Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 3

Foucault’s epistemological perspective is one of the more intriguing aspects of his oeuvre. Foucault never really examined his theory of knowledge in any consistent and thorough-going manner, but he offered many (sometimes cryptic) observations and remarks that have encouraged others to piece together his understanding of how we know and understand the world.

Paul Veyne rises to the challenge in Chapter 3 of his book, Foucault: His Thought, His Character *. The key point in this chapter is that Foucault is a sceptic. A sceptic is not a cynic. A sceptic admits to the possibility, however unlikely, of Absolute Truths and to palpable improvements in the human condition; a cynic, on the other hand, denies any truth at all except, possibly, for self-interest and corruption. A sceptic casts a wary eye to a world but remains engaged; a cynic immediately condemns and turns away.  Keeping this in mind, Veyne paints a picture of Foucault as a wary but engaged scholar/activist. Scepticism may doubt, but it doesn’t cripple.

Veyne also provides, with his usual clarity, a key distinction between simple and complex knowledge. Individual facts are not the issue; what matters to sceptics are those complex forms of knowledge, particularly with regard human existence, that organize multiple facts in a patterned way and purport to establish a larger meaning. These generalizations, whether we call them Truths, judgments, discourses, or theories, are immediately suspicious. To Veyne and Foucault, all complex “knowledges” are tied to a series of local,  arbitrary and shifting conditions that are rarely understood, and therefore lead to generalizations that are both misleading and dangerous.



On Scepticism:

Foucault, for whom the past constituted a cemetery of truths, for all that never reached the bitter conclusion that all is vanity; instead, he believed in the positive nature of becoming: what right has anyone to pass judgement on it?… Nothing is vain, the products of the human mind are nothing but positive, since they have existed; they are interesting and as remarkable as the products of Nature, the flowers and animals that show what the latter is capable of. (39)

Foucault was neither a nihilist nor a subjectivist, not a relativist, not a historicist. He was, as he himself acknowledged, a sceptic; which brings me to a striking quotation that says it all. Twenty-five days before his death, Foucault summed up his thought in a single word. An acute interviewer asked him, ‘Given that you recognize no universal truths, are you a sceptic?’ ‘Absolutely,’ Foucault replied. (40)

It is sometimes claimed that Foucault contradicts himself when he asserts that the truth is there is no truth; he is carried away by his scepticism and this leads to his doubting doubt itself. But that is not so, for his scepticism does not doubt everything as a matter of principle…. When a thinker casts doubt upon general ideas, he is not passing a universal judgement (for, if that were the case, he would be swept up in his own condemnation). Rather, his judgement is a numerically collective one: he does not know in advance, as a matter of principle, that there are no general truths, but he has made a critical balance-sheet of the shop of truths and has noticed that all the samples he has examined deserved criticism; this leads him to conclude that everything in the shop may be open to criticism. (45)

[Veyne uses a rather utilitarian approach to justify skepticism, but that seems unnecessary and cedes the ground to the objectivists. I think a more elegant solution is is to argue that all truth claims, including meta-claims about truth claims themselves, are contingent and provisional. Doubting doubt  is not self-cancelling; it is, indeed, entirely consistent. In this regard, one can look to Barbara Herrnstein Smith for guidance.]


Empirical Facts and Complex “Truths”

Let me hasten to reassure my readers: this scepticism does not affect the reality of historical facts, the facts that fill Foucault’s books; what it does affect are big questions such as ‘What is true democracy?’… To criticize generalizations is not to deny all truth and snipe at the honour of historians, as some have feared…. the truth of empirical facts is accessible to us… (41)

Leave little facts in peace, but make war on generalizations. As Foucault, this unexpected positivist, vouchsafes no more on this score, let me chance my arm. Of course, as Marc Bloch points out, historical facts do not exist ready made; they are constructions. But they are constructions built on ‘discourses’ that are neutral with regard to their truth. The tiny fact that, in some periods and some places, a haircut would be paid for with a dozen eggs rather than with money, in the twentieth century becomes an economic fact worthy of historical discourse…. Six million Jews murdered: that is a fact, and facts are stubborn, as Foucault retorted in an argument about the crimes of the Stalinist period. (46-47)

In the physical nature that the exact sciences examine, the objects of scientific ‘discourse’ display regularities, as we all know. However, in human affairs, there are and can only be transient singularities (pleasures, flesh, etc.) since, in its becoming, humanity lacks any foundation, vocation or dialectic to set it in order: every period presents nothing but a chaos of arbitrary singularities, the products of the chaotic concatenation of the preceding period. I think the above sentence sums up the principle upon which Foucauldism is based. That is why Foucault was able to tell his interviewers that, in the human domain, he could not assert any universal truths. There were only truths of details. (51)

[A] general idea, which planes above and presumes to subsume a number of singular realities that it then confuses together, is bound to be superficial and misleading. If one seeks out generalities in human affairs – concepts or an essence that is common to one of those ‘tangled pluralities of objects’ – one only ends up with ideas that are false, unclear (wide in extension but short on understanding), too vast, frequently noble but sometimes at once edifying yet pompous. (53)


Grasping the Pre-Discursive?

I therefore assume, rightly or wrongly**, that, according to Foucault, we always interpret things; we do that instantly…. A phenomenon that affects society and history according to how it is lived through, suffered, tolerated, praised or institutionalized has always been interpreted instantly, to become part of a whole set-up that is based on that interpretation. (49)

When we weigh up a ‘discourse’, we do have a sense of the reality of the dark nugget that it enfolds (and also perhaps of the power that is exercised upon us by the whole social, institutional, customary and theoretical etc. set-up in which the ‘discourse’ is immanent); but it is not possible for us to sift out the grain from the chaff, for the ‘discourse’ carves up that nugget that is its object and remodels it on itself. (50)

**[In the endnotes: There is one phrase of Foucault’s that makes me uneasy: ‘Such a history of the referent is no doubt possible; and I have no wish to exclude any effort to uncover and free these prediscursive experiences from the tyranny of the text’ (Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 47-8). Is not Foucault here striving not to seem too trenchant or dogmatic? It is hard to see how access to a prediscursive referent could be possible, or how a description could be neutral. (159)]

[This is not the only time that Foucault hinted at a prediscursive politics, though his exact meaning remains debatable. Near the end of his History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Foucault argues the following: “It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim—through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality—to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance.  The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures.” How precisely do we break from “the agency of sex” without a nondiscursive, “authentic sexuality”? Or, is this merely a call for the deployment of counter-discourses, complex resistances which may challenge orthodoxy, but which nevertheless develop their own fictions? If the latter, isn’t this a call for resistance without liberation? And isn’t this a mark of the “tragic” [see below], and of his latent conservatism that I talked about in my Chp. 2 analysis?]


Human Nature and the Impossibility of the True Subject

It is thus possible to predict that people will soon cease to fasten upon ‘human nature’ as the object of their study and ‘man, [as such,] will be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea’. That fatal sentence with which Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things) ends is well known, as is the clamour of frogs in the mud that greeted this conclusion, despite the fact that its context rendered it both comprehensible and innocuous… In that much maligned sentence, a fair-minded reader will detect not so much a blasphemy, but rather, forcefully incised with an elegant etcher’s needle, a metaphysical sense of the tragic aspect of life…. Foucault’s fatal phrase meant simply that it is possible to say what makes a man, but not possible to discover what is ‘a man’s being’, as Heidegger tries to (e.g., ‘What is man’s place in Everything and in time?’), or what he is internally, as Sartre does (e.g., ‘Is he a person of good faith or bad faith?’). (42-43)

‘… human beings have constantly been constructing themselves, that is to say they have continually been shifting their subjectivity, fitting themselves into an infinite and multiple series of different subjectivities that go on forever and will never bring us face to face with what man is.’

From then on, Foucault was to fill the place left empty by ‘man’, that hero of so many proverbs, by installing in his stead a process of constitution or, at other times, an act of self-stylization on the part of a free, if not all-powerful, human Subject. (44)

[I’ve always been leery of Foucault’s contention that he is able to “bracket” or avoid a conception of human nature. In the lines above, I think Veyne quite accurately describes Foucault’s view of subjectivity, and it certainly sounds like a conception of human nature. In my view, one cannot talk about the human condition and subjectivity without some sort of understanding of what it means to be human. It may be reflexively impossible to do so; it may be, quite frankly, a logical precondition. In Foucault’s case, self-construction and self-stylization are elements of a conception of human nature. His conception assumes a strong capacity for self-awareness (which may not always be realized) and existential plasticity. In Foucault, one can even sense a strain of Locke’s tabula rasa, since positivists like Foucault wish to eschew any acknowledgement of a pre-deterimined human nature. Unfortunately for Foucault, a “pre-deterimined human nature” is only one conception of this nature, and any argument about escaping its clutches sounds like a conceit.]



*Veyne, Paul. Foucault: His Thought, His Character. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010. Print.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply