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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 30 April 2018

"The Will to Knowledge" by Michel Foucault

This is the first volume of Foucault's “The History of Sexuality”.

Foucault is a respected French philosopher. Were he to be a novelist this might be acceptable. The ideas would be advanced and once could dismiss them as an individual perspective on the world, sometimes extraordinarily perceptive, sometimes not. But given the eminence of this writer and his calling I was expecting to find some evidence for his views.

He rarely cites other authors and this is done hapazardly. He certainly never offers statistical evidence. And yet his thesis is that our 'discourses' about sex began to proliferate around the start of the seventeenth century. This is also (for Foucault, although again there is no evidence offered) the birth of modern capitalism and this is, for Foucault, more than a coincidence.  He uses what I call the 'wow thus' argument: offer a surprising fact such as the coincidence above and while your reader is thinking 'wow' follow up immediately with a 'thus' as if the next section of your fantasy is thoroughly grounded in evidence.

He uses a number of similar rhetoric tricks. For example, he likes to ask questions: “It is certainly legitimate to ask why sex was associated with sin ... but we must also ask why we burden ourselves today with so much guilt for having once made sex a sin.” (p 9) But these 'why' questions assume 'whether' questions: Was sex once associated with sin? If it was, do we burden ourselves with guilt for this association? 

He uses words which suggest that he has won an argument. For example,  on page 17 he says “The seventeenth century, then, was the beginning of an age of repression emblematic of what we call the bourgeois societies”. This word 'then' implies that he has successfully argued that the 17th century was the beginning of an age of repression. The entirety of this argument is on page 5: “By placing the advent of the age of repression in the seventeenth century, after hundreds of years of open spaces and free expression, one adjusts it to coincide with the development of capitalism: it becomes an integral part of the bourgeois order.” Not a lot of evidence. More an assertion. And an admission that he has 'adjusted' the start of the age of repression "to coincide with the development of capitalism". In other words he has admitted manipulating his evidence and then he uses that as if he has established truths. This isn't academic argument.

Another example. “Over these last three centuries ... it is quite possible that there was an expurgation ... of the authorised vocabulary. It may indeed be true that a whole rhetoric of allusion and metaphor was codified. Without question, new rules of propriety screened out some words: there was a policing of statements ... Areas were thus established, if not of utter silence, at least of tact and discretion.” (p 17 - 18) "It is quite possible". "It may indeed be true". These are used to weasel assertions in without having to offer evidence. "Without question" is used to back up an assertion which should be questioned. And then comes the word "thus". This is a new type of syllogistic logic. This is a conclusion built upon speculation.

It happens again. “I still do not know whether this is the ultimate objective. But this much is certain: reduction has not been the means employed for trying to achieve it. ... Our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities.” (p 37) A neat admission of uncertainty before a bold and unevidenced assertion. Who dare question what Foucault says?

How does he get away with statements such as: "Nineteenth century bourgeois society - and it is doubtless still with us - was a society of blatant and fragmented perversion.” (p 47) I just want to scream: where is your proof?

This much is undeniable: the learned discourse on sex that was pronounced in the nineteenth century was imbued with age old delusions, but also with systematic blindnesses: a refusal to see and to understand” (p 55) Undeniable? If it is undeniable then it doesn't need a great thinker to discover it. If it can be denied then a learned thinker needs to argue it through and provide at least some evidence.

I think I'm going on a bit.

He was interesting in the things he pointed out about confession. Here he seems to apply the classic philosophy tool of subjecting an idea to forensic analysis to reveal aspects that might be considered:

  • Since the 1215 Lateran Council codified penance confession has grown in importance. (p 58) “the confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations ... one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles ... one confesses in public and in private” (p 59)
  • When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat ... since the Middle Ages, torture has accompanied it like a shadow.” (p 59)
  • Literature has changed from “heroic or marvellous narration of ‘trials’ of bravery or sainthood, to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself ... a truth.” (p 59)
  • The obligation to confess is now ... so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface” (p 60)
  • We belong to a society which has ordered sex’s difficult knowledge, not according to the transmission of secrets, but around the slow surfacing of confidential statements.” (p 63)
  • In confession “the truth did not reside solely in the subject ... It was constituted in two stages: present but incomplete, blind to itself, in the one who spoke. It could only reach completion in the one who assimilated and recorded it.” (p 67)


There were lots of interesting fact snippets within this short volume. The trouble is that Foucault's cavalier treatment of logic and evidence make me wonder whether anything he says can be taken as true. Nevertheless:

  • Before the Council of Trent a confession involving sex was expected to describe “the respective positions of the partners, the postures assumed, gestures, places touched, caresses, the precise moment of pleasure.” (p 19). Afterwards vagueness was advised.
  • Erasmus advised “on the choice of a good prostitute” (p 27) 
  • For a long time hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union.” (p 38)
  • Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transferred from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (p 43)
  • Charcot used amyl nitrate as well as ether in his public demonstrations of neurotic women having seizures etc. (p 55)
  • Where sex and pleasure are concerned, power can ‘do’ nothing but say no to them.” (p 83) “To deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition. Its objective: that sex renounce itself. Its instrument: the threat of a punishment that is nothing other than the suppression of sex. Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed.” (p 84)
  • Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.” (p 86)
  • Four figures emerged from this preoccupation with sex, which mounted throughout the nineteenth century ... the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult.” (p 105)
  • Once the mechanism of heredity was understood sex became responsible for inherited diseases and its control was a target of eugenics. (p 118)
  • The theory of ‘degenerescence’ ... explained how a heredity that was burdened with various maladies ... ended by producing a sexual pervert ... it went on to explain how a sexual perversion resulted in the depletion of one's line of descent.” (p 118)
  • The young adult man, possessing nothing more than his life force, had to be the primary target of an subjugation destined to shift the energy available for useless pleasure toward compulsory labour.” (p 120)
  • One of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death ... the power of the sovereign over his subjects could be exercised ... only in cases where the sovereign's very existence was in jeopardy ... if he was threatened by external enemies ... he could then legitimately wage war, and require his subjects ... to ‘expose their life’ ... but if someone dared to rise up against him and transgress his laws, then he could exercise a direct power over the offender’s life: as punishment, the letter would be put to death.” (p 135)
  • The ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live. ... power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction ... a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself.” (p 136)
  • It is over life ... that power establishes its dominion; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it.” (p 138)
There are things here which might be good starting points for an investigation but the overall feeling is that this writer uses rhetorical tricks to support unevidenced assertions.

April 2018; 159 pages


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