Hear Michel Foucault Deliver His Lecture on “Truth and Subjectivity” at UC Berkeley, In English (1980)

Michel Fou­cault first arrived at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley in 1975. By this time, he was already a celebri­ty in France. He had just pub­lished his enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial his­to­ry and cri­tique of the penal sys­tem, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, and he occu­pied a posi­tion at the pres­ti­gious Col­lège de France as chair in the “his­to­ry of sys­tems of thought,” a posi­tion he cre­at­ed for him­self. But when he arrived on the West Coast, writes Mar­cus Wohlsen, “few at Berke­ley had heard of Michel Fou­cault.” Leo Bersani, then chair­man of the French depart­ment, even had to call phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor Hubert Drey­fus to help “come and fill out the ranks” for Foucault’s lec­tures.

After the pub­li­ca­tion of vol­ume one of The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Fou­cault would return to Berke­ley in the fall of 1979, then again in 1980. By then, the scene had changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Fou­cault was invit­ed to deliv­er the How­i­son Lec­ture that year, a dis­tin­guished invi­ta­tion pre­vi­ous­ly extend­ed to such thinkers as John Dewey, Willard V.O. Quine and, the year pre­vi­ous, John Rawls. By this time, Wohlsen writes, Fou­cault was, reluc­tant­ly, “an inter­na­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic super­star.” Fill­ing the hall for his lec­tures would not be an issue. In fact, Wohlsen tells us,

Crowds crammed the 2,000-seat Zeller­bach Hall so quick­ly that police had to bar the doors. Fou­cault fans milled around rest­less­ly out­side until [phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor Hans] Slu­ga arranged for a live broad­cast of the letures to Wheel­er Hall. Its 760 seats filled almost imme­di­ate­ly.

Accord­ing to Slu­ga, Fou­cault, increas­ing­ly wary of his fame, inten­tion­al­ly titled his lecture—“Truth and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty: the Sto­ic Prac­tice of Self Examination”—to sound “learned, abstract, remote” in order to deter a large crowd. That ploy clear­ly failed.

In the first part of the lec­ture (at top), the pre­sen­ter who intro­duces Fou­cault begins by ges­tur­ing to the philosopher’s fame, then com­ments that Foucault’s promi­nent post at the Col­lège de France was “very para­dox­i­cal, since Michel Fou­cault, although pres­ti­gious, is not a typ­i­cal kind of aca­d­e­m­ic. He is sus­pi­cious of all titles and claims to dis­in­ter­est­ed truth that has been [sic] asso­ci­at­ed with acad­e­mia.” After men­tion­ing Foucault’s fierce crit­i­cism of every his­tor­i­cal assump­tion and method­ol­o­gy (he was a guest of the His­to­ry and French Depart­ments), he breaks off his remarks to note that “there’s a mob of peo­ple all around, try­ing to get in.”

Fou­cault begins his lec­ture in French (at 8:08), then switch­es to Eng­lish for the remain­der (at 9:18). He quotes from a his­tor­i­cal French psychiatrist’s account of a “cure” involv­ing an “inter­ro­ga­tion” and a coerced con­fes­sion of mad­ness. Fou­cault calls this one among many exam­ples of “truth ther­a­pies,” and it serves—as do such vivid­ly spe­cif­ic archival exam­ples in his books—as a har­row­ing intro­duc­tion to the polic­ing of capital‑T Truth that is the essence of the human­ist enter­prise.

Despite the often pro­found­ly unset­tling nature of his inves­ti­ga­tions, and his attempt to scare off the crowd, Fou­cault is not dour or bor­ing, nor does he seem at all unap­proach­able or for­bid­ding. He is patient and self-dep­re­cat­ing­ly fun­ny: in a cut­ting, rue­ful ref­er­ence to the grow­ing dom­i­nance of ana­lyt­ic phi­los­o­phy in British and Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, he says, “I con­fess, with the appro­pri­ate cha­grin, that I am not an ana­lyt­i­cal philoso­pher. Nobody is per­fect.” Then he sums up his project suc­cinct­ly: “I have tried to explore anoth­er direc­tion. I have tried to get from a phi­los­o­phy of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty to a geneal­o­gy of the sub­ject.”

Fou­cault is a very charm­ing speak­er, sprin­kling his lec­ture with lit­tle jokes like “It goes with­out say­ing… but it goes bet­ter with say­ing…” and drop­ping in Amer­i­can­isms like “Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing,” to the amuse­ment of the crowd. He shows him­self to be very much aware of his audience—these are deeply seri­ous lec­tures, with­out a doubt, but Fou­cault nev­er for­gets that he’s fac­ing liv­ing human beings, with their own domains of knowl­edge and subjectivities—and he seeks to reach them where they are while report­ing on his dis­turb­ing dis­cov­er­ies as an archae­ol­o­gist of West­ern human­ist dis­course.

Fou­cault returned to Berke­ley again as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor in 1981 and again 1983, the year before his death. Alain Beaulieu, who has cat­a­logued Foucault’s Berke­ley archives, described his time in Cal­i­for­nia as hap­py and pro­duc­tive, “while he remain[ed] crit­i­cal of some fea­tures asso­ci­at­ed with the ‘Cal­i­forn­ian cult of the self.’” In fact, “Cult of the Self” was the title of three lec­tures Fou­cault deliv­ered at Berke­ley in 1983 (lis­ten here), along with six lec­tures on “Dis­course and Truth.” Dur­ing his time at Berke­ley in 1980, when he deliv­ered the lec­ture above, grad­u­ate stu­dent Michael Bess inter­viewed the philoso­pher. Fou­cault spoke plain­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly about the impe­tus for his relent­less cri­tiques of insti­tu­tion­al pow­er and knowl­edge:

In a sense, I am a moral­ist, inso­far as I believe that one of the tasks, one of the mean­ings of human existence—the source of human freedom—is nev­er to accept any­thing as defin­i­tive, untouch­able, obvi­ous, or immo­bile. No aspect of real­i­ty should be allowed to become a defin­i­tive and inhu­man law for us.

We have to rise up against all forms of power—but not just pow­er in the nar­row sense of the word, refer­ring to the pow­er of a gov­ern­ment or of one social group over anoth­er: these are only a few par­tic­u­lar instances of pow­er.

Pow­er is any­thing that tends to ren­der immo­bile and untouch­able those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.

Read the com­plete inter­view, first pub­lished in the Novem­ber 10, 1980 Dai­ly Cal­i­forn­ian, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michel Foucault’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy Explored in a Reveal­ing 1993 Doc­u­men­tary

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV, 1971

Down­load Free Cours­es from Famous Philoso­phers: From Bertrand Rus­sell to Michel Fou­cault

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self

90 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es in our Col­lec­tion of 800 Free Cours­es Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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