Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Foucault’s Truth Relativism

This seems like a pretty clear statement of Foucault’s truth relativism to me:
“The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” (Foucault 1984: 72–73).
According to this, truth is “produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.”

Is there anyone who really believes this nonsense?

We can clearly get numerous straightforward, objective empirical truths as conveyed by synthetic a posteriori propositions in everyday life: e.g., “I am wearing a pair of socks now,” “I have two hands,” “there is no cat sitting on my kitchen table now” etc. Is the empirical fact that I am wearing socks now a truth made “by virtue of multiple forms of constraint”? If so, how? Can any supporter of Foucauldian truth relativism explain this?

As we have seen in the last post, what about historical truths like the Holocaust or Armenian genocide? Were these facts made “by virtue of multiple forms of constraint”? If so, how and why? Isn’t it obvious that the Foucauldian truth relativist would end up like some kind of lunatic Holocaust denier if he took Foucault’s ideas seriously?

This is why I laugh every time someone tells me that Michel Foucault was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century: if you really pursue the “truth is only made by power” mantra, you would quickly be driven to the most bizarre and, quite frankly, insane conspiracy theories, in your attempts to demonstrate how every truth is just made “by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.”

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Truth and Power,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (interview with Alessandro Fontana and Pasquale Pasquino). Pantheon, New York. 51–75.


  1. Postmodernist writing is like text from a holy book; it contains valuable lessons when taken metaphorically, but lunatics tend to take it literally, like a physics textbook. It's about thought on social dynamics and human perception, which are inherently volatile.

    Foucault's writings were about how people in positions of power use access to information to control and oppress those under them, not about how consensus magically defines reality.

    1. And yet Foucault tells us explicitly: "Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint."

      How do you explain this?

    2. What's puzzling? "In virtue of" means "subject to".

    3. But "produced only by virtue of" clearly means "created only due to..."; LK has a point that not all truth is created by and/or according to the dictates of institutions. If someone smacks me in the face and I feel pain, is the truth that in that moment "I feel the sensation of pain" the result of institutional constraints? No way--what institution arbitrates between my sensation of pain and whether it is true or false that I feel that sensation? And note that Foucalt said "ONLY by virtue of"--he is ruling out the possibility that truth can be produced by virtue of anything else BUT institutions.

  2. What's your opinion of Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France? I know that it has been useful for scholars of neoliberalism like Mirowski.

    1. I haven't read it fully yet, but will in due course.

    2. Just for clarification: I don't mean to suggest that Mirowski agrees with Foucault's analysis in its entirety. However, it is a work of his that I thought you may enjoy.