Frédéric Gros | Further Reflections

By Frédéric Gros

Before turning to Foucault’s later work on the Greeks, I would like to return to his first major project during the sixties and seventies on the archeology and genealogy of social sciences. Foucault’s critique of the social sciences presumes that there is a distinction between what I will call normative and irreducible truths. During the seventies, Foucault develops the concept of the norm, which he defines as a schema of behavior inculcated by certain institutions, such as the school, the factory, and the army. It is a model attitude that the individual must adopt, or else he will face punishment. The social sciences, according to Foucault, ranging from psychology to criminology, validate these norms in the interior of a particular discourse of truth. Thus, if discipline produces normality in individual behavior, the social sciences establish that normality as the truth of individual behavior. Nonetheless, Foucault does not consider the social sciences as false or mere ideologies. They are really true, if not truly true. They stamp truth on the reality produced by power. They do not lie.

But this attempt to normalize existence can also provoke a backlash in the form of resistance. The singular reality of particular subjects rebels, and in its rebellion produces a counter-truth – a testimony to the impossibility of reducing life to a norm. It is the truth of Pierre Rivière, who confounds the questions of judges and psychiatrists; it is the truth of battle of the hysterics against Charcot’s project of neurological codification. During the seventies, Foucault historically traces the formation of disciplinary truths in the modern West, and concentrates on their political and economic function. It becomes clear that these disciplinary truths are in service of the state that seeks to control its population and guarantee public order, or that these truths are subordinated to the capitalist economy that aims only to extract the maximum utility out of every body.

Starting in the eighties and Foucault’s study of ancient schools of wisdom, he will begin to focus on truths of resistance. His lectures of 1984 expose three central oppositions, of which the first two had already been developed in his previous lectures. The first of these oppositions, already present in Hermeneutics of the Subject in 1982, is between what we could call experts’ truths and ethical truths. What I call experts’ truths are elements of knowledge – demonstrated, established, and erudite truths. In order to acquire these truths, the subject does not need to work on itself ethically, and the successful acquisition does not change the subject’s relationship to itself or to the world. Experts’ truths provide social prestige but do not add to the subject’s spiritual substance. These scholarly, specialized, and scientific truths allow us to differentiate between a knowledgeable elite and the ignorant masses. They help stratify society by introducing hierarchy into it.

In contrast, ethical truths transform our relationships to ourselves. We interiorize them progressively using techniques of the self, and they provide the material for what Foucault calls the techniques of subjectification. They feed and maintain the care of the self. The care of the self, needless to say, should not be understood as the expression of complacency, dandyism, or of an egotistical withdrawal. The care of the self is essentially an attitude by which we render ourselves present to our own selves. To become present to oneself is to refuse to be swept up in the flux of life, to refuse to live automatically. One becomes present to oneself in order to respond to the solicitations of others and of the world, in order to live up to events, not by relying upon ready-made or learned answers, but by relying on one’s own foundations. It is thus an act of responsibility by which we answer the call of others and the world from oneself, but from a substantial, reflective self. The care of the self is a form of ethical resistance that allows the disobedience of resistance, whereby the self resists and refuses to be passively swept along.

Foucault constructs the third opposition in The Government of self and others in 1983, when he studies the Greek concept of parrêsia, which he will return to in 1984. It is what I call the opposition between dominant truth and dissident truth. Dominant truth is the truth of the majority, of public opinion, one could even call it democratic truth in the sense that it is the truth that everybody recognizes and accepts. Dominant truth is thus an expression of consensus: it expresses what a political body at a particular time considers just, reasonable, and legitimate. There is, I think, another element: dominant truth is what the majority wants to hear, what comforts them in their certainty. Therefore, it relies upon an agreement. This agreement can be the product of rational deliberation, but it can also be the result of cowardice, flattery, and laziness. It is the truth that is recognized by everyone else, but is thought through by no one in particular.

What the Greeks call parrêsia is the precise opposite of dominant truth: an individual publicly announces a truth that disturbs, worries, and shatters consensus. It is the courage to state truths that displease the majority, no matter the cost. It is thus a truth that produces difference. The parrêsia introduces dissonance into the consensus, and the dissonance forces each of us to listen to something he would rather not hear, to come face to face with something he would rather hide from himself. Inevitably, truth produces disharmony when it is precisely what we would rather hide from ourselves and from others. Parrêsia allows us to imagine a dissident type of disobedience, what we could even call civic dissidence. Civic dissidence announces a truth that ruptures the consensus founded on public truths that we accept because they allow us to cower in the truth of everybody else.

The lectures of 1984 take up and re-orchestrate these two oppositions between experts’ truths and ethical truths, and between dominant truth and dissident truth through the study of asceticism and the cynical parrêsia. Moreover, the introduction of the true life in the study of the cynics allows us to introduce a final opposition between what I call essential truth and elementary truth. Essential truths are those that metaphysics tries to discover and formulate. The goal is to uncover, by means of thought, the small number of truths that resist doubt, time, and contestation, the truths that are simultaneously rational, universal, eternal, and definitive. We search for them through discourse, demonstration, and rational argumentation. Essential truth is therefore a challenge that philosophy addresses to thought and to language. Essential truth founds the identity of each thing and allows each thing to remain identical to itself. It is thus that Platonic philosophy aims to pierce the fog of opinion in order to reach these pure, ideal, and essential truths by way of thought, because they alone can provide the grounding for rational government of the city. Essential truth purifies thought; it is the mirror of thought, and thought is its reflection. Truth produces similitude, identity, and conformity.

But philosophy addresses another challenge, this time to life itself, and it is the cynics who represent this immense and derisory project. The challenge is to discover the small number of elementary things that we really need in order to live, and to rid existence of all the rest. In order to do so, we must surpass, ignore, and disdain social conventions and manners. What Foucault calls the “true life” is the existence that is free of everything accessory, secondary, and useless, freed from social conventions and historical codes, a life stripped down to its purest, simplest elements. The cynical movement scrapes existence of its veneer, rids it of hypocritical conventions and social artifice, in order to rediscover the very root of life, the elementary truths we need that make us live and are a source of energy. Again this cynical scraping is a form of disobedience that we could call subversion. The cynics practice what we could call a passage to the brink: they exaggerate the need for purity, nature, and truth to the point that their lives become filthy, infamous, scandalous. They disobey codes, ignore conventions, despise social hierarchy and political power out of faithfulness to the elementary truths of life and the body. Elementary truth therefore produces otherness. The true life of the cynics is a provocation whose goal is to worry and disturb complacency and social certitudes.

This brings us to an important point, the idea of two regimes of truth. The first regime of truth demands us to accept the reality of the world and social hierarchies. The discourses of the social sciences normalize individual behavior; experts’ truths introduce hierarchies into society; consented truths dominate public discourse; and essential truths oblige thought itself. Each of these engenders a form of obedience. The second regime of truth opposes norms with the intensity of individual lives, which uses the subject as an ultimate source of resistance.

This leaves us with a legitimate question that Foucault recognizes but does not pose, namely: you speak of disciplinary truths produced by the social sciences, consented truths that dominate public discourse, erudite or essential truths that philosophy and science construct, and you say that these truths teach us to obey, but are these truths really true? In the same vein, on what basis can we call irreducible, ethical, parrêsiastic, and elementary truths true?

This question, the question of the truth of truth is that of the epistemological analysis of truth. Foucault doesn’t pose it. This question of the truth of truth presupposes that the contrary of truth is error, illusion, ideology, lies, or fiction. But when Foucault writes his political history of truth, he is not basing his work on the opposition between truth and error. Instead, he traces the eternal fight between the truths that lead us to accept reality and those that push us to transform ourselves and the world, between the truths that teach us to disobey, and those that allow us to disobey.

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