Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site

Describing notions of ‘the general form of the Greek conception of language’ in the context of Socrates’ discussions of truth and philosophy, Foucault notes:

‘words and phrases in their very reality have an original relationship with truth …. Language which is without embellishment, apparatus, construction or reconstruction, language in the naked state, is the language closest to truth and the language in which truth is expressed. And I think this is one of the most fundamental features of philosophical language … as opposed to rhetorical [discourse]. Rhetorical language, is a language chosen, fashioned, and constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person. The mode of being of philosophical language is to be etumos, that is to say, so bare and simple, so in keeping with the very movement of thought that, just as it is without embellishment, it will be appropriate to what it refers to.

Michel Foucault, (2010) [2008]. The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982- 1983. Tr. Graham Burchell. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 374-5

Random thoughts in response
Foucault notes Socrates’ position that plain everyday speech which directly reflects one’s thoughts and that speaking from the heart or faith are manifestations of ‘true philosophy’. Thus plain language is closer to the truth of things than clever rhetoric: the more artifice that language involves, the more removed one is from the original purity of truth. One can see this long philosophical tradition emerging in analytic philosophy – which struggles to create a pure language to the point of attempting to distil it into mathematical formulae.

Foucault’s book The Order of Things is one long refutation of this philosophical position in relation to language. Foucault radically challenges the notion that language can be ever be a transparent tool for representing things. Language has its own materiality and solidity and its own patterns of order right from its original inception. If there appears to be a connection between words and things it is not one of a true and transparent representation but one of an analogous structure of order. Words can only resemble the order of things through a process of analogy. Neither is thought a pure entity which can be expressed, translated and mirrored by words. Thought cannot be divided from language and the other ways humans represent the world. We are always faced with degrees of fiction: human culture, language and thought are fabrications from the very outset. Culture, history and civilisation can never be stripped away to reveal the pure, naked and authentic truth. Instead it is these very things that help us access the truth about ourselves and our environment. They are the tools that we need to work with and constantly engage with for good or for ill.

To put all this another way: it is a question of the familiar idea that language is a transparent window onto ‘reality’ and that language can truly represent things. This belief has led to the idea that if you make language ‘pure’, then it will give you a clear window onto reality. A language that is full of artifice obscures what is real and fogs up the window. But Foucault argues that language – or discourse – is actually an object amongst other objects and should be treated accordingly. Hence a pure language is not going to get us closer to the truth. We can’t remove ourselves from language and culture – instead of removing ourselves a far more productive approach is to actively engage with them and use them to help us to determine how we can we can live in the present in relation to ourselves and others.

There is more I should add to this discussion. In Foucault’s description rhetorical language is characterised by Greek philosophers as an exercise of power (it is ‘constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person’), whereas the language of ‘true philosophy’ that Socrates is advocating is not a deliberate exercise of power. It is not about manipulating people, it is about revealing the truth and allowing others to decide how to respond to what emerges.

Foucault has, of course, elsewhere in his work, extensively criticised the Platonic forumulation that power and knowledge (truth) are mutually exclusive. In short, the rest of Foucault’s work takes issue with some aspects at least of the way Plato and Socrates construct the parrhesiastic enterprise.

Reposted due to extensive additions and alterations. With thanks to Steve Shann for his comments on the original post.

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