Foucault’s Addendum

Eugène Atget, Masque Antique, 1910

Finally published, Foucault’s lecture notes from 1970–71, his first year teaching at the Collège de France, demolish the caricatures of his thought

On the first page of the lecture notes of January 27, 1971, Michel Foucault scrawled “incomplete” in his notoriously undisciplined hand. This bit of marginalia from the first year of his public lectures at the Collège de France (one of the last sets to be collected and published in English) hangs like an augury of the end of Foucault’s career, cut short by AIDS. If it’s hard not to hear artful references to his impending death in some of the final lectures at the Collège in 1984, it’s harder not to feel a deeper sense of loss with these lectures, of which there are no recordings, only notes.

In these first lectures at the Collège, the most prestigious teaching appointment in the French Academy, Foucault invited his audience to begin where he would eventually end in 1984: in sixth and fifth century Athens. The starting point will come as a shock to Foucault’s exegetes, who have been operating under the assumption that Ancient Greece was a “late” preoccupation of his. On this and many other points, the publication of Lectures on the Will to Know Lectures at the College de France, 1970-1971 requires a sweeping revision of prevailing receptions of his work.

Since his death, the intellectual portrait of Foucault has been drawn by interpreters invested either in making his thought more palatable to liberal quietism — the “resistance is everywhere; all resistance is futile” Foucault — or in a cottage industry that has mined his work for fashionable academic buzz words (panopticism, biopolitics, governmentality, normativity, etc.). Foucault’s career is typically periodized and divided in three parts: An early phase, between Order of Things and Birth of the Clinic, is mostly concerned with establishing the epistemological breaks between successive systems of knowledge, the impassable gaps between them. His middle phase — of Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality I — is said to be concerned with the more explicitly political theme of how power transformed systems of knowledge, focusing on figures such as criminal delinquents and sexual deviants. The late Foucault of the second and third volumes of History of Sexuality is said to have retreated from these political commitments to the ethical thematic of “care of the self.”

Most receptions of Foucault emphasize some particular point along this continuum, often to the point of caricature. The anarchist reading dwells upon a paranoid vision of disciplinary power. Philosophers prefer the elegant historian of scientific knowledge and medical perception. Liberals favor the apparent ethical endorsement of lifestyle politics in the later period. The materials assembled as Lectures on the Will to Know, however, introduce us to something raw and unpolished, a man who attacked the foundations of Western knowledge by questioning the political neutrality of knowledge.

Foucault contends in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (also titled Volonté de savoir, The Will to Know) that our political analysis has so far “failed to cut off the head of the king” — a charge leveled as much at the resurgent liberalism as the Marxism of his day.  But his desire that heads roll was first articulated in the 1970–71 lectures. Despite the stated topic of the  seminar — “penalty in 19th century France,” or more specifically, “the insertion of a discourse claiming scientific status (medicine, psychiatry, psychopathology, sociology) within a system — the penal system — which previously was entirely prescriptive” — Foucault avoids these themes and instead blazes a path through a far more interesting and suggestive set of problems.

He pursues the emergence and conditions of possibility for philosophical knowledge and ends up at “the problem of political knowledge — of what is necessary in order to govern the city and put it right.” The city states of sixth and fifth century Greece (where, it turns out, Foucault’s Collège lectures began and concluded) are the essential point of departure for this project because establishing a genealogy of power required consideration of how the first citizen armies and currencies produced and neutralized popular political power.

These lectures engage with the central issues of Foucault’s entire scholarly undertaking: What drives the will to know? How does philosophy work to exclude other forms of knowledge? How can this exclusion be questioned from within philosophical discourse? Foucault’s answer to each is to consider the history of the oppressed. The memory of their struggles remains the only relation to truth capable of dislodging the desire for knowledge’s apparent neutrality. Foucault’s conviction that our way of understanding the world belies this real but suppressed history of struggles turns the will to know against itself.


As the result of the publisher’s misguided decision to protect the copyrights, Lectures on the Will to Know excludes Foucault’s actual inaugural lecture of 1970–71. Nevertheless, the stakes of his game are clear in the second lecture: he intends to explore whether “real struggles and relations of domination are involved in the will to truth.” This challenges a basic assumption of the entire Western philosophical tradition: that knowledge of the world is desirable for itself and is politically neutral. He raises the possibility that a historical clash of forces, struggles and relations of domination, lie behind the philosopher’s claim to a “knowledge with no other end than itself” and help explain why populations, criminals, vagabonds, insane, soldiers, and the colonized emerge as targets of scientific knowledge and thereby sites for the exercise of power. Foucault asks whether there can be a kind of speech with an alternate relation to truth, speech that is engaged in the struggle and no less committed to truth.

In broad strokes, Lectures on the Will to Know sketches four epistemological orders of true speech in seventh- through fifth-century Greek thought: (1) a mythopoetic order of prophesy and superstition, and (2) the order of the oath, which both maintained an archaic relation to the truth as ordered by the Gods; (3) in the opposition between dikazein and krinen, a just ordering of the city was grounded in a cosmological understanding of the world, observation of the stars, planets, and seasons to know when to plant and harvest, when to sail and wage war, when to collect taxes and demand repayment of debts; they are both means of establishing a common measure for the value of things. Finding this cosmological relation to the truth in Hesiod’s Work and Days, Foucault makes the case for its origin in the Assyrian and Hittite dynasties’ establishment of quantitative measures for market equivalencies and a magico-religious calendar for the rituals of sovereign power. (4) Foucault isolates a new juridical will to truth in sixth century Athens that breaks with all prior epistemological configurations of the will to truth by making man the bearer and object of true speech. Origin of democracy and philosophy alike, this true speech announced the beginning of a knowledge of the world centered around man.

As for the cause of this great epistemological rupture, Foucault assigns it to three decisive historical events. The Dorian invasions of the seventh and early sixth centuries led to impoverishment and agrarian subsistence crises. The technological adoption of iron democratized war, as the chariots and spears of Homeric epic gave way to semi-popular infantries. Iron also provided incentives for the development of greater craft production, the expansion of trade networks and establishment of Greek colonies overseas. All of these contributed to a class struggle in seventh and sixth century Athens between rich and poor; the armed strength of the hoplites, so necessary for the defeat of the Dorian armies, also made possible the eviction of aristocrats and cancellation of debts. Investment in craft production in fifth-century Athens and sixth- century Corinth began to break with the residual mode of agrarian production based on slavery and debt by encouraging a system of capital investment in craft production and trade.

Greece found a new function for money beyond its sacral function in collection of taxes and debts. Once internal to a regime of gift, sacrifice, and redistribution, money became a means for separating the political and economic orders with an apparently neutral institution for circulating values. It could diffuse the class conflict over debt, be used for paying out wages in craft production, and finance war and colonial expansion. Money established a new relation between truth and justice.

The path from these earlier relations between truth and justice to this new form established by money was a long one. Power founded itself through the preservation of customs codified in law. It installed a “juridical definition of the individual” through (1) inheritance customs that guaranteed the reproduction of class power in a newly democratic political order and preserved the property of families, (2) funerary rights that posited the identity and temporal continuity of an individual into the afterlife, and (3) murder proceedings that established the culpability of one individual for the life of another along with rituals for the purification of the city. These three procedures for establishing a new relation between truth and justice, Foucault argues, carved out a fictive place of “the individual,” which, by concealing the link between the political and economic orders, “halted the great popular demand for full and egalitarian distribution of the land.”

Foucault draws an implicit link between the way in which money neutralized the struggle for a democratic basis of state power and the way in which Western philosophy neutralized the struggle for truth in speech. If philosophy conceals the origins of knowledge in struggles by founding the value of knowledge for its own sake, then money hides the places where the economy is politically contestable by founding the pursuit of money for its own sake. To the extent that our culture still indulges in the fantasy that knowledge is disinterested or that technology is inherently progressive, to the extent that we accept financial institutions’ definition of the creditworthy individual (or nation), and to the extent that we accept the massive paper claims of the rich on the total social wealth, we have been duped by this ruse of history which gives all spoils to the victors.

It is a very old problem, as these lectures indicate. Any popular political project capable of transforming this situation, Foucault suggests, would require a bold sense of abandon, transgression, and excess equal to that of the king it seeks to toss into the sea. In the remarkable reading of Oedipus Rex appended to this volume, Foucault eschews all prevailing approaches to the tragic subject of self-consciousness, asking instead: Who speaks and who hears, who sees and who receives testimony of what was seen? What are the political and economic positions of these enunciative and receptive positions in discourse, and what do they indicate about the will to know in fifth-century Athens?

Oedipus is far from a figure of ignorance, the unconscious or tragic self-consciousness. When understood in the play’s own terms, he is evriskein, the discoverer, the one who makes inquiries. In Foucault’s reading, Oedipus is “the one who plays — or tries to play — with the multiplicity of forms of knowledge.” The mythopoetic relation to truth plays out in the figures of the oracle and the oath, the juridical inquiry into the murder of the king and the source of the plague on the city, and finally, the birth of a new form of the will to know that will ultimately be Oedipus’s undoing: looking, pointing, and assessing memory, historein. 

To an audience shaped by the experience of May ’68, Foucault issued a challenge in his commentary on this ancient fable of power. Since Aristotle, we have conceived of the moment of peripeteia, or dramatic reversal of fortunes, without conceiving “of knowledge in terms of power, and so of excess, and so of transgression,” regarding it instead only in terms of a disinterested idea of justice or progress. This perspective accepts the ruling-class vision of popular power as illegitimate for its excessive interests and desires, delivering us into the hands of disinterested tyrants.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus, Foucault indicates, is a sumbolon—“a figure pulled apart” — whose final missing fragment is borne by the slave, endowed with the insight of Apollo, “keeping quiet about what he has seen and what no one should have seen.” The testimony of this man at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid scheme would topple the tyrant, who was only ever a weak and fragmentary assemblage of knowledges. One can see the inspiration of this remarkable insight running throughout all Foucault’s subsequent work.

“What disappears with the fall of Oedipus,” Foucault claims, “is that old Oriental form of the expert king (roi savant)the king who controls, pilots, and sets the city right with his knowledge, fending off disasters and plagues.” The vision of the oriental despot making inquiries into the source of the city’s malaise is a striking one for our own era of information wars, security-state apparatuses, and surveillance technologies. How do our own concerns for justice and progress make us the victims of tyrants?

If these cultural artifacts of Antiquity resonate with us today — democracy, tyranny, and family — it is not only due to the illuminating insights of retrospection. The descendants of these same structures of power organize and sustain not only our material world but also our elemental senses of self and subjectivity. Subjective resistance is capable of minor evasions but to claim they are “subversive” risks overstatement. In fact, dramatic reversals of networks of power — revolution, slave revolts, and debt rebellions — are rare birds indeed. Far from a liberal apology for the way things are, Foucault gives us eminently useful advice: be attentive to the voices of the oppressed, the slaves who possess the key knowledge, and be patient for the most opportune moment for slitting the tyrants’ throats.