Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics V

It is the prohibitionist moralism and political despotism of Imperial Rome, with regard to the increasing prohibitionism of Stoicism, and finally the complete moralisation of asceticism and sexuality in Christianity, becoming dominant in the later stages of the Empire, when the state becomes more explicitly removed from republican rule, that Foucault considers to have taken some aspects of antique ethics towards positions which undermine care of the self, in its best senses.  It must also be said that Foucault sees some necessary emergence of the self in all historical phases, and that mixed evaluations are attached to all phases.  Even given that, he clearly has a particular interest and positive evaluation of the antique self in the phase before Christianity, and particularly before the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire.  Though he sees value in the emergence of Christianity as the dominant source of ethics, he does give greater value to the earlier phase.  Schuld argues in Foucault and Augustine, that Foucault can be particularly illuminated by a comparison with Augustine.  Though the comparison is worth making, the overall emphasis in Foucault is to give the highest value to the emergence of care of the self, from the use of pleasure that is being discussed here.   There is no simple nostalgia, a belief in restoring what has been lost, but clearly a belief that the later hermeneutics of the self should be grasped through a reinvigorated appreciation of the earlier phase.  The value is given to that moment, preceding prohibitionism and the hermeneutics of the self.  That even applies to Plato, who does not have the ‘hermeneutics of the self’ which Foucault associates with early Christianity.  That is Plato does not consider desire to reveal, and be identical with, the deepest nature of the ‘real’ self.  That would be the wrong kind of ontology and interpretation.

The idea of a structural, instrumental and ontological, relation with the self, which is also the relation with truth is strongly emphasised by Foucault in The Uses of Pleasure as can be seen in the passages previously cited.  One thing that Foucault suggests is that there is no individuation at the level of a desiring subject, as individuation emerges in forms of sef-relation, and following from that, the moderate subject, a subject that is self-limiting in its desires, is not an epistemological form of subjecthood.  The relation with truth, which is an ontological condition, precedes the epistemological form of knowing relation with self, and other objects.  There is a more basic status of the relation, which rests on pre-conceptual encounters with things, as compared to the conceptual grasp of things as objects of knowledge.  This can be understood in relation to Heidegger on ontology and epistemology in Being and Time  and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics.  This provides a major of the context for how Foucault’s account of ethical stylisation is something distinct from individual singular orientation towards knowledge, but is embedded in the ontology of the self, with reference to instruments and structures of that self.  That is the basis of knowledge in a non-epistemic sense, and the basis of ethics.

The ontological aspect also comes up in other commentary on Plato, where Foucault refers to how he limits the self through the relation with truth: where the individual recognises its own being, it recognises the need for restraint.  There is a double relation with ontology here: a relation to the nature of being, and the nature of truth as a question of what is adequate to being.  In Plato’s texts on love, Symposium and Phaedrus, questions of love become questions of relation with truth.  The discussion moves from the object of knowledge, and love, to the truth of which the subject is capable.  What Plato means by truth is at work for Foucault in structural, instrumental, and ontological, conditions for self-restraint.  This establishes a moderate individual, it does not establish anything like the Christian self, where the inner life of the individual is interpreted in such a way, as to make it the object of epistemology, of epistemologically loaded hermeneutics of an abstract kind.  The lack of this Christian self is one reason why the ‘style as unlimited self-creation’ interpretation of Foucault is inappropriate to what he says about care of the self.  That view of style would need the Christian self, and that only exists as an ascetic self.  The idea of a self-stylising self in the sense attributed to Foucault, could only be a produce of the ascetic Christian self taking itself as object, if we follow Foucault’s arguments.

Epistemology has a meaning for Foucault beyond that of organising knowledge.  Evidently, Foucault himself, was concerned with knowledge and made modes of knowledge the topic of Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things.  ‘Epistemology’ for Foucault in History of Sexuality is a marker for a negative way of thinking about knowledge, which is too abstract and universal, which tries to find abstract objects of universal laws.  His texts on knowledge challenge all claims to knowledge of objects, independent of changeable assumptions of what knowledge is and what its objects are.  Hacking, Gutting, and Han, have explored these issues in Foucault, in particularly illuminating detail.  This anti-epistemological attitude to knowledge is carried through in the later texts considered here.  Foucault’s negative approach to ‘epistemology’, is a defence of a position in which he defends the variable forms of knowing from the rigidities of universalising epistemology.

(To be continued)

Homer and the Beginning of Virtue Ethics (me at the New APPS group blog)

It is possible to see Homer as the beginning of a lot of things. (The use of ‘Homer’ here is simply for convenience as a way of referring to  The Iliad and The Odysseyand should not be taken as an assertion that there was a single author of those two epics or that if there was such an author, the author had that name). Nevertheless, it may be particularly appropriate to see Homer at the beginning of virtue ethics. There are ways that there is a version of virtue ethics in the Homeric epics related to later virtue ethics in antiquity, and while there is no equivalent version of later metaphysics, epistemology, or political theory.

Virtue ethics dominates the way we see ancient ethics and that vein of ancient ethics  can be taken back to Homer even if not quite the same as in later more abstract philosophical elaborations, and even lacking in the same vocabulary. What follows will just assume that a language of virtues can be applied to Homer and is not concerned with how far such a language can be found in an explicit way in that literature. The Homeric approach is interestingly different and even superior to the later philosophical reflections in that virtues are shown to varied and conflicting, rather than as part of rationally unified and hierarchically structures.

For the rest, click here.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): Second of Two Parts

Barry Stocker:

My latest contribution to the group blog Notes On Liberty

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty:

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by…

View original 836 more words

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

Barry Stocker:

Me at the group blog Notes On Liberty

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty:

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant…

View original 775 more words

Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics IV

There is a negative idea of hierarchy, in a context where that could refer to: the authority of master over slave, and an affirmative idea of combat with adversaries; an agonistic relation with the self, and with others.  The best way of understanding Foucault, then, is that differences of authority, differences in the hierarchy, are necessary to the ethics of self-relationships.  The reciprocal relation has an ideal place in Foucault, but that relation itself is partly formed by the moralisation of sex, within a hierarchy of better and worse sexual practices, ‘[t]he effort that the individual was urged to bear to bring on himself, the necessary ascesis, had the form of a battle to be fought, a victory to be won in establishing a domain of self over self’.  The self-relation, which enables an individual to be sovereign and moral, is part of a struggle.  The tendency Foucault notes, in the antique world, for care of the self to become more and more about a  denial of the self is something he regards critically, as well, though he does not simply reject it; and it is a process which he finds to be tied up with the elevation of  heterosexuality.  The moral reflection in classical Greece on pleasure is distinguished, from the codification of acts, or the ‘hermeneutics of the subject’, which Foucault associates with the Christianity that becomes dominant in later stages of antiquity. The interest in formulating ethics of desire became a morality of renunciation, and is part of the constitution of a hermeneutics of desire.

Foucault’s claims about the antique understanding of pleasure, are embedded in an ethics of desire, and are oriented towards a stylisation of attitude, and an aesthetics of existence.  It is stylisation because of the open nature of sexuality.  Stylisation refers to rules and nature, so it is not an indeterminate kind of openness.  Since nature and rules are not always in unity, stylisation is the way in which a unity is produced, a unity which is also the tension within a hierarchy.   A unity which is both particularistic and ethical. Reason and deliberation reveal themselves in the action, but the action is not a gratuitous isolated moment, it belongs to a process of emergence in which it cannot be separated from the rational deliberative process.  The rational deliberative process cannot be understood separately from its inherent quality, of revealing itself through an action.

There is some development from nature to style in Foucault’s account of antique sexuality, but the development goes through the rational deliberative act as part of life, to style as a part of life in its connections with the rest of society.  Style is definitely not identified with indeterminate and changing self-invention, but with the family, social and economic aspects of the life of the subject.  It is The Care of the Self where this is investigated, with regard to the second century dream book of Artemidorus.  Foucault’s reliance on the dream book is an example of this thought at its most schematic, in its tendency to put great weight on one example.  However, there is compensation in the integrity of the resulting argument, as a way of illuminating the development of ethics in the antique world.  Oversimplification is a well established part of philosophical and scientific method.  What the method gives us here is a way of thinking about the relation between care of the self and sociality in the antique world, as both in tension and as mutually reinforcing.  In The Care of the Self, ‘The Cultivation of the Self’, Foucault goes on to argue that the nature of care of the self in the early Roman Empire, by contrast with earlier antiquity, is such that style of life expressed itself in the choice of nature and universality, as the appropriate style.  There is a flight of the self from its weakness through askēsis in which there is both universalisation and stylisation.  This stage of antique ethics and sexuality is studied in detail in parts Four to Six of The Care of the Self, after the general terms are set out in the earlier parts of the book.

Artemidorus’ dream book itself shows the way in which care of the self, that emerges from pleasure, itself becomes the starting point for the emergence of prohibitionism.  The book’s origin is over a century after the emergence of the early Roman Empire, and from Foucault’s point of view, confirms his suggestion about the general transformation that accompanied the transformation in political forms.  The change of political forms feeds into a loss of the idea of self-government, that is of an aspect of care of the self, because of the loss of republican involvement of citizens, particularly the aristocracy, in political government.  There is a loss of certainty about what the self is, but that is the road to asceticism and prohibitionism, not to an aestheticised contentless self-stylisation.

(To be continued)

Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics III

The constitution of the moral self refers to modes of ‘subjectivation’, along with the practices of the self, including asceticism.  The full emergence of the moral self is the emergence of a subject in ‘subjectivation’, in which Foucault refers both to the emergence of a subject of actions, and the status of subjection to some external code.  The phenomenology of emergence is fundamental to Foucault’s position, and arises in the way that the subject is defined by its acts.  The ontology of the subject cannot precede its acts, acts which bring into social relations, including that of  ‘subjectivation’.  ‘Subjectivation’ takes a quasi-juridical form, in which the moral subject refers to a law, or set of laws.  Foucault emphasises that subjectivity is a status of personhood in law, which makes us free individuals, and subjected individuals at the same time.   As Foucault acknowledges, this raises the question of the place of universal law in the care of the self.  His answer is that law, itself, is one possible expression of tekhnē, and that we should not be mislead by juridical forms that originate in the Middle Ages.  Juridical forms, as we have known them since the Middle Ages, are far beyond the forms of law that emergence in subjectivation and care of the self.  In general, the existence of rules should not be taken as the existence of juridical laws.  The tekhnē  of care of the self precedes laws, and implicitly precedes notions of moral obligation.  The care of the self is an emergent phenomenon, which comes from the ontological condition of life, not from external laws or moral principles.   This is one way in which Foucault engages with the ambiguity of power and freedom: they go together.  Only the individual who acts can experience the restraints of power, and restraints on individual power, as expressed in law, or any other form.

Where there are moral subjects, there are ‘laws’ in the broadest sense, conveyed in the Ancient Greek nomoi,  that is all customs, conventions and laws.  The necessity to respect nomoi, laws and customs, is less in the content of law and the conditions of application, than in the attitude of respect for  them.  There is a rapport with the self in which it is not carried away by pleasures and appetites, and in which it aims for mastery, and superiority, in relation to them.  This maintains a state of freedom from slavery, with regard to the passions; and the attainment of a mode of being, which can be defined by complete enjoyment of the self, or perfect self-sovereignty.  The respect for law is tied up with the existence of the self, which has a relation with itself.  The respect for the self is a precondition, and a part of, respect for nomoi.   The version of Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is the culmination of that respect, which receives a more generalised formulation in Stoicism.  This develops into Epictetus’ position that care of the self is a privilege and necessity, a gift and an obligation, which assures our liberty and takes ourselves as the object of our obligation.

For Foucault, power is not just negative restraining phenomenon, as he makes clear in, for example, ‘The Body of the Condemned’, Chapter One of Discipline and Punish.  We can only understand the individual’s willingness to be under the power of sovereignty, through the emergence of a moral self which has self-sovereignty, that is has power over itself.  Both external power, and the power of the self over itself, contain dangers, but those dangers are necessary outcomes of our self-relationships, including care for the self.  The political world in the most positive sense of appropriately limited sovereignty, and the participation of sovereign individuals, must itself include a despotic possibility as well as the kind of positive possibilities Foucault identifies in a polity, or republic, based on equality.

Power is about difference and conflict, differences of power and conflict between centres of power.  The conflicts of power are conflicts within society, and between individuals, that are about mastery; the conflicts of power are also conflicts within the individual, that is concerning self-mastery.  The theme of self-mastery is a theme of inner conflict.  Out of these considerations, Foucault’s ethics can be defined as agonistic in two senses, with reference to both: inner struggle and external struggle, ‘[w]hat one must aim for in the agonistic contest with oneself and in the struggle to control the desires was the point where the relationship with oneself would become isomorphic with the relationship of domination, hierarchy, and authority’.  Foucault articulates a liaison between: agonism, self-relation, hierarchy, authority, ethical virility, social virility, sexual virility.  Foucault does not endorse the masculine centred nature of such antique views; he does find value in the ideas of struggle with oneself and with others.  Hierarchies are inevitable for Foucault, where there is struggle within the hierarchy there is freedom.  A hierarchy, or relations of power, that can be transformed or inverted is in accordance with freedom, as he suggests in ‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’.

(To be continued)

Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics II

The quotation above is preceded, by a reference to Michel de Montaigne on the ‘aesthetics and ethics of the self’; and Montaigne is not someone so easily dismissed as an advocate of narcissism, rather than a full exploration or our inner self and our relations with others.  That quotation is followed up with a discussion of governmentality, government of the self and others, and political power.  As the above suggests, politics is never completely absent from Foucault’s thoughts about ethics and the self.  Aesthetics is never completely absent either, but this is not the same as the advocacy of dandyism as an end in itself, or the most self-absorbed melancholic aspects of Baudelaire.   The presence of Montaigne, and of political power, in Foucault’s discussion of the self, in close proximity to his mention of ‘dandyism’, should direct our understanding of Foucault’s use of that term.  The mention of dandyism is not there as a definition of Foucault’s position,in the strongest sense of dandyism.   It has two purposes: in a strong sense to refer to the one of the  possible forms of stylisation; in a weak sense to refer to the possibility of choice of style.  The idea of dandyism highlights the way in which living contains choices about the style of living; it does not leave dandyism, itself, as the only, or best, choice.

The place of dandyism can be further defined with reference to Foucault’s summary of the ‘art of living’ in the ancient world, ‘the principle of “taking care of oneself” was formulated within this general question of the tekhnē tou biou’.  Foucault refers to the whole of the classical period, thereby bringing in late Stoic and early Christian thought about the self, which is more ascetic than dandyish in character.  Though he presents that latter stage as a departure from earlier ethics in some respects, it is also presented as a outcome of the restraints implicit in care of the self.

The art of living is an art which requires reason, rules and the making explicit of reasoning about rules.  The art of living is continuous with care of the self, so we are not just talking about a play of appearances, but rather the totality of purposes that enter into living, and its rules.  Existence, being alive, itself, is bound up with the art and technique, and implicitly the style, of life.  That is style emerges from ontology.  Before arriving at a choice for dandyism, asceticism, or any other style, the individual is faced with the inevitability of following a technique of some kind.  Since there is always more than one technique, the individual always has to be a ‘dandy’ in a minimal sense to the extent of making some choice of style, even though that may often happen with a minimum of reflection, largely following prevailing customs.

Following on from the general character of care for the self, and art of living, the sexual stylisation Foucault refers to is not a jump into the boundless infinite of self-invention, but is rather the elaboration of rules in which we find ways of establishing ourselves in relation to nature, and in which our actions match an inner rationality and deliberation.  So there is a questioning of absolutes of ethics and knowledge, but also an assumption of the value of ontology, of truthful speech and rational conduct, which all deal with the inevitable particularity of individual truths and ethics.  This is not a retreat into solipsism, as can be see in the importance that Foucault attaches to confirming the formation of ethics in terms of a relational self, relational with itself, with power, and with nature.

The ‘moral’ itself appears in Foucault, as something preceding law, and external obligation.  It refers to the formation of the self by itself, and the way in which the self establishes itself as having a moral aspect.  The idea of a unified self suggests a rapport of the self, with itself, and that is tied up with actions which have external effects.  For an action to be called moral does not mean it has to be reduced to an act, or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value.  All moral acts have an effect on reality, according to a moral code, but such acts also imply a rapport with the self.  This is not just consciousness of the self, but constitution of the self as moral subject.  The individual makes up the part of the self, which constitute the object of moral practice.  This is a mode of being, an action of the self on itself, in which it is self-knowing, self-controlling, self-testing, self-perfecting and self-transforming.  Moral action refers to the unity of moral conduct.  Unity of moral conduct refers to the constitution of the self as a moral self, and that is a statement about the ontological character of the self.  The constitution of the moral self is one way in which the ontology of the self is revealed.