A Dispatch from Paris: “A Little History of Truth in General”

By Daniele Lorenzini

I have followed with great interest, from Paris, the discussions which arose before, during, and after the first three meetings of the seminar “Foucault 13/13”, and I really look forward to “Foucault 4/14”, which is going to be exciting—Linda Zerilli and Anna Lvovsky’s posts on Psychiatric Power are brilliant and challenging. I would like to contribute to these rich discussions by drawing some attention to an aspect of Foucault’s lectures on Psychiatric Power that I have always considered crucial, both for the “discursive economy” of these lectures and in view of the methodological and conceptual “shifts” Foucault introduced a few years later in On the Government of the Living (1979-1980).

At the beginning of his 23 January 1974 lecture of Psychiatric Power, Foucault opens what he himself calls “a parenthesis”—but readers of Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France have already learnt that what he presents as a parenthesis is very often something quite decisive. Foucault, speaking about the complex and many-sided “mechanism of discipline” that functioned within the asylum in the nineteenth century, argues that its effects introduced a question of truth: “medical knowledge, which again was only a token of power, found itself required to speak, no longer just in terms of power, but in terms of truth” (PP, p. 235). Indeed, as Anna Lvovsky correctly suggests, in Psychiatric Power Foucault delivers an analysis of madness as a battle over truth-production, and in many senses also the hysterics’ “counter-conduct” that will be taken into account by Linda Zerilli can be described in terms of a challenge on the level of truth. This is why, by retracing “a little history of truth in general” (PP, p. 235), Foucault is actually doing something crucial with respect both to the stakes of these lectures and to future developments of his thought.

More precisely, I would like to argue that, through this parenthesis, Foucault incites us to think otherwise—i.e. to modify our common and shared conception of truth in order to understand that truth is not first and foremost a metaphysical, logical, or epistemological issue, but a political or better (as he will clearly show starting from 1980) an ethico-political issue.

In his 1974 “little history of truth in general”, Foucault distinguishes two kinds of truth in a way that is reminiscent of the theses we find in Lectures on the Will to Know (see e.g. LWK, pp. 31-32).

1) On the one side, there is the scientific (or epistemological) conception of truth, characterized by two features:

a) First, the idea that “there is truth everywhere, in every place, and all the time”—this is what we could call the principle of the omnipresence of truth. Therefore, according to Foucault, “for a scientific type of knowledge nothing is too small, trivial, ephemeral, or occasional for the question of truth, nothing too distant or close to hand for us to put the question: what are you in truth?” (PP, pp. 235-236). A few years later, in On the Government of the Living, this statement will acquire a more explicit ethico-political value, since Foucault will apply it directly to the subject: it is the subject, indeed, that in Western societies is required to answer the question “who are you in truth?”

b) Second, the idea that “no one is exclusively qualified to state the truth”—this is the principle of the (potentially) universal access to truth. In fact, from the standpoint of the scientific conception of truth, the possibility for the subject to grasp the truth depends on “the instruments required to discover it, the categories necessary to think it, and an adequate language for formulating it in propositions” (PP, p. 236), and not on the “mode of being” of the subject him/herself—what Foucault, in his 1981-1982 lectures at the Collège de France, will call “spirituality”. During the first lecture of The Hermeneutics of the Subject (1981-1982) (“HS”), indeed, speaking precisely of the problem of the subject’s access to the truth, Foucault establishes a distinction between “philosophy” (or, to use the language of Psychiatric Power, the “philosophico-scientific standpoint of truth”; PP, p. 236) and “spirituality” on the grounds of the necessity for the subject, in the latter case, to operate a series of transformations on him/herself, since spirituality postulates that “the truth is never given to the subject by right” and that therefore s/he must change, shift, become to some extent “other than him/herself” in order to have right of access to the truth (HS, p. 15). On the contrary, Foucault argues, “the history of truth enters its modern period” when it is assumed that “the condition for the subject’s access to the truth, is knowledge (connaissance) and knowledge alone” (HS, p. 17). In other words, when the problem of the subject’s access to the truth comes to be linked to “a technology of demonstration” (PP, p. 236).

2) On the other side, there is a more ancient conception of truth, which has been “gradually pushed aside or covered over” (Foucault also says “colonized”) by the demonstrative technology of truth: a truth which is “dispersed, discontinuous, interrupted”, which “will only speak or appear from time to time, where it wishes to, in certain places”, and which “is not waiting for us, because it is a truth which has its favorable moments, its propitious places, its privileged agents and bearers”. In short, it is a truth that, far from being omnipresent and universally accessible, “occurs as an event” (PP, pp. 236-237).

What I would especially like to highlight here is that Foucault apparently presents this distinction as an opposition of two series “in the Western history of truth”: truth-demonstration versus truth-event, “truth-sky” versus “truth-thunderbolt”. In the first series, the relationship between the subject and the object is a relationship of knowledge (connaissance), whereas in the second it is a relationship of “shock or clash”, a “risky, reversible, warlike relationship”, that is a “relationship of domination and victory, and so not a relationship of knowledge, but one of power” (PP, p. 237). Hence, the continuity with the project Foucault inaugurated in The Order of Discourse and in the Lectures on the Will to Know is patent (see on this point James FaubionJesús Velasco, and Bernard Harcourt’s posts). However, Foucault’s aim is not exactly to retrace the history of truth-relationship of power (or of truth-event) instead of the history of truth-relationship of knowledge (or of truth-demonstration), as if they were two alternative histories. His objective, which is clearly inspired by Nietzsche, is rather to show that the second history is a part of the first, i.e. that truth-demonstration itself is nothing else than one moment or one form of truth as an event:

“I would like to emphasize the truth-thunderbolt against the truth-sky, that is to say, on the one hand, to show how this truth-demonstration, broadly identified in its technology with scientific practice, the present day extent, force and power of which there is absolutely no point in denying, derives in reality from the truth-ritual, truth-event, truth-strategy, and how truth-knowledge is basically only a region and an aspect, albeit one that has become superabundant and assumed gigantic dimensions, but still an aspect or a modality of truth as event and of the technology of this truth-event” (PP, p. 238).

In other words, in retracing this peculiar history of truth, which has of course both political and ethical consequences, Foucault’s objective is to show that scientific demonstration is only a ritual, that the supposedly universal subject of knowledge is only “an individual historically qualified according to certain modalities”, and that when we speak about truth we should always pose the problem of its production (and not that of its “discovery”). Therefore, Foucault’s history of truth is an “archeology of knowledge” but also and at the same time a “genealogy of knowledge”, since it does not aim at saying: “truth is nothing else than power, so let’s talk about power and let’s get rid of truth”. It rather aims at understanding “how truth-knowledge assumed its present, familiar, and observable dimensions” (PP, pp. 238-239) as well as at posing the question of the possibility for ustoday, to conceive and make use of truth differently.

Two short remarks to conclude. On the one hand, through this four-page “parenthesis”, Foucault gives us some precious clues in order to read Psychiatric Power, and more precisely his analyses of the relationship between mental illness and the discourse and practice of psychiatry in the nineteenth century, precisely as a way to show how—in this specific context—truth-event has been “gradually hidden by a different technology of truth” based on observation and demonstration (PP, p. 239). On the other hand, it is worth noting that we find parts of this (archeological and genealogical) project in almost every series of lectures that Foucault delivered at the Collège de France, and a crucial methodological and conceptual mise à point which corresponds to the first five lectures of On the Government of the Living, where Foucault introduces the notions of “alethurgy” and significantly redefines the concept of “regime of truth” forged a few years before in Discipline and Punish (see on this point my paper What is a “Regime of Truth?”). Starting from 1980, in fact, Foucault couples his original project of a history of truth in terms of an archeology and a genealogy of knowledge with the new project of a genealogy of the modern (Western) subject. But this is another story, that I hope we will have the chance to take into account shortly.