Truth And Irony – Beyond Binary Patterns In Theological Reasoning, Part 3 (Florian Klug)

The following is the last of a three-part series. The first can be found here, the second here. It will appear as a full article in the Fall 2021 issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

Michel Foucault traced this connection between truth and existential dimension in his late studies on power and subjectivity by investigating Socratic and Cynical philosophy as well as early church spirituality about parrhesia as truth-telling or truthfulness. Foucault’s former works focused specifically on the encompassing power structures that frame and shape human life within a society.[1] As a consequence of Foucault’s investigations, it seems that only a vanishing amount of freedom emerges within daily life because the power relations that frame societal living are restricted neither to the state level nor to the sphere of concrete visibility. For example, Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s panopticon exemplifies that the sources of power effects surpass the level of visibility insofar that, in the end, the prisoner internalizes the invisible surveillance and becomes his or her guard.[2] By referring to Bentham’s panopticon, Foucault can adopt this mode of self-surveillance as a mode of living in modern society.[3]

Compared to his former works, his approach to parrhesia appears both as a consequent development as a form of (ethical) self-governance and as a departure from his work’s institutional scope by focusing on the individual level. His former works draw a picture that societal and individual life is at an impasse by the inability to act freely. Through the concept of parrhesia, Foucault shows self-realization and individual responsibility can take place beyond and against the impasses of power structures by an individual relation to truth.

Foucault goes back to Greek antiquity as a paradigmatic place to investigate self-realization by individual responsibility for truth. At that time, a person’s relationship to truth is not a theoretical or analytical matter but falls within the realm of practical life and self-realization. During the lifetime of Socrates and the heyday of Cynical philosophy, truth was treated in the strict context of the political public sphere and a person’s self-understanding:[4] Aletheia, politeia, and ethos form a triad of a successful life within society.[5] To uncover and repair an incongruity between a person’s life and his or her relationship to truth, parrhesia is the discerning hinge by truth-telling. Parrhesia, therefore, has a pedagogical function in this context by taking care of the self-relationship of a person.[6] Foucault understands parrhesia as follows:

Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy. [7]

Regarding parrhesia, Foucault’s portrait of Socrates differs significantly from Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Socrates, whereby Foucault acknowledges the Socratic irony but considers it solely as a means of helping his interlocutors find a harmonious relationship with truth.[8] Other than in Kierkegaard, the Socratic irony counts for Foucault not as an end in itself. Instead, in Foucault, his picturing of Socrates as the most distinguished truth-teller (parrhesiastes) deviates fundamentally from Kierkegaard’s image of Socrates, instead of seeing Socrates alone stuck in pure negativity.[9]

On the contrary, Foucault attests him a harmonious relationship regarding truth while the public opinion acknowledges his way of living. According to Foucault, there is no discrepancy between his philosophical teaching and his related practicing: Socrates is not a liar,[10] but his libertarian appearance as an ironist meekly enables him to find an accurate form of living and a harmonious relationship between his self-conception and his commitment to truth:[11] “Socrates is the parrhesiast.”[12]

Socrates’ harmonious relation of his deeds and words counts for Foucault as an existential expression of truthful living. This harmonious yet dangerous relation is a mode of existential veridiction outside the safeguard of an institutional framework.[13] Regarding the concept of truth, Foucault’s investigation of parrhesia is not interested in a mere intellectual conception of truth that draws only on the epistemological side.[14] Parrhesia still encompasses an epistemological matter as a person’s spoken words should not be lies or hide the truth (as alēthēs logos); furthermore, words ought to be an expression or a gesture of a truthful existence (as alēthēs bios).[15]

In fact, Foucault does not endorse a general conception or regime of truth that would lead to a person’s submission. In Foucault’s understanding of parrhesia, there is no room for a regime of truth that entails an existential subjection (as epistemological repression) because the core idea of parrhesia is to be an ethics or a téchne (τέχνη) that enables subjectivation through the dangerous act of frank and daring truth-telling.[16]

Socrates’ death paints a vivid picture that practicing parrhesia is not without danger. His condemnation and death impressively demonstrate that this frank and public disclosure of other persons’ discrepancies in their relationship to truth is anything but a harmless undertaking: Parrhesia is a precarious and risk-soaked practice since it aims at changing the interlocutor’s stance towards truth through the conversation for the better. This truth-telling differs from the harmless expression of a true statement (‘Socrates is a human being’) insofar that it requires courage to pursue this task because parrhesia can damage or destroy, on the one hand, the existing self-conception and public esteem. And on the other hand, it can ultimately result in death.[17]

This frankness makes the parrhesia appear as a gesture of exposure because it comes with a constitutive binding of the own statement to the public display of a person. A person’s truth-telling is accompanied by an existential weight and, therefore, deviates fundamentally from a purely rhetorical gesture, which only shows a loose connection between speaker and statement.[18]

Considering Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical investigations into human speech and, in particular, the oath, parallels become apparent between Michel Foucault’s late studies and Agamben’s insights. Agamben understands human persons, by relying on Aristotle, not only as the speaking animal (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον)[19] but also through the act of speaking human self-becoming takes place.[20] In his investigation into the function of the oath, Agamben states that the current situation of human speech differs radically from previous ages since nowadays language is affected by a cancer-like growth of voidness and meaningless statements. Instead of having, as in previous times, the oath as a means of existential commitment, the bond between speaker and language has fallen apart.[21]

Based on this finding, we can conclude with Heidegger that human persons get lost in chatter (Gerede).[22] We can clarify Agamben’s concern by looking into the unstable being of man that finds itself thrown between potentiality and actuality. This impending danger of falling into voidness and chatter becomes more transparent when seeing the human person in reference to language itself: As every person’s life is threatened by Angst of falling back into inauthenticity (man),[23] likewise every confession and oath are fundamentally at stake of turning into perjury or lie.[24] By swearing an oath, a person shows commitment to the given statement so that the speaker and statement are deeply related, without the possibility for the speaker to guarantee the validity and correctness of his oath. The speaker instead turns to God or the deity for guaranteeing the validity of his or her oath and endowing him or her with credibility:

The oath, defined by the correspondence between words and actions, here performs an absolutely central function. This happens not only on the theological level, in that it defines God and his logos, but also on the anthropological level, since it relates human language to the paradigm of divine language. If the oath is, in fact, that language that is always realized in facts and this is the logos of God …, the oath of men is thus the attempt to conform human language to this divine model, making it, as much as possible, pistos, credible.[25]

The oath is both a curse and a blessing, not only in the proverbial sense but also from its origin. Through the institution of the oath, the fragility of human language becomes fully apparent. However, at the same time, the oath serves as the very means to make this inherent fragility reliable in the name of God.[26] In doing so, the oath transcends human language and seeks to align it with divine language.[27] By examining this relation, it is important not to confuse the institution of the oath with magic and spells: Since magic and spells cut off the relationship with God and the public intelligibility through their exclusion from the public and their incomprehensibility (e.g., in the murmuring of hocus-pocus).[28] The relationship between God and a speaking person represents a core content of the oath: In the oath, it is not human language as such that renders the transition to the level of (infallible) divine language. Instead, the divine sphere takes part in it, which grants human language a new quality.[29]

By transcending the surface of human language, an oath can become a sacrament through the relationship with God.[30] In doing so, it is wrong to understand the sacrament in terms of vulgar theology because the core content of the sacramental event lies in the perception that an excess of divine presence takes place through a verbally coded, finite surface, which exceeds the purely human sphere. A human person is in the place of reception, while the active or enabling part is on God’s side. Putting this relation in proper theological terms, the Second Vatican Council, in Dei Verbum, understands a sacrament is in its innermost being as a relational event: It is “a sign and instrument … of a very closely knit union with God” (DV 1).[31]

Nor is the oath, in its sacramental dimension, performed in isolation or in private seclusion, for the oath has its place in public. The oath may be heard, and the person who swears receives trust – if he or she enjoys credibility among those who hear. The listening public may believe and trust that the swearing person will keep his or her word and that deeds will follow accordingly. If the swearing person is credible, he or she holds fides towards the others who trust in him or her.[32] In doing so, the performing person exposes him or herself because he or she has no authority over the fides towards him or her, nor because he or she could guarantee the validity of his or her testimony. This person makes a direct connection between his or her statement and his or her own person: “The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say ‘I’ must ‘take the word,’ assume it and make it his own.”[33]

According to Agamben following Foucault, people risk themselves by swearing an oath; they put themselves in a precarious situation to become human beings in the first place as speakers and be human beings in community.[34] The oath, therefore, presents itself as a gesture of subjectivation par excellence. By its fragility, human language cannot guarantee anything and is always on the verge of falling into contradiction or collapsing into meaninglessness. In this very matter, the fragility of human existence and the fragility of language coincide.

Aligning this finding with our theological argument, it is once again crucial to state that a human being can neither guarantee the truth or the validity of a statement nor can he or she ever acquire or possess truth by a gesture of brute force. This dispossession stands in stark contrast, as recognized by Paul, Christ himself is the personal truth and stands up for truth, e.g., on the cross. In matters of weakness, the Christian faith goes over to an even more exposed position, with the faithful confessing Christ’s death of a cursed man. Christians testify in their confession of faith, without being able to guarantee, that Jesus Christ is the incarnated Son of God. This confession includes that He died on the cross and, contrary to all human reason, defeated death itself through the resurrection to break up the violent structures of the world from within out of the powerlessness of the cross and repeal this violence as meaningless (1 Cor 15:55).

Here, the expressed faith in Jesus Christ not only resembles the oath in a formal sense, but it increases its weakness of language and communion with God in an unprecedented way. The confession of faith becomes a binding act of faith that links to salvation and thus includes a performative effect.[35] According to Agamben, a confession of faith does not present a denotative content because the resurrection cannot be represented, in terms of signification, or grasped conceptually. Still, in the confession, truth is announced in an auto-referential way, which testifies itself. This structure leads Agamben, following Foucault, to understand the Christian confession of faith as a form of parrhesia par excellence:

“This act [i.e. of confession] constitutes something like a performative, since, through confession, the subject is bound to the truth itself and changes his relation to others in addition to himself. … This very form is the confession of faith documented in the Pauline passage on which we have been commenting. Between the performative of the oath and of penance, the performativum fidei defines the originary messianic – that is, Christian – experience of the word.”[36]

By this confession of faith, participation in the power of Christ takes place, whereby this confession gains an existential meaning and indicates that the violent structures of the world became meaningless in the personal as well as in the community framework.[37] Here, this very form of power works weakly and ironically because the truth of Christ does not expel a different opinion or worldview in a binary scheme of being false or untrue. And further, through the fragility of a confession, language itself surpasses its limits.[38] By linking to parrhesia, we can elaborate on the Christian confession as a means of truth-telling. It presents itself as an existential act that provides for a performative power in the crossing of language to take place. Here, language does not remain limited within the world, but as a sacrament of truth, a confession of faith becomes a pivotal point for truth itself to emerge.


Irony and parrhesia are not contradictory in their approach because – as the illustration above could show – both relate to truth and address it without gestures of superiority or excluding authority. Here, the concept of truth is not an affair that remains limited to a correspondence between a thing and its mental representation; nor can truth be established by consensus-building. Here, in an attempt to avoid reductive definitions, the concept of truth appears as a perspective enabling matter. In being of existential worth, truth enables a person to question, evaluate, and interpret phenomena, whereby the person is also aware of the vocation of truth to take responsibility for his or her actions and attitude.

In this respect, irony stands in an essential relation to truth, because irony questions overly simplified interpretations of phenomena. And, at the same time, irony wants to keep the interpretive horizon open for a more appropriate interpretation. It differs, therefore, also fundamentally from cynicism because, contrary to the attitude of cynicism, irony displays a constructive approach to gaining knowledge. Far from being a nihilistic or cynical enterprise, irony aims at re-gaining the potentiality of equivocal meanings for an improved relation to truth and stepping aside from a deadlock of definitions in excluding actuality.[39] Although irony deploys a method of deconstruction, whereby deconstruction is not to be confused with destruction, irony knows itself in good company with postmodernism, according to Lyotard, who understands his approach in the tradition of the Enlightenment.[40]

Irony represents an epistemological approach that is critical of knowledge but is nevertheless oriented towards further insight. According to Foucault, truth-telling means an existential obligation to truth, which not only encompasses a person’s own life. Stemming from an attitude of courage, parrhesia also attempts to help fellow human beings by uncovering misalignments relating truth. Like the oath, parrhesia is also an existential gesture of exposure, since a person enters into a commitment to his or her statement, makes himself or herself publicly vulnerable, and takes a stand for truth itself. The parrhesiast commits to truth to announce it, whereby the swearing person risks being cursed and binds his or her oath to his or her person to open up a sacramental presence for truth to take place.

If we combine these thoughts and apply them to Pauline ecclesiology, it is possible to interpret the Church as an ironic society of truth-telling. According to Paul, the separations of gender, nationality, and class no longer prevail because of Christ’s resurrection and the subsequent incorporation into the body of Christ through baptism. Social markers became ineffective but were not destroyed violently. Therefore, James Alison is able to describe the ecclesial life as ‘most subversive’ by dismantling violent patterns of exclusion without relying on any use of violence at all.[41]

This new quality of acting and living within this ecclesial society becomes apparent by confessing to Jesus Christ. He experienced the violent mechanisms of the world in an agonizing way and rendered them ineffective through resurrection. Thus, the confession of the Church from weakness to the overcomer of death can be easily understood with Giorgio Agamben as “sublime irony,”[42] where the personal truth of God can take place in uttermost proximity to his creation.

Florian Klug is a faculty member in the Department of Dogmatics at the University of Würzburg in Germany. He is a former visiting scholar at Villanova University. He is the author of The Fragility of Language and the Encounter with God: On the Contingency and Legitimacy of Doctrine (Fortress Press, 2021) and Der Versöhnte Blick und die Gabe des Anderen (Brill, 2019).


[1] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books 1995).

[2] See Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 201–202.

[3] See Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 207–208.

[4] See Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II: Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 66–68, 234.

[5] We should be aware that the conception of individuality is a very modern notion that cannot be related to ancient societies. When looking at the treatment of a harmonious life in Greek antiquity, a person’s existence is fundamentally linked to a specific society as a collective. Therefore, parrhesia is not in the same sense an individualistical matter as it would be in modernity, as Nancy Luxon emphasizes. See Nancy Luxon, “Ethics and Subjectivity: Practices of Self-Governance in the Late Lectures of Michel Foucault,” in Political Theory, No. 36/3 (Jun., 2008), 377–402, here at 391: “For such reflection to generate ethical values, the parrhesiastic mode of truth-telling would need to be brought to bear on other values-such as liberty or security-central to that community; such a relationship would enable this mode of truth-telling to be stable under reflection and to acquire value itself. The intuition here is that truth telling practices are collectively, not individually, maintained. Such public redescriptions test the truth content of these events and claims for the present of ‘now and around here’; the mode of truth-telling is resolutely local and articulated in terms of the community at hand. As historian Paul Veyne has commented, it is ‘less a philosophy of truth than of speaking truly.’It offers a mode of truth-telling that results in the creation of an ethical structure capable of establishing and assessing a provisional harmony of words and deeds.”

[6] See Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) 2001), 114.

[7] Foucault, Fearless Speech, 19–20.

[8] See Foucault, Fearless Speech, 127.

[9] See Kierkegaard, Concept, 196–197.

[10] See Foucault, Fearless Speech, 100.

[11] See Foucault, Courage of Truth, 160.

[12] Foucault, Courage of Truth, 26.

[13] This dangerous form of veridiction through a person’s daring subjectivity appears as a form of critique to the disharmonious, non-truthful living of the common people. Here, we can clearly see a parallel between Heidegger’s Man and Foucault’s parrhesia. See Philipp Sarasin, Michel Foucault zur Einführung, 5th ed. (Hamburg: Junius 2012), 197–201. For an in-depth discussion of Foucault’s use of veridiction, see Andreas Folkers, “Veridiktion und Denunziation: Foucaults Genealogie der Kritik und die Politik der Wahrheit,” in Foucault und das Politische: Transdisziplinäre Impulse für die politische Theorie der Gegenwart, ed. Oliver Marchart, Renate Martinsen (Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag), 87–107.

[14] See Sarasin, Michel Foucault, 203–204.

[15] See Foucault, Courage of Truth, 219–221.

[16] See Luxon, “Ethics and Subjectivity,” 390–391. See also ibid., 379: “by creating not a ‘body of knowledge’ but a ‘body of practices’; and without reference to an external order (such as nature, custom, tradition, religion). Parrhesia ‘educates,’ rather than ‘produces,’ individuals. … Rather than a ‘knowing subject,’ produced in reference to defined body of knowledge and some external order, the ‘expressive subject’ draws on the structural dynamics of parrhesiastic relationships to give ethopoetic content to her actions. Rather than being urged ‘dare to know,’ individuals are encouraged to ‘dare to act.’”

[17] See Foucault, Fearless Speech, 15–17.

[18] See Foucault, Courage of Truth, 12–14.

[19] See Aristotle, Politics, 1253a.

[20] See Colby Dickinson, Agamben and Theology, Philosophy and Theology (New York: t&t clark 2011), 18–24.

[21] See Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath, Homo Sacer II,3, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: SUP 2011), 69–72.

[22] See Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 19th ed. (Tübingen: Niemeyer 2006), 167–169.

[23] See Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 180–196.

[24] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 7–8.

[25] Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 21.

[26] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 8, 21–22.

[27] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 22.

[28] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 43.

[29] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 22: “In this way, however, not only human language but even God himself is irresistibly drawn into the sphere of the oath. On the one hand, in the oath human language communicates with that of God; on the other hand, if God is the being whose words are oaths, it is completely impossible to decide if he is reliable because of the oath or if the oath is reliable because of God.”

[30] See Dickinson, Words Fail, 53.


[32] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 25–27.

[33] Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 71.

[34] See Agamben, Sacrament of Language, 69.

[35] See Agamben, Time, 131: “the word of faith enacts its meaning through its utterance. When thinking of the nearness of the mouth and heart, we have to venture something like a performative efficacy of the word of faith realized in its very pronouncement.”

[36] Agamben, Time, 134. Here, Agamben refers to an aspect which Foucault only touched upon in his last public lectures. In his posthumous research, Foucault was able to give attention to this aspect on a larger scale. In this study, the Christian spirituality and way of life can be understood, according to Foucault, as genuine Parrhesia. See also Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 4: Les aveux de la chair (Paris: Gallimard 2018).

[37] See Agamben, Time, 12–13, 31–34.

[38] See Dickinson, Agamben and Theology, 126–128.

[39] See Dickinson, Agamben and Theology, 42–49.

[40] See Peter Engelmann, ‟Einführung: Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion: Zwei Stichwörter zur zeitgenössischen Philosophie,” in Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion: Texte französischer Philosophen der Gegenwart, ed. Peter Engelmann (Stuttgart: Reclam 2007), 5–32, here at 16. Even if postmodernism and deconstruction are conceptually distinct, the explicit reference to the Enlightenment by Lyotard is taken here as an opportunity to attest the same concern as in irony.

[41] Alison, Joy, 179.

[42] Agamben, Time, 136.

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