Polemics, Politics and Problematizations: An in­ter­view con­ducted by Paul Rabinow in May 1984

— Foucault, Michel. Polemics, Politics and Prob­lema­ti­za­tions.” Interview by P. Rabinow, May 1984, In Essential Works of Fou­cault Vol. 1. The New Press, 1998.

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. Very schemat­i­cally, it seems to me that to­day we can rec­og­nize the pres­ence in polemics of three mod­els: the re­li­gious model, the ju­di­ciary model, and the po­lit­i­cal model. As in here­si­ol­ogy, polemics sets it­self the task of de­ter­min­ing the in­tan­gi­ble point of dogma, the fun­da­men­tal and nec­es­sary prin­ci­ple that the ad­ver­sary has ne­glected, ig­nored or trans­gressed; and it de­nounces this neg­li­gence as a moral fail­ing; at the root of the er­ror, it finds pas­sion, de­sire, in­ter­est, a whole se­ries of weak­nesses and in­ad­mis­si­ble at­tach­ments that es­tab­lish it as cul­pa­ble. As in ju­di­ciary prac­tice, polemics al­lows for no pos­si­bil­ity of an equal dis­cus­sion: it ex­am­ines a case; it is­n’t deal­ing with an in­ter­locu­tor, it is pro­cess­ing a sus­pect; it col­lects the proofs of his guilt, des­ig­nates the in­frac­tion he has com­mit­ted, and pro­nounces the ver­dict and sen­tences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the or­der of a shared in­ves­ti­ga­tion; the polemi­cist tells the truth in the form of his judg­ment and by virtue of the au­thor­ity he has con­ferred on him­self. But it is the po­lit­i­cal model that is the most pow­er­ful to­day. Polemics de­fines al­liances, re­cruits par­ti­sans, unites in­ter­ests or opin­ions, rep­re­sents a party; it es­tab­lishes the other as an en­emy, an up­holder of op­posed in­ter­ests against which one must fight un­til the mo­ment this en­emy is de­feated and ei­ther sur­ren­ders or dis­ap­pears.

Of course, the re­ac­ti­va­tion, in polemics, of these po­lit­i­cal, ju­di­ciary, or re­li­gious prac­tices is noth­ing more than the­ater. One ges­tic­u­lates: anath­e­mas, ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tions, con­dem­na­tions, bat­tles, vic­to­ries, and de­feats are no more than ways of speak­ing, af­ter all. And yet, in the or­der of dis­course, they are also ways of act­ing which are not with­out con­se­quence. There are the ster­il­iz­ing ef­fects. Has any­one ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic? And how could it be oth­er­wise, given that here the in­ter­locu­tors are in­cited not to ad­vance, not to take more and more risks in what they say, but to fall back con­tin­u­ally on the rights that they claim, on their le­git­i­macy, which they must de­fend, and on the af­fir­ma­tion of their in­no­cence? There is some­thing even more se­ri­ous here: in this com­edy, one mim­ics war, bat­tles, an­ni­hi­la­tions, or un­con­di­tional sur­ren­ders, putting for­ward as much of one’s killer in­stinct as pos­si­ble. But it is re­ally dan­ger­ous to make any­one be­lieve that he can gain ac­cess to the truth by such paths and thus to val­i­date, even if in a merely sym­bolic form, the real po­lit­i­cal prac­tices that could be war­ranted by it. Let us imag­ine, for a mo­ment, that a magic wand is waved and one of the two ad­ver­saries in a polemic is given the abil­ity to ex­er­cise all the power he likes over the other. One does­n’t even have to imag­ine it: one has only to look at what hap­pened dur­ing the de­bate in the USSR over lin­guis­tics or ge­net­ics not long ago. Were these merely aber­rant de­vi­a­tions from what was sup­posed to be the cor­rect dis­cus­sion? Not at all — they were the real con­se­quences of a polemic at­ti­tude whose ef­fects or­di­nar­ily re­main sus­pended.

P.R. You have been read as an ide­al­ist, as a ni­hilist, as a new philoso­pher”, an anti-Marx­ist, a new con­ser­v­a­tive, and so on… Where do you stand?

M.F. I think I have in fact been sit­u­ated in most of the squares on the po­lit­i­cal checker­board, one af­ter an­other and some­times si­mul­ta­ne­ously: as an­ar­chist, left­ist, os­ten­ta­tious or dis­guised Marxist, ni­hilist, ex­plicit or se­cret anti-Marx­ist, tech­no­crat in the ser­vice of Gaullism, new lib­eral and so on. An American pro­fes­sor com­plained that a crypto-Marx­ist like me was in­vited in the USA, and I was de­nounced by the press in Eastern European coun­tries for be­ing an ac­com­plice of the dis­si­dents. None of these de­scrip­tions is im­por­tant by it­self; taken to­gether, on the other hand, they mean some­thing. And I must ad­mit that I rather like what they mean.

It’s true that I pre­fer not to iden­tify my­self, and I’m amused by the di­ver­sity of the ways I’ve been judged and clas­si­fied. Something tells me that by now a more or less ap­prox­i­mate place should have been found for me, af­ter so many ef­forts in such var­i­ous di­rec­tions; and since I ob­vi­ously can’t sus­pect the com­pe­tence of the peo­ple who are get­ting mud­dled up in their di­ver­gent judg­ments, since it is­n’t pos­si­ble to chal­lenge their inat­ten­tion or their prej­u­dices, I have to be con­vinced that their in­abil­ity to sit­u­ate me has some­thing to do with me.

And no doubt fun­da­men­tally it con­cerns my way of ap­proach­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tions. It is true that my at­ti­tude is­n’t a re­sult of the form of cri­tique that claims to be a me­thod­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion in or­der to re­ject all pos­si­ble so­lu­tions ex­cept for the one valid one. It is more on the or­der of problematization” — which is to say, the de­vel­op­ment of a do­main of acts, prac­tices, and thoughts that seem to me to pose prob­lem for pol­i­tics. For ex­am­ple, I don’t think that in re­gard to mad­ness and men­tal ill­ness there is any politics” that can con­tain the just and de­fin­i­tive so­lu­tion. But I think that in mad­ness, in de­range­ment, in be­hav­ior prob­lems, there are rea­sons for ques­tion­ing pol­i­tics; and pol­i­tics must an­swer these ques­tions, but it never an­swers them com­pletely. The same is true for crime and pun­ish­ment: nat­u­rally, it would be wrong to imag­ine that pol­i­tics have noth­ing to do with the pre­ven­tion and pun­ish­ment of crime, and there­fore noth­ing to do with a cer­tain num­ber of el­e­ments that mod­ify its form, its mean­ing, its fre­quency; but it would be just as wrong to think that there is a po­lit­i­cal for­mula likely to re­solve the ques­tion of crime and put an end to it. The same is true of sex­u­al­ity: it does­n’t ex­ist apart from a re­la­tion­ship to po­lit­i­cal struc­tures, re­quire­ments, laws, and reg­u­la­tions that have a pri­mary im­por­tance for it; and yet one can’t ex­pect pol­i­tics to pro­vide the forms in which sex­u­al­ity would cease to be a prob­lem.

It is a ques­tion, then, of think­ing about the re­la­tions of these dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences to pol­i­tics, which does­n’t mean that one will seek in pol­i­tics the main con­stituent of these ex­pe­ri­ences or the so­lu­tion that will de­fin­i­tively set­tle their fate. The prob­lems that ex­pe­ri­ences like these pose to pol­i­tics have to be elab­o­rated. But it is also nec­es­sary to de­ter­mine what posing a prob­lem” to pol­i­tics re­ally means. Richard Rorty points out that in these analy­ses I do not ap­peal to any we” — to any of those wes” whose con­sen­sus, whose val­ues, whose tra­di­tions con­sti­tute the frame­work for a thought and de­fine the con­di­tions in which it can be val­i­dated. But the prob­lem is, pre­cisely, to de­cide if it is ac­tu­ally suit­able to place one­self within a we” in or­der to as­sert the prin­ci­ples one rec­og­nizes and the val­ues one ac­cepts; or if it is not, rather, nec­es­sary to make the fu­ture for­ma­tion of a we” pos­si­ble by elab­o­rat­ing the ques­tion. Because it seems to me that we” must not be pre­vi­ous to the ques­tion; it can only be the re­sult — and the nec­es­sary tem­po­rary re­sult — of the ques­tion as it is posed in the new terms in which one for­mu­lates it. For ex­am­ple, I’m not sure that at the time when I wrote the his­tory of mad­ness, there was a pre­ex­ist­ing and re­cep­tive we” to which I would only have had to re­fer in or­der to write my book, and of which this book would have been the spon­ta­neous ex­pres­sion. Laing, Cooper, Basaglia, and I had no com­mu­nity, nor any re­la­tion­ship; but the prob­lem posed it­self to those who had read us, as it also posed it­self to some of us, of see­ing if it were pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish a we” on the ba­sis of the work that had been done, a we” that would also be likely to form a com­mu­nity of ac­tion.

I have never tried to an­a­lyze any­thing what­so­ever from the point of view of pol­i­tics, but al­ways to ask pol­i­tics what it had to say about the prob­lems with which it was con­fronted. I ques­tion it about the po­si­tions it takes and the rea­sons it gives for this; I don’t ask it to de­ter­mine the the­ory of what I do. I am nei­ther an ad­ver­sary nor a par­ti­san of Marxism; I ques­tion it about what it has to say about ex­pe­ri­ences that ask ques­tions of it.

As for the events of May 1968, it seems to me they de­pend on an­other prob­lem­atic. I was­n’t in France at that time; I only re­turned sev­eral months later. And it seemed to me one could rec­og­nize com­pletely con­tra­dic­tory el­e­ments in it: on the one hand, an ef­fort, which was very widely as­serted, to ask pol­i­tics a whole se­ries of ques­tions that were not tra­di­tion­ally a part of its statu­tory do­main (questions about women, about re­la­tions be­tween the sexes, about med­i­cine, about men­tal ill­ness, about en­vi­ron­ment, about mi­nori­ties, about delin­quency); and, on the other hand, a de­sire to rewrite all these prob­lems in the vo­cab­u­lary of a the­ory that was de­rived more or less di­rectly from Marxism. But the process that was ev­i­dent at that time led not to tak­ing over the prob­lems posed by the Marxist doc­trine but, on the con­trary, to a more and more man­i­fest pow­er­less­ness on the part of Marxism to con­front these prob­lems. So that one found one­self faced with in­ter­ro­ga­tions that were ad­dressed to pol­i­tics but had not them­selves sprung from a po­lit­i­cal doc­trine. From this point of view, such a lib­er­a­tion of the act of ques­tion­ing seemed to me to have played a pos­i­tive role: now there was a plu­ral­ity of ques­tions posed to pol­i­tics rather than the rein­scrip­tion of the act of ques­tion­ing in the frame­work of a po­lit­i­cal doc­trine.

P.R. Would you say that your work jus­ti­fies on the re­la­tions among ethics, pol­i­tics, and the ge­neal­ogy of truth?

M.F. No doubt one could say that in some sense I try to an­a­lyze the re­la­tions among sci­ence, pol­i­tics, and ethics; but I don’t think that would be an en­tirely ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the work I set out to do. I don’t want to re­main at that level; rather, I am try­ing to see how these processes may have in­ter­fered with one an­other in the for­ma­tion of a sci­en­tific do­main, a po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, a moral prac­tice. Let’s take psy­chi­a­try as an ex­am­ple: no doubt, one can an­a­lyze it to­day in its epis­te­mo­log­i­cal struc­ture — even if that is still rather loose; one can also an­a­lyze it within the frame­work of the po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions in which it op­er­ates; one can also study it in its eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions, as re­gards the per­son who is the ob­ject of the psy­chi­a­try as much as the psy­chi­a­trist him­self. But my goal has­n’t been to do this; rather I have tried to see how the for­ma­tion of psy­chi­a­try as a sci­ence, the lim­i­ta­tion of its field, and the de­f­i­n­i­tion of its ob­ject im­pli­cated a po­lit­i­cal struc­ture and a moral prac­tice: in the twofold sense that they were pre­sup­posed by the pro­gres­sive or­ga­ni­za­tion of psy­chi­a­try as a sci­ence, and that they were also changed by this de­vel­op­ment. Psychiatry as we know it could­n’t have ex­isted with­out a whole in­ter­play of po­lit­i­cal struc­tures and with­out a set of eth­i­cal at­ti­tudes; but in­versely, the es­tab­lish­ment of mad­ness as a do­main of knowl­edge [savoir] changed the po­lit­i­cal prac­tices and the eth­i­cal at­ti­tudes that con­cerned it. It was a mat­ter of de­ter­min­ing the role of pol­i­tics and ethics in the es­tab­lish­ment of mad­ness as a par­tic­u­lar do­main of sci­en­tific knowl­edge [connaissance], and also of an­a­lyz­ing the ef­fects of the lat­ter on po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal prac­tices.

The same is true in the re­la­tion to delin­quency. It was a ques­tion of see­ing which po­lit­i­cal strat­egy had, by giv­ing its sta­tus to crim­i­nal­ity, been able to ap­peal to cer­tain forms of knowl­edge [savoir] and cer­tain moral at­ti­tudes; it was also a ques­tion of see­ing how these modal­i­ties of knowl­edge [connaissance] and these forms of moral­ity could have been re­flected in, and changed by, these dis­ci­pli­nary tech­niques. In the case of sex­u­al­ity it was the de­vel­op­ment of a moral at­ti­tude that I wanted to iso­late; but I tried to re­con­struct it through the play it en­gaged in with po­lit­i­cal struc­tures (essentially in the re­la­tion be­tween self-con­trol [maîtrise de soi] and dom­i­na­tion of oth­ers) and with the modal­i­ties of knowl­edge [connaissance] (self-knowledge and knowl­edge of dif­fer­ent ar­eas of ac­tiv­ity).

So that in these three ar­eas — mad­ness, delin­quency, and sex­u­al­ity — I em­pha­sized a par­tic­u­lar as­pect each time: the es­tab­lish­ment of a cer­tain ob­jec­tiv­ity, the de­vel­op­ment of a pol­i­tics and a gov­ern­ment of the self, and the elab­o­ra­tion of an ethics and a prac­tice in re­gard to one­self. But each time I also tried to point out the place oc­cu­pied here by the other two com­po­nents nec­es­sary for con­sti­tut­ing a field of ex­pe­ri­ence. It is ba­si­cally a mat­ter of dif­fer­ent ex­am­ples in which the three fun­da­men­tal el­e­ments of any ex­pe­ri­ence are im­pli­cated: a game of truth, re­la­tions of power, and forms of re­la­tion to one­self and to oth­ers. And if each of these ex­am­ples em­pha­sizes, in a cer­tain way, one of these three as­pects — since the ex­pe­ri­ence of mad­ness was re­cently or­ga­nized as pri­mar­ily a field of knowl­edge [savoir], that of crime as an area of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion, while that of sex­u­al­ity was de­fined as an eth­i­cal po­si­tion — each time I have tried to show how the two other el­e­ments were pre­sent, what role they played, and how each one was af­fected by the trans­for­ma­tions in the other two.

P.R. You have re­cently been talk­ing about a history of prob­lem­at­ics”. What is a his­tory of prob­lem­at­ics ?

M.F. For a long time, I have been try­ing to see if it would be pos­si­ble to de­scribe the his­tory of thought as dis­tinct both from the his­tory of ideas (by which I mean the analy­sis of sys­tems of rep­re­sen­ta­tion) and from the his­tory of men­tal­i­ties (by which I mean the analy­sis of at­ti­tudes and types of ac­tion [schémas de com­porte­ment]). It seemed to me there was one el­e­ment that was ca­pa­ble of de­scrib­ing the his­tory of thought — this was what one could call the prob­lems or, more ex­actly, prob­lema­ti­za­tions. What dis­tin­guishes thought is that it is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from the set of rep­re­sen­ta­tions that un­der­lies a cer­tain be­hav­ior; it is also quite dif­fer­ent from the do­main of at­ti­tudes that can de­ter­mine this be­hav­ior. Thought is not what in­hab­its a cer­tain con­duct and gives it its mean­ing; rather, it is what al­lows one to step back from this way of act­ing or re­act­ing, to pre­sent it to one­self as an ob­ject of thought and to ques­tion it as to its mean­ing, its con­di­tions, and its goals. Thought is free­dom in re­la­tion to what one does, the mo­tion by which one de­taches from it, es­tab­lishes it as an ob­ject, and re­flects on it as a prob­lem.

To say that the study of thought is the analy­sis of a free­dom does not mean one is deal­ing with a for­mal sys­tem that has ref­er­ence only to it­self. Actually, for a do­main of ac­tion, a be­hav­ior, to en­ter the field of thought, it is nec­es­sary for a cer­tain num­ber of fac­tors to have made it un­cer­tain, to have made it lose its fa­mil­iar­ity, or to have pro­voked a cer­tain num­ber of dif­fi­cul­ties around it. These el­e­ments re­sult from so­cial, eco­nomic, or po­lit­i­cal processes. But here, their only role is that of in­sti­ga­tion. They can ex­ist and per­form their ac­tion for a very long time, be­fore there is ef­fec­tive prob­lema­ti­za­tion by thought. And when thought in­ter­venes, it does­n’t as­sume a unique form that is the di­rect re­sult or the nec­es­sary ex­pres­sion of these dif­fi­cul­ties; it is an orig­i­nal or spe­cific re­sponse — of­ten tak­ing many forms, some­times even con­tra­dic­tory in its dif­fer­ent as­pects — to these dif­fi­cul­ties, which are de­fined for it by a sit­u­a­tion or a con­text, and which hold true as a pos­si­ble ques­tion.

To one sin­gle set of dif­fi­cul­ties, sev­eral re­sponses can be made. And most of the time dif­fer­ent re­sponses ac­tu­ally are pro­posed. But what must be un­der­stood is what makes them si­mul­ta­ne­ously pos­si­ble: it is the point in which their si­mul­tane­ity is rooted; it is the soil that can nour­ish them all in their di­ver­sity and some­times in spite of their con­tra­dic­tions. To the dif­fer­ent dif­fi­cul­ties en­coun­tered by the prac­tice re­gard­ing men­tal ill­ness in the eigh­teen cen­tury, di­verse so­lu­tions were pro­posed: Tuke’s and Pinel’s are ex­am­ples. In the same way, a whole group of so­lu­tions was pro­posed for the dif­fi­cul­ties en­coun­tered in the sec­ond half of the eigh­teenth cen­tury by pe­nal prac­tice. Or again, to take a very re­mote ex­am­ple, the di­verse schools of phi­los­o­phy of the Hellenistic pe­riod pro­posed dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions to the dif­fi­cul­ties of tra­di­tional sex­ual ethics.

But the work of a his­tory of thought would be to re­dis­cover at the root of these di­verse so­lu­tions the gen­eral form of prob­lema­ti­za­tion that has made them pos­si­ble — even in their very op­po­si­tion; or what has made pos­si­ble the trans­for­ma­tion of the dif­fi­cul­ties and ob­sta­cles of a prac­tice into a gen­eral prob­lem for which one pro­poses di­verse prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions. It is prob­lema­ti­za­tion that re­sponds to these dif­fi­cul­ties, but by do­ing some­thing quite other than ex­press­ing them or man­i­fest­ing them: in con­nec­tion with them, it de­vel­ops the con­di­tions in which pos­si­ble re­sponses can be given; it de­fines the el­e­ments that will con­sti­tute what the dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions at­tempt to re­spond to. This de­vel­op­ment of a given into a ques­tion, this trans­for­ma­tion of a group of ob­sta­cles and dif­fi­cul­ties into prob­lems to which the di­verse so­lu­tions will at­tempt to pro­duce a re­sponse, this is what con­sti­tutes the point of prob­lema­ti­za­tion and the spe­cific work of thought.

It is clear how far one is from an analy­sis in terms of de­con­struc­tion (any con­fu­sion be­tween these two meth­ods would be un­wise). Rather, it is a ques­tion of a move­ment of crit­i­cal analy­sis in which one tries to see how the dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions to a prob­lem have been con­structed; but also how these dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions re­sult from a spe­cific form of prob­lema­ti­za­tion. And it then ap­pears that any new so­lu­tion which might be added to the oth­ers would arise from cur­rent prob­lema­ti­za­tion, mod­i­fy­ing only sev­eral of the pos­tu­lates or prin­ci­ples on which one bases the re­sponses that one gives. The work of philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal re­flec­tion is put back into the field of the work of thought only on con­di­tion that one clearly grasps prob­lema­ti­za­tion not as an arrange­ment of rep­re­sen­ta­tions but as a work of thought.