The Force of Truth

Rereading the first hour of Foucault’s January 6, 1982 lecture the other day led me to be struck by several parallels between Foucault’s argument and the early work of Hans Blumenberg. To start with, Foucault posits the modern age as being one in which the subject is capable of truth (via knowledge), but that the truth cannot save the subject (no interaction with subjectivity beyond knowing) (2005: 19).

In 1960’s “Paradigms for a Metaphorology”, Hans Blumenberg attempts the ambitious task of rethinking the relationship between logos and metaphor. Lamenting the subsidiary role in classical thought of metaphor – a world in which logos was equal to cosmos, while metaphor was something else, and inferior – Blumenberg raises several alternative possibilities of the nature of metaphor in thought, arguing that metaphors could also be ‘foundational elements’ of philosophical language; ‘translations’ that resist being converted into logicality (2010: 3). Blumenberg then sets out on a quest to detail some ‘absolute metaphors’: figurations that would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and imagination. This would then constitute the practice of metaphorology.

Much of the following work is occupied with describing a genealogy of the interaction of various metaphors with ‘truth’. For example, one early position of truth is occupied by the ‘force of truth’. One reason why metaphor was relegated to a subsidiary role in the thinking of the ancients is that truth carries a persuasive element as a quality of its being. To know the truth is to unveil the self to its transformative potency regardless of effort or will (2010: 3). This is tied to an observation that for Classical Greeks truth is the ‘entelechty of spirit’, while for the Hellenists truth is known for its ‘curative properties’ (2010: 19).

The force of truth was so self evident and ‘risky’ that it was curtailed by forbidden domains, e.g. the study of the heavens was forbidden to the early scholastics except for certain purposes such as the construction of calendars (an interesting case of this can be found in Japanese history, where much of post Copernican models and mathematics came into usage when Japanese scholars were allowed to access Western learning for the formulation of a new calendar). Blumenberg states that in the transgression of this forbidden realm the metaphor of the force of truth is reversed in that the true no longer directs its fearsome power on the perceiving subject but in itself becomes an object of violence that man must inflict on truth in order to claim it (2010: 20). Truth then ceases to be known as some sort of transformative epiphany, but becomes an object of labor (2010: 21). Considering the writings of Francis Bacon, Blumenberg notes, “…the concepts of labor and truth appear together for the first time in the course of a single sentence. After more than two thousand years, truth’s splendid isolation from any hint of strain is brought to an end” (2010: 22).

This observation segues into the advent of the use of modular tools in the search for the true. Man by himself is not enough to know truth; the device is necessary. “Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that work is done” says Francis Bacon (2010: 22). This follows a trajectory in which the ‘easy access’ to truth is devalued and labeled as a failure of the Middle Ages; truth must be the result of struggle and effort.

This position leads to an ethics of distrust. In which mistrust becomes a value. “Mistrust is now as limitless as trust was in the past, and doubt now seems ethical where faith was earlier…. Through skepticism we undermine tradition, through the consequences of skepticism we drive the hidden truth from its cave, and we find perhaps that tradition was right even though it rested on unsound foundations. A Hegelian might say that we have sought the truth through the negation of the negation,” a young Nietzsche writes (2010: 27).

Yet there were two points that specifically made me think of Blumenberg when reading Foucault that morning. One was that Blumenberg argues that in the modern the holding of truth is not of the subject: “For the professional researcher of the modern age, to know and to ‘publish’ is practically the same thing….” (2010: 47). Or, “Under the normative concept of ‘objectivity’, the modern age relinquishes every exclusive claim to ownership of the truth: once it has been wrested from the object, truth becomes in principle the common property of the human race, accessible in equal measure to all” (2010: 47). It is this transference of ‘ownership’, and the posture that that metaphor entails, from the subjective self to the ‘public domain’ that directed my thinking towards questions of limitations of the relationship of the true to questions of subjectivity. Does the quality of ‘ownership’ create an intimacy between the true and the subject in which the transformative powers of the former have the potential to exert themselves? And perhaps by equating knowing with the distribution of truth into a public is a modern means of ‘taming’ this relationship.

The other point is that Blumenberg notes that there is another shift in the emphasis of the relation of labor to truth in which truth being valued by the labor expended to reach it is transformed into the posture that truth in itself is contingent and alien to the knowing subject, and thus has no value; only the effort to reach the true enhances man. Lessing writes, “Not the truth which someone possesses or believes to possess, but the honest effort he has made to get at the truth, constitutes a human being’s worth. For it is not through the possession of truth, but through its pursuit, that his powers are enlarged, and it is in this alone that his ever-growing perfection lies. Possession makes us inactive, lazy, and proud….” (2010: 49).

This then, these metaphors of labor and ownership, and their relationship to truth is what Blumenberg touches upon in his genealogy and leaves us at, underdeveloped, in his early musings on the nature of ‘the modern’. But the alienating qualities of these metaphors, the curt separation that these modern formations imply between the subject and the true, is what sprung to my mind when considering anew Foucault’s pondering of the division of knowing from a possibility of subject formation. Between ‘labor’ and ‘ownership’ what is the possibility for askesis?