Thursday, November 3, 2016

Foucault’s View of Truth leads directly to Conspiracy Theories

Here is Foucault’s view on the nature of truth:
“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 e n able 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).

“‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements.

‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it. A ‘regime’ of truth.

This regime is not merely ideological or superstructural; it was a condition of the formation and development of capitalism. And it’s this same regime which, subject to certain modifications, operates in the socialist countries (I leave open here the question of China, about which I know little). The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticize the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people’s consciousnesses—or what’s in their heads—but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth.

It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power), but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.” (Foucault 1984: 74–75).
Oh, really?

Is the assertion that the earth has oceans also “produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint”?

And, if I assert the truth that I (namely, a particular individual person on a particular time and date) am wearing socks on my feet right now, or that I had Subway for dinner last night, are these empirical truths “produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint”?

If so, how exactly does our power system brainwash me into thinking that I am wearing socks right now?

By contrast, isn’t it obvious that we believe these assertions because we have massive empirical evidence and direct personal experience demonstrating that they are true?

I don’t think people on the left realise how stupid Foucault’s theories were. In order to believe his nonsensical theories about truth, you’d have to invent multiple conspiracy theories to explain how power systems have supposedly produced thousands upon thousands of every day and prosaic empirical truths we obviously believe are true.

We can see the kind of insanity to which Foucault’s truth relativism leads in an actual conversation between Paul Veyne and Foucault in the last year of Foucault’s life, when the latter had AIDS and was displaying the symptoms of this disease.

Paul Veyne tells the story, as it happened in 1984:
“‘By the way,’ I [viz., Paul Veyne] asked him out of simple curiosity (for the history of medicine is not my dominant passion), ‘does AIDS really exist, or is it a moralizing medical myth?’ ‘Well,’ he [viz., Foucault] replied calmly and after a moment’s reflection, ‘listen. I’ve studied the question closely, I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. Yes, it exists, it’s not a myth. The Americans have studied it very carefully’;” (Veyne 1993: 8).
So here Foucault declared to his friend that AIDS existed and was not a myth. That entails that he thought it was a real disease, not some culturally-constructed “truth” made by medical power. And that in turn entails some objective reality in which diseases really do affect human beings.

Foucault’s statement is an objective truth claim. If it was not an objective truth claim, then it was either a meaningless statement or outrageously dishonest. If Foucault really maintained his view that truth is only made by power, he should have said:
“Well, it is true that it is a disease, but only because doctors and their power systems say it is and make it true, and because they use their power to force us to think it is true! But really there is no objective truth about the matter and truth is not made by any objective reality! Therefore AIDS is just another ‘truth’ made by power.”
If we read the original anecdote again, we get the impression that the idiot Paul Veyne was actually expecting Foucault to give such an answer: in other words, a barking mad conspiracy theory.

But, if Foucault sincerely meant what he said, we can see how quickly Foucault’s claim that truth can only be made by power, not by objective reality, utterly collapses if he really thought that AIDS existed and was a real disease.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. The Foucault Reader (ed. Paul Rabinow). Pantheon, New York.

Veyne, Paul. 1993. “The Final Foucault and his Ethics” (trans. C. Porter and A. Davidson), Critical Inquiry 20.1: 1–9.


  1. Post modern medicine lives!

    The link to Foucault's kind of nonsense is clear. This is an actual, published, peer reviewed academic paper.

  2. Foucault is at least partly right when discussing normative ideals of the social sciences (including psychiatry).

    There are only 2 hard sciences: physics and chemistry. Mathematics is not a science on ist own right, it is only the methodology of natural sciences. Biology is not a hard science, because natural laws as such do not evolve. Medicine is not a hard science because it is both descriptive-prognostic and prescriptive-diagnostic i.E. normative. That makes the concepts of „health“ and „disease“ ambigious and subject to all kinds of manipulation. Have you studied post-Fukushima cancer statistics in Japan and the controversy about how much radioactivity poses an "immediate health threat" to humans?

    Due to Humes induction problem, empirism is not a solid base for the descriptive-prognostic sciences. Hegels solution, I assume, ist the claim that everything is contradictions, which leads to a totalization of sufficient reason generating a perfectly deterministic universe. Contradictions paradoxically stabilize natural laws. I have found quiet an elegant and simple way to demonstrate this, but I won’t go into technical details here.

    Fort he human and social sciences (prescriptive-diagnostic) that are concerned, not with theoretically modellizing the universe, but with incitating everyday practics, on the other hand, radical constructivism ist the right approach, which makes it open to conspiracy theory to some degree.The only law for sound reasoning in those sciences is strict obedience to the law of contradiction, whereas the law of sufficient reason doesn’t count. Think about this: Whenever you think about how to act, you already have acted, and probably without sufficient reason. For instance, you should not both claim that economics is about decision making processes and then interpreting those decisions as predetermined by economic laws, that would contradict what we mean by the expression „decision“.

    i assume Noam Chomsky had something similar in mind, when he wrote the following lines: „ Don’t forget, part oft he whole intellectual vocation is creating a niche for yourself, and if everybody can understand what you’re talking about, you’ve sort of lost, because then, what makes you special? What makes you special has got to be something that you had to work really hard to understand, and you mastered it, and all those guys out there don’t understand it, and then that becomes the basis for your privilege and your power (...) On the other hand, If you want to mingle in the same room with that physicist over there who’s talking about quarks, you’d better have a complicated theory that nobody can understand, why shouldn’t I have a complicated theory nobody can understand? If someone came along with a theory of history, it would be the same: either it would be truisms, or maybe some smart ideas, like somebody could say „Why not look at economic factors lying behind the constitution?“ or something like that – but there’d be nothing there that couldn’t be said in monosyllables. In fact, it’s extremely rare, outside the natural sciences, to find things that can’t be said in monosylllables: there are just interestsing, simple ideas, which are often extremly difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let’s say, that can take a lot of work. But the „theory“ will be extremly thin, if by „theory“ we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles – you’re not going to fin anything like that in the social world.“ (Noam Chomsky, Unerstanding Power, p. 228f, Vintage, London 2003)

  3. Agreed, relativism is self-defeating.

    But maybe he meant something else, akin to "the discovery of (objective) truths is always embedded in historical contexts which enable some discoveries and preclude others".
    Take just one example. Euclide stated that "the whole is larger than its proper part". And for a long time everyone agreed and took that for granted. Then Galileo noticed that if we assumed infinitely large sets or collections then this would no more be true. But he saw it as a reason to reject infinite sets. And then came Cantor who took the negation of Euclide's axiom as the very definition of an infinite set(one that is of the same size as one of its proper parts).
    A charitable way of understanding F's statement is that we shall inquire into the (social, historical) deep causes of discoveries and scientific breakthroughs.
    No big deal.