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Michel Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know

Juan Javier Rivera Andía
Lectures on the Will to Know
Michel Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 294 p., Editeur scientifique, Arnold I. Davidson, ISBN : 9781403986573.
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1This publication offers a translation of the lectures given by Michel Foucault between December 1970 and March 1971 at the Collège de France. Foucault was appointed to the chair of History of philosophical thought in April 1970, at the age of 43, in replacement of Jean Hyppolite, and would remain there until his death in 1984. The book also includes other closely related texts: a “Course summary”, written after finishing the academic year, two contemporary lectures on Oedipus and Nietzsche, and finally a “Course context,written by Daniel Defert. The editors have also included an index, a bibliography and numerous useful footnotes.

2In general terms the lectures included in this book might be distributed into two different groups. A first group of lectures is dedicated to tracing the emergence of the will to truth and its strong links to political and social transformations in ancient Greece (for instance, the introduction of money in Greece, the redistribution of land, or taxation of incomes). The second group concerns the lectures dedicated to unpacking the Aristotelian perspective on truth and knowledge (usually contrasting it with that of Nietzsche). It might be relevant to explore the latter in more detail.

3Foucault remarks that for Aristotle truth mediates knowledge and desire: “All men by nature (phusei) desire to know; the proof of this is the pleasure caused by sensations, for even apart from their usefulness, we enjoy them for themselves…”(p. 5) The aim here is to uncover key tacit implications of Aristotle’s consideration of knowledge as natural to man, and to show how they omit both the role of desire in knowledge, and the transgressive dimensions of the latter.

4“Through these superimpositions, Aristotle manages, on the one hand, to inscribe the desire for knowledge in nature, to link it to sensation and the body, and to give it a certain form of sensual pleasure as a correlate; but on the other hand, and at the same time, he gives it status and foundation in the generic nature of man, in the element of wisdom and a knowledge with no other end but itself and in which pleasure is happiness” (p. 12).

5This unpacking of Aristotles’ arguments is essential to the propos developped in these lectures. Here “the will to know is not founded on anything other than the precondition of knowledge itself” (p. 15) and “in its nature, action, and power, the desire to know is not outside the knowledge it desire” (p. 16). Nietzsche, on the other hand, offers a different interpretation of knowledge, recognising desire as being at the root of it. In order to capture this dimension of knowledge, Foucault distinguishes between savoir (translated as “knowledge-savoir”) and connaissance (translated as “knowledge-connaissance”). The first concept is in fact what we need to extract from knowledge in order to rediscover in it the object of a desire. The latter constitutes instead the unity of savoir and will in knowledge.

6Despite their differences, both groups of lectures share a preoccupation with the relatedness of truth and knowledge, within the framework of his aim to demonstrate how Kantian philosophy is in fact a contingent result of a particular historical set of social changes and political conflicts.

7As mentioned above, the book includes two additional texts that are related to conferences given by Foucault abroad (only in North American universities) during the same years of his lectures at the Collège de France. The arguments developed in the first text, entitled “Lecture on Nietzsche,are based on Foucault´s preliminary notes for a lecture given in Canada in early 1971. Here he explains how departing from the works of the German philosopher had enabled him to accomplish at least three tasks: firstly, to deal with interpretation without reference to Hermeneutics; secondly, to address signs without making reference either to Phenomenology or to Structuralism (and to relate them to violence and domination); and finally, to explore knowledge as a historical fact without reference to the problem of the truth.

8Finally, the second text, entitled “Oedipal knowledge,is the basis of a series of lectures given by Foucault in various universities in the United States of America in early 1972. Here he observes that the tragedy of Oedipus deals with the concept of recognition in a sense which is certainly similar to the Freudian one, but also (and more importantly for Foucault) in a sense in which the transition from ignorance to knowledge takes place through the acquisition of various types of savoir. In fact, according to Foucault, the tragedy of Oedipus is inevitably linked to the end of a sort of oracular and divinatory order and the arrival of another one, founded on testimony. It is important to note that both orders are not only epistemologically contrasted, but also represent different political systems.

9In sum, this book and the lectures - that the author calls himself “fragments for a morphology of the will to know” - might greatly contribute to a further exploration of Michel Foucault’s key shift to Genealogy from Archaeology. Although he will finally leave to the side some of the perspectives expressed in this compilation, others would be eventually developed. For instance, and in contrast to his unconditional support of Nietzsche´s perspectives, his later, celebrated research into particular moments of Western history of truth are already prefigured in these lectures. Here he is even explicit about it: “In short, it is a matter of seeing what real struggles and relations of domination are involved in the will to truth” (p. 2).

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Juan Javier Rivera Andía, « Michel Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2015, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2015, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Juan Javier Rivera Andía

Docteur en anthropologie de l’Université Complutense (Madrid), Post doct Smithsonian Institution (DC, EEUU); professeur Université de Leiden, Bergen. Boursier Hermès-FMSH au LESC (Université Paris X)

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