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Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling

The Function of Avowal in Justice

Three years before his death, Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures at the Catholic University of Louvain that until recently remained almost unknown. These lectures—which focus on the role of avowal, or confession, in the determination of truth and justice—provide the missing link between Foucault’s early work on madness, delinquency, and sexuality and his later explorations of subjectivity in Greek and Roman antiquity.

Ranging broadly from Homer to the twentieth century, Foucault traces the early use of truth-telling in ancient Greece and follows it through to practices of self-examination in monastic times. By the nineteenth century, the avowal of wrongdoing was no longer sufficient to satisfy the call for justice; there remained the question of who the “criminal” was and what formative factors contributed to his wrong-doing. The call for psychiatric expertise marked the birth of the discipline of psychiatry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as its widespread recognition as the foundation of criminology and modern criminal justice.
Published here for the first time, the 1981 lectures have been superbly translated by Stephen W. Sawyer and expertly edited and extensively annotated by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt. They are accompanied by two contemporaneous interviews with Foucault in which he elaborates on a number of the key themes. An essential companion to Discipline and Punish, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling will take its place as one of the most significant works of Foucault to appear in decades, and will be necessary reading for all those interested in his thought.

360 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Sociology: Criminology, Delinquency, Social Control


“A stunning set of lectures given by Foucault that focus on the history of ’avowing’ one’s acts and the truth of who one is. Foucault seeks to understand at what point it became important not only to confess to a crime, but to avow one’s act in public. For Foucault, avowal of one’s criminality before an established authority becomes a way of reestablishing that authority, and resisting avowal becomes tantamount to civil disobedience. The political implications of his analysis become especially clear in the interviews included here. This is wonderful and arresting read.”

Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

“The publication of Foucault’s Louvain lectures, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, beautifully and rigorously established and commented upon by Fabienne Brion and Bernard Harcourt, is an important event in the contemporary blossoming of Foucault studies. In no way is it redundant with the lectures at the Collège de France, whose series is now practically complete. With this amazingly rich inquiry, focusing on the mythical, religious, and judiciary dimensions of ’avowal,’ we are offered a unique possibility to understand how Foucault’s genealogy articulated the order of discourse and the power of institutions.”

Etienne Balibar, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, author of Politics and the Other Scene

Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling is one of Foucault’s most stirring inquiries into what he has named ‘the hermeneutics of oneself.’ These lectures stage the concept of avowal in performances as varied as Greek tragedy, criminal justice, and confessional practices; and they provide us with some of Foucault’s most illuminating observations on the intimate and agonistic relations between sites of enunciation, orders of truth, and investments of power. The subject of avowal is never free of the ethical exigency and the discursive contingency of ’chang[ing] itself, transform[ing] itself, displac[ing] itself, and becom[ing] to some extent other than itself,’ and Foucault’s genius lies in providing us with critical and genealogical reflections on the worldly practices of avowal. Bernard Harcourt and Fabienne Brion’s essential afterword provides both a frame and a ballast to the book. This is a considerable addition to the English archive of the work of Michel Foucault.”

Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University

”Reconstructed through the patient labours of Fabienne Brion and Bernard Harcourt, . . . [the lectures] are now available in a scrupulous English translation.”

Times Literary Supplement

"Fabienne Brion and Bernard Harcourt are to be congratulated for their invaluable work."


“The Louvain lectures show us an aspect of Foucault’s work that is often neglected in an attempt to focus on his commitment to historicizing: that for histories, even genealogical histories, to be constructed, one must not only trace the changes themselves but also that which is changed and therefore remains, in its changes, continuous.”

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

“These lectures are unique and valuable in that, consistent with the direction of Foucault’s work at the time, they expand his explorations of the various modalities of truth and subjectivity into the criminal justice context. Additionally, Foucault’s genealogical work in these lectures situates these specific criminal justice practices within a more far-reaching history than that with which we are familiar. . . . A valuable contribution to both Foucaultian and criminological scholarship.”

British Journal of Criminology

Table of Contents

Editor’s Preface
Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt
April 2, 1981
Dr. Leuret, avowal, and the therapeutic operation. — The supposed effects of truth-telling on oneself and of knowledge of the self. — Characteristics of avowal. — The spread of avowal within Western Christian societies: individuals bound to their truth and obligated in their relationships to others through the truth told. — A historical-political problem: how the individual binds himself to his truth and to the power that exerts itself upon him. — A historical-philosophical problem: how individuals are bound by forms of veridiction. — A counterpoint to positivism: a critical philosophy of veridictions. — The problem of “who is being judged” in penal institutions. — Penal practices and technologies of government. — Governing through truth.
April 22, 1981
A political and institutional ethnology of truthful speech. — Truth-telling and speaking justice. — Scope of the study. — Veridiction and jurisdiction in Homer’s Iliad. — The competition between Menelaus and Antilochus. — The object of Antilochus’s avowal. —Justice and agon; agon and truth. —The chariot race and the challenge of the oath, two liturgies of truth, two games designed to represent justly the truth of their respective strengths. — A ritual of commemoration. — Veridiction and jurisdiction in Hesiod’s Works and Days. — Dikazein and krinein. — The oath of the accusers and the co-jurors in dikazein: a game of two parties, the criteria being the social status of the adversaries. — The oath of the judge in krinein: a game of three parties, the criteria being dikaion. — The social weight of adversaries and “the reality of things”: dikaion and alethes.

April 28, 1981
The representation of law in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. — A judicial paradigm. — Essential elements of the tragedy. — Two recognitions, three alethurgies. — Veridiction and prophecy. — Veridiction and tyranny. — Veridiction and witnessing avowal. — Grandeur of the parties, freedom to speak, and the effect of truth in the inquiry. — Recognition by the chorus, conditions for recognition by Oedipus. — From truth-telling to saying “I.” — A procedure that conforms to nomos, a veridiction that repeats the word of the prophet and completes that of the man of techne technes.
April 29, 1981
Hermeneutics of the text and hermeneutics of the self in early Christianity. — Veridiction of the self in pagan antiquity. — The Pythagorean examination of conscience: purification of self and mnemotechnics. — The Stoic examination of conscience: the government of the self and the remembering of codes. — The Stoic expositio animae: medicine of passions and degrees of liberty. — Penance in early Christianity. — The problem of reintegration. — Penance as a status that manifests a particular state. — The meanings of exomologesis. — A life in the form of avowal, an avowal in the form of life. — A ritual of supplication. — Beyond the medical or judicial, the model of the martyr. — Veridiction of the self and mortification of the self. — From the public manifestation of the self as sinner to the verbalization of the self: temptation and illusion.
May 6, 1981
Practice of veridiction in monastic institutions of the fourth and fifth centuries: the Apophthegmata patrum and the writings of Cassian. — Monasticism: between the life of penance and philosophical existence. — Characteristics of the direction of conscience in ancient culture. — Characteristics of the direction of conscience in monasticism: an obedience that is continuous, formal, and self-referential; humility, patience, and submission; the inversion of the relationship to verbalization. — Characteristics of the examination of conscience in monasticism: from action to thought.Mobility of thought and illusion. — Discrimen and discretio: avowal and the origin of thought. — Veridiction of the self, hermeneutics of thought, and the rights-bearing subject.
May 13, 1981
Characteristics of exagoreusis in the fourth and fifth centuries. — Renunciation of the self. — Truth of the text and truth of the self. — The separation and adjustment of the hermeneutics of the text and the hermeneutics of the self in Protestantism. — Illusion, evidence, and meaning (Descartes and Locke). — Illusion of the self about the self and the unconscious (Schopenhauer and Freud). — Juridification of avowal in the ecclesiastical tradition from the fourth to the seventh centuries. — Co-penetration of exagoreusis and exomologesis in the first monastic and lay communities. — Characteristics and origins of fixed penance: the monastic model and the model of Germanic law. — Sacramentalization and institutionalization of obligatory confession in the thirteenth century. — Juridification of the relationship between man and God. — Forms and meanings of avowal in the confessio oris.
May 20, 1981
Juridification in ecclesiastical and political institutions. — From God as judge to a state of justice: sovereignty and truth. — Avowal, torture, and inquisitorial tests of truth. — Avowal, torture, and legal proofs. — Avowal, sovereign law, sovereign conscience, and punitive engagement. — Auto-veridiction, evidence, and penal dramaturgy. — Hetero-veridiction, examination, and legal psychiatry. — Relating the act to its author: the question of criminal subjectivity in the nineteenth century. — Monomania and the constitution of crime as psychiatric object. — Degeneration and the creation of the criminal as object for social defense. — From responsibility to dangerousness, from the rights-bearing subject to the criminal individual. — The question of criminal subjectivity in the twentieth century. — Hermeneutics of the subject and the meaning of crime for the criminal. — Accident, probability, and indices of criminal risk. — Veridiction of the subject and the breach in the contemporary penal system.
Michel Foucault Interview with André Berten
May 7, 1981
Michel Foucault Interview with Christian Panier and Pierre Watté
May 14, 1981
Michel Foucault Interview with Jean François and John De Wit
May 22, 1981
The Louvain Lectures in Context
Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt
Acknowledgments to the French Edition
Acknowledgments to the English Edition
Index of Notions and Concepts
Index of Proper Names

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