Michel Foucault: Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972

Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972 Book Cover Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972
Michel Foucault, Lectures at the Collège de France
Michel Foucault. Translated by Burchell, G.
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 40,65 €
XXIX, 322

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Penal Theories and Institutions contains the lectures delivered by Foucault in his second-year tenure at the College de France (1971-2). It is also the last volume of this series, concluding a publication cycle of close to twenty years. The publication of Foucault’s lectures started mid-way with the 1976 course and then proceeded sideways, preventing us from grasping the development of his thought during the last fifteen years of his life.

Foucault did not prepare his lectures for publication, and their initial publication in 1997 was initially considered a transgression to Foucault’s last wishes for his posthumous writings not to be published. However, the proliferation of unauthorized versions of the lectures, based on transcriptions from audio recordings of unequal quality, decided the family and friends to allow their publication.  After the first tentative publications, a sophisticated protocol developed. First, the editors give priority to the transcription of Foucault’s oral teaching. Any additions, such as materials from the preparatory notes, and bibliographical references, are dealt with as footnotes.  The editor’s additions and amplifications are recorded in the endnotes. Foucault’s summary published yearly in the Yearbook of the College is then printed.  A general introductory essay, with the title “situation du cours” follows, which provides contextual information for Foucault’s lectures.  Finally, a detailed index of names mentioned and of concepts. While this is the general model for each one of the publications of the lectures, there are some variations.

In the case of Theories and Penal Institutions (thereafter: TPI), there are no extant recordings. Therefore, the editors had to use Foucault’s preparatory notes. This volume also makes more use of additional materials from Foucault’s unpublished papers than previous volumes.  In addition to the ‘Course Context’ essay, this one includes two interpretative essays, one by É. Balibar and the other by Claude-Olivier Doron that provides context for the lectures. Doron was also responsible for the endnotes, which provide useful bibliographical information and also excerpts from the preparatory materials.

François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana refer in their introduction to the problems faced in the preparation of this volume. First, the lack of recordings required them to work directly with Foucault occasionally cryptic and tentative notes, which sometimes leave us wondering about Foucault’s intentions. To clarify those, the editors decided to bring as footnotes text that Foucault crossed out in his preparatory notes. An additional difficulty signaled by the editors is specific for the translated text, insofar as Foucault refers to old and today little-known French institutions and practices.

The English version includes an introduction by Arnold I. Davidson, a distinguished scholar of Foucault’s work.  He enjoins us to ‘read everything,’ i.e., to forget the hierarchy between a binding statement by Foucault, and the more tentative reflections contained in his sprawling archives. Ultimately, what Davidson is evoking is the tension between a scholastic effort to reconstruct Foucault’s corpus and a more creative appropriation of his insights. The latter is, according to Davidson, closer to Foucault’s thought, which Davidson labels as ‘atopos,’ unclassifiable according to the academic standards (xxvii).

The course itself consists of thirteen lectures, which we can divide into three groups. Lectures one through seven, deal with the emergence in the 17th century of the absolutist State with its specialized institutions. Lectures eight to twelve deal with Germanic law, which preceded the absolutist one, and finally, in lecture thirteen, Foucault addresses the question of the ‘knowledge effects’ of the newly instituted penal practice that emerges from the feudal order.  This last lecture connects with the subject-matter of the previous year, and more in general, with Foucault’s long-standing interest in the emergence of the human sciences.

Lecture One starts establishing the subject matter of the course and its methodology. The subject is to study the peculiar forms of repression of a popular riot that took place at the beginnings of the 17th century and is known as the revolt of the Nu-pieds (barefoot). By placing repression in the center of his analysis, Foucault expects to be able to overcome the dilemma between an approach based on the study of penal theories versus an approach based on the study of penal legislation or institutions. It is as a system of repression that penal theories and institutions emerge (2). Foucault speaks of a continuum of ‘refusal of the law,’ whereas it is difficult to identify the purely criminal from the political.  To some extent, we can say that Foucault’s purpose is to study the separation between criminal and political, to show that is characteristic of modern penal systems and that it is a relatively new development.

A central stage in Foucault’s account are the events of the repression of the Nu-pieds revolt (1639) by Chancellor Séguier.  Foucault analyzes, in great detail, what he characterizes as a ‘penitential ceremony,’ a ‘theatrical representation of power,’ a ‘manifestation of power in his repressive pomp’ (5).

According to Foucault, the Nu-pieds revolt was different from previous revolts in the Middle Ages. Not only peasants participated in the uprising, but also workers and journeymen in the towns, and a certain number of nobles and bourgeois (9).  Even the local Parliament (at that time a judicial and not a legislative body) adopted an ambiguous middle ground between the rebels and the tax authorities that they targeted.  In the endnotes to this first lecture, the reader can find detailed information on Foucault’s sources and on the chronology of the events to which Foucault refers (11-13).

The second lecture introduces the notion of ‘armed justice’ and asks how to write a history of this new form of repressive apparatus.  Foucault also emphasizes the revolutionary nature of the revolt, which not only protests against the tax authorities but introduces a new legality and a new authority, though one that refers to their authority as derived from the King. The rebellion and the bourgeois and nobles’ lack of enthusiasm to suppress it provokes the military response from the Monarch and leads to the formation of a new royal justice, which eventually will be adopted by the bourgeoisie. Justice will become State-controlled, juridical, and exercised by a specific state organ: the police (23).  This justice appears as an order which stands as a neutral arbiter between the social classes (24), while in reality, it is a representative of the capitalistic order.

In lecture three, Foucault further develops the notion of ‘armed justice.’  ‘Armed justice’ is a transitional stage, which will evolve into a specialized armed repressive apparatus, different from the army, but like the army, State-controlled (37).  What retains Foucault’s attention is not so much the fact that the army was used to suppress the revolt, but the unusual interplay between the army and Chancellor Séguier, who represented the State. Once the army defeated the Nu-pieds in the city of Caen and the countryside, it took time before taking Rouen, which was not the scene of grave disturbances.  Then, it took time for Séguier to enter the town, and he did so in a very protocolar way. In a lecture that Foucault delivered a short time after the course and is reproduced in this volume (‘Ceremony, Theater, and Politics in the Seventeenth Century’, pp. 235-239) he explores these ambiguities in search for clues for the process of emergence of a distinct state repressive apparatus. In this context, Foucault characterizes his approach as ‘dynastic’ (this is the first time that the term shows), a notion that is loosely equivalent to ‘genealogy’ (cf. 52-3, note 16).

Lecture Four explores in detail the theatrical nature of the repressive tactics employed by Séguier. He first attacks the Nu-pieds. They are not acknowledged as a foreign power, and therefore the rules of war do not apply to them. But they are not recognized as having a place in the civil order, and therefore they are not entitled to due process (58). Foucault sees a continuity between these repressive measures and the 1639 and 1670 ordinances which dealt with unemployed, beggars, and vagabonds.

Nevertheless, the repression does not end with the Nu-pieds. It is also exercised against those who attempted to place themselves between the King and the insurgents. Séguier rejects the ‘theory of the three checks’ (religion, justice, and the privileges granted for different social groups), which sets limits to the King’s power. According to Foucault, Séguier’s proclamation: ‘The innocent have nothing to fear; only those who have failed will feel the effects of the King’s just anger and indignation’ (62), is an explicit rejection of the ‘three checks’ theory.  Séguier is declaring that the King is not subject to the laws of his kingdom because the law is identical to his will (62). What we see here, claims Foucault, is an ambivalent outcome, a redistribution of repressive instruments and powers, but one that ultimately benefits the privileged classes.

The fifth lecture goes in some additional detail into the events in Rouen, which signal for Foucault the apparition of a purely repressive aspect of the Sate. However, the State lacks, at least initially, specialized institutions, and depends on feudal ones for carrying out these new tasks.

Lecture six deals with the stabilization of the situation.  This is achieved using three strategies: 1) differential sanctions to break up the previous alliance of social groups; 2) financial incentives for the privileged classes in return for the maintenance of order; 3) Mainly because the previous strategy was not very successful, the establishment of a third instance of the State, neither purely military nor juridical: the Intendants of justice, police, and finance (94).  The Intendants were supposed to guard against sedition, but also to arbitrate the conflicts between rent and tax. Another characteristic of the new repressive apparatus is the removal of the dangerous population.  The institution of a mechanism for the segregation of a stratum of delinquency out of the mass of the plebeian population connects the changes in the nature of the State with the development of the capitalist form of production. Foucault does not explain the emergence of capitalism as a change in the system of production. He characterizes the relationship between State and emerging capitalism as ‘linkage’ (105), ‘favorable’ (105), ‘oriented and functionally linked’ to Capitalism.  In a more rounded statement, he summarizes this relationship: ‘We should say that capitalism cannot subsist without an apparatus of repression whose main function is anti-seditious. This apparatus produces a certain penalty–delinquency coding. What has to be studied now is the installation of this new repressive system – the way in which it finally prevailed as the political system of capitalist production developed and was completed; – through what episodes it was finally institutionalized in the nineteenth century in the forms of the courts, the police, prisons, and the penal code’ (106). Foucault bases his analysis, to some extent, on the work of the Russian historian Boris Porshnev, whose work was challenged by some French scholars about that time. An essay by Claude O. Doron, included in this volume, recreates the positions of the parties, the issues at stake, and how Foucault relates to each one of them.

Lecture number eight changes focus from the 17th century to the 12th century to study the slow constitution of a separate judicial system from its predecessor feudal Germanic penal law.  Foucault observes that there was a long line of attempts to establish a centralized justice system, but until the 18th century, they failed. Whenever those institutions were stripped of political and administrative functions, retaining judicial functions only, they were eventually assimilated by the feudal institutions.  It is in order to ‘get the measure of the transformation carried out’ (114) that Foucault takes a step back in history, and points to German criminal law. This move marks an inflection in Foucault’s text. In the earlier lectures, he seems to look for a constitutive break taking place in the 17th century. Now he is inviting us to consider a much longer evolution, a slow separation from Germanic custom, and the constitution over centuries of a State differentiated from Civil Society. This approach is not only more comprehensive but also grounds Foucault’s underlying conception that the justice apparatus is a realm expropriated from civil society and sedimented into a separate body of functionaries.

Foucault begins his account remarking that whereas private and public law was Romanized fairly early, criminal law was Romanized late and only superficially. In the Germanic custom, the juridical act, the process in the broader sense, is ‘the regulated development of a dispute’ (115). The juridical order is a struggle. It was only later that the ‘acts and operations of justice’ are confiscated by a judicial instance. Justice is originally an interpersonal relationship. Importantly for Foucault, truth—the truth of the facts at the basis of the conflict between the parties—does not play an important role or is instead a mark of the outcome of the struggle. The penal system that developed in the Middle Ages acted at the level of the levy of goods (fines, confiscations, fees). The judicial is subordinated to the fiscal, But, elements from the old Germanic system remain in the Middle Ages legal apparatus.  In particular, Foucault mentions the need for an accuser, which is one of the parties in the conflict. The form of a dispute between two individuals remains central to the judicial process. The public power may intervene through the aggravation of the penalty, taking sides in the dispute, but the basic structure remains intact. Foucault’s main interest seems to be the transition between this old Germanic custom and the emergence of a recognizable concept of justice. This transition operates through the absorption of justice into the judicial, a power that can initiate action and present it as a public action.  How was the transformation possible, asks Foucault?  Certainly not because of the rise of a juridical conception of the State, or of a religious notion of wrongdoing.  Instead, Foucault explores an economic interpretation of the origins of justice. This interpretation is not Marxist, even though Foucault utilizes a Marxist sounding terminology.

First and foremost, Foucault rejects the interpretation of the law as ideology or superstructure. He speaks of relations of appropriation and relations of force, in a way that echoes the Marxist’s ‘relation of production.’ However, Foucault does not refer to production but to circulation: ‘the distribution of justice forms part of the circulation of goods’ (133).  Justice controls the circulation of goods at the level of civil law (contract, marriage, inheritance, and taxation), and of the penal law, by imposing fines and confiscating property. Foucault’s characterization is suggestive of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s description of society as a network of circulation and exchanges (cf. 147, note 44).

At the time, Foucault was active in a movement advocating for penal and carceral reform. The 1968 student and youth revolt generated a climate of criticism of the justice system. This climate was strengthened by the government’s prosecutions of activists of the extra-parliamentary left, and by those groups that made claims to a different justice. As we learn in note 12 (142 f), Foucault opposed on theoretical and political grounds the demands of the militants, who reclaimed for themselves the status of political prisoners. Foucault claims that all criminal offenses are political ones, and no distinction should be revendicated. Foucault also rejected in his interventions in this period, the notion of ‘popular courts;’ (espoused by the militants of GP ultra-leftist group and supported by Sartre).

In the first part of the 10th lecture, Foucault returns to the relationship between penal practice and transfer of wealth, goods, and property. Justice imposes penalties, establishes a system of compensations, and extorts wealth through the system of costs of justice. At a time of monetary scarcity, the flow of wealth passed through the judicial dispute. Judicial disputes and marriage are the main mechanisms of wealth circulation. Foucault differentiates two forms. One in which there is an interplay between civil and criminal justice. The second one is closer to violent appropriation, as in the case of the eviction of Jews and Lombards at the end of 13th century, and the anti-heretical crusades in the Provence. The rest of the lectures maps the transformation of the medieval system into a system of royal justice, armed with an institutionalized judicial State apparatus.

Lectures ten through twelve delve with different aspects of the thesis that a judicial system was crucial for the development of the Absolutist State and later on, of the capitalistic State.  It acquires this role initially as a response to the lack of monetary wealth and the weakness of markets. These judicial and penal systems are not yet a State apparatus, but they exercise some functions of a State apparatus.  Eventually, this proto-judicial will become specialized in different separate functions: judicial, police, and penitentiary.  Foucault comments on the functional role of the centralized army. Justice as state apparatus developed in the shadow of the army. He speaks of an army of mercenaries and a justice of functionaries (160).

In lecture eleven, Foucault reflects on the relationship between law and the economy.  It may be true that ‘juridical forms’ express ‘economic relations.’ There is another level, though, at which the juridical is neither expression nor reproduction of economic relations.  As a power relation, the judicial apparatus operates within economic relations and thereby modifies them. Foucault uses terms such as ‘transcribes,’ ‘investment,’ ‘presence,’ to describe the relationships between judicial and economics.  The following text shows the kind of interplay between economic and judicial system that Foucault is striving to describe: ‘If we stick to the example of feudalism, we can see how, through the judicial apparatus (but we could also take the military or religious apparatus), from the surplus-product which permits feudal rent, a surplus- power, an extra power is extracted

– on the basis of which certainly this rent itself is demanded,

– but on the basis of which the forms and relations of production are displaced.’ (172)

In a crossed-out note, Foucault adds: ‘the power relations are not superimposed on economic relations… relations of power are as deep as the relations of production. The former is not deduced from the latter. They accompany and relay each other’.  Notes 9 and 10 (178-179) refer to the context, in particular concerning Althusser’s work. Doron summarizes  ‘Foucault’s objective, which we find in subsequent courses, notably The Punitive Society, is to stress rather the constituting role of power relations at the very heart of relations of production: the former acting as veritable conditions of the formation and transformation of modes of production, be this in the constitution of man as “labor-power” or the process of accumulation and circulation of wealth’ (179 and 97, note 11).

Lecture twelve adds some more concrete historical context to the discussion. It was the economic crises of the 13th and 14th centuries that lead to the centralization of royal power and the setting of royal justice. This led to a doubling of the judicial system and the separation of the penal and civil law.  To some extent, Foucault seems to be transposing to the 13th and 14th centuries what earlier in the lectures he described as results of the suppression of the countryside revolts of the 17th century.  By emphasizing this proto-State developing from within feudalism, Foucault is perhaps putting distance between the development of the centralized national state and the emergence of capitalism.

In the thirteenth lecture, Foucault reexamines his previous analysis in terms of the question of power/knowledge. What is the knowledge effect of penal justice in the Middle Ages? And what is the power/knowledge effect in the proto-state and latter absolutist State? By ‘knowledge effects’ Foucault is not referring to the ideological dimensions of the justice system, but to the mode of knowledge that develops within it and that constitutes its modus operandi. This question is connected both to the 1970-1971 course and to the lectures that Foucault will deliver in Brazil in 1973, published under the title Truth and Juridical Forms.

Foucault defines ‘knowledge effects’ as ‘the carving-out, distribution, and organization of what is given to be known in penal practice’ (198).  Knowledge effects comprise the position and function of the subjects authorized to know (judges, their attendants), the forms of knowledge they use and create in their function, the kind of information, revelation or manifestation that is at stake at this level.

Foucault proceeds to review first the knowledge effects of the Germanic juridical system. According to Foucault, the old system was not intended to elicit a truth. The system was based on the notion of ‘test’ (épreuve) to which the parties could either succeed or fail. The outcome of the test is the outcome of the trial.  If the test indicates a truth, it is only in a secondary or derivative way. The test is not a sign of truth, but a mark.

With the establishment of a system in which the King’s procurator is the main actor, the older system of the test is no longer possible. What then makes it possible for the procurator to pass sentence? Foucault answers that it is the inquiry (inquiry-truth; Enquête vérité), which is the repurpose of a pre-existing administrative tool for the function of Justice.

Foucault describes the form of knowledge of this early judicial system that emerges from the replacement of the Germanic-feudal one as one of ‘extraction of truth.’ The procurator can request from the notables what is the common knowledge or notoriety. He has the right to elicit knowledge from those who know. The truth established in this form is a sort of substitute for the capture in the act (flagrance).  Truth introduces into the field of the penal law acts that are not injuries committed against specific individuals, but disorders. They may not have a specific victim but are perceived as disrupting the public order.

Foucault has not much to say about the inquiry, which was initially an administrative technique in use in the Church and the Carolingian kingdom.  After a brief review, Foucault concludes with two fundamental aspects that the inquiry introduces in the judicial system are: 1) The establishment of the truth through the interrogation of witnesses, those who have seen the deed; 2) The written procedure.  The last note of the lecture simply concludes that witnessing the truth and its faithful written recording replaces the event-test (203).

Following the lecture, the editors published several pages that seem to continue and to amplify the previous discussion. Foucault proposes a history of questioning as a form of exercise of power.  He suggests that questioning plays a role in the constitution of the subject. The inquiry may have been more critical for the emergence of the subject even than theology, says Foucault, echoing a widespread belief that there is a strong connection between subjectivity and Christianity (206).

Confession is transitional between test and inquiry. Foucault refers here to the judicial aspects of confession, leaving aside the religious ones, that he will explore in detail elsewhere.  According to Foucault, confession is depicted as a test of wills between accused and judge. This struggle is the background for the re-appearance of torture in the criminal procedure. Torture should be understood as an ordeal or test of truth (207). This form of knowledge/power gives origin to an arithmetic of proof, based on the nature of the crime, that binds the judge’s decisions. This system of legal proof persists until the end of the 18th century.

Foucault claims that with the first steps of the takeover of justice by the State, the inquiry shapes the practice of the penal procedure. Foucault mentions other uses of the inquiry, in civil law, in legislation, in social struggles (bourgeoisie versus feudalism), in the administrative process of centralization, and in the new forms of inquiry that the Church exercises over the population (inquisition).

Like measure (which was the object of Foucault’s previous year’s course), the inquiry is a form of power/knowledge, which means that power is established through the exercise and acquisition of this knowledge (209).  Foucault sees the inquiry, together with taxes and the army, as a central tool in the process of state centralization. Furthermore, conversely, ‘the inquiry, which puts questions, extracts knowledge, centralizes it, turns it into a decision, is an exercise of power’ (209).  Foucault speaks of the inquiry as a ‘levy of knowledge,’ similar to the appropriation of resources through taxation.  He adds that  ‘the knowledge power needs, the knowledge it calls for and to which it gives rise, is knowledge taken, channeled, accumulated, and converted into decision; the governor being the one who calls for this knowledge, goes through it, and judges accordingly what decision has to be taken (211).’ Further, Foucault suggests a typology of types of extraction of ‘surplus-knowledge’ (211). These pages, albeit fragmentary, contain many valuable insights on Foucault’s transition between his earlier archaeology to a genealogy of knowledge.

Finally, Foucault adds a remark that points out to other schemas of power-knowledge, in particular, ‘examination,’ which is the one constitutive of the normative human sciences (125). Foucault will devote the final lecture of his next year course to this subject (The Punitive Society, New York, 2015, pp. 225-241)

The “Course Summary” was written shortly after completing the teaching season and published in the College yearbook. Foucault presents his lectures as being an introduction to the study of 19th century French penal and social control institutions. They are part of the broader project of studying the formation of certain types of knowledge (savoir) based on the juridical-political matrices, which gave them birth and sustain them.  Foucault’s working hypothesis is that power does not act only by facilitating or obstructing the production of knowledge. Power and knowledge do not stand in a relation of interest versus ideology. More generally, Foucault argues that knowledge and society do not stand on opposite sides but are unified in the form of ‘power-knowledge.’  Accordingly, explains Foucault, the lectures are divided into two parts. The first part studies the inquiry and its development during the Middle Ages. The other part of the lectures was devoted to the study of new forms of social control in 17th century France. A few concluding lines of the summary refer to the seminar in which Foucault and associates prepared for publication the story and memories of the infamous Pierre Rivière.

In the summary, Foucault inverts the order and the importance of the themes discussed. He also disregards his earlier attempt to study the ceremonial aspects of the reinstatement of the monarchical power carried out by Séguier.

Under the title ‘Ceremony, Theater and Politics in the Seventeenth Century,’ the editors bring a summary, made by an auditor, of a lecture given by Foucault at the University of Minnesota in April 1972. This conference describes in a more streamlined form Foucault’s description in lectures 4 through 6 of the elaborated ritualized strategy followed by Chancellor Séguier in his repression of the Nu-pieds rebels. Foucault’s interest in the symbolic and ceremonial exercise of power does not appear elsewhere, the account of Damian’s execution in Discipline and Punish being an exception.

‘The “Course Context’ is a thirty-seven-page extensive interpretative essay, written by François Ewald (Foucault’s former assistant at the Collège de France) and Bernard E. Harcourt (Columbia Law School professor and the editor of several of Foucault’s unpublished works).

The essay first describes the manuscript and additional materials from which the editors collated and transcribed the lectures.  Section II refers to the general societal context in the aftermath of the May 68 events, the subsequent repression of the political movements that originated in the students and young workers revolt, and its impact on Foucault’s development. This section is of paramount importance for those less familiar with the contemporary history of French society. Section III evaluates the place of this course in Foucault’s work. Ewald and Harcourt refer to Foucault’s evolving position about Althusser and Marxism in general.  They speak of a ‘counter-Marxism’ which is not an ‘anti-Marxism’ (255).  They find a difference of objectives between Foucault and Marx, differencs of method, differences of objects, a different way of referring to class struggle, and a divergence on the subject of ideology.  The authors also stress Foucault’s elaboration of an original analysis of law. In TPI, Foucault revolutions our way of viewing law, proposing a political theory of law instead of a juridical theory of power. In that respect, Ewald and Harcourt suggests that Foucault’s embryonic proposal can be compared to other schools, such as the French Marxist critique of law school, or the American Legal Realism school.

Étienne Balibar contributed to his volume a letter in which he reflects on Foucault’s text. Balibar was younger than Foucault, more politically engaged, closer to Althusser. He has the advantage of having witnessed the evolution of the after 1968 struggles, the downfall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the transformation of China into a capitalistic-bureaucratic society. Therefore, his insights on the background for Foucault’s analysis are an important complement to the ‘Course Context’ essay.

Finally, Claude-Olivier Doron contributes an essay dealing with Foucault’s position about the discussion between the Russian historian Boris Porshnev and the French historian Roland Mousnier and his students.  Doron reconstructs and interprets the background for Foucault’s discussion of the Nu-pieds revolt. Those readers interested in this angle of Foucault’s analysis could also profit from Stuart Elden’s commentaries (Foucault: The Birth of Power, 2017, Chapter 2). Doron limits its piece to ‘some elements concerning the debate.’  He emphasizes the need to connect the debate between the historians with the discussion within the Marxist field, notably between Nicos Poulantzas (close to Althusser) and Ralph Miliband, debate that was also referenced by Balibar in his contribution (297 n. 1).  Doron concludes that Foucault did not endorse any of the opposed parties. Foucault’s approach centered on the novel way in which the revolt was suppressed.  He sought a connection between how the revolt was suppressed and the emergence of a state not yet been endowed with specific repressive organs.

The completion of this publication project is not the end of Foucault’s story.  A new and ambitious project sets up to bring to print the ‘cours et travaux de Michel Foucault avant le Collège de France.’ Of these, a volume was already published that contains two lectures on sexuality that Foucault taught in 1964 and 1969.  Additional volumes on Nietzsche, on Biswanger, on Foucault’s tenure in Tunis and others are in the program.

Also, a group of researches grouped in L’École normale supérieure de Lyon is digitizing and organizing Foucault reading notes.  Out of 25 boxes, three are already available online (open access), and the others will be available in the future. These publication concerns only Foucault reading notes, not his manuscripts or other documents. What is already available can be accessed in http://eman-archives.org/Foucault-fiches/arbre-collections. Box 001 which contains some of the notes taken by Foucault for the preparation of TPI is among the one already accessible.



Michel Foucault: “Discourse and Truth” and “Parresia”

"Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia" Book Cover "Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia"
The Chicago Foucault Project
Michel Foucault. Edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini. With an Introduction by Frédéric Gros. English edition established by Nancy Luxon
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $35.00

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings.  According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).

The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.

We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.

The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures.  Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‘parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ‘say everything,’ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‘frank speech,’ ‘courage of speech’ or ‘freedom of speech.’  Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ‘spiritual director.’ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique.  Gros claims that ‘for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).

As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics.  Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.

Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)

According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‘Greek turn,’ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.

Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).

Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work.  He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‘obligation to tell the truth,’ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2).  It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity.  One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression.  Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis).  It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind.  This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.

In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire.  However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato.  In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction.  Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‘pragmatics of discourse,’ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination.  Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.

Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student.  (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.

Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:

Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).

The Berkeley Seminar:

Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts.  The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones.  We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France.  There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.

In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:

The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).

Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‘care of the self.’

Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word.  Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia.  Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.

As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master.  Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons.  We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant,  ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as  forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‘care of the self’.  For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc.  These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies.  A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69).  The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.

The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles’ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).

The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way.  According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‘history of thought’ and ‘history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).

Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‘franc speech’ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game.  In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146).  The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other.  There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).

The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves.  Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations.  To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society.  He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.

The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two.  Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference.  Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia.  Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.

Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself.  This new model appears as askēsis or practical training.  Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.

‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:

The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations.  As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.

First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet.  The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.

Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures.  Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text.  Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.


Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. “Verité, connaissance et éthique.” In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.

Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.

Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;

Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.

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