Foucault’s last lecture courses at the Collège de France – recently published as The Government of Self and Others [GS] and The Courage of Truth [CT] – are interesting for a number of reasons. One is of course they offer one of the best glimpses we have of where his thought was going at the very end of his life; he died only months after delivering the last seminar in CT, and there is every reason to believe that he both knew that he was dying, and why. There’s a lot to think about in them, at least some of which I hope to talk about here over a periodic series of posts. Here I want to say something introductory about the material, and look at Foucault’s critique of Derrida in it.
The lectures contain a sustained investigation of parrhesia, the ancient Greek ethical practice of truth-telling. “Truth to power” is the closest modern term we have for such a practice, though you don’t have to get very far into the lectures to realize how richly nuanced the topic is, and how many different ways it manifest itself in (largely pre-Socratic) Greek thought and literature. The lectures also contain a number of references to contemporary events and people (from the beginning: GS starts with Kant, before going back to the Greeks), and it’s hard to put CT down without a sense that, had there been another year of lectures, Foucault would have been more explicit in assessing the implications of the study of Greek parrhesia today.
As it is, he left tantalizing clues. For example, at the end of CT, he connects the 4th Century Christian appropriation of parrhesiastic thought to “two major cores of Christian experience” (CT 336), one of which took the practice on the affirmative model of mysticism, and the other of which (although unnamed, Augustine is clearly the referent here) denounced it as a form of arrogance. Thus, “in its positive value, parrhesia appears as a sort of hinge virtue, which characterizes both the attitude of the Christian, of the good Christian, towards men, and his way of being with regard to God. With regard to men, parrhesia will be the courage to assert the truth one knows and to which one wishes to bear witness regardless of every danger.” (CT 331). Thus, “the martyr is the parrhesiast par excellence” (CT 332). Negatively: “this theme of parrhesia-confidence will be replaced by the principle of a trembling obedience, in which the Christian will have to fear God and recognize the necessity of submitting to His will, and to the will of those who represent Him” (CT 333). He adds:
“It seems to me that the long and difficult persistence of mysticism, of mystical experience in Christianity, is nothing other than the survival of the parrhesiastic pole of confidence in God, which, not without difficulty, has subsisted in the margins against the great enterprise of anti-parrhesiastic suspicion that man is called upon to manifest and practice with regard to himself and others, through obedience to God, and in fear and trembling before this same God” (CT 337).
It’s a moment not unlike Deleuze’s announcement of “the secret link between Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, and Nietzsche: their critique of negativity, their cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the externality of forces and relations, the denunciation of power” (Negotiations, 6).
What I do want to note here, briefly, is that in GS, Foucault takes a moment to take a parting shot at Derrida. GS has a significant discussion of Plato’s Republic and 7th Letter, which Foucault embedded in a Greek concern that philosophy not end up being “mere logos,” but that it actually be active in the world:
“The refusal of writing here, throughout this text from Letter VII, is not at all presented in terms of an opposition between writing and the meaning and valorization of logos. On the contrary, what this letter takes up is precsiely the theme of the insufficiency of logos …. It is all of this, writing and logos together, which is well and truly rejected in this letter. Writing is not rejected because it is opposed to logos …. What we chould decipher in this refusal of writing is not at all the advent of a logocentrism, but the advent of something else entirely. It is the advent of philosophy, of a philosophy whose very reality would be the practice of self on self. It is in fact something like the Western subject which is at stake in this simultaneous and conjoint refusal of writing and of logos” (GS 254).
Of course Foucault had already been involved in a fairly testy exchange with Derrida over the meaning of a very strange reference-to-but-dismissal-of insanity in Descartes’ First Meditation, but as far as I know this is the only time he says much about the Derridean thesis about Plato’s putative prioritization of speech in the Phaedrus. To recall: the alleged Platonic problem with writing is that the author isn’t present, and so you can’t have a dialogue – books just keep saying the same thing, no matter what question you put to them. But, to set up the argument, Plato has to resort to terms derived from writing. So the Derridean line, following Heidegger in a way, emphasizes that a metaphysics of presence comes to be foundational to Western thought even as the foundational gestures for such a metaphysics don’t perform the grounding they attempt.
The nature of Foucault’s critique – which amounts to saying that Derrida manages to completely miss the political implications and framing of the Platonic discourse – sounds like the sort of thing Foucault would say, and it certainly aligns with his critique of Barthes’ thesis about the death of the author (to which Foucault’s response is that the political function of authorship is as important as ever, even if “author” is fictitious). I think that in CT there are also traces of an engagement with Heidegger’s later work that would bear further study, but the claim that deconstruction, in destabilizing textual and conceptual binaries, misses a political endeavor of philosophy to constitute itself as ergon – activity in the world – is as good an example of the difference between Foucauldian and Derridean approaches to philosophy that I’ve seen. There’s a lot more to say about Foucault’s reading of Plato here, and its relation to the “work” of philosophy, which I’ll talk about next time