Foucault – Leçons sur la volonté de savoir

As exciting as the English version of The Courage of Truth is, the real news in Foucault studies this year is surely the publication of Leçons sur la volonté de savoir. I gave this an initial, fairly fast, read on the train down and back to London for the Connolly workshop, and it is stunning. What follows are initial thoughts, based on that summary reading.

This is Foucault’s first course at the Collège de France, from the 1970-71 academic year, and while it gives some indication of where his work is likely to go over the next half decade – i.e. up to Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, when he reused the title – it also anticipates themes that would take him through until his death. This is because this is a course that is almost entirely about the Greeks.

Daniel Defert as editor has done a stellar job with the texts, and there is a very helpful ‘Situation du Cours’. In that essay he draws a lot of parallels and contrasts between Foucault and Heidegger, and makes a particularly interesting observation about the likely influence of Eugen Fink’s Spiel als Weltsymbol on Foucault. While the previously published lecture courses have been based on tapes of the lectures as delivered, supplemented to varying degrees by manuscript materials, here the manuscripts are the basis of the edition, with the bits of recordings that do exist, along with some notes taken by Hélène Politis from the audience to fill out the presentation. There are some missing sections in the manuscript, including the material on Nietzsche, which Defert has replaced with other materials including notably the text of a lecture on Nietzsche from later in 1971. There is also another supplementary related text, ‘Le savoir d’Oedipe’. The ‘no posthumous publications’ injunction, previously circumvented by publishing transcriptions of tapes in the public domain, is now being entirely ignored. Might an edition of The History of Sexuality volume four, Les aveux de la chair, now be conceivable?

The course summary Foucault published in 1971 is included in this volume, and has been available in English for some time (in Ethics: Essential Works Volume 1). Rereading it after reading the course is interesting – while Foucault fairly represents the material, it still seems to me that it doesn’t really indicate just how much is going in the course itself. The first part of the summary is more of a analysis of where he is some months after the completion of the course; and the second part cannot do justice to the richness of the analysis. Of course, the summary is of the lectures as delivered, and the material here is both less and more than that, given the missing parts and the supplementary material.

The discussions of ancient Greece are not simply on Aristotle (mainly the Metaphysics) and Sophocles’ Oedipus (in the lectures as well as the supplementary text), but there are also readings of the Sophists, Hesiod, Herodotus, Plato and Homer. Accounts that suggest Foucault only really engaged with antiquity in the 1980s will need to be entirely revised. There is also a lot on Greek politics, including a very interesting discussion of Solon, political economy, law,  agriculture, etc. There is stuff on administering cities that anticipates later lecture material from the ‘governmentality’ period. The reading of Nietzsche is important, and a valuable addition to, and well as an anticipation of, the ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ piece from this same period.

The key concern is, perhaps surprisingly, not knowledge so much as truth, but in a contested, political sense, rather than a detailed ‘objective’ manner. This is of course another link to the ‘late’ Foucault. The power-knowledge relation, anticipated in the ‘Orders of Discourse’ inaugural lecture, is really beginning to be worked through, albeit without the precision of terminology that would later be employed. This text makes possible Discipline and Punish, but with no overlap of material.

I said to the organisers of the Radical Foucault conference in September that my keynote would be on this text, a decision I’d made before it was published. Obviously there was an element of risk in promising that before I read it, but I was fairly sure there would be at least something to say about it, and it’s repaid my expectations several times over. There is lots and lots of stuff to think about here. The challenge will be which aspects to focus on. Defert is speaking about this text at The Foucault Effect 1991-2011 workshop next week, in a session for which I am the discussant. I’m really looking forward to that too.

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This entry was posted in Conferences, Eugen Fink, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Foucault – Leçons sur la volonté de savoir

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