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Reflecting on Evidence, Social Dependency, and Truth

Yesterday, after publishing the review about Michel Foucault’s article called “About the Beginnings of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” I started thinking more about the modern relevancy of his lectures. In the lectures themselves, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about why he thinks it’s important to investigate early forms of self-examination and confession, but when I think about his lectures in relation to his work more broadly, it becomes clearer. Additionally, in the summer of 1991, Foucault’s lectures were published in the academic journal, Critical Inquiry, alongside eleven other scholars, including Joan Scott, the author of “The Evidence of Experience,” an article that I’ve previously written about. The theme of this issue was “evidence,” and the twelve scholars published in the journal were selected because “their work has led them across the usual boundaries of disciplines to confront unusual problems in evidence.”[1] 

I’m currently taking a course called Cultural Studies Research Methods, and our assignment this week was to read one of these evidence-themed articles, write a review about it, and give a short presentation to the class describing why we think it was published in this journal. If I’d read either Foucault’s or Scott’s article in a vacuum, detached from the overall theme of evidence, and from the other scholars published in this issue of Critical Inquiry, I don’t think I would have recognized their similarities as I do now. After reading two of the articles, and listening to the presentations in class, I recognize a theme emerging: some of the articles address the question of literal evidence (like in a crime), but not all of them; however, what I think that they all share in common is a question related to the roles of trust and power and how they shape or are shaped by subjective and objective experience. 

In class, we discussed the shift in the role of God during and after the Enlightenment period, and how that relates to modern interpretations of trust and power. Before the Enlightenment, God was the spiritual figure who people entrusted with their subjectivity, but afterwards, evidence adopted the role of God and was then applied to disciplinary institutions, like education, hospitals, or the military. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault clarifies how “[t]he historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful . . . .”[2] The “impure” self referred to in early Christianity as an entity that must be sacrificed and destroyed was revised during the Enlightenment period as a positive self that must be broken down and rearranged so that it “may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines.”[3]

During the first few centuries, early Christians understood that “you will become the subject of the manifestation of truth when and only when you disappear or you destroy yourself as a real body or as a real existence,”[4] but during the Enlightenment period, confession and self-examination were no longer the tools being used to sacrifice the self in order to be with God, but rather, they were the tools being used to pursue a secular truth dependent on evidence, discourse, and analysis. In the introduction to “The Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Mark Blasius outlines two consequences of this shift: 1.) “it is the creation of a positive foundation for the self by means of procedures that at once makes us amenable to social control and dependent on it,” and 2.) it is “the production and then marginalization of entire categories of people who do not fit what the foundation posits as ‘normal.'”[5]

From these two categories, I want to take a moment to focus on how the shift from God to evidence created a new form of social dependency. In early Christianity, practitioners of the religion sacrificed themselves to be with God, but their subsequent experience with God and truth was found inside of themselves. It was like each person contained both a soul and a self: the soul of God and the self of Satan. When Satan was extracted from the soul, the soul could live in eternal fulfillment with God; however, during the Enlightenment, truth shifted locations. It was no longer contained in the soul, but rather, it was found outside of the self, and it became the individual’s responsibility to learn the truth about his reality by acquiring material knowledge. If someone learned how to be a critical thinker, then he could figure out how to differentiate fact from fiction; however, the tools he would use to determine his reality, like language, are culturally constructed and context bound, meaning his search for truth would be bound to subjectivity, and he would become trapped in his own game, yearning for a truth that does not exist where he thinks it should be. Additionally, a single person can’t learn everything there is to know about the world, and so he’s dependent on the scholarship of others to tell him the truth about the things that he can’t understand for himself. He must trust these people, and as a result, he trusts himself a little less, knowing that there are things he doesn’t understand. He becomes dependent on doctors, scientists, teachers, scholars, and leaders: the “authorities” of truth. 

When I think about all these revelations within the context of modernity, I see the horror of subjectivity differently: humans are turning themselves into machines created by themselves to destroy themselves; ultimately, I think, to arrive at the truth.


[1] James Chandler, Arnold Davidson and Harry Harootunian, “Editors’ Introduction: Questions of Evidence,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 740.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 137-8.

[3] Ibid., pp. 138.

[4] Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Political Theory, vol. 21, no. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 221.

[5] Mark Blasius, Introduction to “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Political Theory, vol. 21, no. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 200.

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