Speak truth to power

“It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.” These are the words of Cambridge Analytica chief executive, according to a recent Guardian article. See the fascinating undercover recording of a sting within a sting. Is truth really under siege?

Speak truth to power

This motto of the Quakers has become a mantra of free news media, who amplify the importance of truth and its verification in light of so-called “post-truth” politics, the dissemination of “fake news,” and assaults on the free press.

To speak is to deploy signs, specifically words as symbols in print, on screen and spoken. Semiotics (about signs), truth and power converge in the writings of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), ideas that in turn resonate with the philosophy of C.S. Peirce (1839-1914).

Foucault drew on the semiotics of Ferdinand de Saussure rather than C.S. Peirce, and I as yet have found no reference to Peirce in Foucault’s writing. But Peirce scholar Andrew Garner brings Peirce up against Foucault on the subject of power.

Peirce versus Foucault

As a pragmatist, Peirce wrote about actions and habits. Peirce and the Pragmatists were indifferent to, if not optimistic about, matters of overt political power. Where people come together then good-will reigns. It’s a benign philosophy, borne of a less hostile age and political circumstance.

Like Peirce, Foucault also wrote about actions and habits, and how human, bodily practices embed power relationships: the way we confine, discipline and train our bodies for example, not least in the architectures we construct. (See post Panoptic man). Garner quotes Foucault from his essay “The subject and power.”

“[Power] is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of action upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions” (220).

Such a sentiment is close to that of a Pragmatist. But Foucault adds an edge to the Pragmatists’ emphasis on action. For Foucault human relationships are at their core agonistic. Like many 20th century Continental writers Foucault was influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, not to mention a century and a continent beset by world shattering revolutions and two World Wars.

Foucault turns the semiotic project into a story of conflict as society transitions abruptly from one semiotic condition to another. Foucault’s account was controversial in any case, and as I outlined in the previous post (A brief history of signs) provided a new and challenging method for delivering a historical account — with its emphasis on signs.

Truth and power

On the subject of truth, Garner quotes Foucault again:

“Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each one is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts” (354).

That’s from Foucault’s essay “Truth and power.” At first blush, such a statement reeks of relativism, as if societal bubbles determine their own truths.

I think Foucault on truth throws the spotlight on the way societies function, which a purely empirical discourse about “getting to the facts” misses. As a proponent of habits, practices, and logic, Peirce was certainly not a relativist, and here, matters of evidence and belief come to the fore. See post: Inside out logic.


  • Foucault, Michel (1973). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, tans. R.D. Laing, New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel (1980). “Truth and Power” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Writings and Other Writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Foucault, Michel (1983). The subject and power, in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Garnar, Andrew (2006). Power, Action, Signs: Between Peirce and Foucault, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Summer, 2006), pp. 347-366.
  • Nöth, Winfried. (1990). Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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