The Philosopher as Dangerous Liar: Michel Foucault (Right) Taught That Might Is Right, Truth Is Relative, and History Just an Interesting Narrative. Why Do We Still Lionise the French Philosopher?

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Upon Michel Foucault's death, 20 years ago this month, the historian Paul Veyne wrote in Le Monde that the philosopher's work was "the most important event of thought in our century". The rest of the world was all too ready to agree, and Foucault has become one of the most celebrated philosophers of our times, lauded as the godfather of postmodernism and extending his influence widely and deeply in academe.

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Foucault lords over the fields of history, literary theory, queer theory, medicine, philosophy and sociology, and his ideas have permeated society in general. His best-known theses, that the concept of "truth" is relative, that "madness" is a cultural creation and that "history" is mere storytelling, are now familiar fare at enlightened dinner parties (and those contemptuous inverted commas are mandatory).

Yet many lament his persistent appeal. The pervading theme in Foucault's philosophy is that human relations are defined by the struggle for power. Right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are illusions. They are the creation of language and the will to dominate. Socialists, for instance, believe in redistribution of wealth only because they want to get their hands on other people's money. Conservatives maintain the opposite merely because they want to keep hold of their property. Psychiatrists believe there is a thing called insanity only because they want to incarcerate others and subject them to their control and oppressive "gaze". A doctor just likes bossing people around.

Thus, there is no such thing as benevolence: men have created hospitals, schools and prisons not to cure, educate and reform, but to control and dominate "the Other". The rationalism of the Enlightenment was merely a mask for this malevolent impulse.

That this bleak philosophy should have gained such cultural currency is due at least in part to the cult of personality that grew around Foucault. A sarcastic and fiercely intelligent depressive, he took LSD, repeatedly attempted to kill himself, drove a Jaguar and attended sadomasochist parlours in California. He was also one of the first famous casualties of Aids.

Foucault loved being outrageous. He publicly urged inmates of French jails to escape from prison, and supported the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution as well as Baader-Meinhof terrorists. He also declared that the happiest day of his life was in July 1978, when he was hit by a car while high on opium. "I had the impression that I was dying, and it was really a very, very intense pleasure," he later told a journalist.

However, one should not underestimate his philosophical appeal. Foucault's nihilism has tapped into a growing mood of pessimism in the west. He represents a generation of leftists who, despairing at the failure and the horrors of the socialist experiments in the postwar era, have sought intellectual solace in apathetic relativism. These postmodern pessimists reject the notion of human rights and progress. They mock the pursuit of reason as a chimera and blame the Enlightenment for everything from colonialism and environmental degradation to Hiroshima and Auschwitz. They owe a debt to Nietzschean anti-humanism, Freudian psychology and Saussurean linguistics, but theirs is also a political reaction.

Foucault was a Marxist who gave up the cause. He came to deride such abstract notions of truth and justice as representing class interests: socialists don't want justice, he told Noam Chomsky in a 1971 television interview--they just seek power. "Our task at the moment is to free ourselves completely from humanism and in that sense our work is political work," he once uttered. "All regimes, east and west, smuggle shoddy goods under the banner of humanism ... We must denounce these mystifications."

Because there are no values, there can be no judgement. In 1978, looking back on the postwar era, Foucault said: "What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin's USSR and Truman's America? …