By Gordon Hull
We’ve known for a while, thanks to work by scholars such as Stephen Menn, that Descartes was in many ways a deeply religious and conservative thinker, one who took great care to try to align his work with Church doctrine, and who engaged scholastic thought with a good deal more precision than his dismissive comments suggest. One need only compare his assertions about the epistemic veracity of “ideas” as opposed to linguistic expression, to see the point. Indeed, as Tad Schmalz documents in detail, Descartes and his followers’ problem – and why he ended up on the banned books list – wasn’t any of the things that you might initially think, like the cogito, but the inability of his followers to explain the Eucharist (this shows up as early as Arnauld’s replies; in a way, the failure was inevitable, since the official explanatory apparatus of the Eucharist, as a product of the 1300s, presupposed Aristotelian physics, which Descartes rejected). Foucault’s lectures On the Government of the Living deepen that picture and apply it to the world we live in today.
In his Descartes and Augustine, Menn makes the case that Descartes is fundamentally an Augustinian thinker in many ways. The cogito (Descartes never says “cogito ergo sum” in his own voice, by the way, so really we are talking about the res cogitans) appears to be lifted straight from Augustine. Via Menn, then, here is the Augustine. I apologize for the length, but if you’re not familiar with it, the passage is worth it (for the TLDNR crowd, I’ve boldfaced the parts that get the point across most succinctly:
“And we indeed recognize in ourselves the image of God, that is, of the supreme Trinity, an image which, though it be not equal to God, or rather, though it be very far removed from Him—being neither co-eternal, nor, to say all in a word, consubstantial with Him—is yet nearer to Him in nature than any other of His works, and is destined to be yet restored, that it may bear a still closer resemblance. For we both are, and know that we are, and delight in our being, and our knowledge of it. Moreover, in these three things no true-seeming illusion disturbs us; for we do not come into contact with these by some bodily sense, as we perceive the things outside of us—colors, e.g., by seeing, sounds by hearing, smells by smelling, tastes by tasting, hard and soft objects by touching—of all which sensible objects it is the images resembling them, but not themselves which we perceive in the mind and hold in the memory, and which excite us to desire the objects. But, without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this. In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? For it is certain that I am if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know. And when I love these two things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment. For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived; though even if these were false, it would still be true that I loved false things. For how could I justly be blamed and prohibited from loving false things, if it were false that I loved them? But, since they are true and real, who doubts that when they are loved, the love of them is itself true and real? Further, as there is no one who does not wish to be happy, so there is no one who does not wish to be. For how can he be happy, if he is nothing?” (City of God, XI.26).
So Descartes is an Augustinian, at least on this point. What I’d like to do here is point out that Foucault further situates Descartes in a traditional Catholic framework of confession. Recall that, in general, On the Government of the Living basically argues that modern, Western subjectivity developed with Christianity and out of its break with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that one of the key breaks was around the topic of confession. Beginning with 4th Century monasticism, Christianity developed a very precise theory of confession as an enumeration of specific faults and failures, a practice of alethurgy (producing the truth of the subject) that was alien to the forward-looking Greeks and Romans.
In the last lecture of GL, Foucault distinguishes between ancient and Christian concepts of discretio. For the ancients, the problem is straightforwardly one of passions. For Christians, on the other hand, the problem was “illusion, the lack of discrimination between the representation of good and the representation of evil between the representation or suggestion coming from God, that coming from Satan, and that coming from oneself” (GL 297). In other words, the focus is “on the subject himself, on the subject insofar as he is inhabited by another principle, by a foreign principle that is at the same time a source of illusions” (GL 297). We need, ultimately, God’s help in sorting this out through “the structure, the examination-confession apparatus” (GL 297). “It is not the question of the truth of what I think, but of the truth of I who things” (GL 303)
How did we arrive here? The theological innovation, for which Foucault cites Cassian, is the idea that the devil takes up residence in the subject’s body, and is of a nature such that it is indistinguishable from the soul. “The body is the sea of both of them. From the body the evil spirit sends the soul representations, suggestions, and ideas whose distinctive characteristic is that, first, they disguise the evil under kinds of good so that it is very difficult for the soul to recognize whether the suggestion is receives is good or bad, but above all the soul is unable to distinguish whether the suggestion comes from the individual himself, or from Satan, or from God” (GL 296). In sum:
“Through its copresence in the body, through its analogy and resemblance with the soul itself, the evil spirit’s mode of action is such that it produces in the soul the illusion or, at any rate, the non-distinction of good and evil, of Satan and God, or Satan and the subject himself” (GL 296).
I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to propose that the entire Cartesian Meditations are an attempt to grapple with this problem (in other words, he’s not dealing with a standard “mind-body” problem). At the very least, the proposal of the genie malin presents precisely this problem as a hypothesis to be overcome; how to we know that the things in our soul are from God? Foucault sees the link:
“We should never forget that Descartes’ malicious demon is not at all the bizarre and extreme invention of a radical attempt by philosophy to retake possession of itself. The malicious demon, the idea that there is something in me that can always deceive me and that has such power that I can never be sure it will not deceive me is the absolutely constant theme of Christian spirituality” (GL 303).
“To this possibility of being deceived, Descartes will oppose the fact that there is at least one certainty, which is that I must exist in order to be deceived. Christian spirituality will say: Since you may always be deceived about yourself, since there is always something in you that may deceive you, you must speak, you must confess” (GL 305).
All of which matters because, in this sense, we are all still Cartesians:
“This obligation to tell the truth about oneself has never ceased in Christian culture, and probably in Western societies. We are obliged to speak of ourselves in order to tell the truth of ourselves. In this obligation to speak about oneself you can see the eminent place taken by discourse. Putting oneself in discourse is, in actual fact, one of the major driving forces in the organization of subjectivity and truth relationships in the Christian West” (GL 311).
There are pre-Christian precedents, I think, as in the case of ethical parrhesia, as practiced by the cynics, as Foucault discusses the practice in his last lecture course, The Courage of Truth. The Cynic observes that philosophers say they reject social customs and conventions, but then don’t actually do so in their daily practices. The cynical response is to present their own entire lives for inspection in an effort to authenticate themselves; the object is to demonstrate a “simplicity which is truth of existence [and] ... no possibility of deceptions being produced by the disconnection, the discrepancy between what happens and discourse, phantoms, and signs” (CT 222). Foucault emphasizes that this “absolute visibility of the Cynic life” (CT 254) stands at the center of the entire cynic practice; the true life of the cynic is marked by its complete transparency: the cynic has nothing to hide.
For more modern variants, one need only think of Foucault’s various denunciations of psychoanalysis to see the point. For example, the central thesis of History of Sexuality I is not about the Freudian question of repression and why we don’t get enough sex, but the alethurgical question of why we are the society that feels so compelled to talk about sex and how much of it we’re getting, and then to fashion what we say about sex into a “sexuality” and a “sexual identity.” As Freudianism demonstrates, modern history has provided an intensification of these regimes of confession: the panopticon, by opening the inmate to permanent visibility, makes confession a bodily and involuntary act, and has inculcated in Western minds the idea that one must always be on display.
Finally, it is not too hard to see why Foucault would see neoliberalism as confessional (and thus reject it. For a more detailed argument, though one that does not take GL into account and which focuses on employee wellness programs, see here): we become known through a permanent data trail of Facebook likes, phone metadata, GPS tracking, Amazon purchases, etc. Confession becomes sufficiently intensified that we no longer have to do anything deliberately confessional at all: mere existence becomes confessional because whatever we do (or don’t do) reveals something about us as compared to others. This isn’t causal knowledge, of course, but it is often enough to justify action, particularly at the population level (this point is made very well in Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s Big Data).
It’s worth noting that this is baked into the system, in at least two ways. First, the epistemic advantage claimed for neoliberalism is that the price mechanism serves to adapt the market to individual revealed preferences (this is Hayek’s main claim). Second, of course for that system to work, individuals have to both have economically rational preferences and then reveal them. So we get, on the one hand, an intensification of state power at all levels (including directly coercive, especially towards the poor and racial minorities). On the other hand, the state intervenes quite extensively to deal with information asymmetries that might distort the market (or cause market failure more generally), and neoliberal theory systematically favors corporations over individuals in this regard. Sometimes, the disclosure is designed to look voluntary, even though it probably isn’t (and in any case, the user reveals vast amounts of data she didn’t consent to, while meanwhile learning that her data is something she should market). In other cases, there are mandatory disclosure laws. These are not just where house sellers are required to disclose defects. They are much more invasive, as when potential employers demand the Facebook passwords of potential new hires. There is an emerging patchwork of state legislation banning this practice, but of course there is no national law, and employees are generally unprotected. These more localized practices are then part of the larger operations of “big data,” starting with Facebook’s own research and extending into almost all walks of life. And all of that’s long before we get to the state’s own efforts.