James Faubion on the Will to Know

By James D. Faubion

In what appears as an appendix to his first year of lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault summarizes the task he has undertaken as a “test of the utilizability” of the “Nietzschean model” of the will to know, which dismisses classical precedent in rejecting the presumption that there is any intrinsic relationship between knowledge and the truth. Nietzsche’s presumption instead is that knowledge, truth and the relationship among them are specific “inventions” that mask the sources that have given rise to them. He accordingly opens up the possibility of a distinctive analysis of the “history of truth” that Foucault reads as being grounded in four basic principles:

  1. Exteriority: what gives rise to knowledge is something completely outside the order of knowledge itself;
  2. Fiction: truth is falsification, error;
  3. Dispersion: truth is the progeny of a heterogeneous multiplicity;
  4. Event: truth is an effect.

Foucault invites us to understand these principles as principles of method. At the very least, he invites us to understand them as working hypotheses, speculations that could be put to a test that they might not survive.

The invitation is especially striking for what it does not extend: an embrace of any particular ontological commitment. In particular, it does not ask us to follow the Nietzschean model so far as to embrace his own candidate for what lies outside of knowledge, what produces truth as error and results in the appointment of the subject as its bearer—the will to power. Nor does he mention the will to power in concluding the appendix. He writes instead that “going outside the text so as to find the function of discourse within a society is what I call the principle of exteriority” (199). Hors du texte: not a will that we exercise or that exercises itself through us; instead a socially specific “political and economic caesura” that leads a technics of proportionalities and equivalencies, to the sumbolon.

It’s fallacious to draw inferences from silence, but I think that we are at least entitled to take up such silence as a springboard for reflecting on the mode and substance of Nietzsche’s influence not merely on Foucault’s first lectures but also on the work that unfolds from that point forward.

The lectures, for their part, both begin and end with sustained commentaries on Nietzsche. They’re not his first to do so. The lectures he delivered at Vincennes between 1969 and 1970 precede them, and they were informed by an insight (or impression) that Foucault had had perhaps a couple of years before: that in Nietzsche, a conception of the will to know (as la volonté de savoir)—realized as a sort of subjunctive affirmation: “maybe this is the case!”—could be distinguished from and could not be reduced to the will to power. In any case, this is what Daniel Defert, in his spelling out of the context of the 1970-1971 lectures, cares to underscore (if only in a footnote—but footnotes can be very important).

What Defert helps us begin to render articulate is the question of how we are best to understand the coupling and distinction that Foucault is soon to make between knowledge (savoir) and power and of the dynamics of the relation between the two. This very general question devolves into two others that might be worthy and capable of discussion. First is the question of the extent to which Foucault sustains the distinction between the will to know and the will to power. This is a question that permits of a relatively straightforward answer: he does, if by way of omission.

At the outset of the first lectures, Foucault remarks that “the will to know” could serve as a unifying rubric under which all of the work he had previously accomplished could be subsumed. From the first lectures forward to the (French) subtitle of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, he preserves the will to know, la volonté de savior, as a thematic touchstone. The will to power has no such role; it is notable for its absence. What’s also notable is that the typical French translation of “the will to power” is la volonté de puissance. Foucault’s knowledge-power dyad is the dyad of savoir and pouvoir, and if the former is the object of a will, the latter is not. So far as I know, Foucault never writes of a volonté de pouvoir.

This is the sort of answer, however, that raises far more questions than it resolves. Scholars of Foucault have had to address explicitly his contrastive use of connaissance and savoir, not least because it is pivotal to his distinction between the pure disciplines and the disciplines that constitute the human sciences. But what is this “will” that has savoir as its specific object? This question may lead us to attend closely to Foucault’s analysis of the will to power in the first lectures, but that such attention will yield a definitive result is improbable at best. Puissance andpouvoir: scholars have understandably rarely (if ever?) bothered to address this distinction, which has no comparable function in Foucault’s work to the function that the distinction between connaissance and savoir fulfills.  Yet, it registers a departure from Nietzsche’s usage (at least in its French translation). That Foucault never conjures a volonté de pouvoir registers this departure all the more forcibly.

Then there’s truth. Echoing the language of his characterization of the Nietzchean model and in apparent conformity with its principles, Foucault will come to characterize his investigations as having far less to do with “truth” than with “truth effects.” He will formulate the concept of “regimes of truth,” which might be read as a sociological analytic of the dynamics of knowledge, truth and power. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège, The Order of Discourse, Foucault presents to his audience his long-term ambition to “put again into question our will to truth,” which he looks to follow Nietzsche closely in tying to the violence of exclusion and suppression. He turns and returns to the term not merely in the first lectures but also at several later junctures in his work. The valence of the term is often Nietzschean. It has, however, a somewhat truncated career. I am far from the first to note the glaring contrast between Foucault’s shift from at least the letter of the ambitions he puts forth in The Order of Discourse to his preoccupation in his last two years of lectures with the risks of parrhesia and the lofty exercise of le courage de la vérité, which I’ll (pointedly) translate as “the courage to truth.” The question that arises here is the question of the extent to which this shift implies an abandonment, even a subversion of the Nietzschean model—the answer to which may not be as obvious as, at first sight, it seems