It is what it is

Truth. What is it? It is what it is. That is my answer, at least for the moment, although I’m sure that’s not going to cut it for most people. I can imagine serious scientists and scholars being up in arms about such ‘one liners’. I find nothing to get angry about that though. I tried my best to not to throw in a typo, so there shouldn’t be any of that to see red over either. That said, in a way, maybe it has something to do with seeing and the color red, but I’ll leave it up to the reader to decipher how that’s relevant to this essay. Anyway, to elaborate the question posed, I’ll be covering a short text by, once more, Michel Foucault, titled ‘The political function of the intellectual’. Its preface is from ‘Truth and Power’, an interview (109-133) conducted by Alessandro Fontana, included in ‘Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977’. I’ll be referring to the parts present in ‘Truth and Power’ as that text is more readily available. There are minor differences in the translation, but the message remains the same.

Foucault (126) begins by characterizing the universality of the intellectual:

“For a long period, the ‘left’ intellectual spoke and was acknowledged the right of speaking in the capacity of master of truth and justice. He was heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the spokesman of the universal. To be an intellectual meant something like being the consciousness/conscience of us all. I think we have here an idea transposed from Marxism, from a faded Marxism indeed. Just as the proletariat, by the necessity of its historical situation, is the bearer of the universal (but its immediate, unreflected bearer, barely conscious of itself as such), so the intellectual, through his moral, theoretical and political choice, aspires to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form. The intellectual is thus taken as the clear, individual figure of a universality whose obscure, collective form is embodied in the proletariat.”

To add something here, I don’t think you need to worry about the ‘leftism’ here. At least not that much. I mean, this is fairly dated. Then again, I guess it’s worth keeping in mind that it is unlikely that you’ll get men or women of the people from the ‘right’. It is kinda hard to be like that if you were little incommon with the people. As a sidenote, this also makes me wonder, whether there have ever been such men or women of the people? Isn’t it always a bit of a sham? That said, Foucault (126) argues that the intellectual is no longer that:

“Some years have now passed since the intellectual was called upon to play this role. A new mode of the ‘connection between theory and practice’ has been established. Intellectuals have got used to working, not in the modality of the ‘universal’, the ‘exemplary’, the ‘just-and-true-for-all’,but within specific sectors, at the precise points where their own conditions of life or work situate them (housing, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the university, family and sexual relations). Some years have now passed since the intellectual was called upon to play this role. A new mode of the ‘connection between theory and practice’ has been established. Intellectuals have got used to working, not in the modality of the ‘universal’, the ‘exemplary’, the ‘just-and-true-for-all’, but within specific sectors, at the precise points where their own conditions of life or work situate them (housing, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the university, family and sexual relations).”

So, not unlike like Henri Lefebvre in ‘The Production of Space’, Foucault (126-128) argues that the intellectual, typically a genius writer, no longer knows it all nor speaks for the masses. Instead, now the intellectual is more of a savant or an expert, focusing on a specific field of knowledge. He (127-128) uses theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer as an example of this. He (126-127) argues that this has not been a development for the worse as the intellectuals are now less distant from the struggling masses. Clearly critical of universals, I guess namely structuralism, he (127) adds that it’s rather the opposite:

“And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power-effects as centres in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”

Now, it would be all too quaint to think that this is all there is for Foucault. He (130) argues that, unlike the universal intellectual, the specific intellectual “encounters certain obstacles and faces certain dangers.” Summarizing these obstacles and dangers presented by Foucault (130), the specific intellectual, the scientist or the scholar, “risk[s] … letting himself [or herself] to be manipulated” as the narrow scope or local level makes it harder for the intellectual to see the big picture. As a response, he (130-131) does not suggest a return to the universal intellectual, but rather a reconsideration of the specific intellectual:

“One may even say that the role of the specific intellectual must become more and more important in proportion to the political responsibilities which he is obliged willy-nilly to accept, as a nuclear scientist, computer expert, pharmacologist, etc.”

He (131) specifies that this role does concern the masses regardless of how local and specialized the intellectual may seem, and that it functions in service of the interested of the state, capital or certain ideology. Remember, the one who pays the piper, plays the tune. To put this in other words, he (131) rephrases:

“The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, 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 effects of power. Each society has its regime 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 is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”

Simply put, and I’d say concerning any scientist and scholar, the truth isn’t simply out there. It’s not there, in hiding, waiting for us to find it. Oh, and even if that were to be the case, not everyone would be entitled to search for it. To clarify this, I’ll let Foucault (131) continue:

“In societies like ours, the ‘political economy’ of truth is characterised by five important traits. ‘Truth’ is centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic production as for political power); it is the object, under diverse forms, of immense diffusion and consumption (circulating through apparatuses of education and information whose extent is relatively broad in the social body, not withstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media); lastly, it is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation (‘ideological’ struggles).”

So as I already stated, Foucault argues that truth is not something external, something that is simply revealed. Science is of this world and not unlike other entities it is caught in it all. In other words, intellectuals are people among people and like anyone else affected by other factors that steer their work, regardless of how much they claim to be objective. There’s too much at stake for that to be possible. Don’t think that you are free to research whatever you like. That’s not how it works. Foucault (132) is explicit on this:

“It seems to me that what must now be taken into account in the intellectual is not the ‘bearer of universal values’. Rather, it’s the person occupying a specific position – but whose specificity is linked, in a society like ours, to the general functioning of an apparatus of truth.”

Like I pointed out already, intellectuals are just people among people. Like with everyone else, someone pays their salaries. To specify this, he (132) adds:

“In other words, the intellectual has a three-fold specificity: that of his class position (whether as petty-bourgeois in the service of capitalism or ‘organic’ intellectual of the proletariat); that of his conditions of life and work, linked to his condition as an intellectual (his field of research, his place in a laboratory, the political and economic demands to which he submits or against which he rebels, in the university, the hospital, etc.); lastly, the specificity of the politics of truth in our societies.”

What is added here is that it’s not just that money talks. It does, but there’s more to it, including internal academic politics, as well as the societal factors. That’s what he means by intellectuals occupying certain positions. He (132) then clarifies that the last factor works both ways, being influenced by it, but also making it possible to influence it, going beyond the specific sector occupied by the intellectual. Therefore, he (132) adds that:

“The intellectual can operate and struggle at the general level of that regime of truth which is so essential to the structure and functioning of our society.”

The important concept here is the regime of truth. As already stated, the way Foucault sees it, there is no truth external to power, no knowledge external to power. Instead, there are regimes of truth. To be extra clear, he (133) proposes that:

“’Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.”

So, interesting question is not what, but who. Anyone familiar with Foucault’s work will find this unnecessary to state, but I’ll include it (133) anyway:

“This regime is not merely ideological or superstructural; it was a condition of the formation and development of capitalism. And it’s this same regime which, subject to certain modifications, operates in the socialist countries[.]”

So, in other words, what Foucault means by regime is not external to people, the individuals that make up the mass. Instead, as people familiar with Foucault know already, it’s all very convoluted, even truth.

What I wanted to state in this rather short essay is that claims to objectivity must be at least bracketed. So what is truth? Well, I think Foucault just gave you a very good definition, one that does not retreat to subjectivity. That’s why I say that it is what it is, until it isn’t. Then again, even when it no longer is, then what then is is. If something has been established as truth, then surely it is truth, well, at least until it isn’t. Simply put, truth, truth be told, it is what it is.


  • Foucault, M. (1977). The political function of the intellectual (C. Gordon, Trans.). Radical Philosophy, 16, 1214.
  • Foucault, M. ([1977] 1980). Truth and Power. In M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972–1977 (C. Gordon, Ed., C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, and K. Soper, Trans.) (pp. 109133). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Lefebvre, H. ([1974/1984] 1991). The Production of Space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell.