The Performative Contradiction

In the late 1980's Jurgen Habermas published his influential Philosophical Discourse Of Modernity, a work that hurled a deadly epistemological spear into the heart of French poststructuralist thought. According to Habermas, poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida are unable to offer a convincing critique of reason because their arguments eventually fall into what he described as the performative contradiction.

It occurs when there is a discrepancy between act and content, between performance and proposition. The following assertion from Michel Foucault is a shining illustration of this discrepancy:

Truth isn't outside power or lacking in power...truth isn't the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular forms of power...it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media)...

The statement above, like virtually all other statements, is a "performance": a reflection of what the thinker takes to be the truth. If he doesn't take it to be "true" -- if indeed he is merely jesting -- there is no reason for us to pay any attention to it; we may or may not be amused, but in either case we can happily move along. The problem is that Foucault does take the statement to be "true," which means we're left with a paradox: if his statement is 'true' it must be false, since he is rejecting the standard notion of truth as "that which is." If "truth is a thing of this world, produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint," then isn't Foucault's own statement a species of just such constraints? Can he make a truth-claim while denying the existence of truth? No, says Habermas, because to do so would be to commit the performative contradiction.

There is another way to conceive of the problem. Imagine two distinct formulations:

Truth1 = "What is"

Truth2 = Whatever I claim truth is.

(e.g., "Truth is a social construction.")

One cannot "do" Truth2 without presupposing the existence of Truth1. Foucault and others believe they can both renounce Truth1 and do Truth2 simultaneously. The act of asserting anything, however, always brings the asserter back into 1's orbit. The question can always be asked, "Is what you're saying true?" and "What are the implications of your statement if true?" Moreover, the asserter always acts as if his statement were true (otherwise he wouldn't utter it). That is, he acts as if Truth1 exists even if he denies that it does.

Why do thinkers like Foucault lay certain socio-political problems at the doorstep of rationality rather than at the doorstep of social structures and individuals? How does advancing an obviously fraudulent notion of truth help the poor and weak and defenseless of modern societies -- those presumably on whose behalf Foucault and others write? What could be more evident than that individuals can stand apart from their society, pass judgment on it, break free from the bonds of ideology, and by pursuing the truth also achieve a kind of emancipation?

Further Reading

1. "Transgressing the Boundaries". New York University physicist Alan Sokal takes up some of the problems of the poststructuralist's methodology.

2. Martin Jay, "The Debate Over The Performative Contradiction: Habermas Versus the Poststructuralists, in Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, ed. Axel Honneth, Thomas McCarthy, Claus Offe, and Albrecht Wellmer, pp. 261279. MIT Press.

3. George Santayana, Egotism In German Philosophy, Chapters XI through XIII. His criticisms of Nietzsche raise interesting questions about the scholar's approach to truth. Are thinkers like Foucault possibly more interested in the play of ideas than in truth itself? Nietzsche, says Santayana, "confessed that truth itself did not interest him; it was ugly; the bracing atmosphere of falsehood, passion, and subjective perspectives was the better thing...This impulse to turn one's back on truth, whether in contempt or in despair, has a long history. Lessing had said that he preferred the pursuit of truth to the truth itself; but if we take this seriously (as possibly it was not meant) the pursuit of truth at once changes its character. It can no longer be the pursuit of truth, truth not being wanted, but only the pursuit of some fresh idea. Whether one of these ideas or another comes nearer to the truth would be unimportant and undiscoverable. Any idea will do, so long as it is pregnant with another that may presently take its place; and as presumably error will precipitate new ideas more readily than truth, we might almost find it implied in Lessing's maxim that, as Nietzsche maintained, what is really good is neither truth nor the pursuit of truth (for you might find it, and what would you do then?), but rather a perpetual flux of errors."

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