What is Parrhesy?

I’ve become interested in the concept of parrhesia or “parrhesy” and its implications for the way we teach writing to undergraduates.  My thoughts are definitely still inchoate here, but I wanted to start thinking more publicly about the direction I’m heading and offer a few of the bits and pieces I’ve found and recorded in my commonplace book (which is more often digital files).   I’m lowbrow enough that the first things that come to my mind when I read “parrhesy” have been “heresy,” and “Parcheesi,” but “parrhesy” is a rhetorical term that means “candour, frankness; outspokenness or boldness of speech” (OED). It’s usually translated as “free speech.”  The term dates back to Euripedes, and in its classical rhetoric iteration, the candor or “truth-telling” had more to do with the speaker than the listener; the speaker’s moral qualities were evidenced in his speech.  In more recent years, the ethos has been reimagined by the likes of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.  In Foucault’s formulation, “free speech” comes with a responsibility, a duty to an other, and the speaker is in fact beholden to the listener precisely because of the risk the speaker takes in her outspokenness.

The interlocutors’ relationship, moreover, unfolds over time.  Here’s what Zachary Simpson says about Foucault’s use:

when read against Foucault’s complicated conceptions of truth and fiction, parrhesia becomes a way of creating practices which destabilize the present and reveal potentialities for future action. In upholding both notions of parrhesia, Foucault’s concept is seen to be a complex operation in which an honest acknowledgement of the present is blended with acts of fictioning, self-mastery, and concrete action. (Simpson 114)

The mechanisms of parrhesia produce the relationship between a speaker and an interlocutor in such a way that, according to Judith Butler,

the self’s reflexivity is incited by an other, so that one person’s discourse leads another person into self-reflection.  The self does not simply begin to examine itself through the forms of rationality at hand.  Those forms of rationality are delivered through discourse, in the form of an address, and they arrive as an incitement, a form of seduction, an imposition or demand from outside to which one yields. (125)

The responsibility, the care, is not only oriented toward another, but also toward the self; both change in relation to the other.  The consequences and goal of this rhetorical relationship, “this new parrhesia, . . . is not to persuade the Assembly, but to convince someone that he must take care of himself and of others, and this means that he must change his life”(Foucault 106).  This goal of speech and configuration of a relationship between the speaker and interlocutor echo Hans-Georg Gadamer to a certain extent:

The art of dialectic is not the art of being able to win every argument. . . to conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the object to which the partners in the conversation are directed.  It requires that one doesnot try to out-argue the other person, but that one really considers the weight of the other’s position.  (Truth and Method 330).

Some of the implications of practicing parrhesy for writing classes might be more movement away from “forensic rhetoric,” in which the student stakes a hard-line position and proceeds to defend it, bringing in the other’s position as a position to be overcome, ultimately discredited or dismissed in favor of the student’s position.  There’s much more to say about this (and some of my discussion on forensic rhetoric will appear in my serialized “Thesis” posts), but these are some ragged pieces of my thoughts.

Should we characterize the kind of writing we want students to do as parrhesia?

According to the OED, parrhesia is  pronounced PER eesseeah or PER eezheeah.  You can hear Michel Foucault do a much more cosmopolitan pronunciation in recordings of lectures he did at Berkeley:  http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/foucault/parrhesia.html

The transcriptions of those lectures–published as Fearless Speech–are available here:  http://foucault.info/documents/parrhesia/

Works Cited

Butler, Judith.  Giving An Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP, 2005.

Foucault, Michel and Joseph Pearson. Fearless Speech.  Semiotext(e), 2001.

Simpson, Zachary. “The Truths We Tell Ourselves: Foucault on Parrhesia.” Foucault Studies 13 (2012): 99-115.

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