Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing The Government of Self and Others

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Where shall we go to demand justice when it is the iniquity of the powerful that destroys us?” – Creusa in Euripides’s Ion, quoted in Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 135.

“Philosophy thus defined as the free courage of telling the truth so as to take ascendancy over others and conduct them properly, even at the risk of death, is, I think, the daughter of parrēsia.” Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 342.

Michel Foucault’s 1983 lectures, The Government of Self and Others, isolate one of the techniques of the self that Foucault had studied the year before in The Hermeneutics of the Subject—namely, the technique of parrēsia or truthful discourse in the political context—in order to study it in depth and simultaneously shift the focus from the government of the self to the government of others. In this sense, the intense focus of these 1983 lectures on parrēsia serves as a bridge to connect Foucault’s ongoing research on subjectivity to his earlier preoccupation with governmentality. At the same time, these 1983 lectures are book-ended by considerations on modern philosophy and, as a result, place in dialogue Foucault’s study of parrēsia with reflections on the place of modern philosophy and the role of the contemporary philosopher. In this respect, the lectures represent a deeply personal meditation for Foucault on his own experience as philosopher and critical thinker.

The lectures begin with an extended meditation on Kant’s 1784 essay, “What Is Enlightenment?”—a text that Foucault describes as a personal fetish. (GSO, p. 7) Foucault had previously analyzed Kant’s essay in a lecture delivered to the French philosophical association in 1978, titled “What Is Critique?”. Whereas in 1978 Foucault had focused on the “attitude of modernity” that he identified in Kant’s essay, now in 1983 Foucault focuses our attention on what he refers to as a new or “one of the first manifestations of a certain way of philosophizing which has had a long history over the following two centuries.” (GSO, p. 15) This new way of doing philosophy involves questioning one’s own present reality through an interrogation of the significance of contemporary events (such as in Kant’s case the French Revolution as a general aspiration)—a new way of doing philosophy that would give way to a tradition of critical thought “from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, passing through Nietzsche, Max Weber and so on” and to which Foucault willingly associates himself. (GSO, p. 21)

The lectures conclude with an extended meditation about modern philosophy and the role of the philosopher in contemporary society. Foucault proposes—as a piste de recherche—that the history of modern philosophy could be rewritten as a history of practices of parrēsia. He suggests that from the moment Descartes turned to his own subjectivity as a way to found truth and simultaneously as a truth-telling, philosophy was set back on the path of parrēsia that had marked philosophical inquiry in antiquity. “Could we not consider modern philosophy,” then, he asks, “at least the philosophy which reappears from the sixteenth century, as the reallocation of the main functions of parrēsia back within philosophy, and as the retrieval of parrēsia, which had been institutionalized and organized, and which had functioned in multiple, very rich, dense, and interesting ways in the Christian pastoral?” (GSO, p. 348-349) On this hypothesis, of course, the modern philosopher comes close to being a parrhesiast—which would be greatly significant for Foucault himself: The philosopher would take on the function of the parrhesiast.

In his final lecture of March 9, 1983, Foucault linked the bookends together, drawing the connection and the significance: “if I began this year’s lectures with Kant,” Foucault would say in conclusion, “it is inasmuch as Kant’s text on the Aufklärung is a certain way for philosophy, through the critique of the Aufklärung, to become aware of problems which were traditionally problems of parrēsia in antiquity, which will re-emerge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which became aware of themselves in the Aufklärung, and particularly in Kant’s text.” (GSO, p. 350) The history and practices of modern philosophy—more specifically, of what Foucault himself is doing in these lectures—could then be rewritten as a parrhesiastic endeavor, one modeled on the ancients’ conceptualization of parrēsia.

A Study of Parrēsia

In between these bookends, Foucault explores, in extraordinary detail, the way in which parrēsia functioned in antiquity. As noted, this represents both continuity with the lectures from the previous year, insofar as Foucault is extracting and developing one of the techniques of the self that he had studied in 1982, but also a distinct and different project: to shift the focus from the techniques of the self that participate in the government of self or the care of self, to a focus on a technique of the self that is integral to the government of others. As Foucault suggests, “this study would make it possible to see, to tighten up a bit, the problem of the relations between government of self and government of others, to see the genesis, the genealogy […] of a certain form of political discourse whose object would be government of the Prince, of the Prince’s soul by the counselor, the philosopher, the pedagogue responsible for forming his soul.” (GSO, p. 6) Foucault’s goal is to link this up with his earlier study of governmentality, especially, as he notes, what he had analyzed in terms of “the art of government in the sixteenth century.” (GSO, p. 6)

Foucault comes closest to achieving this in certain early passages where he is able to draw a direct connection between a certain type of truth-telling that operates on the self with a style of governing. It occurs when, for instance, he discusses the truth-telling minister to the Prince or monarch who puts himself at risk to help the ruler govern others: for example, this passage elaborating on “this true discourse addressed to the monarch by his ‘minister’ in the name of something called raison d’État and in terms of a particular form of knowledge, that is to say, knowledge of the State” (GSO, p 70). Or here, in discussing Euripides’ Ion:

“the all-powerful sovereign will need to have at his disposal a logos, a reason, a rational way of saying and thinking things. But to support and establish his discourse he will need the discourse of someone else as guide and guarantee, someone who will inevitably be weaker than him and who, if necessary will have to take the risk of turning to him and telling him what injustice he has committed.” (GSO, p. 136)

In 1983, Foucault begins his analysis by situating parrēsia in its earliest incarnations, namely in Euripides’ play Ion and Thucydides’ discourse on Pericles. Drawing on Plutarch’s Lives, more specifically on his Dion, Foucault originally defines parrēsia in terms of the risk for the speaker who tells the truth. The parrēsiast, Foucault suggests, is the one who accepts the risk of death for telling truth. (GSO, p. 56-57) On his close reading of Euripides and Thucydides, which spans from January 19 to February 9, 1983, Foucault identifies four central features of parrēsia as a dangerous obligation to tell truth:

  1. Its close tie to Athenian democracy;
  2. Its dependence on institutional and constitutional structures;
  3. Its association with an elite form of political participation;
  4. Its connection with danger, envy, and jealousy. (GSO, p. 300)

Foucault then explores, starting on February 9, 1983, the modifications and shifts that occur to parrēsia over the course of the following centuries, with a detailed analysis of truth-telling in the Platonic period. Here, Foucault focuses on Plato’s Letters, Alcibiades (which had been a source of much analysis the previous year in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), and Republic, as well as the writings of Xenophon, Isocrates, and other Cynics. He is looking at the shift from the fifth century BCE to the first half of the fourth, and he identifies four central transformations:

  1. Parrēsia is no longer tied to the workings of democracy, but operates in other regimes, whether oligarchic, monarchical or autocratic;
  2. It has an increasingly ambiguous valence, as tyrants begin to tell truth;
  3. There is a transformation from a purely political to a philosophical-moral problem, in the sense that parrēsia is addressed not only to the city, but to individuals for the government of the self to better govern others;
  4. There emerges a concentration of parrēsia in the hands of rhetoricians and philosophers. (GSO, p. 303-304)

The latter transformation is what gives rise to the struggle between rhetoric and philosophy in the ancient period, and gives birth, on Foucault’s view, to philosophy: “there was a sort of gradual diversion of at least a part and a set of functions of parrēsia towards and into philosophical practice which induced, once again not by any means the very birth of philosophy, not at all as a radical origin, but a certain inflection of philosophical discourse, philosophical practice, and the philosophical life.” (GSO, p. 341).

The Political Project

Foucault’s political project in 1983 is to tie his work on subjectivity back to his earlier study of governmentality: to link this third facet of his research project (techniques of the self) with the analyses he had conducted in the late 1970s on forms of governing others, such as raison d’État. It is, in effect, to link the government of the self (care of self) with the government of others (governmentality).

In the process, Foucault makes a number of points that intersect with our previous discussions in these seminars:

  1. Foucault makes it clear—something we had discussed at length in the seminar on The Hermeneutics of the Subject—that these techniques of the self should not be romanticized or valorized. These techniques undergo change over time, and are sometimes valuable, but at other times problematic. So, Foucault states, referring to parrēsia, that “however general and constant its valorization (I have said that it is a virtue, a quality), it is in fact surrounded by a great deal of ambiguity, and its valorization is not entirely constant or homogeneous. We will see, for example, that Cynic parrēsia, Cynic free-spokenness, is far from being an absolutely univocal notion or value. And we will see that in Christian spirituality parrēsia may well have the sense of indiscretion, in the form of chattering about everything concerning oneself.” (GSO, p. 47) Foucault develops the more ambiguous or problematic deployments of parrēsia in his lectures of February 2, 1983, where he studies “the image of the bad parrēsia, the parrēsia which does not work in a democracy and does not remain true to its own principles.” (GSO, p. 180)

The point, for us today, is that there is some danger in romanticizing particular techniques of the self—whether avowal, truth-telling, or parrēsia. Jill Lepore has an excellent article in this week’s New Yorker, “After the Fact: In the History of Truth, A New Chapter Begins” (March 21, 2016), that explores precisely the ambiguous deployments of truth-telling by presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and others. Lepore traces a recent history of truth-telling in American politics, arguing that we have reached a new relation to truth-telling marked by what Steven Colbert refers to as “truthiness.” Lepore suggests that we have today two choices: “find some epistemic principles other than empiricism on which everyone can agree or else find some method other than reason with which to defend empiricism”—though Lepore does not seem too optimistic. “The evidence is not yet in,” she concludes. In any event, her article is a brilliant illustration of the shifting nature, in contemporary politics, of the technique of truth-telling, and perhaps a warning about some of its perils.

  1. Foucault also reiterates the important distinction between his critical method (of situating the subject in discourse) and speech act theory—a distinction that Judith Butler broached and that Lydia Liu pressed on hard last seminar. As Foucault demonstrates in the opening of the second hour of his lecture of January 12, 1983, the key to understanding his approach is to differentiate it from speech act theory and the analysis of “the performative utterance.” (GSO, p. 61-66) It is by contrasting his articulation of parrēsia with the performative utterance that Foucault ultimately delineates, most clearly, his own conception of parrēsia as “a way of opening up this risk linked to truth-telling by, as it were, constituting oneself as the partner of oneself when one speaks, by binding oneself to the statement of the truth and to the act of stating the truth,” as “the free courage by which one binds oneself in the act of telling the truth,” or as “the ethics of truth-telling as an action which is risky and free”—as, in effect, that Nietzschean idea of veridicity. (GSO, p. 66).


Foucault intended to publish a book with the title The Government of Self and Others with the Éditions du Seuil in a series that he himself launched in February 1983 with Paul Veyne and François Wahl (see Defert, “Chronologie,” in Oeuvres, Pléiade edition, Vol. 2, p. xxxv; GSO, Context, p. 377). The book was going to include the research from this year, 1983, as well as the analyses from the previous course of lectures. It was going to form part of a series of studies on ancient governmentality that was to be published alongside the History of Sexuality (see GSO, Context, p. 377). The unpublished manuscript for the book The Government of Self and Others has been deposited along with his other manuscripts in the Fonds Foucault at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

While Foucault delivers these 1983 lectures, he was also polishing the “enormous manuscript” of the second volume of The History of Sexuality, which still combines what will appear the following year as volumes 2 and 3 (see Defert, “Chronologie,” in Oeuvres, Pléiade edition, Vol. 2, p. xxxv). He also remains very active politically, writing in Libération to expose irregularities in the anti-terrorist practices of the Mitterrand administration in August 1982 and participating in September 1982 in a humanitarian mission to Poland with Simone Signoret, Bernard Kouchner, and the Médecins du monde. Ibid. November 1982 will also see the publication of Désordre des families on the Bastilles lettres de cachets archive with Arlette Farge.

Let me conclude, for now, with a striking passage from these 1983 lectures, one that may well be the very heart of Foucault’s enterprise that year:

“Maybe we could envisage the history of modern European philosophy as a history of practices of veridiction, as a history of practices of parrēsia.” The Government of Self and Others, p. 349.

One Comment

  1. I was researching the article you referenced “After the Fact” in the New Yorker and after doing some more research got here. In regards to the presidential candidates “truthiness”, it seems that there is no one even trying to portray the truth in the current political race – it’s actually comical.

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