Thursday, 12 November 2009

Foucault on Truth and Ethics; Nussbaum’s Error

Recently I read Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech (edited by Jospheph Pearson, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles CA, 2001), based on lectures he gave in California about parrhesia in Ancient Greek philosophy, literature and politics. Parrhesia is translated in my abridged Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1891) as ‘free speaking’. It does not appear in Georg Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary (translated by Robert Keep, Duckworth, London, 1984), which is only to be expected, because as Foucault points out it’s a word that comes into use in Golden Age Athens. It does appear in Alexander Souter’s Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1916) as ‘boldness, freedom, liberty, shown especially in speech’. All of this, and more is incorporated into Foucault’s discussion of the negative and positive uses of the term in Euripides’ tragedies, commentary on Athenian democracy, Cynic philosophy, and so on. In a rather indirect way Foucault himself develops a position on ethics, communication and liberty. More of that on another occasion I hope.

Recently I was also listening to a podcast of Martha Nussbaum being interviewed on Australian radio about Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, on the reissue of her recent classic The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (original edition: Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994) with a new introduction. Click here to go directly to the podcast. Click here to go to the relevant link at the podcast aggregator site earideas.

A great summary of her work in that area, and it is a great body of work. Nussbaum has some grudging respect for Foucault, in contrast to her attacks on anyone else who might be regarded as influenced by, or adjacent to, Foucault’s approach. Her somewhat prejudiced mindset gets the better of her in the podcast, when she shows some regard for Foucault’s work on antique ethics. Nussbaum claims that Foucault ignores truth in his discussion of self-formation through ethics in the ancient world.

The lectures in Fearless Speech focus in the importance of truth, the right fort he lower classes to speak truth in a vulgar manner in Athenian democracy, the value and danger Euripides sees in unrestrained truth telling. There are ways in which Foucault would say that these truths are subjective not absolute, but that is not the same as devaluing truth.

In an approach reminiscent of Mill in On Liberty, Foucault emphasises the value of struggle for truth, the great agon. No one condemns Mill as a dangerous sceptic, subjectivist etc, for emphasising the value of a permanent conflict over truth in which no one ever has a complete victory, so maybe there’s no need to condemn Foucault on the basis of such accusations.

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