Hear Michel Foucault’s Final UC Berkeley Lectures, “Discourse and Truth” (1983)

We’ve writ­ten quite a bit in pre­vi­ous posts about French philoso­pher Michel Fou­cault’s time in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the final years of his life, and for good rea­son. Dur­ing these years he became some­thing of an aca­d­e­m­ic super­star in the Unit­ed States, deliv­er­ing lec­tures to packed halls at UC Berke­ley, NYU, UCLA, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont, becom­ing fet­ed in aca­d­e­m­ic depart­ments across the human­i­ties, and receiv­ing men­tion in TIME mag­a­zine. He also, sad­ly, con­tract­ed AIDS and passed away in 1984, leav­ing the intrigu­ing fourth vol­ume of his exhaus­tive His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty unfin­ished. It remains unpub­lished at his request.

The title of the mys­te­ri­ous fourth vol­ume, Con­fes­sions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair), pro­vides us with the con­nec­tive tis­sue between his final project and the lec­tures Fou­cault record­ed in Eng­lish at Berke­ley. Those lectures—including “The Cul­ture of the Self” and “Truth and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty”—betray his obses­sion with con­fes­sion, with truth-telling as an act of self-mak­ing.

In a sense, Foucault’s Berke­ley lec­tures crys­tal­ized his life’s work. Just above, in his final Berke­ley lec­ture series, “Dis­course and Truth: the Prob­lema­ti­za­tion of Par­rhe­sia,” Fou­cault deliv­ers what may be the most plain-spo­ken state­ment of his gen­er­al the­sis: “My inten­tion was not to deal with the prob­lem of truth, but with the prob­lem of the truth-teller or truth-telling as an activ­i­ty.”

Such direct­ness of speech is, in fact, the mean­ing of that obscure Greek term, par­rhe­sia, with which Fou­cault frames his dis­cus­sion. Mean­ing “free speech,” the word—rather than, as we might think, relat­ing to the exer­cise of one’s first amend­ment rights—“refers to a type of rela­tion­ship between the speak­er and what he says.”

For in par­rhe­sia, the speak­er makes it man­i­fest­ly clear and obvi­ous that what he says is his own opin­ion. And he does this by avoid­ing any kind of rhetor­i­cal form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the par­rhe­si­astes uses the most direct words and forms of expres­sion he can find.

Fou­cault, of course, reveals this kind of speech—as elab­o­rat­ed in Greek phi­los­o­phy and the work of Euripi­des— to be a per­for­mance with its own com­pli­cat­ed set of rules and codes. “Truth-telling as an activ­i­ty,” Fou­cault con­cludes, presents the con­cept of truth as “true state­ments and sound rea­son­ing” with a num­ber of seem­ing­ly insur­mount­able prob­lems. Put most plain­ly, our sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, Fou­cault argues, make enor­mous­ly com­pli­cat­ed any notion of objec­tiv­i­ty.

Hear all six of the 1983 lec­tures above or stream or down­load MP3s from UC Berkeley’s library site. The full text of each lec­ture is also avail­able on Foucault.info and down­load­able as PDFs.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lec­ture “The Cul­ture of the Self,” Pre­sent­ed in Eng­lish at UC Berke­ley (1983)

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

Michel Fou­cault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Theorist’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy

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

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