[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.