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  • Against TeleologismNotes on Reason, Madness, and Sovereignty from Socrates to the Foucault/Derrida Debate
  • Michael Swacha (bio)

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What if we were to begin without a footing on firm ground, if we were to start somewhat disoriented, in this case amidst two seemingly unrelated remarks? What might unravel before us?

While in prison awaiting execution, Socrates receives a visit from his wealthy friend Crito who tries to convince him that he must accept the political influence of his friends and escape into exile. Responding to Crito's plea, Socrates stages a dialogue with the laws of Athens, "proceed[ing] by question and answer," as, the laws point out, Socrates is "accustomed," so that they might together investigate whether or not it would be just to flee Athens.1 After the laws explain that Socrates was raised and nurtured under their care, and that he has continued to live under their protection and supervision when he had every opportunity to leave, they conclude, saying, "as it is, you depart, if you depart, after being wronged not by us, the laws, but by men," the men who unjustly convicted him at trial.2 Now if we move forward some years, we find that Michel Foucault writes in his History of Madness, near the end of a well-known section on the confinement of the mad, that "while man can still go mad, thought, as the sovereign exercise carried out by a subject seeking the truth, can no longer be devoid of reason."3 Why bring these two seemingly unrelated passages together? The laws make the case to Socrates that it would be unjust to flee Athens, while Foucault draws a distinction between thought and man about the inherent possibility of madness in each. Yet there is a sense—an intuition we hold but without certainty, we might say—that these passages are somehow working toward the same idea.

Indeed, we might posit that this initial impression has formed because we perceive between the two passages a similarity in structure. Presented in the order above, the clauses of each passage are the inverse of the other, forming a chiasmus: the laws are not responsible for Socrates's execution, men are; "man" can go mad, thought cannot. As contingent beings of materiality, of substance and extension, responsible for the act of execution and yet inherently fallible, we are caught between two abstract concepts that as such are necessarily free of error. Law and thought, the caretakers of truth (alētheia), seem to contain or confine us within their domains, placing us subservient to their will, constituting the ideal within which we can only ever imperfectly participate. Our relationship to the concept or idea (eidos)4 appears to be one of lack and desire, perhaps a result of our corporeality. But wrongness and madness, both proper to our domain, as forms of existing in or acting on error, are points residing beyond the concept; they do not adhere to it, but rather fall short or fall outside of it.5 It is as if when Plato, through Socrates and the laws, and Foucault each affirm the supremacy of the concept in their respective enunciations, they mark its boundary—what is included and what is excluded—and in doing so they also reveal our ability to maneuver across such boundaries, to participate at times within the confines of the concept, and at others beyond its reach. Suddenly, it seems that the roles are reversed: as material beings we are fallible yet nomadic, while the seemingly ideal concept is constrained.6

In bringing these two passages together, in conjoining the words of Socrates, through Plato, with Foucault, we have brought into being, from beyond the borders of the logic [End Page 67] according to which each respective text was produced, the revelation of an idea: the chiastic yet reciprocal entanglement of the concept (eidos) and the thing (res).7 And this is doubly so, for not only did the truth of the idea become unveiled—namely, the relationship between the concept and the thing—but at a different register two enunciations without relation became ordered in such a way as to constitute a new...