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Le Courage de la Vérité: summaries March 5, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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So I decided to do what Anthony says and write down some lecture summaries of the latest Foucault course, Le Courage de la Vérité: Le gouvernement de soi et des autres II. It’s a curious little book, and as I mentioned before, eagerly awaited by a number of us, not least because the status of the “ethical Foucault” may depend on its interpretation. We shall see. (nb all the below translations are mine)

First note then: the blurb includes a quotation of one of the things Foucault never said (the courses occasionally include bits from his notes that he didn’t get time to say), and it seems interesting. They were going to be his last words on the course:

There is no institution of truth without an essential position of alterity. Truth is never the same. There can only be truth in the form of the other world and the other life.

This seems promising, not least for my project of understanding the flight to the desert (and its crazy return to the city). But the course starts a lot more prosaically, and for once without Kant.

The lecture of the 1st of February (he began late due to sickness) was available in mp3 form for a while on the net and so some of you might know it (the book divided it into two chapters, as they take a five minute break in the middle). It basically sums up the bare bones of the concept of parrhesia: it’s all about risk, about saying your mind, about telling the truth. He’s obviously fighting shy of Christianity: that’s clearly where he’s gonna end up, but the forms it took in antiquity were different for being non-institutional (p.8) even though fearless speech as a practice logically implies the ability to recognise the fearless speaker, the parrhesiast. Ultimately, he admits that he’s writing the prehistory of confession and ultimately psychiatry and psycho-analysis (he’s rarely this clear about it, actually).

The bit that Agamben remembers is actually important for the framework of the course as a whole. He wants to contrast the parrhesiast from the prophet, sage, and teacher. Schematically (as always for Foucault!) the distinctions go as follows:

  • The parrhesiast risks the relation to the hearer by being obliged to say what he himself believes to be true.
  • The prophet mediates another’s (God’s) relation to the hearer by being commanded to say what another (God) tells him is true.
  • The sage freely speaks for himself regardless of the hearer the truth which he himself believes to be true.
  • The technician-teacher indwells the teacher-student relation by transmitting received truths which he himself believes to be true.

In his own words:

The parrhesiast is not a prophet that speaks the truth whilst unveiling, in the name of another and enigmatically, destiny. The parrhesiast is not a sage that, in the name of wisdom, speaks, when he wants to and against the background of his profound silence, being and nature (phusis). The parrhesiast is not the professor, the teacher, the man of a know-how who speaks, in the name of a tradition, a technê. He does not speak either destiny, nor being, nor technê. (p25)

There are some really interesting things here: firstly, he talks about logical necessity, and that’s not like him or his historical method. Secondly, he explicitly relates this stuff to the Middle Ages, and there the Franciscans and Dominicans combine the prophet with the parrhesiast, whilst the universities combine the sage with the teacher.

Whilst Foucault kind of wants to use this scheme to do all sorts (he considers laying it over our current age), it’s difficult to see how this might work when he has so clearly distinguished them all. He is clear, however, about one thing: these are not philosophical vocations – you aren’t meant to find one person who does each of these (although Heraclitus is his example of a sage). They are meant to be “modes of veridiction” (or truth-telling). And that’s what he takes further.


1. Foucault Reading Notes « An und für sich - March 5, 2009

[…] March 5, 2009 Newly Doctored Dr. Andy Thomas is posting his reading notes of Foucault’s newly published last lectures. Apparently this is Foucault’s most intentional interaction with theology and religious […]

2. Notes on Foucault’s last lectures « Foucault blog - March 11, 2009

[…] first one is here and from there you can access the others. He has included a number of translations, since this has […]

3. cynthia r. nielsen - November 20, 2010

Nice blog. I’m adding you to my blogroll.

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