In this 1971 interview, Foucault says and he stresses upon it,
I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, I say them as a way to make sure they no longer are what I think.
At least, that’s what the captioned subtitles claim what the English translation should be. Someone knowledgeable in French, even Google Translate, would say a better translation would be:
I don’t say the things because I think them, I say the things so as to no longer think them.
Just for reference, the original French is:
Je ne dis pas les choses parce que je les pense, je dis les choses pour ne plus les penser
Now that the original quote and possible translations are out of the way, I wanted to discuss what Foucault could’ve meant by this, and also how someone could possibly interpret this, keeping aside the authorial intent.
Getting ideas off his chest
He might be talking of getting his ideas off his chest, like the popular English idiom goes. Rumination of an idea can plague philosophers in a certain way, and the only way to get rid of them would be getting them out there, either through writing or speech. There is a definite parallel between this interpretation and the quote below;
“But then why do you write?
A: I am not one of those who think with a wet quill in hand; much less one of those who abandon themselves to their passions right before the open inkwell, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am annoyed or ashamed by all writing; to me, writing is nature’s call - to speak of it even in simile is repugnant to me.
B: But why, then, do you write?
A: Well, my friend, I say this in confidence: until now I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts.
B: And why do you want to get rid of them?
A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Once we look at the better translation, this interpretation might be the first one that we think of. But I don’t think this is what he meant at all; it becomes especially clear when we put the quote in context, as I’ll explain later.
Using the audience as sounding board
Critical thinkers often use their audience as a sounding board for half-baked or adolescent ideas. This way, the resulting discourse could be source of new ideas, and the idea in discussion could be honed or discarded. Even if the thinker in question does not agree with the idea, he still could throw it in the discussion for the sake of inciting thoughts in his audience, perfecting his own philosophy in the meantime.
Also I should mention that Foucault was seemingly an ENTP, and a typical characteristic of ENTP is their tendency to share abstract and not fully refined thoughts with their peers, as described in this article.
… ideas are usually shared with the world first and then analyzed afterwards.
So, it seems this interpretation is in line with his personality as defined by MBTI.
Knowledge-power and the death of the author
We can interpret this quote drawing reference from one of the Foucault’s primary philosophies, the philosophy of the power inherent in knowledge and consequently speech.
Thoughts in themselves do not have any effect upon the external world, when someone only thinks something, it’s private to him, it’s his thought. But once he shares it with the world through any form of expression, the death of the author occurs; the things are no longer confined within his ruminations, it becomes something else which is more active than thought. It becomes part of the general public discourse, involved with a certain form of power, which Foucault termed as knowledge-power. Thoughts when articulated have a far greater impact than people realize, as he eloquently said,
“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
― Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason
Foucault is claiming he articulates certain ideas to make sure what he says is able to move beyond the realm of thought, as thought is immaterial compared to discourse and the corresponding knowledge and the power associated with it.
The death of man
To put the quote in question in context, let me share more from the interview.
I don’t believe in the virtue of using language for “self-expression”. The language that interests me is the one that can actually destroy all the circular, enclosed, narcissistic forms of the subject and of oneself… And what I mean by ‘the end of man’ is, deep down, the end of all these forms of individuality, of subjectivity, of consciousness, of the ego on which we built and from which we have tried to build and to constitute knowledge. This is one of the forms of this limitation, of these exclusions, of these rejections, that I was talking about… The West has tried to build the figure of man in this way and this image is in the process of disappearing… And so I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, but rather I say them with the end in mind of self-destruction, precisely to make sure they are no longer what I think. To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them.
When we put his quote in context, we see that none of the above interpretations were his intent. Actually, he was talking along the lines of his philosophy of post-structuralism and post-humanism, wherein he proclaimed the upcoming death of man. Let me try to explain what he meant by this, although admittedly I’m very new to this, so this is more of an attempt of mine to clarify my own thoughts.
According to Foucault, the contemporary idea of man is an invention of the Enlightment and modernity. Before Enlightment, humanity’s thoughts were mostly guided by dogmas and its objects of observations were mostly God. But after the Enlightment and its objective analytical approach to everything, the place of God seemed to have been taken by man. This is what we typically refer to as Humanism, although the meaning of the term has fluctuated widely across time and among different intellectual cultures. Humanism is defined by Wikipedia as;
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition.
What modernity missed is the underlying episteme — a pattern of thought particular to an epoch which guides its discourses. Foucault disapproves of the excess emphasis modernity puts on the individual. He argues that the individual man who discovers ideas is insignificant to the ideas themselves, and the episteme in the background. Man’s insignificance lies in the fact that he doesn’t have as much freedom and creativity as we’d like to think, rather he’s a product of the power // knowledge relations of that epoch. Foucault believes that a change is imminent, where the death of man will be upon us and we’ll move beyond this modern conception of man, into understanding the underlying power structures that defines man. That’s why he says he doesn’t want to recognize himself in his ideas, because for him the ideas are not simply product of his creativity.
Again, this is a very premature reading of Foucault. He discusses these ideas in his 1966 book “The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences”, and I’m yet to read the original text. Nevertheless, I think this is more or less what he meant to say in the interview in question.