West and Foucault on How to Tell the Truth




This paper attempts to pursue some of the consequences of the analyses of frank speech offered by Michel Foucault and Cornel West. In Fearless Speech, Foucault provides an excellent account of the citizen’s ability to speak frankly. However, the paper argues that it is necessary to consult West’s discussion of the role of the prophetic witness in order to achieve a broader understanding of the act of truth-telling, which is applicable to persons who do not meet the strict requirements of citizenship. This comparison between the two descriptions of how to tell the truth is framed by Austin’s terminology of speech acts.




In the Fall of 1983, Michel Foucault gave a seminar at UC Berkeley on the capacity of parrhesia, or frank speech, as its functioning could be seen in Greco-Latin letters. A relatively neglected piece of Foucault’s corpus, the posthumous book which collects his work in the seminar was published in 2001 under the title Fearless Speech. Similar concerns such as truth-telling, how a speaker may be appraised as telling the truth, and the social role played by the truth-teller have also been a significant focus of the work of Cornel West. For West, starting with his early work The American Evasion of Philosophy and continuing through 2004’s Democracy Matters, truth-telling is best evidenced by the figure of the prophet. What I would like to do today is to bring these corresponding and contrasting notions of frank speech into dialogue with one another, so as to illustrate the differing consequences of each account. The consequences at play may be illustrated in the form of the following problematic questions: Who may speak frankly? To whom is frank speech addressed? And, in order for frank speech to occur, what prior rights, powers, or conditions are first necessary? In other words, how do you tell the truth?

To initiate this dialogue in such a fashion is already to express a certain debt to Austin... surely, the question of “how to tell the truth” is one which is derivative of the question of “how to do things with words” and not merely because both constructions start with “how to.” To tell the truth—as in to tell if something is true or not, i.e. to examine it for its veracity—is always an active telling—in the sense of telling a story, i.e. reporting, describing, modifying, transforming, and many of the other illocutionary acts that one does with words. The first consequence of looking at truth-telling as a performative utterance is to disabuse us of the notion that as a speech act it has any unique claim to felicity over and above any other speech act or to think that it is not subject to the same possibility (and indeed, inevitability) of failure. Accordingly, that we may find a way of telling the truth felicitously is an event which is always and only contingent upon the context of utterance. This is not to say that there isn’t the possibility of the context being made felicitous by means of the illocutionary act of truth-telling, but even this is a case devoid of any and all guarantees apart from those issued in and for that act and that context. In analyzing the work of West and Foucault we shall turn our attention to how it is that they respectively characterize this relation between the speech act of truth-telling and the context necessary for that act’s felicity.

Let us begin with Foucault. In Fearless Speech, Foucault makes a point of insisting that we must not confuse the speech activity of parrhesia, or frank speech, with Austin’s understanding of a speech act. Foucault likely made this distinction as an attempt to distinguish between the place of the actor in each account. If the ideal agent of a speech act is sovereign and therefore can impose his will upon the context of utterance, then this is very far indeed from the ideal agent of parrhesia. The role of the parrhesiastes is to speak the truth to the sovereign, in light of the bodily and indeed existential risk that is made by the very act of speaking. But in insisting upon this procedural definition of how to tell the truth (and of who is doing the telling) we notice an interesting result: though Foucault himself insisted that we were to distance his account of parrhesia from Austin’s account of the speech act, there nevertheless appears a strong correlation.

The risk made by the parrhesiastes does not predate the act of parrhesia but is in fact inaugurated by it. On this basis, can we not say that parrhesia is in fact a species of illocutionary act, i.e. a doing with words that is done in the moment of the enunciation itself? If parrhesia does indeed fulfill this primary requirement, then what are we to make of Foucault’s insistence that it is something else entirely? The most sensible explanation is quite possibly that he wanted to point out the difference in the addressee in the case of parrhesia. The parrhesiastes addresses the sovereign, and though the former’s speech is in some respects its own guarantee, this is the case only insofar as there is a sovereign to be addressed. In other words, though the act of parrhesia is self-constituting for the parrhesiastes, it nevertheless presupposes the existence of the sovereign just as it legislates the irreducible difference between parrhesiastes and sovereign. If the former is the procedural result of an illocutionary act, then the latter is the perlocutionary effect which is both presupposed and appealed to in that act. In other words, if parrhesia is an illocutionary act, then it is by no means a pure or “sovereign” one, in that it appeals to (and therefore grounds, just as it is grounded by) an instance of authority other than itself.

This leads us to ask, How is the appeal to the sovereign made in parrhesia, that is, by what terms and conditions? The parrhesiastes appeals to the sovereign by means of calling the latter’s attention to the risk that he makes by speaking of something other than what the sovereign would like to hear. Foucault tells us that insofar as there is any truth-test for parrhesia, it is precisely this criterion of what danger or risk is present for the parrhesiastes in exercising his frank speech. But, what exactly is the nature of the risk committed to by the parrhesiastes?

In order to appraise this question by means of concrete investigation it is first useful to rephrase it as follows: what sort of property is it such that the possibility of its loss may serve as the condition by which its owner’s earnestness may be evaluated? In attempting an answer to this question, let us work through an example which should be familiar to all of us, even if its profundity is rarely dwelled upon. When attempting to procure a loan, one is not likely to succeed simply by offering the loan officer the assurance that one can be trusted to repay the debt-to-be. Rather, it is also often required of the loan applicant that his or her earnestness be certified by the willingness to forego one or more of his or her properties in the event of default. In this case, the property to serve as collateral may be anything whatsoever insofar as the loan officer can be reasonably assured that it is of sufficient value to the loan applicant such that its loss would be greater than the cost of repaying the loan.

Even in cases in which one is offered credit without agreeing to put up a specific property as collateral, it remains to be said that one is still risking one’s legitimacy with the creditor and by association with others to whom one’s legitimacy may need to be verified in the future. In addition to any specific physical item of property which may or may not be put at risk in the agreement, the loan applicant also risks his or her moral character. In the final analysis, however, this property of the soul would be of no value whatsoever if it was not always already objectively verifiable—if the fact of its mere possession was not readily perceived as offering identifiable and appraisable benefits to its owner. And from this observation, we come to the conclusion that while we may at times find it useful to distinguish between a person’s physical properties and his or her moral properties, with respect to the possibility of the loss of either as a source of the owner’s fear, we find that these amount to much the same thing.

Applying the lessons of this discussion to the question of what kind of risk it is that is made by the parrhesiastes, we meet the following paradox: speech may be described as fearless in the degree to which the sovereign may reasonably suppose that the parrhesiastes possesses a certain amount of fear regarding the consequences of that act. This, in turn, can be read in two ways: first, that the parrhesiastes becomes just that by a willingness to violate the principle of his own utility and, second, that he must already be in possession of something which is deemed as being of value to the sovereign, in order that the sovereign may appreciate its being offered as a sacrifice. Though, the first is by no means uninteresting, it is this second consequence which we would like to dwell upon here in greater detail.

The male pronoun “he” in reference to the parrhesiastes is in this case quite instructive, for a speaker’s potential moral character (such as “earnestness”) is in point of fact indissociable from that speaker’s being recognized as possessing certain specific physical properties. If we were to provide a general name for the properties being wagered by the parrhesiastes, we could say that he risks his status as a citizen. But the term “citizen” is itself predicated upon a host of similarly specific physical properties, which are themselves contingent upon the legislation of sovereign power. For example, in the classical Athenian context, being a citizen in good standing (and therefore, being in possession of what it takes in order to speak freely) meant at the very least being neither a female nor a slave. However, in other contexts, citizenship may require entirely other, and yet nonetheless still physical, characteristics. Depending upon the time, the place, and the hierarchy of values postulated by the sovereign, these characteristics of citizenship may include (in a list which is intended in a manner more instructive than exhaustive): the color of one’s skin, the owning of land and/or certain material goods and/or the means to possess them, the territory of one’s birth, the territory in which one’s parents or ancestors were born, the languages one speaks, one’s religious practices, one’s sexual practices, the structures through which one forms kinship, etc.[1]  

What this list has strived to point out is that because of the physical nature of these characteristics, if an individual is not in possession of one or many of them, this fact is not one which may be readily altered. These characteristics may of themselves be either markers of a series of deeds which one is to have performed, or they may be more direct embodiments of the past to which one’s existence is in every instance indebted. However, this is not so great a difference as it might appear prima facie. Indeed, with respect to the pragmatic socio-historical context in which citizenship is constituted, one’s deeds are, just as Royce says, absolutely irrevocable. Should anyone doubt this, let him or her try and impose a complete separation between his or her present state of existence and any deed whatsoever that he or she may have committed in the past, such as a prior sexual activity. Let the truths which follow from this experiment be taken as suggesting that if such a feat is in fact possible, it is so only at the risk of psychosis.

In conclusion, the ability to take a risk with one’s speech presupposes that one is in possession of particular demographic characteristics which are of value to the sovereign. Given that in appraising the possibility of a speaker’s earnestness, a sovereign must value certain of these demographic characteristics above others, this necessarily implies that those who do not share the valued characteristics are not in a position where their speech can be judged as earnest. It is not simply the law of the excluded middle which leads to the fact that a person either may or may not be seen as possessing a given characteristic. Rather, this fact is observed in a concrete way when it is seen that indicia which are more or less definitive than one another when designating a given characteristic are brought into a constellation such that, on the whole, an either/or judgment may be made. For example, a passport indicates a certain base level of citizenship, certain bodily attributes such as skin color may be taken as indicative of whiteness, a deed of property in one’s name marks the possession of an object of wealth, and—in a particular setting in which these attributes are of value to the sovereign—all of these might be taken together to help decide upon the extent of the risk to which the speaker is willing to undergo in order to be heard. This in turn indicates the speaker’s fitness, or his or her potential for telling the truth.


On the Prophetic Witness


If we may say, as a shorthand, that it is the citizen who is able to speak earnestly in the face of the fear of losing citizenship, then it would follow that there may be no appropriate guarantee for the speech of those persons who do not possess the requisite physical characteristics of citizenship. In a highly general manner, such persons as are without these characteristics may be classified as non-citizens. The non-citizen is anyone who in a particular case finds herself unable to produce what the sovereign finds to be suitable indicia for demonstrating an association with a prior hierarchy of values. For example, the sovereign may request that evidence of a speaker’s whiteness be produced, in order to show the (however distant) relation between that speaker and what was a position of relative value within the racial hierarchy consequent to the history of colonialism. What’s more, simply by insisting upon the value of such indicia for the present, the sovereign thereby performatively reinscribes the given hierarchal history into the future.

Leaving this issue aside however, the question most pertinent for our present investigation is to ask: if the possibility of parrhesia is barred from the non-citizen, then what means of telling the truth are potentially available to her? Before answering this question directly, it should be pointed out that the status of “citizen” is a wholly contingent and provisional one. Merely because today one has the requisite demographic characteristics, there can be no guarantee that either these characteristics or the value attributed to them will endure in the future. Accordingly, even for those of us who are by convention deemed to be proper “citizens,” this status is necessarily always one which is under threat and the loss or absence of such a status is always a very real possibility. As such, the question of what recourse may be had by those of us without anything left to risk is truly a question for all.

It is on this basis that in seeking an exemplary figure to which we might aspire in renewing our democracy, Cornel West opts not for the parrhesiastes but instead for the prophetic witness as an agent of truth-telling. How is it that the prophet’s speech may be guaranteed as true, if the prophet lacks a position of status which can be put at risk? In following West’s account of prophetic witness, we find a variety of truth-telling which is directly inverse to Foucault’s account of parrhesia. Unlike parrhesia, the truth-content of the prophet’s speech relies not on what one already has to put at risk, but rather on the presumption that the prophet has nothing left to risk. If the parrhesiastes possesses the courage to risk his properties, up to and including his physical existence, the prophetic witness possesses what may be a greater courage—the courage to go on speaking after the loss has occurred.

But how is this possible? For any of us the things that make life worth living may at any time and without notice be wrested from us, either by fate or by force. The mark of the prophet is to endure this loss and to go on living in order to speak the truth to others. The disappearance of hope for one’s self does not erase but may in fact embellish hope in a better world for us all. In giving this experience a concrete example, West has written passionately about the courageous actions of Emmett Till’s mother after the lynching of her son:


The high point of the black response to American terrorism (or niggerization) is found in the compassionate and courageous voice of Emmett Till’s mother, who stepped up to the lectern at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1955 at the funeral of her fourteen-year-old son, after his murder by American terrorists, and said: “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.” And that is precisely what Mamie Till Mobley did until her death in 2003. Her commitment to justice had nothing to do with naïveté. When Mississippi officials tried to keep any images of Emmett’s brutalized body out of the press—his head had swollen to five times its normal size—Mamie Till Mobley held an open-casket service for all the world to see.


Can there be any compensation at all, much less a just or adequate one, for a mother who experiences such a fate for her son? Surely not... but without compensation or consolation, there is still a hope that comes with the will to guide others so that such a fate might possibly be avoided in the future. But who exactly are these “others” being addressed in such an act? Unlike parrhesia, the act of witness is not addressed to any one person or institution in particular. However, precisely because of this, nearly anyone may find themselves in the place of the addressee, regardless of whether he or she is a citizen, a non-citizen, or the sovereign. What’s more, upon receiving such a call, none of these entities is without recourse to action pursuant to the consequences of the event announced in the act of witness. Prophetic witness may inspire the sovereign to be beneficent and charitable, or the citizen to become a parrhesiastes, but it may also inspire the non-citizen to prophesy. To announce an argument that I cannot pursue here, let me say that the efficacy of a democracy might possibly be judged by how and to what degree these three kinds of political agency work in concert.

Concluding the present discussion, let us follow up upon the ruminations with which we began and ask: Given that prophetic witness is a way of telling the truth, and all cases of the latter are speech acts, then what kind of speech act is it? I would argue that it could be classified primarily as a perlocutionary act as it is both and at once the unintended consequence which has resulted from a prior illocutionary act (namely, the sovereign enunciation of the criteria of citizenship) just as it wills to produce its own indirect consequences. As such, perhaps prophetic witness is really the “speech activity” Foucault had in mind, but was unable to fully approach due to the strict temporal and cultural limitations he imposed upon his analysis of frank speech.


[1] Of course, in any given time and place, one or another of these characteristics may serve as the ground for others. For instance, owning property may very well depend upon the territory of one’s birth.