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Monday, 1 February 2010

Moral Primer III: Essay: Foucault - Work on the Self

Nietzsche's ethics rests on a duality of master/slave which is inherent in the arche of the 'will to power' which recognises degrees of power. In the 20th century the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) took Nietzsche's 'genealogy of morality' as a point of departure for his ethics which emphasised 'working on the self' as a way of supposedly subverting that inherent hier-archy of power. The following is a critique of Foucault's methodology.

The Subject of the 'Self'

It is easy to assume that the 'self' is somehow the ubiquitous seal of individual freedom. Also known as "the subject - or to use a more popular expression, the soul", the self has "perhaps been believed in hitherto more firmly than anything else on earth." (1) This due no doubt to the continued belief in God as the creator of mankind.

Seen as a timeless thread linking humanity from its beginnings to the present - and yet this self is also endlessly problematic: how can this be? Surely mankind would have learnt to be at home with it-self by now!

In a series of works spanning the 1960s, '70s and '80s, (2) Foucault explicitly challenged that narrative of a pre-given self, even claiming that its bearer - man - "is a recent invention, perhaps approaching its end." (3) A claim that echoes Nietzsche's dictum, 'God is dead' (1882), which also implies the death of 'the human self'. (4)

"When Foucault speaks of the formation of the subject he means quite literally that the subject does not exist as a determinate form with specific qualities, before the practises that make up the rapport à soi [i.e., the ethical relationship with the self] in different historical periods bring it into being." (5)

1) Nietzsche 1968 ('On the Genealogy of Morals') p. 482. Of course, Nietzsche is referring only to the perspective of Western philosophy which is the purview of this essay. The 'self' had long been contested and even deconstructed by ancient Indian philosophers - such as the Madhyamaka Buddhists of the 2nd century AD. However, it took some time for these ideas to filter through to the West, beginning of course with Nietzsche's philosophical predecessor Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Clearly, Nietzsche had not got to grips with the anti-realist Madhyamikas - Parkes says that Nietzsche was "not acquainted" with the Mahayana form of Buddhism (Lippett and Urpeth p. 182) - but had reached similar conclusions on his own.
2) e.g., The Order of Things (1966), The Archaeology of Power (1969), Discipline and Punish (1975), The History of Sexuality (Vol.1 1976, Vols. 2 & 3, 1984). cf. Shumway, Bibliography.
3) Foucault, The Order of Things, (chapter 10, section vi) - quoted in Ward p. 141
4) cf. Parkes in Lippitt and Urpeth p. 186
5) Cook p. 125

Foucault's Genealogy

To Foucault, this 'invention' of the self can be traced from the philosophers of antiquity. It was further forged by the processes of pastoral and political power, in between the often tacit connivance of ruler and ruled.

He therefore seeks "to create a history of the different modes by which in our culture, human beings are made subject." (6) and then to ask the questions;

"How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge?
"How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations?
"How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?" (7)

Regarding these questions of the self as linked to morality, he takes his cue from Nietzsche who had claimed that "there are no moral phenomena, there are only moral interpretation of phenomena." (8)

Like Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), "which serves as model", Foucault's genealogy locates the self first among the ancient Greeks, "in the breaks and ruptures which announce, for example, the techne tou biou (art of existence) and which distinguish it from the epimeleia heautou (taking care of oneself) of early Rome." (9)

6) Foucault 1984 p. 7
7) ib. p. 49
8) Nietzsche 2003
9) Cook ib.

Morality or Ethics

Whereas Nietzsche wrote a genealogy of morality, Foucault wanted to write a genealogy of ethics, (10) making the distinction between the universalising and deontological sense of the former and the individualistic and virtue-based notions of the latter. More importantly, it is through this study of ethics that we will discover Foucault's view on the self because he "thought of ethics as that component of morality which concerns the self's relationship to itself." (11)

10) Foucault 1984, p. 356
11) Davidson, 'Ethics as ascetics', in Cutting, ed. p. 118

History of Ethics

Comparing Nietzsche's genealogy - which concentrates on what he saw as the momentous shift of values from Greco-Roman paganism to early Christianity - with Foucault's treatment of this same period in his 'History of Sexuality', we can see that Nietzsche draws a very sharp distinction between the pagan and the Christian, seeing it almost as a complete reversal of values [not so far-fetched given the antipathy of ancient Rome towards the early Christians, although see my critique of this in 'Moral Primer II'], with Christianity as the "slave revolt in morality." (12)

Foucault - who is admittedly exploring the ethics, rather than morality - observes more of a continuity here. He thinks, indeed, that the moral codes remain largely intact, whilst the emphasis shifts mainly in the ethics;
"Christianity is usually given credit for replacing the generally tolerant Greco-Roman lifestyle with an austere lifestyle marked by a series of renunciations, interdictions, or prohibitions. Now, we can see that ... the ancients developed a whole series of austerity practices that the Christians later directly borrowed from them." (13)

12) Nietzsche 1968 p. 470
13) Foucault 1984 p. 361


Nietzsche himself recognised a profound difference between the ascetic practices of both the pagan philosopher and the Christian priest. The first displays "the cheerful asceticism of an animal become fully-fledged and divine floating above life in repose", (14) while the second is characterised as seeking "decay, pain, mischance, ugliness ... and self-sacrifice", (15) concluding that "it was only in the hands of the priest ... that the sense of guilt achieved form ... as sin." (16)

Again, Foucault does not draw the distinction so starkly, although he notes that "the problem of virginity" becomes more and more important for "Christian asceticism", while it "has nearly nothing to do with the sexual ethics in Greco-Roman asceticism", which was rather centred on "ethics as an aesthetics of existence." (17)

This marks the transformation which then occurs in the sense of the self;
"The new Christian self had to be constantly examined because in this self were lodged concupiscence and desires of the flesh ... the self was no longer something to be made but something to be renounced and deciphered. Consequently, between paganism and Christianity, the opposition is not between tolerance and austerity, but between a form of austerity which is linked to an aesthetic of existence and other forms of austerity which are linked to the necessity of renouncing the self and deciphering its truth." (18)

14) Nietzsche 1968 p. 544. Here comparisons can be mase with Eastern Tantra - see Julius Evola's The Yoga of Power (1949), trans. Stucco, Inner Traditions 1992
15) ib.
16) ib. p. 576
17) Foucault 1984 p. 366
18) ib. [cf. Veyne, ed. - "only severity, which terrifies appetites susceptible to temptation, can give strength of character. Accordingly, says Seneca, 'we instil liberal culture by means of terror'." pp. 15-6]

The Christian Self

There is, therefore, a broad agreement between Foucault and Nietzsche that it is this Christian sense of the self - obsessed with virginity, renunciation and sin - which will infuse the power structure when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire;
"From the moment that the culture of the self was taken up by Christianity, it was, in a way, put to work for the exercise of pastoral power to the extent that the epimeleia heautou became essentially epimeleia tonallon (the care of others) which was the pastor's job." (19)

The rise of Christianity in Europe "encouraged a search for the truth of one's self, and this search was served by sophisticated practices of examination of conscience and confession. These practices produced a unique form of subjectivism in the human being. The self constituted as a hermeneutical reality, as an obscure text requiring permanent decipherment. Paradoxically, however, the purpose of the hermeneutic was to facilitate the renunciation of the self who had been deciphered." (20)

19) Foucault 1984, p. 370
20) Berner & Mahon, 'The ethics of Michel Foucault', in Cutting, ed. p. 146

The Cartesian Cogito

As might be expected, the Renaissance era brought about a return to some of the pagan attitudes, if on a more academic level than would have been more usual in antiquity.
But the insistence on 'truth' remains, which can be symbolised in pictorial art by the Renaissance love of perspective [cf., 'Treatise on Painting', Alberti, 1435]. Here, everything is seen perfectly from the pinpoint perspective of this - as yet, unreflective - self, flowing back to an (illusory) vanishing-point.

Philosophically, an important stage is reached with the Cartesian cogito which becomes the only thing that cannot be doubted;
"Observing that this truth 'I am thinking, therefore I exist' was so firm, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of philosophy." [Descartes, Discourse On Method, 1637]

To Foucault this revolutionises the sense of self;
"In European culture up to the 16th century, the problem remains: what is the work which I must effect upon myself so as to be capable and worthy of acceding to the truth? Asceticism and access to truth are always more or less obscurely linked. Descartes broke with this when he said, 'To accede to truth, it suffices that I be any subject which can see what is evident.' Evidence is substituted for ascesis ... The relationship to the self no longer needs to be ascetic to get into relation to truth ... This change makes possible the institutionalisation of modern science ... After Descartes, we have a subject of knowledge which poses for Kant the problem of knowing the relationship between the subject of ethics and that of knowledge. There was much debate in the Enlightenment as to whether these two subjects were completely different or not, Kant's solution was to find a universal subject." (21)

21) Foucault 1984 pp. 371-2. Of course the notion of the cogito had been adumbrated to an extent in Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine.

Kant and Romanticism

In his discussion of this very issue in relation to Foucault's philosophy of the self, Habermas writes that with Kant (first 'Critique' 1781) "the modern age is inaugurated ... the concept of self-reflection takes over, and the relationship to self of the subject doing the representing becomes the single foundation of ultimate certainties ... Foucault develops his basic idea that modernity is characterised by the self-contradiction and anthropocentric form of knowledge proper to a structurally overloaded subject (a finite subject transcending itself into the infinite) in a wide arc that stretches from Kant and Fichte to Husserl and Heidegger." (22)

This leads to the deification of the Self in the Absolute Idealism of Romanticism;
"The Self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists, and conversely, the Self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing." (23)

22) Habermas pp. 260-1
23) Fichte, 'Science and Knowledge', quoted in Ayer and O'Grady, p. 97 [cf. Scruton chapter 4, 'Subject/Object', passim].

The Existential Self

The Romantic Self, veering between overweening self-assertion and abject alienation, threads through Continental philosophy in the 19th century, from Hegel to Schopenhauer, to Marx, and on into modern movements such as Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology and Existentialism.
Foucault clearly saw that Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, was "rooted in early Christian confessional practices", and only "continued to fortify the priority of the subject established in Western thought since Descartes." (24)

He also took Sartre to task for his "notion of authenticity with its moral connotations" which "conform with some notion of the true self." (25)

24) Bernauer and Mahon, in Cutting p. 149
25) ib. p. 152


So Foucault rejects the idea that we need only to 'free' this Self from repression in order to 'find ourselves'. Compare this to his 'repressive hypothesis' introduced in his discussion of sexuality. Based on the view that repression needs resistance, Foucault notes that there is endless discourse on sex in the modern era which dwells on how sexually repressed we supposedly are;

"The discourses of sex are constantly multiplying ... Foucault argues that the discourse of sexuality is a modern phenomenon which serves only to create the impression that there is such a thing as 'natural' sex." (26)

But 'sexuality', like 'man', is - to Foucault - a recent invention. (27)

It was also a vital aspect of the modern self, or 'subject';
"I believe that the political significance of the problem of sex is due to the fact that sex is located at the point of intersection of the discipline of the body and the control of the population." (28)

It is the self itself that is its own repressor.

What began as a means of philosophical and monkish self-control amongst a minority who chose that way of life is taken up as a tool of mass-control by the vast apparatus of Church and State. The 'self' became the chain with which this power bound its 'subjects'. Indeed, Foucault will use the term 'subjects' rather than 'self' in this connexion to convey the sense of subjugation, of being sub-ject - i.e., placed-under power.

26) Ward p. 145
27) Foucault 1984 p. 333
28) Foucault 1980 p. 125


The growth of Capitalism and bourgeois power necessarily betokens an increase in surveillance, as what had been an internalised window on men's' souls is also now externalised.  Foucault refers to Bentham's model of the 'Panoptican', a design for a prison where inmates are continually observed, but are unable to see the observer, as a metaphor for the modern state control of 'governmentality', which suggests that subjects unwittingly collude with their own repression.

With the Enlightenment and the onset of human sciences, man himself becomes the subject of scientific probing, classification and dissection. By the early 20th century, the notion of the self had started to fragment. And just as the renaissance perspective represented the stage of the self in pictorial terms, so then did the Cubism of Picasso and Braque [from 1908-] reflect this modernist fragmentation with a confusing multiplicity of disintegrating planes.

Towards the Foucaultian Self

Clearly, the self was no longer the 'road to salvation', but was rather a problem in itself.

Having set out the 'why' of Foucault's need to work on the self, we can now come to his 'how', which he sets out thus; "In morals there is the effective behaviour of people, there are the codes, and then there is this kind of relationship to oneself" (29) which is the ethics.

He puts the ethics into a framework of four aspects, which are:

1) The ethical substance,
2) The mode of subjection,
3) The self-forming activity,
4) The Telos. (30)

Using this structure we can begin to work on ourselves;
"To indicate what part of oneself one judges, how one relates to moral obligations, what one does to transform oneself into an ethical subject, and what mode of being one aims to realise, is to indicate how one lives, is to characterise one's style of life." (31)

29) Foucault 1984 p. 355
30) ib. cf. Davidson in Cutting p. 115
31) Davidson in Cutting p. 125

Foucault's Four Ethical Categories

 Adopting the ancient Greek perspective of 'care of the self', and "using Foucault's fourfold division of ethics, which would suggest that its 'mode of subjection' was a free, personal choice, while its 'telos' was the creation of the self as a work of beauty", (32) we can take each category in turn;

1) 'The ethical substance is that part of oneself that is taken to be the relevant domain of ethical judgment'. In 'classical Greek philosophy and medicine this is the aphrodisia, which are at the same time acts, desires and pleasure.'

2) 'The mode of subjection' is 'the way in which the individual establishes his or her relation to moral obligations and rules'. So this could include deontological or 'aesthetic modes', the Greeks employing the latter as their 'politico-aesthetic choice' to 'have a beautiful existence'.

3) 'The self-forming activity is the ethical work that one performs on oneself into an ethical subject'. This includes 'asceticism in a very broad sense', the actual 'technology of the self'.

4) 'The telos is the mode of being at which one aims in behaving ethically'. For the Greeks this was, of course, 'self mastery'. (33)

Having discerned the reality of the 'subject' by the earlier 'genealogical' analysis, we can now - with the aid of the above formula - be in a position to 'refuse' the historical 'subject', and begin instead to work on creating a new self; one that is unique, and not in thrall to the dominant discourses of power.

Foucault, however, does not think that any previous examples - even that of the Greeks - can be taken in total from the past and applied to the present, as the present always provides a unique set of problems.

He also thinks that it is vitally important to cut the link made by the subject between "ethics and other social and economic or political structures." (34)
This means that the new self will almost certainly be seen as a transgression against those structures which are tending more and more to totalise power. Foucault suggested that his own homosexual lifestyle was such a transgression, just as was the philosophical lifestyle itself amongst the ancient Greeks. (35)

Even so, a doubt remains - expounded in Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment [1947], as Foucault himself was well aware: if the subjugating power is all pervasive, is one really able to subvert it in any meaningful way?
Isn't it more likely that one's 'unique lifestyle' will be appropriated by the power-structure just as the 'gay lifestyle' arguably has been?
As Habermas put it in his own critique of Foucault, that; "every counter-power already moves within the horizon of the power that it fights." (36)
And thus, the Foucaultian self will still reek of the 'subject'.

The only way to short-circuit this is by recognising the power of Nietzsche's transvaluative version of the Master/Slave dichotomy which seeks to widen the gulf between power and counter-power - what he called the pathos of distance [BGE 257].

32) O'Leary p. 49
33) cf. Davidson in Cutting p. 118, and Foucault 1984 pp. 355-7
34) Foucault 1984 p. 350
35) Davidson pp. 123-5
36) Habermas p. 281

Ayer, A. and O'Grady, J. A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, Blackwell 1994
Cook, D. The Subject Finds a Voice in Foucault's Turn Toward Subjectivity, Peter Lane 1993
Cutting, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, CUP 1994
Foucault, M. Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Gordon ed., Pantheon 1980
Foucault, M. The Foucault Reader, Rabinow, ed. Penguin 1984
Habermas, J. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, MIT 1990
Lippett and Urpeth, eds. Nietzsche and the Divine, Cinamen Press, 2000
Nietzsche, F. Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Sturge, CUP 2003
O'Leary, T. Foucault and the Art of Ethics, Continuum 2002
Scruton, R. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Duckworth 1996
Shumway, D. Michel Foucault, UPV 1992
Veyne, ed. A History of Private Life; from Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Harvard 1987
Ward, G. Postmodernism, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997

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