Foucault, Virtue, Second Nature, Scepticism

John McDowell suggests that Aristotle’s ethics are a forerunner of second nature in German Idealism, the nature that comes from social existence( Mind and World, Lecture IV, which should be compared with Part I of Mind, Value, and Reality). There is some parallel with what Foucault argues in relation to a style which is not defined by nature, which is not in conformity with every other aspect of the subject’s life. Foucault goes a step further than McDowell in suggesting that the second nature fragments between different styles, and a step further again in arguing the individual second nature self fragments between different parts of existence. There is no unified style for humans and not even a unified style for the individual. There are differences in virtues between individuals and differences between different aspects of the life of an individual. If we think about the famous discussions about the unity of the virtues in Plato, Meno, Euthrypo and so on, we should not take Foucault as a simply reversing Plato’s elevation of the one over the many. In Plato’s account, that would still mean a distinct virtue for every type of individual. There is no such stable list of virtues for individuals or even situations in Foucault; there is always self-invention and choice.

Foucault’s arguments should not be taken as just the affirmation of indeterminacy of choice. There is a point of reference for choice, and that is the truth of the inner agon. The truth is not a pre-given virtue, or character, it is a more living changeable thing. That does not deny any naturalistic, or psychological, discussion of the origins of character, we could put all of this in the strongest neo-Humean naturalistic-psychological deterministic terms. If we do that, we still need to describe what is happening in the style of the self, we would still need to respect the difference between internal causation and external physical compulsion, as Hobbes and Hume did. Not that an argument is being offered here for such strong determinism (the author is inclined towards indeterminist argument for free will), but the question of whether we prefer strong determinism over all the positions allowing some role for freedom of will is not what is at stake here. In naturalistic terms, the styles of the self are the outcome of different natures in different selves, including natures which are changeable. The real issue here is that even if second nature is the deterministic outcome of first nature, that nature still divides between different possibilities in different agents and different possibilities within those agents. There is something exemplary about the agent who contains possibilities and moves between them. That would be the highest virtue, the nearest thing to a cardinal or unifying virtue. That highest virtue would also contain self-mastery in the existence of a sovereign self which creates its own styles of existence. A self which speaks freely from its inner agonistic truth. There are some traces of the right to make promises and the creation of a sovereign agent that Nietzsche deals with in Genealogy of Morality II; as with Nietzsche there is the ambivalence about whether we are offered an ethical ideal or the over socialised product of historical-cultural violence. In Foucault’s case, we should not forget that care of the self ends with Augustinian asceticism.

What Foucault offers is an ethic of inner struggle and social contestation, which tends to come up in the political context explaining why it has not been dealt with here. An ethic of the plurality of life styles, between and within individuals. An ethic of natural humanity opening up every possible way of life in the nature of the social. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘classical age’ (the early modern era) suggests that every possibility has to be realised, as can be seen in Leibniz’ concern with compossibility or de Sade’s wish to enact every desire (The Order of Things). Some of that spirit can be found in Foucault’s ethics, though not in sense of the absolute mastery possessed by God or nature, in the time of the Classical Age.

One thing that Foucault may have omitted from his account of ancient care of the self is the sceptical tradition in the New Academy and the Pyrrhonists through Aenesidemus to Sextus Empiricus. This has its own concern with the care of the self, in seeking a balance between conflicting beliefs. The conflicting sides should both be treated with scepticism, releasing the self from their conflict and from one sided ways of thinking and living. Foucault has often been awarded the label of sceptic or relativist, but does not pick up on the Ancient arguments, in the Sophists, the New Academy, or the Pyrrhonists. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both gave respect to Ancient scepticism above Cartesian scepticism on the grounds that the ancient sceptics lived out their scepticism, it was a philosophy of life. There could be a productive approach to Foucault in working through the relevance of the antique sceptics, together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

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Agonism and Virtue in Foucault’s Ethics

I’m looking at Foucault’s work on antique ethics in History of Sexuality, as an agonistic virtue ethics. It is virtue ethics, because it is an ethics of flourishing, in which human excellence is taken as the source of value. It is agonistic, because Foucault himself uses that word to refer to the role of struggle within the self, to command oneself. That struggle is also a struggle with others to have the right to command in a state, but that kind of agonism is only considered in passing, as a political struggle. There is an ethics of egalitarianism in Foucault, which emerges from his consideration of erotic pleasure and the ways that antique thought places erotic pleasure within a care of the self. That care of the self emerges in Plato and is deeply ambivalent. In one part it leads to Christian asceticism, in another part it leads to a sense that pleasure is good but must be regulated from the point of view of reason and health. The kind of virtue ethics in Foucault is also agonistic because it is pluralistic. It is more pluralistic than Swanton’ pluralistic view of virtue ethics. Foucault does does not root virtue in a single human nature, he regards care for self as best expressed in an aesthetics of life, a style of existence which is invented by the individual and is more than what universal categories suggest.

Foucault’s turn to overtly ethical writing in his last years offers a distinct form of virtue ethics. This does not emerge abruptly in his later writings, it is rooted in the earlier fascination with the plurality of forms of knowledge and power. Christine Swanton wrote on a pluralistic view of virtue ethics (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 2005), and brought in Nietzsche. However, that approach cannot properly capture what is in Nietzsche or Foucault. It is just Foucault who is considered her, the discussion of Nietzsche will take place elsewhere, but it is appropriate to acknowledge here that Nietzsche is both part of the background to Foucault and a different case to Foucault. What Foucault offers is something very distinct for virtue ethics, and the discussion of this contribution has hardly begun yet.

The idea of agon, of struggle, is fundamental to Foucault’s ethics and to his politics. His two most obvious predecessors on this issue are Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Unfortunately he is inclined to take Machiavelli as ‘Machiavellian’ in the familiar sense. He does not seem to notice Machiavelli the Republican idealist behind the cynical rhetoric of The Prince; and Machiavelli the admirer of conflict within a political community, as a strengthening of republican self-government. Foucault does not say a great deal directly about Nietzsche, and does not need to since the connection is well known. His account of ethics and politics in his texts on the Ancient world (History of Sexuality Volumes II & III, Hermeneutics of the Subject, The Government of Self and Others, Fearless Speech), can be taken as formed partly through an implicit transformation of Nietzsche’s view of the master-slave relation in antiquity, as established in the Genealogy of Morality.

The political aspects of Foucault’s writings on antiquity, including his ways of understanding of republican thought is a matter for another place. What is developed here is an approach to the explicit discussion of ethics in Foucault’s thought about antiquity, and the ethical implications of his discussion. In Foucault’s account we can see traces of Nietzsche’s evaluation of master morality as more affirmative than slave morality, but what Foucault is looking at is not Homeric heroes versus Christian saints. It is the ambiguous development of ethical, political, medical and erotic thought from the Athens of Socrates and Aeschylus to the Rome of Augustine. The ambiguity can be found within Plato, which is something that Nietzsche had already implied. Foucault does not use the language of mastery and slave, but amongst other things he refers to self-government and the government of other. The external relation of master and slave is thought of as entwined with an internal relation of self-mastery, again something that can already be found in Nietzsche. The self-mastery is entwined both with government of others and a refusal of government. The Nietzschean elements are certainly not to be taken as a revelation of what Nietzsche really meant, or as a revelation of what he should have said, though Foucault’s implicit use of Nietzsche can certainly be taken as relevant to those questions about Nietzsche.

Here the focus is on ethics in the narrowest possible sense. Foucault does not approach ethics in an isolated way, that is not the way he writes. He is always concerned with a historical phenomenology, or history of discourses, in which political and ethical ideas, along with methodological and epistemological positions emerge rather than appear in fully articulated form; though there are times when he is relatively explicit. Even in the latter cases, the approach is to show rather than say, where discourse has a phenomenological aspect.

That’s a summary of some of what is distinctive in Foucault’s approach. In a less Foucauldian style, there is the question of where Foucault belongs in broad categories of ethical theorising. It’s not the kind of question Foucault asked, but it is the kind of question that needs to be asked about Foucault. As has been noted by Neil Levy
(Levy 2004), but by remarkably few commentators as a whole, Foucault belongs in virtue theory. That is he is concerned with the cultivation of the kind of self which is ethically desirable, rather than with consequences of actions and rules, or the following of rules, or the grasp of moral intuitions. Virtue theory is something largely defined with regard to the antique authors Foucault is discussing: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics. His approach has some distance, but accepts essential aspects of virtue theory. In a general definition, Foucault belongs to virtue ethics in the same way that Nietzsche does, as noted by Christine Swanton for example. There are ways in which Nietzsche deviates from antique virtue ethics, and so does Foucault. Nietzsche’s deviation can be explored elsewhere, though it does provide a precedent for the agonism in Foucault’s virtue theory.

Foucault: Genealogy, Hermeneutics, Ethics, Sexuality

Looking at History of Sexuality II (The Use of Pleasure) and III (The Care of the Self), as I have been over the last few weeks, I need to modify something I posted on 10th December about Foucault’s use of the term ‘hermeneutic’. I said that it is not really correct to label the ’82 to ’83 lectures at the Collège de France, as ‘hermeneutics of the subject, because those lectures deal with the Ancient world, its ethics and sexuality, as does History of Sexuality II & III. The hermeneutics of the self properly speaking belongs to the 19th Century and belongs to the movement from a medicalised-moralised account of sexuality in ‘deviant’ forms to psychoanalysis.
I’m not abandoning that suggestion, but it is also true that in the discussion of the Ancients, Foucault does occasionally refer to hermeneutics, along with ‘subjectivisation’. Both are associated with post-Enlightenment conceptions, but seem to be emerging in the Ancient world, particularly in association with Neo-Stoicism and the Roman Empire. That brings up questions about how Foucault uses ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘subjectivisation’ which I am not ready to address right now, but which I need to at some point.
The ambiguity in the use of the term ‘hermeneutic’ comes from the way that Enpire-Neo-Stoicism are the time of moralised medicalised attitudes to sexuality, foreshadowing the 19th century. At the same time, that era is the time of care of the self, a style of the self which are largely positive terms of Foucault. Though the Empire-Neo Stoicism puts an emphasis on observing monogamy that does not enthuse Foucault, he is positive with regard to an attitude of equality and mutual obligation. This can be traced back to Aristotle as style and care in relation to the self can be traced back to Plato. Ambiguities about distinct periods, what we have is repetition with difference. There may be an attempt to avoid teleology here, but there is teleology inevitably. Foucault cannot avoid a forward looking narrative, but he does disrupt it. This could be part of what he means by genealogy. Of course I could refer to some other Foucault texts on this, but I have not been looking at them recently, and I prefer to leave this post as it is, a reaction at one moment.
Questions remain to be addressed on what genealogy is and what hermeneutics is in Foucault, along with archaeology, the term he put at the centre in the late 60s in Archaeology of Knowledge and Order of Things, and which is still briefly invoked in History of Sexuality.

Me on Mises’ Liberalism at LiberalVision and some supplementary comments

Click here to see my introduction to Ludwig von Mises and summary of Liberalism.

The account of Mises largely avoids what I find most dubious in Mises, apart from a suggestion that he is too harsh on John Stuart Mill’s contribution to liberalism by emphasising his leanings towards socialism over time.  As far as I am concerned, Mises makes mistakes just as big.  I certainly think anyone with an interest in classical liberal and libertarian ideas should read Mises.

I have not read as much as I need to so far, I would like to tackle his masterpiece on economics, Human Action.  It’s rather large and I feel I should accompany with some other reading in the less mathematical parts of economics, which is where Human Action belongs.  John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is an obvious point of comparison.  Also given that Mises sees sociology and economics belonging together, and quite rightly I believe, I would like to also make a contextual reading of Max Weber’s  Economy and Society. Weber and Mises had good personal relations, and there is certainly some interesting looking material around comparing them. However, these three texts individually are all big reading challenges; reading them together is clearly an extreme challenge, and it is very difficult to read so much material in a focused continuous way excluding other research projects.

Returning to Liberalism, some concerns I have which I did not bring up in the LberalVision piece, for reasons of space and because I want to get people who visit that site to read Mises for themselves and make up their own mind.  My own blog has different more self-involved purposes than my LV contributions.  However, since someone left a comment about how Mises was better than Mill, I did leave a comment about Mises supporting Italian Fascism in the book.  Mises argues that Italian Fascism saved civilisation without going into much detail.  What I presume he means is that Mussolini’s regime was better than a Communist regime, and that in 1922 when the Fascists first came to power, there was a real chance of a Communist Party take over.  Mises was certainly right to argue that the Fascism of 20s Italy was a more mild kind of authoritarianism than the USSR at that time.  Nevertheless I find his position perverse.  The greatest risk of Bolshevik style revolution in Europe outside Russia was in 1920.  The 1922 entry of the Fascists into government with strong support from parts of the traditional elites was certainly partly a result of the destabilisation of liberal democracy by the 1920 turmoil, but the issue was collapse of faith in liberal democracy not an imminent danger of Red terror.

In general Mises had an alarming tendency to support conservative authoritarianism, as can be seen in his close association with Engelbert Dolfuss who abolished parliamentary democracy in Austria.

‘Before Dollfuss was murdered for his politics, Mises was one of his closest advisers.’

as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wrote for the Mises Institute in 1997.

Hoppe mentions Dollfuss as an opponent of Naziism and omits reference to his destruction of parliamentary democracy and all political opposition in a country which been a democratic republic since 1919.  Hoppe represents a side of ‘libertarianism’ I don’t care for at all, an Anarcho-Conservative who prefers monarchy (and it would seem other forms of conservative dictatorship) to democracy. I should emphasise some more liberal democratically minded people who follow Misian economics, Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson, two economic commentators who are very interesting for non-economists, and  I strong recommend them.  Still there is a side of Mises which leads to Hoppe.

It is certainly to Mises’ credit that he supports equality between the races, open immigration (unlike Hoppe), liberal democracy in politics (unlike Hoppe), and an end to colonialism in Liberalism.  Even so, there is quite a lot of chauvinism, mostly directed at Russia.  Bolshevism is apparently a consequence of barbarism in Russia, a barbarism lacking in central and western Europe, apparently.  Though in that case, one might think it odd that such countries need Mussolini (Mises published Liberalism in 1927, so we’ll put aside events of the 1930s).  According to Mises, the great Russian literary figures who preceded Bolshevism were part of this savagery, and were ‘neurotics’ .  Mises believed that anyone who was a socialist of any kind was a neurotic, which does not strike me as a high level of argument.  And I hardly think that all pre-1917 Russian writers can be dismissed in this way.  It’s of course very sad that the two greatest, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were not advocates of liberalism, but to dismiss them as agents of savagery is itself uncultured and unintelligent.  There is much to learn about the depth and value of the individual from reading them, something any liberal should appreciate.  In any case, at least one great literary figure from that time in Russia had liberal sympathies, Ivan Turgenev.

Mises, someone who is a highly important part of the continuation of the original liberal tradition after what he quite rightly describes as the tendency for liberals to become moderate socialists, an original thinker in economics, and a man of great moral courage; but also highly flawed with regard to reasoned argument, consistency of liberal democratic principles, and nationalistic stereotyping.

Style, Hermeneutics, Speech; Ethics & Politics in Foucault

Some intermediate thoughts on working I’m doing on ethics and politics in Foucault.

First.
Something really obvious struck me earlier today, which is that The Hermeneutics of the Subjects , the book based on the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in the academic session of 1981-82 (edited after Foucault’s death) is misnamed. It’s a book about what precedes the ‘hermeneutics of the self’, the ‘subject of sexuality’ which we are used to in the modern world. As Foucault says in History of Sexuality:

Putting it schematically, we could say that classical antiquity’s moral reflection concerning the pleasures was not directed toward a codification of acts, nor towards a hermeneutics of the subject, but towards a stylization of attitudes, and an aesthetics of existence.
The History of Sexuality II The Use of Pleasure (92)

On pourrait dire schématiquement que la réflexion morale de l’Antiquité à propos des plaisirs ne s’oriente ni vers une codification des actes ni vers une hérmeneutique du sujet, mais vers une stylisation de l’attitude et une estétique de l’existence.
Histoires de la sexualité II L’usage des plaisirs (125)

In some ways Foucault is advocating a return to the morality of style and aesthetics.
Two mistakes should definitely be avoided here: that Foucault is advocating a nostalgic recreation; that Foucault s obliterating ethics in an aesthetics or stylisation without moral aspects. So
No recreation of ancient society
No stylisation or aesthetics without moral aspects.
There is ‘emergent’ morality as there is in Aristotle’s accounts of ‘action’, ‘habit’ and ‘virtue’/’excellence’. There is not categorial shift from aesthetic to ethical, and ethical to political.

Foucault uses the idea of style against hermeneutics, so that we can learn from the liberty of the Ancients in thinking about the liberty of the moderns. Anyone familiar with liberal thought from the 1740s to the 1790s (Montesquieu, Smith, Constant, Humboldt) might think I am making reference here to the ways that for a few decades these thinkers wrote about ancient republican liberty and modern individualistic liberty, and they would be right That is something I will have to deal with more fully on another occasion, however. But I think that is a useful clue about how the return to the Ancient in Foucault is not a desire for recreation.

In his texts on antiquity, Foucault is concerned with three processes which emerge simultaneously: moralisation of sexuality, the care of the self (tied up with knowledge of the self), the emergence of ‘free speaking’ (parrhesia). The free speaking emerges in tension with speech as rhetoric, in a rather Socratic-Platonic triumph of truth over power, but also a rather anti-Platonist general disruption of language and categories. Foucault partly explains this as the disruption of the ‘performative’ (J.L. Austin referrred to the way in a linguistic act can be an act with consequences in the non-linguistic sphere, with this term) ‘Free speaking’ is the speech that is not defined by predictable consequences, that opens up to chance and defies necessity.

Second.
How does Foucault separate the ethical and the political in these categories? There is a way in which that is the wrong question, a bad question. The ethical and the political and entwined in Foucault’s discussion. ‘Free speaking’ and ‘care of the self’ both refer to ethical and political realms, through the issues of what kind of self-relation is good for the individual and good for the individual’s place in politics.
There is also a way in which we have to make the distinction. There must be some way in which Foucault makes some distinction, however provisional and variable, between individual life and life in politics. It is his account of pleasure which is most ethical in the sense that it is concerned with individual life, which is of course modified by communal customs, norms and laws. The care of the self has a strong element of preparing the self for political power, and free speaking enters strongly into politics. Free speaking also enters into the individual/religious realm of tragedy (particularly Oedipus Basileos and Ion), but then that is a very political form in Ancient Athens.
Not wishing to make an absolute distinction at all, but I think that pleasure, and the questions of the aesthetic and style are the most ethical rather than political aspects of Foucault’s discussion. These feed into care of the self and free-speaking, and there is feedback. Something similar applies to Plato and Aristotle.

What I am trying to do at present is focus the ethical and the political in Foucault in that way, with all due regard to the way in which they feed into each other, interweave, and influence each other.

Me on Montesquieu at LiberalVision

My summary of The Spirit of the Laws (1748), by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1748). Liberal Vision, 3rd December.
Main points:
The impossible ideal of democratic republicanism based on equality of poverty and law which comes from custom, and is obeyed without coercion.
The possible ideal of a republicanism which may influence modern monarchies or be present in confederations of city-states.
The role of commerce and trade in this kind of realistic liberty, which brings different peoples into peaceful communication.
The principle of honour in monarchy, which incorporates the ideas of a harmonious competitive individualism with regard to wealth and status, fusing aristocratic and bourgeois competition.
Any state should be a moderate state limited by law.
Law should apply punishments in the mildest way possible, as harsh punishments are intrinsically undesirable and are part of despotism.
The value of a division between government and legislation, and decentralisation of government.
Enlightenment values present throughout, including opposition to slavery and oppression of minorities.
A social-historical method unifying the study of geography, history, law and political institutions.

Academic Peer Review: the Reality Exposed

Another Downfall parody on YouTube, but a great one.  Hitler has to deal with a third reviewer of the paper he submitted to an academic journal, and goes nuts in the bunker.

 

Hat tip, Michael Munger’s Kids Prefer Cheese blog.

Go there now, a great blog for politics, economics and humour, I check in everyday.