The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein

Robert Christopher Plant

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8 Citations (Scopus)


In The History of Sexuality, Foucault maintains that “Western man has become a confessing animal” (1990, 59), thus implying that “man” was not always such a creature. On a related point, Wittgenstein suggests that “man is a ceremonial animal” (1996, 67); here the suggestion is that human beings are, by their very nature, ritualistically inclined. In this paper I examine this crucial difference in emphasis, first by reconstructing Foucault's “genealogy” of confession, and subsequently by exploring relevant facets of Wittgenstein's later thinking. While there are significant correlations between Foucault and Wittgenstein, an important disparity emerges in relation to the question of the “natural.” By critically analyzing this, I show how Wittgenstein's minimal naturalism provides an important corrective to Foucault's more extravagant claims. By implication, we see why any radical relativist, historicist, and/or constructivist position becomes untenable on Wittgensteinian grounds, even though Wittgenstein himself is often read as promoting such views.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-559
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Religious Ethics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2006


  • Foucault
  • Wittgenstein
  • genealogy
  • confession
  • historicism
  • naturalism


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