by Marc Geddes

Last week I have established a critique against disinterested histories, and suggested that history cannot be objective. I now wish to render explicit a more considered discussion of the relationship between truth-finding and truth-telling. These issues are pertinent to the discipline of History, which has debated the question of historical causation for the past 200 years. My last post seems to suggest that the telling of history is nothing more than story-telling because our contemporary culture permeates all possible conceptions of the past. This is very interesting, because it suggests a relational aspect between the study of the past with the present, which are inextricably entwined. Michel Foucault has coined this approach the ‘history of the present’, in which we must move towards a more contextualised history and a truth that is more acceptable to us. [1] There has been a shift from the concept of truth-finding towards truth-telling, leading us to explore problems of the past and present. We must ask ‘What kind of truth does an author have in mind?’. The broader point is that inferences from the past are shaped by circumstances and actions in the present. It suggests a more considered, deeper approach of the study of the individual of the past:

‘How was the subject established, at different moments and in different institutional contexts, as a possible, desirable, or even indispensable object of knowledge? How were experiences that one may have of oneself and the knowledge that forms of oneself organized according to certain schemes?’ [2]

Foucault believes that the individual is constructed through truth. Truth by the agent and truth from the surrounding structures; the individual is between facts and norms. The intersection between structure and agency is truth, truth which makes the self. However, one can discern a more distinct form of truth, namely ethical truth-telling, or Veridiction. Truth is important because it shows how the individual is constituted as subject in the relationship with him or herself and the relationship he or she has with others. [3] The self is constructed with truth in mind, in order to live alethes bios (true life) as a principal guide. Living in truth, through the parrhesiastic game means: i) living naturally and in confidence; ii) living in unity with oneself; iii) following the path of justice; and, iv) adhering to your principle of truth regardless of circumstance.

Veridiction, as a concept, can be traced throughout history. It existed in Ancient Greece through its mythologies, such as the plays of Laches or Ion, both of which are concerned with self-knowledge and truth. In particular, the Greek’s Cynic episteme was founded upon the principle of living in truth through the care for the self and the care for others’. This process changed in the Christian context, in which truth was no longer based on the care of the self and others. The Christian episteme commanded that one’s soul must be opened to God: living in truth to prepare for the afterlife and living without sin. The episteme was amended again under the scientific paradigm that emerged following the Enlightenment: science held the beacon of truth (and still does). All of these had different foundations of truth-finding, yet a similar appeal of Veridiction, or truth-telling.

Where does this leave us? In relation to Veridiction, then, we must problematise the truth act, and return to the basic question: ‘Who is performing the truth?’, ‘What is the aim of the truth?’, and ‘To whom is the truth performed?’. This problematisation of truth-telling forms an inherent part of an analytical concept of Veridiction and, in particular, the way in which one ought to apply it to historical sources (indeed more broadly, to any social science sources). It is not just about structures, discourses, or grand narratives – but how the subject uses truth-telling, how he or she performs his or her veridiction as an act of care for his or her self. These are the issues with which historical and social science enquiry ought to be concerned and this is the broad concept of Veridiction that I seek to promote.

This concept criticises much of the current discipline of History, in the sense that most approaches historicise identities based on unquestioned ideas and seemingly abstract grand narratives. Veridiction attempts to focus on the production of reality of identities, examining what truth meant for the subject, not what truth meant to the historian. Social history, for example, accepts the analytic tools of ‘class’, ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity’ without battering an eye-lid. It oversimplifies the complex reality of the experience of the subject and the reality of truth. Veridiction accepts the challenge that History is multi-dimensional, and that truth-telling comes to the heart of it all, or as Foucault concluded in his final lecture in California:

‘My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity. By this I mean that, for me, it was not a question of analyzing the internal or external criteria that would enable the Greeks and Romans, or anyone else, to recognize whether a statement or proposition is true or not. At issue for me was rather the attempt to consider truth-telling as a specific activity, or as a role.’ [4]

That is a task to which I have become strongly wedded, and one that I seek to pursue.

[1] Gary Gutting, ‘Introduction, Michel Foucault: A User’s Manual’ in Gary Gutting (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, (Cambridge, 1994), p.10

[2] Michel Fouault, ‘Subjectivity and Truth’ in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works: Vol. 1, (ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley and others), (London, 1997), p.87

[3] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others (trans. Graham Burchell), (Basingstoke, 2010), p.42

[4] Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth – six lectures given in California in 1983: click here for more details.