Frédéric Gros | Obedient truths and disobedient truths in Foucault’s last lectures at the College de France

By Frédéric Gros

The problem of truth is both central and complicated in Michel Foucault’s work and particularly present in Foucault’s final lectures at the Collège de France, The Courage of Truth (1984), in his analysis of Socrates’ death and the Cynics. The question I would like to put to this text – and perhaps more generally to the work of Foucault – is: What is the relationship between truth and obedience, and between truth and disobedience?

On the one hand, Foucault espouses the idea that truth is an expression, a testimony to disobedience. Truth is on the side of rebellion, of resistance, of what Foucault calls the uprising of subjects. There are two elements to this claim: first, truth is a weapon ; second, the very movement of resistance expresses a certain kind of truth.

On the other hand, Foucault expresses a completely contrary vision of truth, namely that truth produces obedience. Truth is a way of obtaining our obedience, and discourses of truth are instruments of submission.

Thus, there is a tension – maybe even a contradiction – at the heart of Foucault’s definition of truth that allows these two statements : truth is what makes us obey ; and, truth paves the way for disobedience. This leads us to ask: Is it possible to speak of truth in both cases, and if so, what is the common thread running through these two contradictory definitions of truth? Although I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, I’d like to explore in my presentation a possible distinction between two types of truth : obedient truths and disobedient truths.

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