Foucault Was No Relativist

Foucault [Editor's Note: We're pleased to have some more blog input here from Getty, the guest from our Hume/Smith episode, who wrote his undergrad thesis on Foucault and was in line to be a guest on this one himself. You can blame me for the image, which I found here.]

Was Foucault a relativist about truth? Truth-relativism is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, only relative ones. This view is often attributed to Foucault on account of his scathing critique of “reason” in Madness and Civilizationand his understanding of “knowledge” (even of the biological sort) as social kind. Nonetheless, it is mistaken to label Foucault a truth-relativist. Like Nietzsche, Foucault is primarily interested in how notions of “reason” and “knowledge” are rarefied in our cultural practices—and, conversely, how these practices impact our understanding of these notions. It doesn’t follow from this that Foucault had anything substantive to say about truth as-such. In fact, it seems that he wasn’t even interested in such questions.

In The Order of Things,Foucault sets himself the task of undergoing a comparative study “of the knowledge of living beings, the knowledge of the laws of language, and the knowledge of economic facts, and relate them to the philosophical discourse that was contemporary with them during a period extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century” (Foreword, x). The end result of Foucault’s investigation is a master treatment of the concept of “representation” in modern philosophy and science. That said, his treatment of “representation” is not, strictly speaking, epistemological (you can contrast this with, say, Deleuze). Foucault was not so much concerned with whether or not the Enlightenment notion of representation was true; instead he interested in how the concept informed the development of the human sciences of the period (and consequently, how “representation” came to be subsumed later the nineteenth century).

Sure, one may object: “but Foucault is critical at times, and he is critical of truth no less.” Sure, he is, but it important to note the way in which Foucault is critical. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault tracks the development of penal practices during the modern period (from ‘disciplining the body’ to ‘disciplining the soul’). Many times it is thought that Foucault, by undertaking this investigation, was attempting to excavate and criticize the penal norms of the later modern period (those that focused on the soul). But while this analysis is correct, it is incomplete. Foucault didn’t concern himself with the truth of the penal practices in question, as he didn’t consider the issue at hand to be a fundamentally epistemological one. Instead the issues for Foucault were (1) the nature of the ideology that underpinned the practices and (2) how the practices that instantiated the ideology in question effected how people related to one another (both individually and collectively).

In this way, Foucault’s project overlaps with Nietzsche’s work on Christian morality. As Ken Gemes rightly points out (here), Nietzsche isn’t concerned with the notion of truth as-such. For when Nietzsche is attacking Christian morality, his strategy isn’t based on the fact that Christianity is, strictly speaking, a false doctrine (though he finds it to be implausible). Perhaps it is false and perhaps it true; it is all the same to him, as it is no consequence for his larger project. What Nietzsche is primarily interested in is the effect that Christianity has had on the health of its adherents and European culture at large. Like Foucault, the focus of Nietzsche’s project aims at understanding how various conceptual frameworks (moral or otherwise) shape the way that people relate to themselves and others. The question of truth, in any robust sense, doesn’t enter this picture at any point. In other words, Foucault, like Nietzsche, is not a relativist about truth; he is simply ambivalent to the notion.

Is this ambivalence dangerous? No, not necessarily. We are still left with the tools of internal critique. But I will leave that to another time.

-Getty Lustila


  1. Getty says

    Good stuff dmf. I once gave a paper on Foucault’s reading of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” It is a weird (and great) little essay.

    • dmf says

      seemed helpful to offer some context,
      is there a difference that makes a difference between a sociological/genealogical account of modes of truth-making and a relativist/historicist position on truth?

  2. Getty says


    A sociological/genealogical account of truth-making remains silent about what things are or are not true. Relativist/historicist positions on truth claim that truth is either (a) relative to some particular a-temporal context or (b) relative to some particular temporal context. For example, Foucault can make claims about the kinds of epistemological practices embodied by 17th and 18th century medical sciences without making claims about whether or not such practices are either true or false, strictly speaking.

    • dmf says

      “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
      We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors – in moral terms, the obligation to lie according to fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all…”

      ‘On truth and lie in an extra-moral sense,’ The Viking Portable Nietzsche, p.46-7, Walter Kaufmann transl.

  3. Getty says

    I’m not sure what you are getting at? Are you mounting a counterexample, or philosophically aligning yourself with this passage? Talking about Nietzsche–especially about his unpublished early essays, and even more especially about his comments on truth–can get tricky. I would urge caution against taking passages like this at face value.

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