M. Foucault, Truth and Juridical Forms (1974) (excerpt)

What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress.

Today, under the title "Truth and Juridical Forms," I will offer some methodological reflections to introduce a problem that may appear somewhat enigmatic to you. I will try to present what constitutes the point of convergence of three or four existing, already-explored, already-inventoried series of inquiries, which I will compare and combine in a kind of investigation. I won't say it is original, but it is at least a new departure.

The first inquiry is historical: How have domains of knowledge been formed on the basis of social practices? Let me explain the point at issue. There is a tendency that we may call, a bit ironically, "academic Marxism," which consists of trying to determine the way in which economic conditions of existence may be reflected and expressed in the consciousness of men. It seems to me that this form of analysis, traditional in university Marxism in France, exhibits a very serious defect—basically, that of assuming that the human subject, the subject of knowledge, and forms of knowledge themselves are somehow given beforehand and definitively, and that economic, social, and political conditions of existence are merely laid or imprinted on this definitely given subject.

My aim will be to show you how social practices may engender domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts, and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge. The subject of knowledge itself has a history; the relation of the subject to the object; or, more clearly, truth itself has a history.

Thus, I would especially like to show how a certain knowledge of man was formed in the nineteenth century, a knowledge of individuality, of the normal or abnormal, conforming or nonconforming individual, a knowledge, that actually originated in social practices of control and supervision [surveillance]. And how, in a certain way, this knowledge was not imposed on, proposed to, or imprinted on an existing human subject of knowledge; rather, it engendered an utterly new type of subject of knowledge. The history of knowledge domains connected with social practices—excluding the primacy of a definitively given subject of knowledge—is a first line of research I suggest to you.

The second line of research is a methodological one, which might be called "discourse analysis." Here again there is, it seems to me, in a tradition that is recent but already accepted in European universities, a tendency to treat discourse as a set of linguistic facts linked together by syntactic rules of construction.

A few years ago, it was original and important to say and to show that what was done with language—poetry, literature, philosophy, discourse in general—obeyed a certain number of internal laws or regularities: the laws and regularities of language. The linguistic character of language facts was an important discovery for a certain period.

Then, it seems, the moment came to consider these facts of discourse no longer simply in their linguistic dimension, but in a sense—and here I'm taking my cue from studies done by the Anglo-Americans—as games, strategic games of action and reaction, question and answer, domination and evasion, as well as struggle. On one level, discourse is a regular set of linguistic facts, while on another level it is an ordered set of polemical and strategic facts. This analysis of discourse as a strategic and polemical game is, in my judgment, a second line of research to pursue.

Lastly, the third line of research that I proposed—and where it meets the first two, it defines the point of convergence where I will place myself—is a reworking of the theory of the subject. That theory has been profoundly modified and renewed, over the last several years, by a certain number of theories—or, even more seriously, by a certain number of practices, among which psychoanalysis is of course in the forefront. Psychoanalysis has undoubtedly been the practice and the theory that has reevaluated in the most fundamental way the somewhat sacred priority conferred on the subject, which has become established in Western thought since Descartes.

Two or three centuries ago, Western philosophy postulated, explicitly or implicitly, the subject as the foundation, as the central core of all knowledge, as that in which and on the basis of which freedom revealed itself and truth could blossom. Now, it seems to me that psychoanalysis has insistently called into question this absolute position of the subject. But while psychoanalysis has done this, elsewhere—in the field of what we may call the "theory of knowledge," or in that of epistemology, or in that of the history of the sciences, or again in that of the history of ideas—it seems to me that the theory of the subject has remained very philosophical, very Cartesian and Kantian; for, at the level of generalities where I situate myself, I don't differentiate between the Cartesian and Kantian conceptions.

Currently, when one does history—the history of ideas, of knowledge, or simply history—one sticks to this subject of knowledge, to this subject of representation as the point of origin from which knowledge is possible and truth appears. It would be interesting to try to see how a subject came to be constituted that is not definitively given, that is not the thing on the basis of which truth happens to history—rather, a subject that constitutes itself within history and is constantly established and reestablished by history. It is toward that radical critique of the human subject by history that we should direct our efforts.

A certain university or academic tradition of Marxism has not yet given up the traditional philosophical conception of the subject. In my view, what we should do is show the historical construction of a subject through a discourse understood as consisting of a set of strategies which are part of social practices.

That is the theoretical background of the problems I would like to raise.

Among the social practices whose historical analysis enables one to locate the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, it seemed to me that the most important ones are juridical practices.

The hypothesis I would like to put forward is that there are two histories of truth. The first is a kind of internal history of truth, the history of a truth that rectifies itself in terms of its own principles of regulation: it's the history of truth as it is constructed in or on the basis of the history of the sciences. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are in society (or at least in our societies) other places where truth is formed, where a certain number of games are defined—games through which one sees certain forms of subjectivity, certain object domains, certain types of knowledge come into being—and that, consequently, one can on that basis construct an external, exterior history of truth.

Judicial practices, the manner in which wrongs and responsibilities are settled between men, the mode by which, in the history of the West, society conceived and defined the way men could be judged in terms of wrongs committed, the way in which compensation for some actions and punishment for others were imposed on specific individuals—all these rules or, if you will, all these practices that were indeed governed by rules but also constantly modified through the course of history, seem to me to be one of the forms by which our society defined types of subjectivity, forms of knowledge, and, consequently, relations between man and truth which deserve to be studied.

There you have a general view of the theme I intend to develop: juridical forms and their evolution in the field of penal law as the generative locus for a given number of forms of truth. I will try to show you how certain forms of truth can be defined in terms of penal practice. For what is called the inquiry—the inquiry as practiced by philosophers of the Fifteenth to the eighteenth century, and also by scientists, whether they were geographers, botanists, zoologists, or economists—is a rather characteristic form of truth in our societies.

Now where does one find the origin of the inquiry? One finds it in political and administrative practice, which I'm going to talk about; one also finds it in judicial practice. The inquiry made its appearance as a form of search for truth within the judicial order in the middle of the medieval era. It was in order to know exactly who did what, under what conditions, and at what moment, that the West devised complex techniques of inquiry which later were to be used in the scientific realm and in the realm of philosophical reflection.

In the same way, other forms of analysis were invented in the nineteenth century, from the starting point of juridical, judicial, and penal problems—rather curious and particular forms of analysis that I shall call examination, in contradistinction to the inquiry. Such forms of analysis gave rise to sociology, psychology, psychopathology, criminology, and psychoanalysis. I will try to show you how, when one looks for the origin of these forms of analysis, one sees that they arose in direct conjunction with the formation of a certain number of political and social controls, during the forming of capitalist society in the late nineteenth century.

Here, then, is a broad sketch of the topic of this series of lectures. In the next one, I will talk about the birth of the inquiry in Greek thought, in something that is neither completely a myth nor entirely a tragedy—the story of Oedipus. I will speak of the Oedipus story not as a point of origin, as the moment of formulation of man's desire or forms of desire, but, on the contrary, as a rather curious episode in the history of knowledge and as a point of emergence of the inquiry. In the next lecture I will deal with the relation of conflict, the opposition that arose in the Middle Ages between the system of the test and the system of the inquiry. Finally, in the last two lectures, I will talk about the birth of what I shall call the examination or the sciences of examination, which are connected with the formation and stabilization of capitalist society.

For the moment I would like to pick up again, in a different way, the methodological reflections I spoke of earlier. It would have been possible, and perhaps more honest, to cite only one name, that of Nietzsche, because what I say here won't mean anything if it isn't connected to Nietzsche's work, which seems to me to be the best, the most effective, the most pertinent of the models that one can draw upon. In Nietzsche, one finds a type of discourse that undertakes a historical analysis of the formation of the subject itself, a historical analysis of the birth of a certain type of knowledge [savoir]—without ever granting the preexistence of a subject of knowledge [connaissance]. What I propose to do now is to retrace in his work the outlines that can serve as a model for us in our analyses.

I will take as our starting point a text by Nietzsche, dated 1873, which was published only after his death. The text says: "In some remote corner of the universe, bathed in the fires of innumerable solar systems, there once was a planet where clever animals invented knowledge. That was the grandest and most mendacious minute of `universal history.'"

In this extremely rich and difficult text, I will leave aside several things, including—and above all—the famous phrase "that was the most mendacious minute." Firstly and gladly, I will consider the insolent and cavalier manner in which Nietzsche says that knowledge was invented on a star at a particular moment. I speak of insolence in this text of Nietzsche's because we have to remember that in 1873, one is if not in the middle of Kantianism then at least in the middle of neo-Kantianism; the idea that time and space are not forms of knowledge, but more like primitive rocks onto which knowledge attaches itself, is absolutely unthinkable for the period.

That's where I would like to focus my attention, dwelling first on the term "invention" itself. Nietzsche states that at a particular point in time and a particular place in the universe, intelligent animals invented knowledge. The word he employs, "invention"—the German term is Erfindung—recurs often in these texts, and always with a polemical meaning and intention. When he speaks of invention, Nietzsche always has an opposite word in mind, the word "origin" [Ursprung]. When he says "invention," it's in order not to say "origin"; when he says Erfindung, it's in order not to say Ursprung.

We have a number of proofs of this, and I will present two or three of them. For example, in a passage that comes, I believe, from The Gay Science where he speaks of Schopenhauer, criticizing his analysis of religion, Nietzsche says that Schopenhauer made the mistake of looking for the origin—Ursprung—of religion in a metaphysical sentiment present in all men and containing the latent core, the true and essential model of all religion. Nietzsche says this is a completely false history of religion, because to suppose that religion originates in a metaphysical sentiment signifies, purely and simply, that religion was already given, at least in an implicit state, enveloped in that metaphysical sentiment. But history is not that, says Nietzsche, that is not the way history was made—things didn't happen like that. Religion has no origin, it has no Ursprung, it was invented, there was an Erfindung of religion. At a particular moment in the past, something happened that made religion appear. Religion was made; it did not exist before. Between the great continuity of the Ursprung described by Schopenhauer and the great break that characterizes Nietzsche's Erfindung, there is a fundamental opposition.

Speaking of poetry, still in The Gay Science, Nietzsche declares that there are those who look for the origin, the Ursprung, of poetry, when in fact there is no Ursprung of poetry, there is only an invention of poetry. Somebody had the rather curious idea of using a certain number of rhythmic or musical properties of language to speak, to impose his words, to establish by means of those words a certain relation of power over others. Poetry, too, was invented or made.

There is also the famous passage at the end of the first discourse of The Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche refers to a sort of great factory in which the ideal is produced. The ideal has no origin: it too was invented, manufactured, produced by a series of mechanisms, of little mechanisms.

For Nietzsche, invention, Erfindung, is on the one hand a break, on the other something with a small beginning, one that is low, mean, unavowable. This is the crucial point of the Erfindung. It was by obscure power relations that poetry was invented. It was also by pure and obscure power relations that religion was invented. We see the meanness, then, of all these small beginnings as compared with the solemnity of their origin as conceived by philosophers. The historian should not be afraid of the meanness of things, for it was out of the sequence of mean and little things that, finally, great things were formed. Good historical method requires us to counterpose the meticulous and unavowable meanness of these fabrications and inventions, to the solemnity of origins.

Knowledge was invented, then. To say that it was invented is to say that it has no origin. More precisely, it is to say, however paradoxical this may be, that knowledge is absolutely not inscribed in human nature. Knowledge doesn't constitute man's oldest instinct; and, conversely, in human behavior, the human appetite, the human instinct, there is no such thing as the seed of knowledge. As a matter of fact, Nietzsche says, knowledge does have a connection with the instincts, but it cannot be present in them, and cannot even be one instinct among the others. Knowledge is simply the outcome of the interplay, the encounter, the junction, the struggle, and the compromise between the instincts. Something is produced because the instincts meet, fight one another, and at the end of their battles finally reach a compromise. That something is knowledge.

Consequently, for Nietzsche knowledge is not of the same nature as the instincts, it is not like a refinement of the instincts. Knowledge does indeed have instincts as its foundation, basis, and starting point, but its basis is the instincts in their confrontation, of which knowledge is only the surface outcome. Knowledge is like a luminescence, a spreading light, but one that is produced by mechanisms or realities that are of completely different natures. Knowledge is a result of the instincts; it is like a stroke of luck, or like the outcome of a protracted compromise. It is also, Nietzsche says, like "a spark between two swords," but not a thing made of their metal.

Knowledge—a surface effect, something prefigured in human nature—plays its game in the presence of the instincts, above them, among them; it curbs them, it expresses a certain state of tension or appeasement between the instincts. But knowledge cannot be deduced analytically, according to a kind of natural derivation. It cannot be deduced in a necessary way from the instincts themselves. Knowledge doesn't really form part of human nature. Conflict, combat, the outcome of the combat, and, consequently, risk and chance are what gives rise to knowledge. Knowledge is not instinctive, it is counterinstinctive; just as it is not natural, but counternatural.

That is the first meaning that can be given to the idea that knowledge is an invention and has no origin. But the other sense that could be given to Nietzsche's assertion is that knowledge, beyond merely not being bound up with human nature, not being derived from human nature, isn't even closely connected to the world to be known. According to Nietzsche, there is no resemblance, no prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known. In more strictly Kantian terms, one should say the conditions of experience and the conditions of the object of experience are completely heterogeneous.

That is the great break with the prior tradition of Western philosophy, for Kant himself had been the first to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzsche thinks, on the contrary, that between knowledge and the world to be known there is as much difference as between knowledge and human nature. So one has a human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or even natural tie between them.

Nietzsche says repeatedly that knowledge has no affinity with the world to be known. I will cite just one passage from The Gay Science, aphorism 109: "The total character of the world is chaos for all eternity—in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom." The world absolutely does not seek to imitate man; it knows no law. Let us guard against saying that there are laws in nature. Knowledge must struggle against a world without order, without connectedness, without form, without beauty, without wisdom, without harmony, and without law. That is the world that knowledge deals with. There is nothing in knowledge that enables it, by any right whatever, to know this world. It is not natural for nature to be known. Thus, between the instincts and knowledge, one finds not a continuity but, rather, a relation of struggle, domination, servitude, settlement. In the same way, there can be no relation of natural continuity between knowledge and the things that knowledge must know. There can only be a relation of violence, domination, power, and force, a relation of violation. Knowledge can only be a violation of the things to be known, and not a perception, a recognition, an identification of or with those things.

It seems to me that in this analysis by Nietzsche there is a very important double break with the tradition of Western philosophy, something we should learn from. The first break is between knowledge and things. What is it, really, in Western philosophy that certifies that things to be known and knowledge itself are in a relation of continuity? What assurance is there that knowledge has the ability to truly know the things of the world instead of being indefinite error, illusion, and arbitrariness? What in Western philosophy guarantees that, if not God? Of course, from Descartes, to go back no further than that, and still even in Kant, God is the principle that ensures a harmony between knowledge and the things to be known. To demonstrate that knowledge was really based in the things of the world, Descartes had to affirm the existence of God.

If there is no relation between knowledge and the things to be known, if the relation between knowledge and known things is arbitrary, if it is a relation of power and violence, the existence of God at the center of the system of knowledge is no longer indispensable. As a matter of fact, in the same passage from The Gay Science where he speaks of the absence of order, connectedness, form, and beauty in the world, Nietzsche asks, "When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification of nature?"

Second, I would say that if it is true that between knowledge and the instincts—all that constitutes, that makes up the human animal—there is only discontinuity, relations of domination and servitude, power relations, then it's not God that disappears but the subject in its unity and its sovereignty.

When we retrace the philosophical tradition starting from Descartes, to go no further back than that, we see that the unity of the subject was ensured by the unbroken continuity running from desire to knowledge [connaissance], from the instincts to knowledge [savoir], from the body to truth. All of that ensured the subject's existence. If, on the one hand, it is true that there are mechanisms of instinct, the play of desire, the affrontment between the mechanisms of the body and the will, and on the other hand, at a completely different level of nature, there is knowledge, then we don't need the postulate of the unity of the human subject. We can grant the existence of subjects, or we can grant that the subject doesn't exist. In this respect, then, the text by Nietzsehe I have cited seems to present a break with the oldest and most firmly established tradition of Western philosophy.

Now, when Nietzsche says that knowledge is the result of the instincts, but that it is not an instinct and is not directly derived from the instincts, what does he mean exactly? And how does he conceive of that curious mechanism by which the instincts, without having any natural relation with knowledge, can, merely by their activity, produce, invent a knowledge that has nothing to do with them? That is the second series of problems I would like to address.

There is a passage in The Gay Science, aphorism 333, which can be considered one of the closest analyses Nietzsche conducted of that manufacture, of that invention of knowledge. In this long text titled "The Meaning of Knowing," Nietzsche takes up a text by Spinoza in which the latter sets intelligere, to understand, against ridere [to laugh], lugere [to lament], and detestari [to detest]. Spinoza said that if we wish to understand things, if we really wish to understand them in their nature, their essence, and hence their truth, we must take care not to laugh at them, lament them, or detest them. Only when those passions are calmed can we finally understand. Nietzsche says that not only is this not true, but it is exactly the opposite that occurs. Intelligere, to understand, is nothing more than a certain game, or more exactly, the outcome of a certain game, of a certain compromise or settlement between ridere, lugere, and detestari. Nietzsche says that we understand only because behind all that there is the interplay and struggle of those three instincts, of those three mechanisms, or those three passions that are expressed by laughter, lament, and detestation.

Several points need to be considered here. First, we should note that these three passions, or these three drives—laughing, lamenting, detesting—are all ways not of getting close to the object or identifying with it but, on the contrary, of keeping the object at a distance, differentiating oneself from it or marking one's separation from it, protecting oneself from it through laughter, devalorizing it through complaint, removing it and possibly destroying it through hatred. Consequently, all these drives, which are at the root of knowledge and which produce it, have in common a distancing of the object, a will to remove oneself from it and to remove it at the same time—a will, finally, to destroy it. Behind knowledge there is a will, no doubt obscure, not to bring the object near to oneself or identify with it but, on the contrary, to get away from it and destroy it—a radical malice of knowledge.

We thus arrive at a second important idea: These drives—laughing, lamenting, detesting—can all be categorized as bad relations. Behind knowledge, at the root of knowledge, Nietzsche does not posit a kind of affection, drive, or passion that makes us love the object to be known; rather, there are drives that would place us in a position of hatred, contempt, or fear before things that are threatening and presumptuous.

If these three drives—laughing, lamenting, hating—manage to produce knowledge, this is not, according to Nietzsche, because they have subsided, as in Spinoza, or made peace, or because they have attained a unity. On the contrary, it's because they have tried, as Nietzsche says, to harm one another, it's because they're in a state of war—in a momentary stabilization of this state of war, they reach a kind of state, a kind of hiatus, in which knowledge will finally appear as the "spark between two swords."

So in knowledge there is not a congruence with the object, a relation of assimilation, but, rather, a relation of distance and domination; there is not something like happiness and love but hatred and hostility; there is not a unification but a precarious system of power. The great themes traditionally present in Western philosophy are thoroughly called into question in the Nietzsche text I've cited.

Western philosophy—and this time it isn't necessary to limit the reference to Descartes, one can go back to Plato—has always characterized knowledge by logocentrism, by resemblance, by congruence, by bliss, by unity. All these great themes are now called into question. One understands, then, why Nietzsche mentions Spinoza, because of all the Western philosophers Spinoza carried this conception of knowledge as congruence, bliss, and unity the farthest. At the center, at the root of knowledge, Nietzsche places something like hatred, struggle, power relations.

So one can see why Nietzsche declares that it is the philosopher who is the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, since he always thinks of it in the form of congruence, love, unity, and pacification. Thus, if we seek to ascertain what knowledge is, we must not look to the form of life, of existence, of asceticism that characterize the philosopher. If we truly wish to know knowledge, to know what it is, to apprehend it at its root, in its manufacture, we must look not to philosophers but to politicians—we need to understand what the relations of struggle and power are. One can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining these relations of struggle and power, the manner in which things and men hate one another, fight one another, and try to dominate one another, to exercise power relations over one another.

So one can understand how this type of analysis can give us an effective introduction to a political history of knowledge, the facts of knowledge and the subject of knowledge.

At this point I would like to reply to a possible objection: "All that is very fine, but it isn't in Nietzsche. Your own ravings, your obsession with finding power relations everywhere, with bringing this political dimension even into the history of knowledge or into the history of truth has made you believe that Nietzsche said that."

I will say two things in reply. First, I chose this passage from Nietzsche in terms of my own interests, not with the purpose of showing that this was the Nietzschean conception of knowledge—for there are innumerable passages in Nietzsche on the subject that are rather contradictory—but only to show that there are in Nietzsche a certain number of elements that afford us a model for a historical analysis of what I would call the politics of truth. It's a model that one does find in Nietzsche, and I even think that in his work it constitutes one of the most important models for understanding some of the seemingly contradictory elements of his conception of knowledge.

Indeed, if one grants that this is what Nietzsche means by the discovery of knowledge, if all these relations are behind knowledge, which, in a certain sense, is only their outcome, then it becomes possible to understand certain difficult passages in Nietzsche.


Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume Three.Translated by Robert Hurley. The New Press.