Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Foucault and the Absolute

For Foucault, absolute truth, in a metaphysical sense, is impossible. Truth is simply the outcome of a bloody battle between multiple truths. Truth is not true, it is simply victorious. Yet does this not leave room for an absolute truth of sorts. If truth is a battle, and accepted truth is a victor, then what if that truth is so victorious it completely eradicates the losing discourse from existence? Surely, as the sole truth left, it becomes absolute.
Is this not what the Nazis were trying to achieve, this victorious truth, that ends relativism, not through argument and rationality, but war and irrationality? In attempting to destroy the Jews they were not trying to wipe out a people so much as silence a discourse. Hegelian in form, Foucault's dialectic is not ended through peace, armistice, through synthesis; it is ended by storming the breech, sword in hand, foaming at the mouth and with destruction on its lips.
All oppressed discourses have, at their heart, a teleology; a hero will come and crush the proliferation of truth and reinstigate the golden years of determinacy. For St. Paul it was Christ, for the Jews, another messiah, for the Nazis it was a new Charlemagne and for revolutionary Marxists it would be a new Robespierre or Saint-Just.
Is this acceptable. can we have absolutism from relativism?


  1. This raises a very important issue - namely the relationship between philosophy and war.

    In many ways war provides the historical backdrop to many important examples of continental philosophy in the 20th century. Heideggerean philosophy in particular attempts to make philosophical sense of war as a new existential condition. This can be seen in his concern with the ever present possibility of death, the need to be resolute in the face of it and the idea that industrialisation is effectively global militarisation (an idea that was to find its fullest expression in the ideas of Virilio).

    For Heideggereans, Foucault included, war is the ontology of our present. As such, it is an ontology that demands a decision that is at once existential and political (as Fred says, it demands that we work out 'whose side we are on').

    However, why should we let 'marshall themes' shape our philosophies? What about onologies of peace? Surely they should be considered alongside the new ontologies of war?

    Neil Turnbull

  2. Again, it depends on the view you take. For Foucault, any talk of peace, reason, or rationality is simply a mask to hide the violent tension that upholds the seemingly tranquil status quo. Violence is the source of all the world's problems but it is also the only way to really change them, I forget the actual quote from 'society must be defended' but to paraphrase: 'analysing society is like asking the god of war to explain peace. Fury is commenting on tranquility.'

  3. the actual quote is: 'This discourse is essentially asking the elliptical god of battles to explain the long days of order, labour, peace, and justice. Fury is being asked to explain calm and order.' (Soc Must be Defended, p.54)

  4. Well, of course it depends on what point of view you take (what doesn't)!

    I am asking why you think that war is an ontological absolute rather than something historically relative?

    Why is violence the only way to change the world's problems? This proposition is a need of a certain amount of argumentative support don't you think?


  5. Of course, and again I'm only referencing Foucault (whether, indeed, he allows for absolutism). It would be difficult to sustain such a proposition, and would take a while. I do think Foucault;s genealogical works offer excellent examples of his thesis. The 'mad'discourse was physically classified, isolated, and pacified. We have, also, the sheer, and obvious empirical evidence that different societies have different truths, generally in their histories, dissenters of these values were violently suppressed. Our own passion for liberal democracy was born of the bloodiest conflict in english history (proportionately speaking- 10% of the male population died). Whilst I am ever searching for an absolute and peaceful truth, the world seems reluctant to offer it

  6. Ah, Foucault the empiricist, interesting...

    Empirically can't we see the good in operation in everyday life and see people actively seeking it as well? Isn't our Michel being perhaps a 'tad too cynical' for his own good here?

    You can quote Foucault but I can quote Simone Weil (whose left wing credential are in fact impeccable; fought against Franco, member of French resistance etc). Here goes:

    'The true road exists. Plato and many others have followed it. But it is open only to those who, in recognising themselves to be incapable of finding it, give up looking for it, and yet do not cease to desire it to the exclusion of everything else. To these it is given to feed on a good which, being situtated outside this world, is not subject to any social influences whatever'

    Neil Turnbull

  7. ah neil. Your intellectual captial and field of reference far outstrips mine. To put another interesting slant on things, maybe we can bring in Zizek. Perhaps to find what we are really looking for, our objet petit a, that is truth, or the good, we must be prepared to destroy and overcome the good, and the truth that we are striving for at present. Perhaps the ultimate sacrifice is that of the 'platonic good' in our search for something not only true but lasting...