A word once out is out forever


Bust of Socrates in the Palermo Archaeological Museum

To master words is to not only know and master oneself, but to know others.



A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Six

Frede wrote that the skeptic ‘thinks of himself as following Socrates…What I want to suggest is that Arcesilaus and his followers thought of themselves as just following Socratic practice’54 They may have thought that, but their approach was vastly different to that of Socrates.

Although Socrates relentlessly questioned others and stated that he knew nothing, he never said that the truth could not be known. Rather, his life was committed to what was an uncompromising essentialist pursuit, and he gave his life for it. Skepticism, on the other hand, is inherently conservative.

Refusing to ‘take a position’ on the truth of their views, the skeptic lives according to the laws and customs of their society. Empiricus wrote ‘we live in accordance with everyday observances, without holding opinions…By the handing down of customs and laws, we accept, from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad.’55 Montaigne expressed it more colourfully ‘“since I am not capable of choosing, I accept other people’s choice and stay in the position where God put me.”’56

The relationship between skepticism and Neoplatonism (the great hidden – and when raised, denied – influence in philosophy), particularly from the early modern period requires research. In his book, Popkin several times mentioned Neoplatonism and Nicholas of Cusa and with regard to a 1652 Dutch study of skepticism in which Cusanus was discussed, he referred to him as a ‘modern skeptic.’57 In his introduction to Montaigne’s essays, Screech also referred to Cusanus.

In her 1935 essay on Montaigne and Melville, Camille La Bossière stated that Montaigne owned a copy of the 1576 edition of Cusanus’ single most important treatise De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). Montaigne’s skepticism is inseparable from his religious perspective which he powerfully exemplified in the closing section of his Apology, quoting at length from Plutarch and Seneca.

His adopted son summarised this ‘The only possible way of knowing God is to know him negatively, knowing what he is not. Positively, “True knowledge of God is a complete ignorance of Him. To approach God is to be aware of the inaccessible light and to be absorbed by it.”’58

The materialist acknowledges the importance of skepticism (doubt, self-criticism), but this is a skepticism which is not absolutised to the point of agnosticism and which recognises that theorising about the world is always a reflection of the world in thought and therefore must be anchored in the world, as the key element of cognition. In science this is the ‘the scientific method.’

Philosophical skepticism distinguishes between us and the world – in its prioritising of consciousness over objective reality through its concepts ‘mind’ and a ‘truth’ which is formal and absolute. In its treatment of our senses and reason. In its response to appearance as a barrier to knowledge rather than its entrance. In its denial of causality and inability to understand contradiction and its effect – change.

Philosophical skepticism fails to recognise and acknowledge that we have developed in order to know the world, as every part of our material structure, on the basis of engagement with the world, is the most astonishing evidence of. We are of the world (matter), will never leave it, and will vanish back into it. The very self-doubt that made philosophical skepticism so useful as a weapon makes it so useful ideologically. As Paul Lafargue wrote of the workingman’s sausage

‘The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble…In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not…The chemists have gone deeper – they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more.’59



54. ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ op. cit., 258

55. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 9

56. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 52 For Montaigne, Pyrrhonism annihilates man’s ‘judgement to make more room for faith; neither disbelieving nor setting up any doctrine against the common observances; humble, obedient, teachable, zealous; a sworn enemy of heresy…He is a blank tablet prepared to take from the finger of God such forms as he shall be pleased to engrave on it.’ ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ op. cit., 187

57. Ibid., 162. Also ‘Prior to the period I shall deal with, there are some indications of a sceptical motif, principally among the antirational theologians, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. This theological movement, culminating in the West in the work of Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century, employed many of the sceptical arguments in order to undermine confidence in the rational approach to religious knowledge and truth.’ xix. Skepticism is not the same as apophaticism – the primary difference being that where the skeptic holds that the truth cannot be known, the apophaticist holds that while the truth (meaning God) cannot be known linguistically, through ‘reason’, it (He) can be known (attained) intuitively. Cusanus wrote with profound foresight about the world.

58. Ibid., 58 Popkin added ‘Once having joined the negative theologian’s contention that God is unknowable because he is infinite to the skeptic’s claim that God is unknowable because of man’s inability to know anything, Charron employed this double-barrelled fideism to attack the atheists.’ 58-9

59. Paul Lafargue, ‘Le matérialisme de Marx et l’ idéalisme de Kant,’ Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900

Foucault’s shaped subject: from disciplined to the Neoplatonic aesthetics of Self

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

In Discipline and Punish Foucault developed a view of the subject in a carceral society, in the work of his later years he sought to develop one of an ethical subject with a care for self. Both views are built on a shaped subject – the former by a range of disciplines, the latter by self on a Classical and fundamentally Platonic/Neoplatonic model.

In the chapter ‘The carceral’ Foucault wrote that the opening of Mettray in 1840 was the baptism of a new type of supervision over individuals who resisted normalisation. In the functioning of Mettray were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’1 This ushered in a new age of institutions and disciplines which grew from the carceral network, which Foucault called a ‘counter law’ and which the administrative power of state bureaucracies and agencies did nothing to restrict from expanding to dominate modern society.

In this de-centred archipelago of diffuse power, the bureaucrat and the lawyer give legitimacy to the power of wardens, doctors, psychiatrists and teachers who all make punishment seem constructive and humane. They extend the control of the regime by making power most economical and its processes most efficient through internalising it in the bodies of the individuals they work with. Doctors and teachers complement the network of prisons – hospitals and schools are equally instruments of subjugation and subjection. The power to punish is not different from the power to cure and educate. Foucault asked ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’2

In a society where all relations are power relations, judges of normality are everywhere – the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge – the universal reign of the normative is based on them and all are subject to it. The carceral network is the greatest support in modern society of normalising power. Teachers, doctors and psychologists are tentacles of normalisation who disperse a manner of living and thinking that originated in the prison. All individuals are shaped by disciplinary power to the requisite form of subjectivity from cradle to grave – their bodies, behaviour and gestures. What we think are aspects of our socialisation and consider reasonable are in fact normalisation, gone beyond socialisation. The subject is not an expression of self. We have all been normalised, lulled into the carceral continuum. The ‘human sciences’ assist in this.

Foucault came to think that his writing in the period of Discipline and Punish put too much emphasis on disciplinary power and passive subjects, that he had not sufficiently considered how the subject constituted their self through their practices and ‘games of truth’. He discussed this in a interview in 1984, published as ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom’. Rather than individuals being shaped by disciplinary techniques and prescriptive ethics, he theorised them shaping their selves on the basis of the Platonic and particularly, Neoplatonic model of an aesthetic care for the self.

Not only is power not an evil, it is the play of strategic games (rules for the production of truth) and such a model of care for the self obviated any requirement that the individual conform. When one thinks of, acts for and transforms oneself, one is thinking of others and the person who is thereby free has the power to speak the truth. The ‘beautiful’ individual is not the ‘normal’ person but one who has the courage to transgress. Foucault extended this into the notion of parresia or truth-telling in a rectangular field of competing values comprising isegoria (the right to speak/participate), ascendancy (who does speak?), normative truth and risk.

Foucault made liberty the criterion for an analysis of power. For the Greeks, having an ethos implied a competency to have relationships and to a place in the city and a city comprised of such citizens would function on a stable ethical principle. One only seeks to dominate others when one does not care for one’s self. In the case of pedagogical institutions the concern is not in the fact of the student being taught but in the mere exercise of power for its own sake. Such problems should be addressed through the law, the practice of self and the functioning of the community ethos.

Foucault argued that an ethics of care for the self was an urgent task. But this task is not the activity of an atomised individual, that self-formation requires a teacher and mentor. In the interview he referred to the end of the Alcibiades where that character, whose beauty was fading, said he will become the disciple of Socrates and Socrates his master, guiding him to true beauty. Foucault described this as the individual soul turning its gaze on itself in order to recognise itself and recall the truth to which it is related.

Plato describes this in the Phaedrus: ‘So each selects his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his own disposition and, as if that love were the very god he followed, fashions and adorns him like a statue for himself, in order to honour him and celebrate his mystic rites. Thus those who belong to Zeus seek that the one loved by themselves should be Zeus-like in respect of his soul; so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and leadership, and when they have found him and fallen in love, they do everything to make him like this.’3 The essence of this fashioning of another’s soul became the sculptor of Plotinus and Foucault’s real interest – the spiritual aestheticisation of self.4

In his attempt in the interview on care for the self to rise above a career of negativity Foucault is not convincing precisely because he looked not merely to a Classical but more specifically to a Platonic/Neoplatonic model which he agreed with the interviewer should be actualised.5 Foucault described this practice of the self as ‘ascetic’ saying that he used the word much as Weber had used it and this ‘asceticism’ can be traced back to Nietzsche.

In this interview on how to address core problems of modernity there is not merely an argument that if the self is formed ethically the community will reflect the benefits of this (a sound argument) but the ‘self’ referred to, as the man of ‘calling’ and overman in the writing of Weber and Nietzshe is inwardly focused. Further, not only is there a need of labour of self on self but that labour should be an occupation.6 But the interview ended with excellent words: ‘philosophy is precisely the challenging of all phenomena of domination at whatever level or under whatever form they present themselves – political, economic, sexual, institutional, and so on.’ If only that were true.



1. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 146
2. Ibid., 145
3. Phaedrus 252d5-252e5
4. Foucault said ‘I believe that, in ancient spirituality, there was identity or almost so between spirituality and philosophy. In any case, the most important preoccupation of philosophy revolved about the self, the knowledge of the world coming afterwards, and, most of the time, as a support to this care for self.’ ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom,’ interview with Foucault 20.01.84 by Raúl Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller.
5. ‘Q.: Should we actualise this notion of care for self, in the classical sense, against this modern thought? MF: Absolutely…’ Ibid.
6. Ibid.