Commentaries

On Michel Foucault: The Courage of Truth


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The Courage of Truth” was a series of public lectures given by Michel Foucault between 1983-1984 at the prestigious Collège de France. This series is one of Foucault’s most famous lectures where he addressed what it means to speak the truth and care for others as one should care for oneself. I highly recommend this book to people who seeks for an introduction to philosophy. It is very easy to read and also quite significant in the sense that these were Foucault’s last lectures before he died shortly after. In this commentary, I will go through some of his basic ideas from these lectures which would cover various topics from philosophy, homelessness, death, animality, way of life all the way to democracy.

Parrhesia

Parrhesia means “truth-telling”. It is a word used in ancient Greece. A parrahesiast is not a professional. They speak the truth regardless of their own institutions, politics, and laws. A parrhesiast may speak the truth even if they do not like their own answer because it does not serve their own self interest. For Foucault, a parrhesiast practices the logos (reason, logic, knowledge).

Further, parrhiasist speaks in a straight forward manner with nothing held back. They challenge one to question about their life. This questioning is the foundation of cynicism (a way of life) and philosophy—a form of caring for others (will get to these). A parrhesiast is not part of any institutions. If you look back to some of the most influential people, the ones who did not belong anywhere in society (ie. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Freud, Derrida, Deleuze, Sartre, de Beauvoir) or the ones where everyone initially thought were crazy (Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus), are the ones who became the most influential.

In order for one to practice parrhesia, there must always be a risk. One must attach their name towards the truth that they are speaking. Would you tell the truth even when you know your friend will end up hating you? You can always ask for permission to speak freely in order to not offend, but doing so would eliminate parrhesia altogether because it seeks to neutralize the risk and speak in a manner that would oppose to not holding anything back. Thus, in order for one to speak the truth, the speaker must have the courage of truth. Unfortunately, for Foucault, parrhesia has long been lost in contemporary society.

Parrhesia is different to what Foucault calls the “sage”, “prophet”, “rhetorician”, and “technician”. The sage is the wise one who doesn’t speak unless there is a need to speak, whereas a parrhesiast will speak the truth anytime they are given the opportunity. The rhetorician is the one who speaks in unclear and obscure ways. The prophet is similar to the rhetorician who speaks with myths or in non-clarity, but a truth nonetheless—whereas a parrhesiast will always speak clearly. The technician is similar to the professor or teacher who speaks without any risks. The technician utilizes techne (a skill), and Foucault thinks that anyone who is a skillful speaker will cause one to forget themselves.

The Crisis of Democratic Parrhesia

Democracy was invented in Ancient Greece. In Foucault’s lectures, he uses many ancient dialogues from Aristotle and Plato to address the issues and paradoxes with democracy. I will not be able to cover any of them because they are long and a bit more complex.

There are two general reasons why democratic parrhesia is problematic:

1. Democratic parrhesia is problematic because everyone is free to speak and express their views where much of these views may contain self interests and are not of greater objective good. Parrhesia in democracy is not used as a duty, but as a freedom for anyone to say what they like. Since everyone is free to speak, we do not know who is the parrhesiast and who isn’t. Another words, we don’t know what is the good and bad discourse. We cannot tell the difference between who is drunk and do not know what they are talking about (and if they speak, they are speaking with underlying personal intentions and interests which may lead to tyranny), versus the one who knows what they are speaking about (that of reason, someone who cares for the greater good of others and for the “city”). There is no ethical differentiation in democracy.

2. In democracy, when one freely speaks to another, one will attempt to seduce others so that they would believe their truth. They would try to flatter, praise and please people with their words (a form of skillful speaking / manipulation) and therefore avoid parrhesia altogether. Whereas someone who actually practices parrhesia are often seen as crazy because they are speaking a truth that would almost always anger others. The parrhesiast would provoke a negative reaction and sometimes extreme punishment such as death.

Here, we see that democracy is no place for parrhesia. When democracy makes room for parrhesia, it becomes a freedom where one would no longer know who is speaking the truth. Or, parrhesia is used courageously in which the institution of democracy has no place for (38). The real parrhesist would be seen as a crazy person who gets exiled from the city because they are often seen as misfits.

The Emergence of Philosophy and the Execution of Socrates

“Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon went to ask the god of Delphi: What Greek is wiser than Socrates? And you know that the god’s answer to this question, put not by Socrates but by one of his friends, was: No one is wiser than Socrates.” (81).

Although the idea of philosophy existed before Socrates (known as the “pre-socratics”), Socrates is recognized as the first philosopher who founded Western Philosophy. For Foucault, Socrates was the first parrhesiast who died from parrhesia. Socrates was executed by democracy because he spoke the truth. He was the one “who knows nothing”. And in saying that he knows nothing, makes Socrates the ultimate parrhesiast. What Socrates sought for was not to interpret or claim truth, but to question whether or not people were speaking the truth. He constantly examined people by spending much of his life wandering around the market place arguing with ordinary people. Furthermore, Socrates lived a very specific way of life (“bios”; Foucault is trying to draw attention to the fact that philosophy is not just about knowledge, but is related to aesthetics in the way one lives), a cynical life of challenging other people’s opinions, which reflected his “I know nothing” attitude. It is a life which tries to show others  that they actually know nothing—they must learn to care for themselves by always trying to seek for truth.

“Where the teacher will say: I know listen to me, Socrates will say: I know nothing, and I care for you, this is not so as to pass on to you the knowledge you lack, it is so that through understanding that you know nothing you will learn to take care of yourselves.” (89)

Socrates refused to speak to politicians because he knew that if he did, he would have to face death. But Socrates was not afraid of death, as he thinks that no one should ever be afraid of such matter. Rather, Socrates knew that if he died, he would not be able to maintain his duty of parrhesia to care for the city and its citizens. Eventually, Socrates confronts his own death by speaking the truth, leading to one of the world’s most famous quote: “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

For Foucault, what Socrates saw was how parrhesia was impossible in democracy—especially in politics. Thus, Socrates tried to create a new form of “exchange”, a game to proliferate the practice of authentic parrhesia so to care for others on living an authentic life. This new exchange is called philosophy.

The Cynical Life

Cynicism is a way of life that consists of parrhesia. It is the scandal of truth. The cynic is someone who refuses politics. They will try and strip people’s opinions to reveal the truth by testing it (171). The paradox of cynicism is that to critique cynicism is in itself a form of cynicism. Like parrhesia, cynicism is not a skill, it does not need to be taught. Everyone is born a philosopher who is capable of leading a cynical life. Yet, cynicism came to a halt when it became a teaching (a skill).

For Foucault, cynicism can be seen in different forms. Art and literature has been a form of cynicism because art can expose itself naked by “laying bare to the world” (187).
Whereas the extreme form of cynicism is terrorismA “frenzied courage of truth” (185). A terrorist takes risks in speaking the truth to the point of death.

The cynic carries a form of animality and nakedness. A cynic is like a “dog’s life”. They are people who are shameless, has nothing to hide, and are not attached to anything. Therefore, the cynic would do things that only animals would do and humans would hide. The cynic is like an animal who lives in a reversal of a straight life – the “Other” life. It is a life that is radically other than the life that is lead by most people.

Nothing is “bad” in cynicism because what is “bad” is the habits of human (ie. their opinions and structures) and not of animals. Foucault uses a scandalous example of Diogenes who masturbated in public, and Crates who had sex in public (they are similar to animals who has no shame in such acts because it is considered natural). Further, a cynic has no “needs” because what is “needed” is already offered and satisfied by nature.

Humans had always distinguished themselves from animals (265) (due to our ability for rational thought and speech). The cynics are the ones who are not integrated into society and institutions (170). This animal / cynical life characterized by parrhesia is therefore a duty that is given by nature. They are like “kings without institutions” (296), who endures sufferings and tests oneself by examining everything. A good example was when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused teaching at Collège de France. Sartre also infamously refused the Nobel prize of Literature and the Legion of Honour because he did not want to be “institutionalized” (you can read it here).

Ultimately, the cynic is like a homeless beggar. It is not by accident that many of our greatest religions and philosophies were founded through poverty and not wealth (ie. Buddhist philosophy). It is because the cynic has nothing that it would allow them for the practice of parrhesia. The cynic adapts their stance against wealth: that one must always live in the minimum so that one would not suffer if they were to lose everything (258). This visible, aesthetics side of poverty becomes a courage, resistance and endurance (this is most likely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas on voluntary poverty).

The Courage of Truth

To summarize, there are three forms of courage of truth that is conducted through parrhesia:

1. Political Boldness: to speak the truth and to say other than what the other would want to hear or expect. It involves the speaker putting themselves at risk and attaching their name to what they say.

2. Socratic Irony: to get people to realize that they know nothing and don’t really know what they are saying or think they know. Often risks anger and irritation; yet it is a way of caring for others (233).

3. Cynicism (not to be confused with skepticism): to get people to question and reject the manifestation of the what they accept and value in their life. After all, to be cynical is to put human motivation and desires into questioning. One would therefore not only risk angering others, but the way one lives (such as the homeless beggar), making them the ultimate practitioner of the “scandal of truth”.

What one think or believe is true is most likely true only in the sense that there are other truths. And what appears as truth also takes places in our aesthetically such as our way of life. Foucault’s thoughts can be concluded with this passage:

“What I would like to stress in conclusion is this: there is no establishment of the truth without an essential position of otherness; the truth is never the same; there can be truth only in the form of the other world and the other life” (356)

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Commentaries

On Martin Heidegger: Metaphysics and Nothing

What is Metaphysics?” by Martin Heidegger, introduces the ideas of sciencemetaphysics and nothing (sometimes translated as “no-thing”).

Heidegger is one of the most influential thinkers in the past 100 years whose works are still being studied today (those who practices his thoughts are called “Heideggerians”). Heidegger has influenced Jean-Paul Sartre’s work titled “Being and Nothingness”, and Jacques Derrida who has inherited much of Heidegger’s ideas into deconstruction (Derrida is also arguably the most important thinker of mid-20th century to present day). Therefore, understanding Heidegger will help you understand Derrida and Sartre.

Due to Heidegger’s intellectual fame at the time in Germany, he had a relationship with the Nazi. Though it is generally agreed that he was anti-Semitic, the debates on whether or not he was still goes on today. In his later life, Heidegger agreed to do an interview with Spiegel magazine in the condition that it would only be published after his death. In the interview, he spoke about his life as a professor in Germany, refusing to put up “Jewish posters”. This can be read here. I will let you be the judge.

Nonetheless, during the early 20th Century, metaphysics as a topic of studies (which began all the way back from pre-Socratic, 6th century BC), was provocatively challenged by Heidegger between two common themes, being and nothing. He famously suggested the most fundamental question of all beings:

“Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?”


Being, being, and Dasein

These three terms are different and are very important to understand. Being (uppercase “B”) refers to ultimate Being, it is the nothing; as Heidegger puts it, Being is “the Being of being”. Pure Being and pure nothing are the same thing because they are both indeterminate / uncertain. On the other hand, being (lowercase “b”) refers to how one is always already being via the revelations of science, truths, logic, etc. This will make more sense as you read along.

Dasein, or Da-sein means “being-there”. We are not just humans who are capable of random and complex metaphysical thinking out of nowhere. We’re always thrown somewhere into the world—within a certain space and time. One is “being-there” in relation to one-self (being) and the world. Since Being is the”Being of being”, one can therefore say that, Dasein is the “being held out in nothingness (Being)” in relation to being (one-self) in the world.

Metaphysics and Science 

Despite of the title of the essay, Heidegger doesn’t really explain “what is metaphysics?”, but rather, he explains “why metaphysics?”. Metaphysics is after physics. It is the study of what lies beyond what one can perceive within our physical world. Examples of this would be the study of being, existence, spirit, consciousness, “world”, and forms. Metaphysics began as questions of the very first principle of philosophy: “What is…?”, “What is there?”,  “What is the sense of this?” or “What is being (existence)?” 

Thus, metaphysics allows for natural sciences to occur—of asking “What is…?”. Our very own existence (being), grants for a science to determine and ground itself. Metaphysics is the occurance of Dasein—of “being-there”. Without our own existence and Dasein, there would be no sciences of any form. Science “irrupts into being”. It helps “transpires being” and has “the first and the last word”.

Now, if being allows for one to provide questions in the development of sciences, then such metaphysical question of “What is…?” is a form of metaphysics within its own question. Every question consists of the questioner who places themselves (their existence) in the question, which therefore involves metaphysics (if they didn’t place their existence into the question, they would not be asking such question in the first place). Another words, science cannot escape metaphysics and Dasein altogether. One always has to be thrown somewhere into the world (being-there) in order to “relate” to it.

Ultimately, science consists of intelligence, negation, representation, deduction, reasoning and logic. Therefore, it will inevitably try to avoid contradictions. Heidegger is basically here to tell us that there are limits to such rational thinking.

But why have we always focused on being (especially being in revelations of science)? What about nothing?

“…what is remarkable is that, precisely in the way scientific man secures to himself what is most properly his, he speaks of something different. What should be examined are beings only, and besides that — nothing; beings alone, and further — nothing; solely beings, and beyond that — nothing.”

For Heidegger, by giving up and avoiding nothing, one “concedes nothing”. He writes: “Ultimately this is the scientifically rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it”. Science rejects nothing because it consists of the concept of nothing and therefore, it cannot be studied. Simply put, we admit that there is such thing as nothing by rejecting it via the concept of nothing (that it is nothing). But what is nothing?

Negation and God

Nothing is not “what is…?”. By doing so would place nothing as something (that nothing is, such and such). Thinking is an intellectual phenomenon. One cannot think of nothing because the representation is something of nothing. Neither can one negate something to find the nothing. This will only grant an imaginary nothing, therefore not nothing.

Negation is intellectual. One can only negate when there is something to negate / deny. Therefore, it is because there is something that there is negation. As Heidegger says, something and thinking in general, is always already caught in the “not”. This “not” from “something” does not originate in negation, but from the nihilation of nothing. Nothing is therefore, the origin of negation and something.

This can be witnessed as an example when Heidegger talks about God where he, “from nothing comes—created being”. If God created beings out of nothing, then he must be able to relate himself to nothing. However, Heidegger states, “But if God is God he cannot know the nothing”. Why? Because God is something—that “God is God”. God consists of the concept of God (the representation, imaginary, ration, etc. of God). Hence, nothing is the “counterconcept of being proper”.

Nothing cannot be thought about. It has no representation. Therefore, nothing is not a concept (human rationality, intellect, reasoning, logic, imagination, etc). The more we are doing / thinking of something, the further away we are from nothing. If nothing is not thinking or thought, then how do we get to nothing?

Transcendence: Anxiety and Boredom

For Heidegger, there are more to humans than simply rational thought. There are things that rational thinking cannot empirically explain such as moods (not to be confused with emotions). Nothing can be achieved through three moods.

The first is the notion of joy where Being and nothing is concealed within it. Heidegger doesn’t spend much time explaining joy in the essay probably because it isn’t the most important mood. The second is that of boredom. It is not being bored of something, but bored of                . It is boredom as an idleness, drifting, and ennui which reveals Being and grants beings as such. That, one is bored for no apparent reason. Boredom should not be confused with the idea of one’s substitution of boredom. For example, “I am bored for no reason, therefore I will do something”; or “I am bored of something”. Perhaps one can find a relation between Heidegger’s boredom in Soren Kierkegaard’s words:

“Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” – Soren Kierkegaard [keep in mind Kierkegaard was an existential christian-theologist; he is the world’s first existentialist]

However, the most important fundamental mood that Heidegger wants us to become aware of is anxiety (sometimes translated to “dread” from German). Without a doubt, this idea was also inspired by Kierkegaard (from his famous work “Fear and Trembling”). Anxiety should not be confused with the fear of doing something (the fear of driving a car, watching a horror film, etc). Anxiety consists of a sense of calmness which reveals nothing. It is precisely that there is nothing to hold onto which allows ultimate Being—the nothing.

Anxiety, as Heidegger himself puts it “can be awakened in any moment”. From trivial things like getting stuck in a traffic jam, a “failure” of something in life, or the death of a family member. It is always there outside of all oppositions. Such anxiety of               , is a transcendence. Yet, like boredom, it is common that one substitutes anxiety for something. For example, “Today I have anxiety for no reason…ah, it must be because I forgot to eat breakfast”; or, “I have an anxiety for eating hamburgers” (this is not anxiety, but fear).

What Heidegger is suggesting is that we must learn to cope with this empty anxiety (and boredom). He thinks that nothingness and anxiety itself, is naturally and fundamentally human (if you are feeling anxiety, don’t immediately go to the drug store to buy anti-depressants). Heidegger doesn’t really explain why anxiety of nothing happens, but my take on it is because we are mortal. We die. Death is nothing (this is something I borrowed from Derrida, who probably borrowed from Heidegger).

Nothing is Being itself, and therefore it gives rise to being as such to all revelations of science. Nothing is “groundless ground”. Science is “inferior to nothing” and it is impossible without nothing. The metaphysical question of “What is…?” is therefore, awakened by nothing (anxiety, boredom)—within Being of beings.

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