Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing Lectures on the Will to Know

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Foucault’s first lecture series, Lectures on the Will to Know (1970-1971), introduces a number of important themes concerning knowledge, the will to know, and the power of truth and truth-telling—themes that Foucault would develop during the next thirteen years in his lectures, conferences, and books. As Daniel Defert, the editor of this first volume, suggests in a recent workshop, this first course is “programmatic of the whole series of themes that would be treated between 1970 and 1984 at the Collège de France.” “The will to know,” Defert emphasizes, “is the main theme of all the courses delivered at the Collège.”

At the time of these first lectures, Foucault is deeply engaged in the political battles that mark the immediate post-May ‘68 period in France. Foucault is struggling against—and struggling to understand—the repressive turn of the Pompidou government (banning political organizations; wide-scale arrests of militants; making the sale of a political tract an arrestable offense). Foucault has actively participated in the founding of, and the protests surrounding the new experimental university at Vincennes. He is closely monitoring the incarceration and hunger strikes of militant activists. And he will soon help launch a social movement of “active intolerance” that targets the excessive use of incarceration and intolerable prison conditions that characterize the early 1970s in France.

At the time as well, Foucault has just published The Archeology of Knowledge (March 1969), a deeply philosophical investigation of how concepts and practices (madness and psychiatric discipline, for instance, or sexuality, or criminality) become objects of knowledge, loaded with specific, historically-situated meanings. Foucault is elected to the Collège de France in November 1969, and on December 2, 1970, just one week before this first lecture series, he delivers his inaugural address, The Order of Discourse (translated as The Discourse on Language), where he sets out the critical and genealogical tasks he will pursue in the years to come: to explore how “the opposition between true and false” or “truthful discourse” serves as a system of exclusion as powerful as legal prohibitions or claims of reason (DL, p. 217). Foucault also indicates where he will begin:

“For the time being, I would like to address myself to th[is] system of exclusion. […] I would like to try to visualize the manner in which this truth within which we are caught, but which we constantly renew, was selected, but at the same time, was repeated, extended and displaced. I will take first of all the age of the Sophists and its beginning with Socrates, or at least with Platonic philosophy, and I shall try to see how effective, ritual discourse, charged with power and peril, gradually arranged itself into a disjunction between true and false discourse.” (DL, p. 232)

It is within this political and theoretical context that Foucault begins to develop, in these Lectures on the Will to Know, a conception of knowledge as the product of agonistic and conflictual relations, modeled on legal struggles over justice. The central problematic of the first course places in conversation an Aristotelian notion of the naturalness of the desire to know—of the idea of a natural access to truth—with a Nietzschean conception of the historical specificity and production of knowledge. The legal context—the struggles for justice and the associated means of producing legal truth—will become a central focus of his analysis.

At the Collège, Foucault refers his audience to one of his favorite passages—one of mine as well—, an excerpt from Georges Dumézil’s Servius et la Fortune, which he would later use as the epigraph to his Louvain lectures in 1981, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling:

“As far back as we go in the behavior of our species, the ‘true utterance’ is a force to which few forces resist… Very early on, the Truth appeared to men as one of the most effective verbal weapons, one of the most prolific seeds of power, one of the most solid foundations for their institutions.” (LWK, p. 84)

This striking passage goes to the very heart of his first lecture series: here, Foucault explores how claims of truth emerge through different processes and how robustly they function in (contemporary) politics and society.

The first lecture series, then, weaves together multiple strands of Foucault’s thought and experience. As Stuart Elden notes, in his review of the volume in Berfrois, “The course ranges widely in its content and theoretical engagements.” The different strands are, at first, combined in an early analysis of classical thought surrounding the “desire to know”—an inquiry that discusses the writings of Aristotle, Plato, the Sophists, and Hesiod—but by the fifth lesson, the different strands of thought emerge as separate and discernible research avenues that are then developed through different annual lectures over the course of the next thirteen years—and, again and again, put in conversation with each other.

By way of analogy, we can think of the early lessons of this first course as one tight and tangled ball of yarn, that gradually unwinds, allowing us to discern the different threads that will then be developed, first, during the rest of this first lecture series, and, then, through various series of the subsequent courses.

Several major threads include:

  1. The production and power of truthful discourses through legal processes and judicial institutions: Foucault had set, as the research agenda for his working seminars (separate from his annual lectures), “to identify the function and assess the effect of a discourse of truth in the discourse of law.” (LWK, p. 2). His focus, he stated, would be the penal system in 19th century France—a theoretical interest for Foucault associated with his political engagements at the time and the fact that the Penal Code of 1810 was still in effect and administered under the Fifth Republic. This topic would emerge as a dominant strand in the first lectures, beginning with lesson #5 on January 27, 1971, where Foucault begins to explore judicial discourse and legal forms associated with the production of truth and the imposition of social order. It is here that he would analyze the Homeric episode of oath taking and agonistic truth production (lesson #5), Hesiodic justice (lessons #6-7), the role of money as a form of social regulation (lesson #9), and the institutions of written and unwritten laws (lesson #10).

This strand was critically important to Foucault’s analysis of repression in 1970’s France. He would develop it later by exploring the different legal forms of truth production, including the test (l’épreuve), the inquiry (l’enquête), and the examination (l’examen) in the series of courses including Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-72), The Punitive Society (1972-73), and “Truth and Juridical Form” in Rio (1973), leading to the study of the examination as a legal form, as well as penitential incarceration, in Discipline and Punish (1975). These themes and the very same texts (Homer, Iliad, Bk. 23; Hesiod, Works and Days; the Gortyn legislation; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; among others) would be developed further in his Louvain lectures in 1981, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling.

  1. The relationship between the will to know and relations of power: This first course sets up a direct engagement with Nietzsche, beginning on page 5 of the first lecture—“Nietzsche was the first to release the desire to know from the sovereignty of connaissance itself”—an engagement that runs through the first lessons all the way to the Lecture on Nietszche, given at McGill in April 1971 (included as lesson #13).

This engagement with Nietzsche and the will to power would be foundational. It took place, as Daniel Defert suggests, in silent conversation with Deleuze (LWK, p. 269-272), and it would lead Foucault to develop the idea of power/knowledge beginning in his 1971-1972 course, Penal Theories and Institutions, and ultimately to perfect the genealogical method used in Discipline and Punish (1975)—as well as to return to the repressive hypothesis and the “will to know” the following year in History of Sexuality, Volume 1, in 1976.

  1. The early analysis of the debates between Aristotle, Plato, and the Sophists: Foucault’s discussion of the Sophists, as well as his treatment of oath-taking in Homeric times and of judicial oaths in what Louis Gernet referred to as “pre-law Greece,” would emerge as a central theme in Foucault’s later lectures. But the seeds can be seen here well. Foucault’s analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is precisely about the “telling of truth” by witnesses and the way in which truth becomes something that has to be told and seen—giving birth, Foucault suggests, to the methods of inquiry associated with the modern social sciences.

This long-standing engagement with Oedipus—as Daniel Defert notes (LWK, p. 229 n.* and 279-280), Foucault would come back to Sophocles’ play throughout his life and deliver at least six different lectures on Oedipus Rex – would motivate his deep interest in his late lectures on truth-telling, parrhesia, and ultimately on the “courage of truth,” the title of his last lecture series in 1984.

  1. There are a number of other threads woven through these first lectures. There is a focus on criminality and impure categories (see LWK  179 et seq) that would lead into later elaborations of the criminal as social-enemy and the delinquent in the 1973-75 period. There is a discussion of the relationship between avowal and torture—with a provocative statement, especially for those of us who will be studying “tortured confessions” at Columbia University in the Spring 2016, that “A whole history could be written of the relationships between truth and torture” (LWK p. 85)—and this would be developed in the History of Sexuality, Volume 1 and Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling. There is a discussion of political economy and nomos (see LWK p. 155 et seq.) that Foucault will return to in 1978 and 1979.

In this sense, the first lecture series covers a wide range of ideas and a lot of ground. The range and the combination of themes were an artifact of Foucault himself, at this precise juncture in December 1970, bringing together in a crescendo a number of different ambitions, desires, preoccupations, projects, and interests. It was a time marked by his increasing engagement with issues of political repression and prisons in France. In December 1970, Jean-Paul Sartre is heading a popular tribunal in northern France, in Lens, and within weeks, Daniel Defert, Gilles Deleuze, Foucault and others form the Prisons Information Group (GIP). The GIP was actually launched on the 8th of February 1971, two days before his seventh lesson and smack in the middle of this first lecture series. It is a period during which his writings on madness are receiving increased attention. The publishing house Gallimard had just bought the rights to History of Madness and was preparing a new integral edition; as François Ewald notes in the course context to Penal Theories and Institutions, that renewed interest refocused Foucault’s interests and research. It is a period in which Foucault is newly exploring classical texts—Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Hesiod, among others—from a philological perspective in a manner than he had done before. These are some of the texts and inquiries that would lay a foundation for his late lectures (1980-1984) and his final two books. It is a time when Foucault is formulating a whole new research project at the Collège for the years to come.

There are indeed many themes and interests converging in this first lecture series—far too many, perhaps, for just one seminar session. So in order to structure and frame the discussion at our first seminar on September 14, 2015, we will focus on the first two strands identified above—inevitably, with some discussion of the third.

Our seminar guests, whom we will introduce in our next post, will address these two themes and launch the discussion. They will also specify this week the specific lessons that they will be focusing on. Professor Nancy Luxon, the editor of Foucault and Arlette Farge’s The Disorder of Families (forthcoming), will begin the seminar with a discussion of the first theme, with a focus on justice and judgment, and special attention to the juridical form of money (which is only developed by Foucault here in this first course). Professor James Faubion, the editor of several volumes of the Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, will then focus on the relationship between the will to know and the will to power. Each will be introducing the topics and themes in these pages before the seminar, specifying passages to reread, and then framing the discussion on Monday.

Welcome to Foucault 1/13. Let the conversation begin…