The Art of Telling Truth: Power, Language and the Experience of the Exterior in Michel Foucault

Scientific Essay, 2010

16 Pages


Abhilash G Nath

PhD Synopsis

The Art of Telling Truth:

Power, Language and the Experience of the Exterior in Michel Foucault


Scope and Objectives: If examined carefully, one can easily identify in all of Foucault’s major works a reflection of the theoretical and conceptual insights that he has gained from some of his early writings on literature. Foucault’s works on Roussel and Maurice Blanchot, for instance, offer a certain direction. The questions ranging from the mode of existence of language, its signification, functions, and its relationship to the speaking subject that he has subtly evoked in these works, though very important, have not yet been addressed properly till now.

Roussel’s technique of “doubling up of propositions,” for instance, forms the core of discourse analysis in the Archaeology of Knowledge; Blanchot’s understanding of an always-eluding “outside,” an exteriority of our own interiority, sets the stage for Foucault’s reading of madness; the reading of Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas, in The Order of Things, for instance, has developed the idea of doubling up of the exterior. Further, the very idea of a reality of power, that is, defined as a subtle network of relationship folded back on themselves as the always-already-framed condition of possibility in his major work Discipline and Punishment resembles the mode of existence of language in Roussel precisely the way Foucault depicted him in Death and the Labyrinth. And more importantly his latter works on aesthetics, ethics and truth enhances the frequent recurring of the same idea of “doubling up,” but this time through the doubling up of one’s own desires to confront itself in what he calls “the care of the self.”

Even though Foucault has been considered as a theoretician of discontinuities, both in his approach to history and to methodology, a thorough reading of his works would easily reveal the continuity of literary influence on his writing. Foucault himself acknowledged this in one of the later interviews that reading the works of Blanchot, Bataille and Roussel at university, for his generation, was actually a break with a perspective dominated by Marxism, phenomenology, and existentialism.[1] He has stated that “for me literature was something I observed, not something I analyzed, or reduced, or integrated into the very field of analysis. It was a rest, a thought on the way, a badge, a flag.”[2] Literature, as the double of the outside, here, offers exactly the same function as the function of the double of the King and his wife in the mirror in Velazquez’s painting, analyzed in The Order of Things. It only adds more dimensions of meaning to a perception of the visible that is inherently ambiguous. How then this technique that Foucault adopted from literature in his early studies, that is, the doubling up of exterior, has shaped the problem of subject and the art of telling truth in his later writings?

The present study seeks to analyse Foucault from the standpoint of language. It examines the mode of existence of language and the relationship that Foucault envisages between language and the knowing-subject in his writings, especially in his later works. It also tries to answer: what is there in language, if it is a double from the outside that transforms the reader from within? Or more importantly, it examines what restraints one has to enforce on oneself, according to Foucault, to let language transform oneself from within to arrive at an ethics of immanence?


Literature Review – Language and the Problem of Subject: a major concern with the problem of subject reflected in 20th century French thought, in general, and, particularly, in Foucault is probably due to the declining influence of phenomenological tradition in French academics. In the early sixties, the dissatisfaction with the phenomenological theory of the subject has resulted a linguistic turn in psychoanalysis and a Nietzschean turn in philosophy. As a point of departure Foucault, for instance, insists on the inability of phenomenological theory to provide an account of the historicity of reason due to the trans-historical status of the subject in it.[3] Both the subject and reason, to him, are historically contingent and the history of subject is closely linked to the history of reason and vice-versa. Implicit in his studies of fundamental experiences like madness, illness, death, crime, sexuality and the associated rationalities are the constitutive nature of those experiences – the play of power/knowledge in constituting those specific experiences. Being-constituted, hence, also suggests the possibility in both subject and reason of reconstituting themselves.

But then, if man is finally a product of a specific power relation, how then he can be enabled to identify what kind of rationality he is using? How one can enable oneself to question a specific form of pastoral power, if the very experience of the subject is formed by the same power? Or how can a Parrhesia (fearless speech) of the governed possible? Foucault insists that by both subject and reason historically contingent, he doesn’t mean a unique phenomenon, a grand rationalization project that is associated with enlightenment,[4] rather an “abundance of branchings, ramifications, breaks and ruptures” that establishes differentiated projects of rationalization and the coexistence of different reasons at the same time.[5] With that he also means not that one reason bifurcating itself, rather “an endless, multiple bifurcations”[6] constituting not just contingent truth claims, but also historically shaped forms of existence. Hence the play of power/knowledge that constitutes differentiated rationalities and associated experiences consistently invokes a reexamining of the theme of Cartesian cogito in Foucault’s work.[7] However, the most fundamental question that defines cogito in the Cartesian sense interests Foucault a little; that is, how can experience of nature give rise to necessary judgments? Rather he poses the question, how can man think what he does not think or what is presented to him as the stubborn exteriority?[8]

In The Order of Things, Foucault, for instance, develops a critique of Cartesian proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” He argues that the quasi-present of “I” in the proposition “I think” restrains it to lead to the affirmation “I am.” Foucault asks, ‘can I, in fact, say that I am this language I speak, into which my thought insinuates itself to the point of finding in it the system of all its own possibilities? Can I say that I am this labour I perform with my hands, yet which eludes me not only when I have finished it, but even before I have begun it?’[9] It is equally right that it could be and could not be. The cogito, therefore, does not lead to an affirmation of being. Foucault then asks the question: ‘what, then is the connection, the difficult link, between being and thought?’[10] What role then unthought as a double of the exterior plays in Foucault’s theory of subject? As an insistent double of the thought, the unthought presents itself to reflection and enables man to collect and recollect himself in order to attain his truth. Like a blind stain, though exterior to him, it is indispensable to him. In relation to man, unthought is the Other – ‘the Other that is not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside [my italic] him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality.[11]

Foucault’s replies to Derrida’s critique that appeared in Writing and Difference, for instance, has evoked a further dialogue on problem of Cartesian cogito and exterior. Derrida in this critique of Foucault has focused on the few pages that Foucault dedicated for Descartes in Madness and Civilization. He suggests that in his work, Meditations, Descartes rather takes madness to its extreme than excluding it. He asserts that out of a universal doubt, a hyperbolic movement of suspicion that everything around is an illusion, in a movement of madness that cogito actually emerges. And, therefore, it is not exterior to, but resides at the very heart of philosophy.[12] In his reply, through a careful reading of Descartes Foucault insists that the illusion that madness creates is fundamentally different from sensory illusions and dreams. In a state of madness, one must lose one’s own reason and, therefore, madness has to be excluded. Foucault’s reply that has first appeared as an appendix of Madness and Civilization in 1972, thereby, focuses on the inability of deconstruction and textual analysis to think the exteriority of philosophy.[13]

Though cogito does not affirm being in Foucault’s scheme, through the play of the unthought, the exterior, it invokes queries central to being. Man here has an ambiguous position, both as an object of knowledge and a subject that knows. Therefore, he also has no other choice left, but to articulate himself through the always-already unfolded possibilities of labour, life and language. Man, Foucault suggests, will appear in the place where Velazquez positioned the king in Las Meninas. Always exterior to the spectacle that is portrayed and yet the king’s corporeal gaze structures the entire representation in the canvas.[14] What is suggested here is the quasi-presence of “I,” the being, in the proposition “I think.” What then is the relationship that language has with being? What is a sign? Can we really understand the sign in itself?


[1] Michel Foucault, “An Interview with Michel Foucault” in Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), p. no: 174

[2] Michel Foucault, “The Function of Literature” in Michel Foucault, Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, (New York: Routledge, 1988).

[3] Michel Foucault, “Critical Theory/Intellectual History,” in Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews & Other Writings (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988), p. no: 23

[4] See for instance; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, (London: Routledge Classics, 2001)

[5] Foucault’s studies on Psychiatry, disciplinary power, sexuality and the care of the self, for instance, examine the historical development of those rationalities in Western Europe.

[6] Michel Foucault, “Critical Theory/Intellectual History,” in Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews & Other Writings (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988), p no: 28

[7] Michel Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” Madness and Civilization:: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988)

[8] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things:: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p no: 323

[9] Ibid, p no: 324

[10] Ibid, p no: 325

[11] Ibid, p no: 326

[12] Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness,” Writing and Difference, (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 1978)

[13] Michel Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” Madness and Civilization:: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988). Foucault here marks the exact difference between his thought against Derrida’s by advancing an attack on Derrida’s much celebrated statement: “there is nothing outside the text.”

[14] Michel Foucault, (1994), op cit., p no: 312

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Art of Telling Truth: Power, Language and the Experience of the Exterior in Michel Foucault
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
479 KB
Foucault, Truth, Power, Language, Experience, Exterior
Quote paper
Abhilash G Nath (Author), 2010, The Art of Telling Truth: Power, Language and the Experience of the Exterior in Michel Foucault, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Art of Telling Truth: Power, Language and the Experience of the Exterior in Michel Foucault

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free