence of strong and diverse individuals.

Traditions and customs, particularly religion, are chains on the mind which should be cast off.

Traditions and customs, including religion, produced the great, strong, and varied individuals of the past.

We need to find ways of producing great, strong, and varied individuals for the future.

A society is at least partly justified by its creation of particularly notable strong and varied individuals.

Higher cultural values should be recognised, and defended against uniformity in culture, which always descends to a low level.

State decisions should never be based on the immediate desires of an uneducated mass.

I believe that clearly establishes some common ground. Further commentary on this would looks further at themes common to Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche; and would consider the relation to Mill and Nietzsche to the kind of liberalism established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. Mill refers directly to this text. and while I’m not aware of any direct references in Nietzsche the parallels are most striking. These issues should be coming up in future posts.