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Essays on Values and Practical Rationality

Ethical and Aesthetical Dimensions


Edited By António Marques and João Sàágua

The essays presented here are the outcome of research carried out by members of IFILNOVA (Institute for Philosophy of New University of Lisbon) in 2016.

The IFILNOVA Permanent Seminar seeks to show how values are relevant to humans (both socially and individually). This seminar is the ‘place’ where different research will converge towards a unified viewpoint. This includes the discussion of the following questions: What is the philosophical contribution to current affairs and decisions that depend crucially on values? Can philosophy make a difference, namely by bringing practical reason to bear on these affairs and decision? And how to do it? Which are our scientific ‘allies’ in this enterprise; psychology, communication sciences, even sociology and history?

This volume shows the connection between practical rationality and values and covers the dimensions ethics, aesthetics and politics.

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The Ethico-Political Dimension of Foucault’s Thought (Marta Faustino)

← 102 | 103 →

The Ethico-Political Dimension of Foucault’s Thought


1.  Introduction

Influential scholarship has criticized Foucault for not offering a positive account of ethics. More moderate readings find it difficult to reconcile his earlier views on power, society and subjectivity with the concern with ethics and politics expressed in the final period of his thought. Together with his analyses in the 1970s of the mechanisms of social control and normalization in modern societies – analyses which seem to leave little room for any consistent idea of human freedom, autonomy or sovereignty – his criticisms of humanism, rationality and universalism have frequently been used to build an image of Foucault as a quasi-nihilistic thinker in whose view no satisfying ethics can ever be realized. And yet, if there is something that characterizes Foucault’s work as a whole – and not only his later writings, in which ethical questions are most evidently present – it is his constant challenging of settled values and beliefs about ourselves and the social world surrounding us. As Richard Lynch puts it, ‘Foucault challenges, questions, criticizes, and ‘dereifies’ social norms, structures, and institutions; he calls into question our presuppositions about society and individuals, including ourselves. Foucault disconcerts us in much the same way as Socrates disconcerted his fellow Athenians in the agora 2400 years ago’ (Lynch 2016: 3). In Foucault’s own view, this critical function, which lies at the heart of his understanding and practice of philosophy, indeed derives from the Socratic injunction ‘Take care of yourself’, which he interprets as a call to ‘[m]ake freedom your ← 103 | 104 → foundation, through the mastery of yourself’ (ECS: 301)1. Foucault remains one of the few philosophers of his time to genuinely incorporate this injunction and we find resonances of it throughout his entire work. In fact, if we view ethics as concerning not obedience to certain codes of behaviour or compliance with specific systems of values and beliefs, but rather, in Foucauldian terms, the relationship between the self and itself and the way it constitutes itself as the subject of its own actions, then Foucault’s thought is ethical through and through, and his late focus on the ethics of care of the self is nothing but the apex of his entire philosophical endeavour.

This paper aims to contribute to a recent trend in Foucault studies that is currently bringing to light the deep ethical and political dimensions of Foucault’s thought.2 Although I focus on his works from the 1980s – namely the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality (The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self) and the lecture course on The Hermeneutics of the Subject, together with interviews and short essays from the same period – my aim is to highlight topics that, while explicitly thematized in the last period of his thought, also shed light on the ethical and political significance of his philosophical project as a whole, demonstrating the continuity of these later writings with his earlier works from the 1960s and 70s. Through analysis of Foucault’s emphasis on the technologies of the self as a possible means of mastery over oneself (2), his encouragement of the reestablishment of an ethics of the self as a practice of freedom and liberation (3), and his ethical ideal of an aesthetics of existence (4), I hope to make apparent both Foucault’s lifelong ethical and political engagement with the challenges of his time and his use of philosophy as a weapon of resistance and promotion of individual governance, freedom and liberation (5). ← 104 | 105 →

2.  The Technologies of the Self

In a seminar delivered at the University of Vermont in 1982, Foucault identifies four types of technologies of practical reason through which individuals acquire self-knowledge and self-understanding while at the same time submitting to a certain form of domination that transforms their conduct and attitudes: technologies of production (which allow individuals to produce things); technologies of sign systems (which allow individuals to use meaningful signs and symbols); technologies of power (which determine the individual’s behaviour, submitting and objectifying it to certain ends); and technologies of the self (which allow individuals to produce certain changes in themselves in order to realize individual ends) (cf. TS: 225). Even though these technologies ‘hardly ever function separately’, and Foucault’s declared aim is ‘to show their specific nature and their constant interaction’, his focus has mainly been the last two in an attempt to build ‘a history of the organization of knowledge with respect to both domination and the self’ (TS: 225). In the same seminar, however, Foucault himself recognizes that he might have overstressed the impact of technologies of power and domination in modern societies, resulting in an unbalanced, asymmetrical and reductive view on power (idem). In the late period of his writing, he seeks precisely to re-establish this balance by bringing to the fore ‘the interaction between oneself and others’ and ‘the technologies of individual domination, in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self’ (TS: 225).

These ‘technologies of the self’, a form of training and modification of individuals which Foucault explicitly opposes to the technologies of power or domination that occupied him for most of his productive life, are described as techniques that ‘permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality’ (TS: 225; cf. UP: 10–11). Thus, even though it does not correspond to a completely new interest for Foucault, instead representing a shift in focus to a problem that concerned him ‘for more than twenty-five years’ (TS: 224), ← 105 | 106 → this late turn to the technologies of the self does indeed add complexity to his accounts of social order and subjectivity, dispelling possible (mis)readings of his thought. More concretely, Foucault’s criticism of disciplinary power and social control gave way to a renewed concern with ethics as ‘care of the self’ and with the means by which people can, despite those oppressive and disciplining powers, offer resistance by governing, creating and shaping themselves. Considering the whole picture, subjects are thus far from being ‘formless, conditionable creatures’, to use Honneth’s expression (Honneth 1991: 199), dominated by trans-subjective systems of micro-powers that oppress, control and discipline them, but are rather individuals who cope (or at least can cope) with those oppressing external forces in order to fashion their lives and selves.

The Greek and Latin tradition of epimeleia heautou (care of the self), to which Foucault devotes a major part of his late work, is a paradigmatic example of the full realization and embodiment of these ‘technologies of the self’ as an ‘art of living’ (tekhnē tou biou), or a ‘government of oneself’ (cf. UP; CS; HS). Particularly striking to Foucault in this tradition of thought is how ethics was conceived in total independence of any kind of institutional, juridical, authoritarian or disciplinary structure (GE: 260) and was thus unassociated with any attempt to normalize the population (GE: 254). Stoic ethics, for example, was neither universally imposed nor applicable to all: ‘it was not a question of giving a pattern of behavior for everybody. It was a personal choice for a small elite’ (GE: 254).3 The injunction to take care of oneself was, to be sure, a commandment that was fully ingrained in Greco-Roman culture and thus cannot be conceived as a pure individual initiative or creation, free of any kind of external influence or power. In this sense, Foucault stresses the extent to which practices of the self were models that were ‘proposed, suggested, imposed upon [the individual] by his culture, his society, and his social group’ (ECS: 291). What is at stake here is therefore not the opposition between purely autonomous self-constitution and a coercive heteronomous model of subjectivation, but rather the ← 106 | 107 → significant distinction between a completely passive subject, who is simply the product of micro external powers exerted over him, and a relatively active subject who, among and despite those external powers, can still emerge as an ethical subject and be actively engaged in his own self-constitution.

The passivity and activity of the subject are not contrasting elements; they are complementary perspectives in Foucault’s later conception of subjectivity since both refer to different forms of constitution (or ‘objectification’) of the subject.4 In this sense, it seems legitimate to argue that Foucault’s so-called ‘ethical turn’ constitutes a development and complexification of – rather than a break with – his earlier views on subjectivity.5 Throughout his work, Foucault repeatedly rejects, probably under the influence of Nietzsche,6 the idea of the subject as a substance (which is completely different from rejecting the concept of the subject altogether): the subject is not a substance but a form, and this form is fluid, flexible and changeable, ‘not primarily or always identical to itself’ (ETS: 290). Thus, subjects are indeed ‘formless, conditionable creatures’, but in a fundamentally different sense from the idea expressed by Honneth: they are formless and conditionable because they do not have a fixed, eternal, unchangeable, monadic essence and are thus subject to modification or molding by everything with which they are in contact and to which they are related – be it an external coercive structure or a model they voluntarily apply to themselves.7 In this sense, the ascetic practices that characterize the ancient culture of the self, ← 107 | 108 → for example, are also disciplinary practices; the fundamental difference lies in the fact that it is the subject himself who voluntarily decides to submit himself to them in an attempt to govern himself, or to become master of himself.8

Foucault’s later conception of ethics and subjectivity thus implies the rejection of both the model of a pure autonomous constitution of the subject, independent of any power relations, and the model of a completely heteronomous subject, fully determined by them. As Daniel Smith puts it, ‘ethical practices are of course saturated with power relations … But it is not true, either, that the subject is totally determined by external influences; not in the sense that there is always a point of absolute freedom hidden deep within us that cannot be completely subjected to power, but rather that the self, in addition to being influenced by outside forces, also affects itself’ (Smith 2015: 145). Foucault’s late acknowledgment of the possibility of a power relation of the self over the self (that is, the possibility that individuals become masters of their own processes of subjectification) rules out ‘the reductionist idea of a one-sided rule of force’ that Honneth, among others, too simplistically ascribes to his social theory.9

3.  The Ethics of the Self as a Practice of Freedom

In one of his last interviews, Foucault explicitly claims that freedom is the ontological condition of ethics or, in another formulation, that ethics is the conscious practice of freedom (cf. ECS: 284). This statement might seem paradoxical when one considers one of the most persistent criticisms of his thought – namely, the apparent incompatibility between his supposed conception of power and any idea of human freedom or ← 108 | 109 → autonomy. This widespread criticism is, however, based on a common misinterpretation of his notion of power, which, in the same interview from 1984, Foucault laments and tries to correct:

… the claim that ‘you see power everywhere, thus there is no room for freedom’ seems to me absolutely inadequate. The idea that power is a system of domination that controls everything and leaves no room for freedom cannot be attributed to me. (ECS: 293)

Such a view cannot be attributed to Foucault because, once again following the track laid by Nietzsche, his conception of power necessarily involves the ideas of relation, resistance and thus also freedom. Far from being incompatible with the omnipresence of power, freedom is rather the very condition of the possibility of power – that is to say, of relations of power.10 For Foucault, just as for Nietzsche, every human relationship, be it personal, amorous, sexual, political, social, economic, institutional or educational, is a relation of power in the sense that it always involves one person’s trying to dominate and control the conduct of the other. But since this power is always relational and the same aim can be found in the other party, power relations are necessarily mobile, modifiable, unstable and reversible. The possibility of change and reversion is the very essence of a power relation: ‘If one of them were completely at the other’s disposal and became his thing, an object on which he could wreak boundless and limitless violence, there wouldn’t be any relations of power’ (ECS: 292). This means, first of all, that power relations require at least a certain degree of freedom on both sides.11 This applies even to situations where the power equilibrium is clearly unbalanced and asymmetrical: power can only be exerted if the dominated party still has the slightest ability to revert the situation – for example, at the limit, by killing himself or the ← 109 | 110 → domineering party. Secondly, however, this also implies that any power relation necessarily involves resistance: ‘in power relations there is necessarily the possibility of resistance because if there were no possibility of resistance (of violent resistance, flight, deception, strategies capable of reversing the situation), there would be no power relations at all’ (ECS: 292). Agonism thus lies at the very heart of Foucault’s conception of power; the entire net of power relations is characterized by ‘permanent provocation’, which is at the same time ‘mutual incitement and struggle’ (SP: 342). There are, of course, cases of states of domination which remain ‘blocked’ or ‘frozen’ for a long period of time, where the degree of freedom of the oppressed person(s) is extremely limited and narrow, but even in such rare cases, resistance is there, even if only as a possibility: ‘In such cases of domination, be they economic, social, institutional, or sexual, the problem is knowing where resistance will develop’ (ECS: 292).12

Foucault distinguishes practices of freedom from practices of liberation, which might be needed to make practices of freedom possible – in cases of strong political, cultural or social states of domination, for example – but are not in themselves sufficient to produce acceptable, satisfying lives. Thus, the ethical question is not ‘what do I have to liberate myself from?’ but rather ‘how can I practice my freedom?’, or ‘what can I do with my available freedom?’ (cf. GE: 276; ECS: 282–284). The Greco-Roman tradition of the care of the self is once again Foucault’s model in this regard. For the Greeks, freedom was equivalent to non-slavery: to be free meant not being the slave of another person, city, ruler or one’s passions and appetites. The care of the self was a particular means of properly practising freedom – that is, of knowing oneself, shaping oneself, overcoming oneself and becoming master of oneself: ‘with respect to oneself one establishes a certain relationship of domination, of mastery, which was called arkhē, or power, command’ (ECS: 286–287).13 In this sense, the particular ēthos of the care of the ← 110 | 111 → self was itself a form of conversion of power, or ‘a way of limiting and controlling power’ (ECS: 288), a form of resistance to the dangers not only of slavery but also of abuse of power. It is in this sense that, inspired by the ethics of concern for the self, Foucault rejects both the possibility of a society freed from all oppressive or repressive structures and the impossibility of active resistance to them:

The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constraints or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. […] I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that we mean the strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the ēthos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible. (ECS: 298)

Thus, contrary to authors like Sartre, Foucault does not view power as evil in itself; as a necessary component of any relationship, it is also a condition of the possibility of things like love and passion, education and transmission of knowledge, parenting, medical practices, and so on (cf. ECS: 298–299). The problem is the possible abuse of power and authority, especially by the state and its totalizing institutions, which, according to Foucault, can only be controlled through new forms of subjectivity and the renewal of an ethics based on practices of the self and freedom. This, in his view, is the crucial point of struggles for political rights and against abusive forms of government (cf. ECS: 299). Because in Foucault’s view our current challenge is not simply to ‘discover what we are’ but also to ‘refuse what we are’, we need, in his words, ‘to imagine and to build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political ‘double bind’, which is the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures’ (SP: 336). ← 111 | 112 →

4.  The Aesthetics of Existence

A last major point of inspiration for Foucault from the ancient tradition of the concern for the self was how the choice to take care of oneself was to a great extent motivated and informed by the wish to live a beautiful life or, in Foucault’s preferred formulation, to create oneself as a work of art and establish what he calls an ‘aesthetics of existence’ (cf. GE: 261, 262).14 In other words, what characterizes this ethical tradition in contrast to later religious or juridical frameworks is that one decides to submit to certain rigid and austere moral codes not out of blind respect or obedience to the (rational, divine or civil) law, but out of individual concern for oneself and a personal choice to acquire an ēthos or way of being that is ‘good, beautiful, honorable, estimable, memorable and exemplary’ (ECS: 286; cf. also GE: 266–268, 271). Even though Foucault rejects the idea that this Greco-Roman model might offer a plausible alternative to the institutionalization of modern ethics,15 he believes we can nevertheless learn something from it:

We don’t have to choose between our world and the Greek world. But since we can see very well that some of the main principles of our ethics have been related at a certain moment to an aesthetics of existence, I think that this kind of historical analysis can be useful. For centuries we have been convinced that between our ethics, our personal ethics, our everyday life, and the great political and social and economic structures, there were analytical relations, and that we couldn’t change anything, for instance, in our sex life or our family life, without ruining our economy, our democracy, and so on. I think we have to get rid of this idea of an analytical or necessary link between ethics and other social or economic or political structures. (GE: 261)

Despite his general academic and descriptive tone and his reluctance to provide ‘solutions’ (cf. GE: 256), Foucault often expresses his ← 112 | 113 → admiration for this Hellenic model of self-creation and his yearning for its rebirth in modern societies:16

The idea of the bios as a material for an aesthetic piece of art is something that fascinates me. […] What strikes me is the fact that, in our society, art has become something that is related only to objects and not to individuals or to life. That art is something which is specialized or done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life? (GE: 260–261)

In conceiving the possibility and desirability of an ‘aesthetics of existence’, Foucault admittedly comes again very close to Nietzsche’s own conception of ethics and subjectivity, as expressed in Daybreak and The Gay Science, for example.17 In a well-known passage from the latter, Nietzsche claims:

To ‘give style’ to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses that their nature has to offer and then fit them into an artistic plan until each appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. (GS:290)

Nietzsche opposes the ‘strong and domineering natures’ who devote themselves to the ‘long practice and daily work’ of aesthetic self-cultivation to ‘the weak characters with no power over themselves who hate the constraint of style’ (GS: 290). The ideal, which both Nietzsche and Foucault borrow from the Hellenistic schools, is the exercise of ‘a perfect mastery over oneself’ (GE: 259). A further point of agreement (equally inspired by the ancient tradition of the care of the self) between Nietzsche and Foucault is that the practice of cultivating one’s self involves creation and creativity rather than knowledge and the discovery of a supposed essence. That is, cultivating one’s self is a matter not of discovering one’s true or authentic hidden self but rather of creating it, shaping it, ‘giving style’ to it. Explicitly acknowledging the affinity between Nietzsche’s view and his own in this regard, Foucault claims that ‘from the idea that ← 113 | 114 → the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art’ (GE: 262). Whereas Nietzsche illustrates this process with the image of a ‘gardener’ who cultivates his drives ‘as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit on a trellis’ (D: 560), Foucault uses the metaphors of a governor, the head of an enterprise, a head of household, and ‘a sovereign against whom there would no longer be revolts’ (GE: 272). According to Foucault, this idea of perfect governance of oneself remained the central focus of ancient ethics for centuries, until the advent of Christianity.18

If the culture of the self (whose ‘golden age’ Foucault identifies in the first and second centuries A.D.) did not disappear with Christianity, it was nevertheless appropriated, displaced and put to different uses in the new religious framework. More concretely, ‘the problem of ethics as an aesthetics of existence [was] covered over by the problem of purification’ (GE: 274), and the self, which had been previously the material for the crafting of a work of art, became something to be deciphered and renounced, just as concentration on one’s self was opposed to God’s will, conceived as a serious obstacle to the soul’s salvation (cf. GE: 271; HS: 250). Foucault sees Christianity as one of the biggest causes of the obscuration and neglect of the tradition of the care of the self in modern societies. Under the influence of the Christian message of altruism and self-denial, we became used to the idea that self-love is wrong and that care for oneself is a despicable form of egoism. As a consequence, we tend to look somewhat suspiciously on a form of morality that revolves around notions like ‘caring for oneself’, ‘devoting oneself to oneself’, ‘withdrawing into oneself’, and so on (cf. HS: 12–13). Another cause of the obliteration of this tradition of thought is the ‘history of truth’, which is related to what Foucault calls the ‘Cartesian moment’ (cf. HS: 14, 17ss.). Very succinctly, Descartes symbolizes the movement that, in the modern age, requalified and prioritized the principle ‘know yourself’ over ‘care for your self’ by placing self-evidence at the foundation of philosophical inquiry and making knowledge independent of spiritual transformation. The care of the self, which had until then been the very foundation of philosophy, was thereby disqualified and philosophically ← 114 | 115 → discredited (cf. HS: 14). For these reasons, Foucault believes, the care of the self was ultimately neglected and ‘left in the shadow’ by Western thought ‘in its reconstruction of its own history’ (HS: 12).

Despite the episodic reappearance of an aesthetics of existence in the Renaissance and in nineteenth-century dandyism19 – and also the successive philosophical attempts to reconstitute an ethics of the self by, among others, Montaigne, Stirner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (cf. HS: 251) – Foucault suggests that we ‘have hardly any remnant of the idea in our society that the principal work of art in which one must apply aesthetic values, is oneself, one’s life, one’s existence’ (GE: 271). There is also no real care of the self today, at least not in the organized and dominant way characteristic of antiquity, which leads Foucault to deny that ‘we have anything to be proud of in our current efforts to reconstitute an ethic of the self’ and to suspect that ‘we find it impossible today to constitute an ethic of the self’ (HS: 251–252). Nevertheless, Foucault believes that the constitution of a new ethic of the self ‘may be an urgent, fundamental, and politically indispensable task’ since ‘there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself’ (HS: 252).20

5.  Philosophy as a Weapon of Resistance

In one of the late interviews quoted above, Foucault agrees that an important function of philosophy has always been to warn of the dangers of power, adding that ‘philosophy is that which calls into question domination at every level and in every form in which it exists, whether political, ← 115 | 116 → economic, sexual, institutional, or what have you’ (ECS: 300–301). Foucault consistently pursues this aim throughout his work, even if its strong ethical and political significance was not brought to the fore until the final period of his thought. If the most challenging philosophical, ethical and political task nowadays is to ‘refuse what we are’ (SP: 336) through the establishment of new practices of subjectivity and a new ethics of the self, then Foucault’s writings, in particular his warnings against modern disciplinary power and his presentation of alternative modes of self-constitution, were to a great extent meant to function as a powerful catalyst in this regard.21 In effect, to warn of the dangers of power and call into question domination at every level is at the same time to promote individual liberation and freedom – a role with which Foucault identified significantly:

My role – and that is too emphatic a word – is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people – that’s the role of an intellectual. (TPS: 10)

In the same interview, Foucault adds that one of his most important aims has always been to show how our most familiar landscapes are not necessary or universal entities but rather a product of very complex political and social processes which have been forgotten (TPS: 11). Bringing them to light is both the first step in overcoming them and Foucault’s particular contribution in this regard. Thus, Foucault’s analyses in the 1970s on the coercive and oppressive nature of modern disciplinary societies are far from expressing a spirit of consent or resignation: within limits, resistance to disciplinary power is possible, and Foucault’s genealogical work aims to contribute precisely to this aim. In this context, it seems appropriate to quote Veyne’s description of Foucault’s philosophical activity, following his endorsement of Jean-Claude Passeron’s characterization of Foucault as a ‘warrior in the trenches’ (Veyne 1993: 2):

Despite what the justificatory or self-protecting philosophers assert, the spectacle of the past brings to light no reason in history other than the struggles of men for something that is undoubtedly neither true nor false but that imposes itself as truth to be told. If this is so, a philosophy has only one possible use, which is making war: not ← 116 | 117 → the war of the day before yesterday, but today’s war. And for this, it has to begin by proving genealogically that there is no other truth of history but this combat. […] To be a philosopher is to make a diagnosis of present possibilities and to draw up a strategic map – with the secret hope of influencing the choice of combats. (Veyne 1993: 6)

As Veyne stresses in the same text, as a genealogist the philosopher cannot claim that he is right and all others wrong; he can only show that others are wrong in claiming that they are right (Veyne 1993: 6). Accordingly, Foucault’s aim is not to substitute certain truths for others, but rather to destroy the validity of accepted truths by showing their contingency and arbitrariness, thereby opening a space of freedom for individual self-criticism, liberation and creativity.22 As a genealogist, his focus might be the past; as a warrior, it might be ‘today’s war’. As a philosopher, however, his target is and must remain the future: ‘the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’ (WE: 319). In other words, his genealogies of the formation and constitution of the modern subject are at the same time a provocation and challenge for future change and self-transformation.23 By constantly challenging acquired truths and beliefs, by questioning our common values and customs, by calling attention to the dangers of domination by our disciplines and institutions, by constantly disconcerting us with regard to our relation to ourselves and our social and political surroundings, and finally, by giving us, in the last period of his ← 117 | 118 → thought, a lively example of a different way of relating to ourselves and acquiring governance and sovereignty over ourselves, Foucault does indeed promote a sort of awakening and an inspiration to change: urging us to become masters of our own processes of subjectification and contributing to individual liberation. Seen in this light, it seems undeniable that there is a strong continuity in Foucault’s work and that it does fulfil the profoundly ethical Socratic imperative, which, in his view, has characterized philosophy from its very beginnings (cf. ECS: 301).


Works by Foucault and Nietzsche

Foucault, Michel (1986). The History of Sexuality, vol. III: The Care of the Self. New York: Pantheon Books. (quoted as CS)

Foucault, Michel & Rux Martin (1988). ‘Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault’, in Martin, L., H. Gutman, and P. Hutton, P. (eds.), Technologies of the Self. A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press: 9–15. (quoted as TPS)

Foucault, Michel (1988). ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’ in: Kritzman, L. (ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture. Interviews and Other Writings 1977–1984. New York: Routledge: pp. 47–53. (quoted as AE)

Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality, vol. II: The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage Books. (quoted as UP)

Foucault, Michel (1997). ‘Self Writing’ in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics. New York: The New Press: 207–222. (quoted as SW)

Foucault, Michel (1997). ‘Technologies of the Self’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics. New York: The New Press: 225–251.

Foucault, Michel (1997). ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics. New York: The New Press: 253–280. (quoted as GE) ← 118 | 119 →

Foucault, Michel (1997). ‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics. New York: The New Press: 281–301. (quoted as ECS)

Foucault, Michel (1997). ‘What is Enlightenment?’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics. New York: The New Press: 303–319. (quoted as WE)

Foucault, Michel (2000). ‘The Subject and Power’, in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 3: Power. New York: The New Press: 326–348. (quoted as SP)

Foucault, Michel (2005). The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–82. New York: Palgrave. (quoted as HS)

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1997). Daybreak. Ed. M. Clark and B. Leiter. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (quoted as D)

Nietzsche, Friedrich (2001). The Gay Science. Ed. B. Williams. Trans. J. Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (quoted as GS)

Nietzsche, Friedrich (2002). Beyond Good and Evil. Ed. R-F. Horstmann and J. Norman. Trans. J. Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (quoted as BGE)

Works by other authors

Allen, Amy (2013). ‘Power and the Subject’, in Falzon, C., T. O’Leary and J. Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell: 337–353.

Ansell-Pearson, Keith (1991), ‘The Significance of Michel Foucault’s Reading of Nietzsche: Power, the Subject, and Political Theory’. Nietzsche-Studien 20: 267–283.

____ (2015). ‘Questions of the Subject in Nietzsche and Foucault: A Reading of Dawn’, in Constâncio, João, Maria João Branco, e Bartholomew Ryan (eds.), Nietzsche and the Problem of Subjectivity. Berlin/ Boston: Walter de Gruyter: 411–435.

Constâncio, João, Maria João Branco, & Bartholomew Ryan (eds.) (2015). Nietzsche and the Problem of subjectivity. Berlin/ Boston: Walter de Gruyter. ← 119 | 120 →

Constâncio, João, & Marta Faustino (forthcoming). ‘Nietzsche and Foucault on Power. From Honneth’s Critique to a New Model of Recognition’, in Rosenberg, A., and J. Westfall (eds.), Foucault and Nietzsche. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Davidson, Arnold I. (2006). ‘Ethics as Ascetics: Foucault, the History of Ethics, and Ancient Thought’ in: Gutting, G. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 123–148.

Harrer, Sebastian (2005). ‘The Theme of Subjectivity in Foucault’s Lecture Series’. L’Herméneutique du Sujet. Foucault Studies 2, 2005: 75–96.

Ingram, David (2006). ‘Foucault and Habermas’, in Gutting, G. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 240–283.

Kelly, Mark G. E. (2013). ‘Foucault, Subjectivity, and Technologies of the Self’, in Falzon, C., T. O’Leary, and J. Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell: 510–525.

Kelly, Michael (2013). ‘Foucault on Critical Agency in Painting and the Aesthetics of Existence’, in Falzon, C., T. O’Leary, and J. Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell: 243–263.

Koopman, Colin (2013). ‘The Formation and Self-Formation of the Subject in Foucault’s Ethics’, in Falzon, C., T. O’Leary, and J. Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell: 526–543.

Lynch, Richard A. (2016) Foucault’s Critical Ethics. New York: Fordham University Press.

O’Leary, Timothy (2002). Foucault and the Art of Ethics. London: Continuum.

Simons, Jon (2013). ‘Power, Resistance, and Freedom’ in Falzon, C., T. O’Leary, and J. Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell: 301–319.

Smith, Daniel (2015). ‘Foucault on Ethics and Subjectivity: “Care of the Self” and “Aesthetics of Existence”’. Foucault Studies 19: 135–150.

Ure, Michael (2007). ‘Senecan Moods: Foucault and Nietzsche on the Art of the Self’. Foucault Studies 4: 19–52.

Veyne, Paul (1993). ‘Final Foucault and His Ethics’. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1: 1–9.

1 Abbreviations are used for references to works of Foucault and Nietzsche. Cf. references at the end of the article.

2 See, for example, O’Leary (2002), Harrer (2005), Kelly (2013), Simons (2013), Koopman (2013), Smith (2015), and Lynch (2016).

3 Cf. also GE (271): ‘In antiquity, this work on the self with its attendant austerity is not imposed on the individual by means of civil law or religious obligation, but it is a choice about existence made by the individual. People decide for themselves whether or not to care for themselves’.

4 See SP (326–327), where Foucault describes the ‘three modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects’, the last of which is ‘the way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject’.

5 This is Sebastian Harrer’s position. He argues that ‘there is a ‘conceptual continuity’, rather than a break, between Foucault’s earlier works on normalizing power, and his later works, on ethical self-constitution’ since ‘‘fabrication’ and ‘self-constitution’ are but two aspects of subjectivation’ (Harrer 2005: 75). See also Kelly (2013), Simons (2013), Koopman (2013) and Smith (2015: 145).

6 On Nietzsche’s conception of subjectivity, see Constâncio, Branco & Ryan (2015).

7 Cf. AE (50–51): ‘… the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty, as in Antiquity, on the basis, of course, of a number of rules, styles, inventions to be found in the cultural environment’.

8 On this topic, see Harrer, (2005).

9 For a discussion of Honneth’s criticism of Foucault (and Nietzsche), see Constâncio/Faustino (forthcoming). See also Kelly (2013) and Ingram (2006) for a defence of Foucault against Habermas’s criticism, which in this respect is similar to Honneth’s.

10 Cf. ECS (291): ‘I scarcely use the word power, and if I use it on occasion it is simply as shorthand for the expression I generally use: relations of power.’ See also SP (340–342).

11 In this sense, Foucault explicitly inverts the position that is often ascribed to him: ‘I refuse to reply to the question I am sometimes asked: ‘But if power is everywhere, there is no freedom.’ I answer that if there are relations of power in every social field, this is because there is freedom everywhere’ (ECS: 292).

12 For an excellent account of Foucault’s conceptions of power, freedom and resistance, see Simons (2013). See also Allen (2013) for a retrospective view on Foucault’s notions of power and subjectivity.

13 Note that concern for oneself does not imply neglecting others, but merely involves acknowledging the ethical priority of caring for oneself over caring for others. Taking care of oneself is required if one is to take good care of others and to be a good ruler, citizen, husband, father or friend: ‘a person who took proper care of himself would, by the same token, be able to conduct himself properly in relation to others and for others. A city in which everybody took proper care of himself would be a city that functioned well and found in this the ethical principle of its permanence’ (ECS: 287).

14 For criticism of Foucault’s overemphasis on the aesthetic (compared to the therapeutic) character of the Hellenistic schools, see Ure (2007).

15 Cf. GE (256): ‘I am not looking for an alternative; you can’t find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by other people.’ As Paul Veyne (1993: 2) puts it, ‘Foucault’s affinity with ancient morality is reduced to the modern reappearance of a single card in a completely new hand: the card of the self working on the self, the aestheticization of the subject, in two very different moralities and two very different societies.’

16 On the ‘aesthetics of existence’ as Foucault’s positive alternative to ‘ethics in its canonical forms’, see Smith (2015). See also Veyne (1993) and Davidson (2006) for Foucault’s own appropriation and use of Greek ethics.

17 On the influence of Nietzsche on Foucault’s aesthetic conception of ethics, see Ansell-Pearson (1991, 2015).

18 This goal of perfect governance of the self is equivalent to ‘a sort of permanent political relationship between self and self’ (GE: 272). Political metaphors for the self are also abundant in Nietzsche; see, for example, BGE (12, 19).

19 On Baudelaire’s dandysme, see for example WE (312): ‘Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.’

20 In an interview from 1984, Foucault tempers this by claiming that the relationship of the self to the self is not the only possible point of resistance to political power: rather, the relationship of the self to itself is essential to his concept of ‘governmentality’ which, in turn, ‘makes it possible to bring out the freedom of the subject and its relationship to others’ (ECS: 299–300).

21 See Kelly (2013) and Koopman (2013).

22 Cf. TPS (11): ‘All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence. They show the arbitrariness of institutions and show which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many changes can still be made’.

23 On the two layers – the formation and self-formation of the subject – of Foucault’s ethical project, see Koopman (2013), who convincingly argues that ‘Foucault’s ethical writings are […] located at the hinge between a history of the formation of the subject and the possibility of the future transformation of the subject. […] For ethics, as a first-order practice of emplaced activity rather than a second-order discourse on such activity, requires both the backward-looking historical gaze in which we discern the inheritance that bears on present ethical action and also the forward-looking, future-oriented hope in virtue of which that inheritance is productively transformed with the resources furnished us by our present. Foucault’s ethics explicitly takes up the relation between these tasks as we face them in our present.’ (Koopman, 2013: 526) On Foucault’s philosophy as a contribution to self-transformation, see also O’Leary (2002: 140 ss.).