Polemics, Politics and Problematizations

Polemics, Politics and Problematizations

This interview took place in order for Foucault to answer questions  frequently asked by American audiences.    It was conducted by Paul Rabinow in  May 1984, just before Foucault’s death.    Translation by Lydia Davis, volume 1 “Ethics” of “Essential  Works of Foucault”,  The New Press 1997.

Paul Rabinow: Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics ?

Michel Foucault: I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics.  If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away.  That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole  morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation  to the other.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of   reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent  in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other.  Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question.  On principle,   he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat.  For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning.  The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

Perhaps, someday, a long history will have to be written of polemics, polemics as a parasitic figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth.

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