Judith Revel: Reflections on the 1983 Lectures (in English)

By Judith Revel
Translated by Raphaëlle Jean Burns

There are, I think, two ways of grasping these lectures.

The first is to attempt to understand how Foucault develops, from the beginning of the 1980s onwards, a “greco-roman sequence” which he jokingly called his “greco-roman trip”. And how, within this sequence, during the last two years of lectures, between 1983 and 1984, Foucault uses and develops the notion of parrèsia in a surprising way, in what we might call a sequence within the sequence. The recent publication in France of the conferences Foucault gave at Berkeley in the Fall of 1983 (published as Discours et Vérité, Vrin, 2016) make it possible to understand how Foucault constructed the movement of this sequence—which we could roughly schematize as: not only the fascinating study of the notion of parrèsia in its own right, but the movement from political parrèsia to philosophical parrèsia and finally, within the latter philosophical type of parrèsia, the subsequent subdivision between the parrèsia of Socrates and the parrèsia of the Cynics.

I won’t address this sequence directly and in and of itself. I will attempt rather to approach it from two possible “entry points” which the 1983 lectures seem to suggest in a surprising manner. A surprising but also strangely off-lying or peripheral manner, as if from the margins of the main discourse. These two leads, or “pistes de recherche,” that are offered to us in the 1983 lectures are essential, I think, to understand what Foucault ultimately arrives at, at the end of the following year.

I will explain, without further ado, these two leads:

On the one hand, we have this strange first lesson on January 5th 1983, in which at least two themes emerge like Russian dolls, one inside the other. These two themes form a double excursus in relation to the announced subject of the lectures (namely the reprisal of the theme of parrèsia, which had already surfaced on several occasions during the 1982 lectures). They are digressions in relation to the study of practices of veridiction that Foucault wanted to conduct, and to which the figure of parrèsia among others seems to belong; they are also digressions insofar as they mobilize a completely different historical periodization, since they deliberately depart from Antiquity.

These excursuses are as follows: the analysis of the theme of actuality, that is to say also, implicitly and in a broader sense, the analysis of the way of relating to history that is inscribed in philosophical thought. The reference here, of course, is the famous section in which Foucault comments on Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”; but also an intriguing footnote on pages 5-6 of the edition proposed by Frédéric Gros. In this footnote, Gros reproduces a passage of the manuscript that was not read aloud during the lectures and which concerns a series of methodological difficulties that the philosopher must confront if they wish to inscribe the project of a “history of systems of thought”—that is to say also of a “history of modes of veridiction” or a “history of the distribution of the true and the false”—at the heart of the philosophical enterprise.

On the other hand, it seems to me that in this text we are confronted with the progressive intensification of a theme, almost in a musical sense: the theme of practices. And this in fact generates a double substitution: that of logos by ergon, or that of philosophy as “truth discourse” (“discours de vérité”) by that of philosophy as “test of truth” (“épreuve de vérité”). This theme leads Foucault, from within his very reflection on parrèsia, not only to measure and analyze the latter as one specific practice in relation to other practices (by distinguishing it from the practice of the performative in the lecture on January 12th for example), but to make of it the practice of philosophy. Further still: he is led to define philosophy as a practice, and philosophical life as testimony (“témoignage”), as manifestation, of the truth (p343). So there is a discrepancy here, that we could summarize as follows: the series “discourse/truth/philosophy understood as a search for conformity to truth” must be slowly substituted by the series “practice(s)/truth/philosophy as manifestation of truth.” From this perspective, I think Foucault’s commentary of Plato’s Letter VII on February 16th, and then, on March 9th, the idea of the “philosophical life” are particularly significant. Indeed, the idea of the “philosophical life” emerges, it would seem, once the political character of parrèsia is reinvested in the parrèsiastic practice of philosophy itself. And, as a result of this, the site of the political also changes.

Let us then return to the two excursuses that I pointed out a moment ago, that is to say let us turn to the January 5th lecture.

The beginning of the analysis of the Kantian text responds in a very classical way to what Foucault usually does (and that he had already done, in 1978, in “Qu’est-ce que la critique?”, his first commentary of the Kantian text). The text is historically contextualized, and the analysis of this historical contextualization gives rise to specific stakes, in particular to the inscription of the present; of the question “what is happening today?” as Foucault puts it. But everything changes very fast.

In the last pages of the January 5th lecture, another Kantian text is unexpectedly summoned up. Encased, as it were, within Foucault’s commentary of Kant’s 1784 text, is a reference to The Contest of the Faculties. This reference serves, I believe, to introduce the tipping of the theme of the present into the theme of actuality, that is to say the passage from the idea that we can say what the present historical determinations are that make us what we are, to the idea which consists in affirming the possibility of establishing a discontinuity in relation to that very present.

This passage from present to actuality (even as both terms were initially given as synonyms), relies on two things: on the one hand, it is linked not to the work of historical analysis but to an experimentation, to a practice, to something akin to a test. On the other hand, it immediately engages the question of subjects. This possible tipping from one into the other, this questioning of the present state of affairs that can lead to the interruption of these very affairs, does not only affect our knowledge (“savoirs”): it incorporates from the outset the question of the subject-form itself, in its collective – that is to say also political – variant (“we”). At this point, the reference to The Contest of the Faculties, that Foucault introduces explicitly as a “continuation of the 1784 text,” takes on its full meaning. The reference is called upon by Foucault to take charge of both the idea of the possibility of discontinuity and its political stakes. And it does so essentially by way of one word, fleetingly introduced and perfectly new to Foucault’s thought: the word revolution.

Indeed, Foucault cites Kant:

“There is an extremely interesting text on this: ‘No matter whether the revolution of a gifted people, which we have seen carried out in our time [Kant is therefore referring to the French Revolution; M.F.], succeeds or fails, no matter whether it piles up misery and atrocities’ to the point, he says, ‘that a sensible man, who could hope to see it through successfully at the second attempt, would nonetheless decide never to make the experiment at this price’.” (pp17-18,  January 5th 1983). In a reworking of an extract of the same lecture for the Magazine Littéraire, Foucault adds: “Such a phenomenon in the history of humanity cannot be forgotten because it has revealed a disposition within human nature, a faculty to progress such that no politics, no matter how subtle, could have extracted from the prior course of events […].” And again “The revolution, in any case, will always risk falling back into the former rut, but as an event the content of which is unimportant, its existence attests to a permanent virtuality that cannot be forgotten.” The second dissertation of The Contest of the Faculties is made to comply with what Foucault himself is attempting to say: it matters little whether the revolution is successful or not, whether it bears the mark of misguided ways, abuses and excesses. The revolution is not a historical fact. It is neither a date, nor a conjunction of circumstances. It is perhaps even less what Foucault would call a “content”. The revolution is an always present virtuality, a bifurcation that can be witnessed at every moment, the permanent possibility of a discontinuity. It represents precisely the uncoupling of present and actuality that Foucault is trying to grasp. The Aufklärung is not only that which inaugurates modernity. Insofar as it is immediately redoubled by the will to revolution, it is that which thinks the possibility of there being something like inaugurations in history—emergences, the sudden appearance of the new.

The theme of a diagnostic of the present (philosophy, having reached maturity, poses the problem of its own historical moment) also implies an openness to the discontinuity of this very present (the theme of revolution). The critical enterprise, understood as a process of restriction (of possible knowledge, “connaissance”) morphs into a proposition of openness—what Foucault calls “the actual field of possibles” (“le champ actuel des possibles”): revolution as an ever present virtuality within history.

This torsion, which is a powerful philosophical gesture, is no doubt, from a Kantian perspective, a forcing of the text, but it is entirely oriented towards the construction—on the basis of the uncoupling of historical continuity (the present) and the discontinuity of an event (the “revolution” as actuality)—of a reopening of history towards the future, on the edge of a “today” that is open to that which is not yet.

Discontinuity appears then both as a rupture and as an overcoming, an interruption and a process of constitution. It is, precisely, a test—and I insist on this word because it appears again in the February 16th lecture of 1983, before being reprised the following year in the study of the parrèsia of the Cynics.

This test is indeed at the heart of what Foucault defines, on the basis of his reading of Plato’s Letter VII, as “real” philosophy. I cite: “The reality, the test by which and through which philosophical veridiction will demonstrate its reality is the fact that it addresses itself, can address itself, and has the courage to address itself to whoever it is who exercises power” (p228). From Kant to Plato, and back, this test is not simply the refusal of a present state of affairs: it never implies that one can get out of history, that one can ignore the weight of determinations, nor that one can act as if we were not products of these determinations. This test is also, always, both a confrontation of what is (because one speaks to a power that informs—that is to say literally: that puts into form—the present), and a constitution, the production of the new. But this production of the new is rooted in a group of practices that appear as its liminal conditions of possibility: the relation to self, the work on the self by the self, the renewed elaboration of the self—in which “self” can never of course be reduced to an individualistic reading, but immediately determines the social forms of the relation to others. We can see at the end of the February 16th lecture, for example, that philosophy, no longer understood as logos but as ergon, is defined, insofar as it is a test, as an articulation of the problem of the government of self and the government of others.

Because time is short, I will be much quicker concerning the second excursus, that is to say the manuscript footnote of the January 5th lecture.

In this footnote Foucault deals with a methodological question that seems removed from the question of parrèsia and from the Kantian excursus: namely the recurrent criticism that he risks falling into relativism, “negativism with a nihilistic tendency”, “historicizing negativism”, nominalism and so on. But all of this makes sense if we say to ourselves—as Foucault and Paul Veyne were saying from the 1970s onwards—that the historicization of modes of thought (that is to say of regimes of veridicity, or of forms of relation to self) is relativist only if it implies “circulating” an object of thought (truth, madness, the self…) in history in order to understand how each period gave a different version of what that object was. In this sense, relativism means: the history of the different ways in which different periods thought the same object. Foucault’s gesture here (that Veyne will later theorize from a historiographical point of view) is, however, quite different. He wants to give an account not only of effects of variation but of effects of emergence. The possibility of there being discontinuity at the heart of the present—this figure of actuality that Foucault develops out of Kant—; or the possibility that philosophy might define itself, as ergon, on the basis of a figure of parrèsia whose political character, once again, is not only reaffirmed but reinforced as soon as it is placed within the practice of philosophy. All this is possible only because truth-telling, or if you like, critique, is a a double gesture: a “stripping” of what exists and the inauguration of something else.

At the end of the March 9th lecture, Foucault says: “It is not for philosophy to say what should be done in politics. It has to exist in a permanent and restive exteriority with regard to politics” (p354). It would be a mistake, I think, to infer from this that parrèsia, as philosophical parrèsia, must, once it has forsaken politics, be a-political or “impolitical.” Philosophy escapes the “impolitical” just as it escapes relativism, because it constitutes a sort of inauguratory transformation, and that it makes possible new emergences (this theme of the “other life” which is already well developed in 1983, will return at the end of the 1984 lectures). It is “Philosophy as constitution of the subject by itself” that is to say as a (political and ethical) experimentation of new forms of the relation to the self. From a methodological point of view, the new is that which allows Foucault’s historical analysis to escape relativism. From a philosophical point of view, the new is that which allows parrèsia, as a political gesture paradoxically situated in this outside of politics which is philosophy, to be both critical and constituting—which seems to me to be exactly that to which the idea of a “manifestation of truth” corresponds.

One last point, to finish and to conclude. It is clear that the lectures of 1983 are not the lectures of 1984. Within the lectures of 1983, the analysis of political parrèsia and the dimension of logos are still hugely important. The latter is particularly significant in Foucault’s frequent analyses of the seductions of rhetoric, with respect to which parrèsia as truth-telling is both the antithesis and the antidote. Finally, it is true that the theme of the practice of truth and the theme of the philosophical life, at which Foucault arrives in these lectures, are hardly developed on the side of Antiquity, whereas the theme of historical discontinuity and that of actuality as emergence are far more developed on the side of Kantian modernity. We are at a pivotal moment in Foucault’s thought, a thought which no doubt still needs time to develop.

And yet everything is already there: philosophy emancipated from logos becomes a way of life; the critique of illusion becomes a principle of transformation and of constitution; the site of politics is displaced from advice to the Prince or “technical” skill, to a certain practice of truth—not only a truth-telling (dire-vrai) but a truth-acting (agir-vrai) and a truth-living (vivre-vrai).

And at the crossroads of it all we find that which was already announced as central in Foucault’s initial commentary on Kant on January 5th—I quote: “[…] what is really at issue is always this question of the subject, of the political subject. What concerns philosophy is not politics, it is not even justice and injustice in the city, but justice and injustice inasmuch as they are committed by someone who is an acting subject; acting as a citizen, or as a subject, or possibly as a sovereign. Philosophy’s question is not the question of politics; it is the question of the subject in politics” (March 2nd, p319).