Foucault and Derrida on spiritual liberation


Apart from his analysis of truth and power, when Foucault says...

...truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. (Foucault, M., & Gordon, C. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977, p. 131)

... he seems to be deriding and/or doubting the goal of liberation (nirvana, enlightenment) sought through meditation by spiritual traditions such as Buddhism.

Would Derrida agree or disagree? How about other so-called postmodern philosophers?

David Lewis

Posted 2018-03-12T22:51:27.243

Reputation: 600

I don't think any Buddhist would say truth is the preserve only of those who have liberated themselves. – CriglCragl – 2018-03-13T01:25:42.030

1I think it depends on what you mean by truth. Ultimate truth -- emptiness/shunyata in Buddhism (Madhyamaka) -- is liberation. Conventional truth -- contingent, dependent, etc -- is certainly available to anyone, anytime. Seems to me that what Foucault is saying, in Buddhist terms, is that there is no ultimate truth, only conventional truth (and that the latter is defined by various forms of power -- but I'm not focusing on that here). So he's denying the Buddhist notion of liberation. My question is, would Derrida too, even given his deeper level of analysis? – David Lewis – 2018-03-13T13:06:31.730



For Foucault, truth is historical and perspective.

See C.G. Prado, Searle and Foucault on Truth, Cambridge University Press (2005), page 81 :

Foucault seeks to unmask the historicity of truth, to show that truth is not how things are, but is instead the highest-order value in a discourse and set of practices. Knowledge, then, is not the learning of how things are; it is the highest-order category in a discourse and set of practices, in a “regime of truth.”

The second, and most prevalent, of Foucault’s uses of truth is the constructivist use. It embodies the central idea that power produces truth.

The third of Foucault’s uses of truth, the perspectivist use, is the most difficult. This use derives from Nietzschean perspectivism, which makes truth a function of interpretation and denies that there is anything but interpretations.

And see page.101:

Foucault uses true and truth in at least five distinct, though interrelated, ways. His criterial, constructivist, and perspectivist uses of truth depend primarily on whether his concern is with discourse-defining practices, the role of power relations, or the appropriation and value of truth.

Thus, there is no place for a transcendent role of truth in Foucault's thinking.

Derrida's position of truth is much more difficult to grasp.

We can see: Zeynep Direk & Leonard Lawlor (editors), A Companion to Derrida, Wiley-Blackwell (2014), Ch.1: Truth in Derrida, by Christopher Norris.


Posted 2018-03-12T22:51:27.243

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"Thus, there is no place for a transcendent role of truth in Foucault's thinking." -- exactly! But his choice of level of analysis -- sociological, historical, scientific, political, etc -- almost predetermines that conclusion.

"Derrida's position of truth is much more difficult to grasp." -- exactly! Hence my question to this forum. But my understanding that Derrida's level of analysis might go "deeper" that Foucault's, might engage the "transcendental" in some way, motivates the question. I suspect not, but it would take a lot of digging to gain any certainty. – David Lewis – 2018-03-13T13:17:10.027



I think you have not quite got the right hold on the conception of truth that Foucault has in mind here. The key is in Foucault's talking of truth's being 'produced'. We'd normally say that truth is discovered or discoverable - not 'produced', which suggests that truth or what passes for truth is manufactured. Truth, or perhaps we should say 'truth', on Foucault's account is the product of systems of social power; and each system produces its own variant of truth. If power and freedom are opposed - freedom is freedom from power - then the truth is not liberating if it has precisely been produced by (a system of) power. Truth is something akin to the products of Marx's 'false consciousness' in which beliefs (at least the bourgeoisie's) are pure results of class position - taken to be true but actually not true at all.

'Systems of power' is a vague phrase but what's more important here is to see that, for Foucault, at least in regard to your quote, truth is (in a phrase he didn't use) a social construction. 'Truth' as a product of social power is only a simulacrum of truth.

See the final section of 'The Political Function of the Intellectual' from which your quotation comes :


What does Derrida hold ? His subtle views are easily caricatured and I cannot do proper justice to them here but I might say that 'the problem of truth' for Derrida is connected with the undecidability of language. It is not the case that, as Saussure thought, in speaking or writing we simply give expression to our thoughts and communicate them to others. What we say or write has a shifting meaning : we say or write in one context but what survives, our reported speech or a text, can exist and function in quite other contexts from which we are totally absent (perhaps dead). From those contexts any intentions we had in expressing and communicating are absent too. In different context it acquires different meanings.

Any attempt to specify what Plato or Kant meant either in a whole text or even in a single sentence is irretrievably lost. Neither the text nor the sentence becomes meaningless but it has no single, fixed, timeless, context-free meaning.


Your question is centrally about Foucault. I think his view of truth as a function or product of systems of social power principally relates to the discourse of science and to everyday discourse. He should not need to deny that some buffer can be created against social power under the special conditions of meditation. In fact he recognises that there can be freedom in the interstices of systems of social power, in the gaps between them. In such a gap meditation and liberation can occur. Indeed, did his own work not proceed from his own occupation of such a gap ?

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-03-12T22:51:27.243

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Derrida's deconstructive approach is fits comfortably with Buddha's abandonment of views.

Paramatthaka Sutta (On Views)

One who isn't inclined
toward either side
        — becoming or not-,
        here or beyond —
who has no entrenchment
when considering what's grasped among doctrines,
hasn't the least
preconceived perception
with regard to what's seen, heard, or sensed.
By whom, with what,
should he be pigeonholed
here in the world?
        — this brahman
        who hasn't adopted views.

Chris Degnen

Posted 2018-03-12T22:51:27.243

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