The word ‘liberty’ is a major reference in Michel Foucault’s investigations into political and ethical topics towards the end of hşs life. You wouldn’t really think so from the general output of Foucauldians. I suspect there is a political resistance going on here. Im not going into the political significance because I don’t want to tie Foucault down to a political position, something he strongly resisted, and I don’t want to get into pure political polemics. I simply invited the reader to consider in what context ‘liberty’ tends to appear in political language. Instead I will sketch out how liberty appears in Foucault, no textual references as this is a blog post.
Liberty has ethical and political aspects in Foucault. It is where there is ‘ethos’ rather than ontology, and it is where there is resistance to power. Ethos comes from Greek and is generally equated with the Latin word mores, referring to customs and to ethical standards which are part of life rather than the product of refection. So liberty in Foucault refers to ethics as custom as informal undesigned patterns of action.
Ethocs is at the limit of ontology. That is ethos is what cannot be counted as part of the description of being and of existent things. Ontology is where is no liberty, ethos is where is liberty. Ontology within Foucault’s own woe includes the structures and limits of language and knowledge, and of the different ways in which there is society, institutions, and power. Liberty is where is the possibility of self-invention and stylisation in the aesthetics of existence. The possibility of liberty is the possibility of choosing what the self is, since there is no deep authentic self where we are what we really are. Foucault emphasises this attitude by talking about the self rather than the subject, so that ‘subjectivation’ is where power creates something not present in our own actions and individuals.
The self is what emerges in the efforts to create our distinctive self within the world of ethos, and to resist the power that intervenes. Foucault denies seeing all power as evil, but his attitude certainly leaves power as something to be actively challenged rather than accepted passively. The self-invention is also an aesthetics, since this is what self-creation is a ind of artistry, but not in the way that suggests some deep artistic creative act or authentic personality of the artist.
There is a constant interaction between the self-creation of ethos and the struggle with power in politics, which is constant re-emergence and re-negotiatin of the self revealing itself to itself in its acts. This is not the self-invention as authentic choice, in a tradition that goes from Romanticism to Sartre, since they are referring to the possibility of authenticity. The different elements of the self are in a permanent state of inner movement, transformation and conflict. There is a struggle for unity, for some kind of stabilised hierarchy of the self, which is necessary to exercise liberty in the world of ethos. Both the self and the ethos world are unstable and constantly revealing new aspects, in a process which is the subject matter of philosophical phenomenology, and which provides the background to liberty.