- Putting Bullshit on Trial:The Closing Chapter of Michel Foucault's Voyage to Antiquity
In book I of Plato's Republic, Socrates pesters the power-hungry Thrasymachus with endless questions about justice. Fairly quickly, the sophist gets annoyed by Socrates' desire to determine whether he, Thrasymachus, genuinely believes that justice entails domination or whether this view is empty rhetoric. Thrasymachus is convinced that the question of a speaker's honesty is insignificant: "What difference does it make to you, whether I believe [this] or not? It's my account you're supposed to be refuting" (349a). For a sophist, it is possible to make political or philosophical claims which have no necessary connection with one's convictions. For a sophist, it is possible to have a radical disconnect between one's logos (words, thoughts) and one's ergon (deeds, action). To put it most bluntly, one could say that for a sophist, bullshit is simply part of life; it is a perfectly acceptable weapon in the battle that is disputation. Michel Foucault's last two courses at the Collège de France on parrēsia (frank speech) could partially be read as a response to Thrasymachus—a response to all "efficacious liars who restrain others".1 Indeed, these lectures are an extended and passionate critique of bullshit—whether it is the deceptive talk served by rhetoricians and demagogues, the claptrap of sham philosophers who refuse to test their metaphysics and truths against the reality of politics, or the easy self-deception that we so often prefer to the unpleasant search for self-knowledge (out of cowardice or out of sheer laziness). For Foucault, good philosophy is that which wages a constant and critical battle against "deception, deceit, [and] flattery".2 His lectures are far more than an attack on rhetoric, lies and self-delusion: they also put forward an inspiring ethics of truthfulness—one where courage is hailed as the most indispensable virtue and Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope are presented as the greatest exemplars.
Michel Foucault died on June 25th, 1984. Le Gouvernement de soi and Le courage de la vérité were the last series of lectures he offered at the Collège de France. The specter of death haunts these volumes: Foucault apologizes for his poor health repeatedly, he discusses extensively Socrates' attitude towards death, and his last words—"Listen, I had [more] things to say… but it is too late"3—are bound to move even the most unsympathetic reader. Naturally, some will see in these two volumes something akin to Foucault's own apologia—an apology for his life's work and for his conception of philosophy. These readers would not be entirely wrong. In this lengthy "Greco-Latin voyage"4 (a highly personal and therapeutic trip), we see Foucault trying to address, once more, the charge that his turn to ethics and to the care of the self constitutes a turn away from politics—a turn away from activism or from a politics of resistance. As he is at pains to demonstrate at the beginning of the two volumes, the genealogy of parrēsia allows him to bring ever so closely together the three main axes of his research: modes of "veridiction" (truth), techniques of governmentality (power), and practices of the self (ethics).5 Some readers may remain skeptical of the claim that there is significant political potential nested within this parresiastic ethics (especially those who have been enthralled by Foucault's work on biopolitics), but all...