Foucault, Iran and the ‘ethical turn’

Alain Beaulieu published recently a paper (1) in which he argues that Foucault’s short lived engagement with the Iranian revolution had an influence on the ‘ethical turn’ that characterizes the last stage of his work. He claims that ‘The discovery of spirituality (Iran), the valorization of an autonomous subject (Kant) and the call for a tolerant environment towards minority practices (liberalism) pave the way for the later Foucault’s ethics, which are grounded in spiritual exercises and means of liberating the subject’. (801)

Baulieu starts from the accepted division of Foucault’s intellectual development in three distinct stages: archaeology, genealogy and ethics, but criticizes the lack of an explanation for the shift from a genealogical paradigm (Surveiller et Punir [1975] and the first volume of Histoire de la Sexualite [1976]) to the ethical paradigm, represented by the second and third volumes of Histoire de la Sexualite (1984). He claims to have found this explanation in three apparently unconnected developments. One, that relates to Foucault’s activity as a journalist covering the the early stages of the Iranian Revolution and his subsequent estrangement from the development in Iran. The second, relates to Foucault interest on the liberal tradition, which he explored in the lectures in the College of France in school year 1978 and 1979. And the third is marked by Foucault’s return to Kant and the question of the Enlightenment, which are subject matter of three lectures, These three developments are interconnected. ‘Together they define the grounds from which Foucault’s ethics would emerge’.

Regarding the Iranian experience, about which he was subsequently silent, Beaulieu finds that Foucault while critique of the outcomes of the Iranian revolution, did not reject altogether the uprising against the Shah. He remained attached to a notion of spirituality which he first found in Iran during the Revolution. Beaulieu further claims that Foucault’s later meditation on ethics are in fact ‘a continuation of his search for a revolutionary form of spirituality’ (805). He even suggest that in fact Foucault could be trying to create a synthesis between the kind of spirituality that he discovered in Iran with the liberal traditions and with Kant (who is also a liberal thinker) borrowing the best from each, to better criticize the rationalities that govern us (807).

A possible objection to Beauleu’s argument is the difference between the kind of spirituality which Foucault found in his travel in revolutionary Iran (mostly of a collective and theocentric nature) and the spirituality Foucault was to describe latter in his studies of the late classical philosophy and early Christianity, which was centered in the individual or in the close relationship between master and disciple. Possibly to counter this counter-argument, Beaulieu claims that Foucault’s interest in Western spiritual practices can be seen as a correction to his precedent and uncritical enthusiasm for the Iranian revolutionaries. Now the argument runs: the synthesis is not between Iranian spirituality and Liberalism, but between western spirituality and Liberalism.

Beaulieu claims that in the course in 1978 and 1979 in the CdF Foucault attempted to develop an Utopian vision of society, one in which ‘tolerance of minority practices will increase’ (814). But Foucault’s analysis remained programmatic. Two crucial texts that remain unpublished, the transcription of the Foucault’s lectures in 1979 (Du Gouvernement des Vivants) and 1980 (Subjectivite et Verite) may contain additional developments that confirm Beaulieu’s interpretation.

Interestingly, Beaulieu quotes from a dialogue between Foucault and the Iranian writter Baqir Parham, where Foucault refers critically to the infatuation of Western intellectuals for the state and for Communism,
but does not mention Foucault’s comments regarding Vietnam and Cambodia (2). Foucault was active in support for refugees from Vietnam’s boat people, therefore it would be reasonable to assume that these tragedies affected Foucault’s view of politics, and of the role and duties of the intellectual when providing support to political and social causes. at least to the same extent as his disillusionment with the turn of events in Iran.

Beaulieu’s paper also calls attention to Foucault’s not well explored flirt with liberalism. This has been a matter of some controvery, particularly because of the criticism from Habermas and Nancy Fraser. It will be interesting to compare Foucault’s analysis with Habermas’ criticism of of the Wellfare State and of neo-conservativism in the early 80s.

(1) Alain Beaulieu, Towards a liberal Utopia: The connection between Foucault’s reporting on the Iran Revolution and the ethical turn, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36 (7), pp. 801-819 (doi: 10.1177/0191453710372065).

(2) The interview is reproduced in Janet Afary, Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: gender and the seductions of Islamism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 185 Beaulieu does not quote the subtitle of this book, which refers to what the authors see as Foucault’s highly problematic relationship to feminism (p. 5-6).


A short history of the teaching of philosophy in France

The webzine  Skohle brings a series of entries on the history of the teaching of philosophy in France (in French)


Has Western philosophy been built on the exclusion of certain groups of people?

I wrote an essay for a contest, but my entry did not make it to the final.  I still believe that it made a few valid claims. These was my central argument:

I would like to propose four models that could be used to clarify what is meant when one considers this relationship between the foundations of philosophy and exclusion. Considered in order of pertinence they are: ignorance, displacement, concealment (ideology), and alienation.

If we can show that as philosophy developed it failed to even register the fact that certain groups of people were being excluded, we can define this problem as one of ignorance. In the dialogue that we imagined earlier, the old house, without the new owner’s knowledge, had to be torn in order for the new one to be built. The new owners took no part in the destruction. Applied to the case at hand, their exclusion is a necessary antecedent, but does not necessarily shape the development of philosophy. Philosophy could very well have developed without the exclusion. Of course, this does not excuse philosopher’s apparent ignorance, and having ignored historical events is still a blemish on the institution. We know that modern philosophy was not particularly concerned with events such as the colonization of Africa, America, and Asia; to slavery; and many other evils. Philosophers (and scientists, poets and other intellectuals) could have known better, and therefore, should have known better. However, this distraction cannot be said to be a structural failure of philosophy, only a moral one.

To claim that philosophy and exclusion are in a relationship of displacement, we would need to argue that philosophy not only ignored certain realities, but through their inaction allowed those same realities to be displaced, preventing them from becoming a matter of public discussion. For example, many thinkers claim that Western philosophy failed to prevent the emergence of totalitarian regimes in Europe, and therefore that the very foundations of philosophy should be reworked.

In order to claim that the relationship between philosophy and exclusion is one of concealment we must show that the cognitive structures that define philosophical thought also hide the nature of exclusion and thereby enable it. Philosophy is at fault not only by defect, by omission or by distraction, but by its very nature. For example, humanism and rationalism can be said to be projections of “possessive individualism” and of Capitalism, or alternatively, of a patriarchal social structure.

Finally, philosophy (and Western rationality in general) may stand in a relationship of alienation to certain groups, but only if what makes philosophy possible are the practices of exclusion and dispossession. This idea can be further examined in two distinct variants. The first defines the relationship between philosophy’s foundations and exclusion as a relation of exteriority, e.g., the claim that the dispossession of the working class allows for the creation of a separate class structure in which people are able to wonder about the ultimate meaning of reality. These people (intellectuals in general as well as philosophers) fulfill certain roles in the reproduction of the ruling class. We say that this is a relation of exteriority because while the existence of excluded groups makes philosophy possible (along with intellectual production in general), neither the content nor the form of philosophical production derives from the exclusion itself.

We can also argue that what philosophy’s self-proclaimed product is nothing but what has been dispossessed from the excluded masses. This is in line with the “alienation model” that Marx developed in his early writings.



Leçons sur la volonté de savoir

Du Seil announced the forthcomming publication of Foucault’s first lectures in the College de France. The book, soon to be realeased, will carry the title Leçons sur la volonté de savoir. It will include the lectures given during academic year 1970-1971 and the text includes also a text called Le Savoir d’Oedipe.

The journal Esprit published in his latest issue a text titled Œdipe roi ou l’invention de la vérité judiciaire, which is extracted from Foucault’s lecture from March 17, 1971. The first page is accesible, the remainder of the text requires a subscription:




A new issue of Social Identities Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture (Volume 16 Issue 5 2010) is consacrated to the work of Foucault.


“For Cutting: an Introduction to Foucault, 25 Years On,” pp. 583 – 585
Author: Ian Goodwin-Smith


“Resisting Foucault: the Necessity of Appropriation,” pp. 587 – 596
Author: Ian Goodwin-Smith

“Post-structuralism’s Colonial Roots: Michel Foucault,” pp. 597 – 606
Author: Pal Ahluwalia

“The Huntsman’s Funeral: Targeting the Sensorium,” pp. 607 – 619
Author: Ryan Bishop

“The Post-Panoptic Society? Reassessing Foucault in Surveillance Studies,” pp. 621 – 633
Author: Gilbert Caluya

“The Paradoxical After-Life of Colonial Governmentality,” pp. 635 – 649
Author: Michael Dutton

“What is an Anti-Humanist Human Right?,” pp. 651 – 668
Author: Ben Golder

“Liberalism: Rationality of Government and Vision of History,” p. 669 – 673
Author: Barry Hindess

“The Author, Agency and Suicide,” pp. 675 – 687
Author: Katrina Jaworski

“A (Con)fusion of Discourses? Against the Governancing of Foucault,” pp. 689 – 703
Author: Jim Jose

On governmentality

Thomas Lemke published a paper on the journal PARRHESIA on the genesis and implications of Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’.

From the introduction:

One concept that has attracted an enormous amount of interest since Foucault’s death in 1984 is the notion of governmentality. The word is a neologism derived from the French word gouvernemental, meaning concerning government”.3 This paper will focus on the role and dimensions of the notion in Foucault’s work. I will argue that Foucault corrected and elaborated his “analytics“ or “genealogy“ of power in he second half of the 1970s. At the centre of this theoretical reorientation was the notion of government that became a “guideline” for his research in the following years. It played a decisive role in his analytics of power, since it situated the question of power in a broader context. First, governmentality mediates between power and subjectivity and makes it possible to investigate how processes of domination are linked to “technologies of the self ”, how forms of political government are articulated with practices of self-government. Secondly, the problematic of government accounts for the close relations between power and knowledge and helps to elucidate what Foucault in his earlier work called the “nexus of power-knowledge”.
Foucault introduced the notion of government as a “necessary critique of the common conceptions of ‘power’”.6 Its theoretical contours will become clearer when we compare it to the concept of power it tries to
escape and overcome: the “’juridico-discursive’” representation of power.

Thomas Lemke, Foucault’s Hypothesis: From the critique of the juridico-discursive concept of power to an analytics of government,

PARRHESIA, NUMBER 9 • 2010 • 31-43