Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics VII

There are four principle types of the stylisation of sexual conduct identified by Foucault: dietary in the subject of the body, economic in the subject of marriage, erotic in the subject of boys, philosophy with regard to truth.  He returns to the definition of ‘stylisation’ later in The Use of Pleasure,  suggesting that stylisation includes: the dietary, the art of a daily rapport of an individual with the body; the economy, that is the art of human conduct of a man as family head; the erotic, as reciprocal art of conduct of man and boy in the relation of love. Similar lists appear in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, with regard to care of the self in Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Plato.  Again evidence that we should not take the categories of ‘self stylisation’ and ‘aesthetics of existence, as narcissistic egotism, since what is associated with them is associated with the care of the self which is necessary for family life, and politics.  Foucault alludes to an identification, or a strong tendency towards identification, between style of life and care of the self, at another point, in which he refers to Plato: ‘The practice of the self is identified and united with the art of living itself (the tekhnē tou bio).  The art of living and the art of oneself are identical; at least they become, or tend to become, identical’.

These definitions take Foucault well beyond arbitrariness, and unconstrained subjectivity.  As noted above, some of Foucault’s defenders are a bit too much inclined to think of what Foucault means as aesthetic invention, and to play down the relational and embedded aspects of what Foucault argues, though others like Nehemas,, Wisnewski, Vintges and Thompson have a more balanced judgement.  Stylisation is not a purely aesthetic activity, or certainly not in the sense that ‘aesthetic’ gained in the eighteenth-century.  Foucault is referring to a time when the ideas of pure art, or aesthetic purity, were quite unknown; and he is also referring to a time, when very inner directed asocial understandings of life, and individuality, were equally unfamiliar.  What is also pertinent here is that the existing forms of inner directedness followed generalising philosophical, or religious schemas.  Self-invention, and the art of living, are understood through the body, the home, the erotic and a philosophy of pleasure .  All are ways of existing which can be stylised, but in relation to the given physical and social existence of the individual, which is an ontological issue, in the non-fomalised non-universalistic sense assumed by Foucault.

The context of stylisation is the four notions Foucault refers to, as often found in reflection on sexual morality, and that structure the moral experience of sexual pleasure: ontology, (aphrodisia) the ethical substance in sexual comportment; deontology (chrēsis), the type of ‘subjectivation’  which leads to moral valorisation; asceticism (enkrateia), mastery of self to constitute a moral subject; teleology (sōphrosynē), the moral subject in its accomplishment.  Ontology features here, as it does in the discussion of stylisation. There are actions in which the world reveals itself, and the natural being of the self.  In this case, the social world is part of the ontology of the natural world, and that is expressed through the social nature of sexuality, which is defined as ethical.  It is on that basis that there can be moral valorisation, the moral subject, and the accomplishment of the moral subject.  Again, we should see the elements that Foucault discusses as intertwined, rather than as distinct stages.  Ontology is present in all four, that is all four are ways in which the world reveals itself.

The ontology over epistemology point establishes a positive approach to sexuality, since the implied problem with epistemology is the turning of something into an object of some knowledge possessed by a singular subject.  This forms Foucault’s understanding of the emergence of care for the self from the use of pleasure in Golden Age Athens, but also his view of sexuality in later antiquity.   For example, the suggestion of how love for boys can be understood in an ethical way.  That is in reciprocity of pleasure in contrast with the more powerful man gaining pleasure from the boy.  His account is intertwined with an account of virginity and conjugal fidelity.  Conjugal fidelity is an idea of reciprocal obligations.  The presumably plural love of men for boys is given a moral dimension in erotic reciprocity.  There are two paths towards reciprocity and equality: monogamous and promiscuous; and underlying all of this is tension, mastery and agonism.  This is the alternative to the kind of moralising prohibitionist intense cultivation of the self, that Foucault describes critically.  The sexual can have a strongly ethical aspect through ideas of reciprocity, rather than through prohibition.  That prohibition is what is more strongly emphasised in later antiquity, according to Foucault.   The prohibitionist path does include reciprocity in that it demands monogamy from husbands as well as wives, but is too much driven by restrictions that undermine the ethical possibilities of the sovereign self.  The hermeneutics of the self itself leaves behind the kind of care of the self that Foucault values in earlier antiquity, but it is a product of that care of the self, and demonstrates other possibilities of the self.

(to be continued)


Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics VI

The assertion of the ontological, structural, instrumental and truth telling aspects of care for the self in Plato is ‘modelled after domestic or political authority [pouvoir].  Finally, the mode of being to which this self-mastery gave access was characterised as an active freedom, a freedom that was indissociable from a structural, instrumental, and ontological relation [rapport] to truth’ .  Care for the self unifies the ethical, and the truth telling, around the activity of the self; a self which appears in a self mastering liberty.  Since sexuality is not strongly codified in the classical Greek period, sexual temperance is an exercise of liberty, taking the form of self-mastery.  Moral value is also an aesthetic and truth value.  Satisfying needs, and being in truth, come together in conduct that respects the hierarchy of the human, and which ensures those antique values which emphasize becoming established in renown and memory.  Ontology is a question of what it is to exist, for being to reveal itself in the stylisation of life.  Stylisation allows various possibilities of existence to reveal themselves, and is therefore an ontological activity.  Hierarchy and struggle between force in the hierarchy go together in Foucault, and they go together with liberty as self-mastery, and with truth.  Truth appears in an affirmative way in these texts, and this is part of the opposition to ‘epistemology’, and the way in which Foucault puts ontology above epistemology, noted above.

The point for Foucault is that knowledge, including the knowledge he is proposing of antique sexuality and ethics, only exists in the context of an individual experience of truth, and efforts to uncover truths, and struggles to defend them.  In Plato, this takes the form of epistrophē, a turning towards knowledge, away from appearances, which is still based on the ontology and activity of the individual.  The more universalising claims of epistemology are emergent from particularistic claims to truth, and enunciations of truths, and tend to obliterate those particularistic truths.  Foucault’s accounts of antique sexuality and ethics are intertwined, and as accounts entwined with knowledge, distinct from epistemological abstractions, are entwined with life and action, existence and behaviour,‘[r]egimen [régime] was a whole art of living.’  The knowledge of diet is part of an art of living.  The knowledge refers to the rules necessary to preserve the ‘natural’ in health, as part of living as an aesthetic.  The diet was not seen as obeying knowledge which comes from outside.  It was an individual’s reflective practice on the self, and the body.  Here we see one indication of why Foucault’s account of style of living, and art of existence, is not advocacy of limitless self-invention, a subjectivity floating free from any external constraints, or freedom as indeterminacy.  The ethics to which Foucault refers is an ethics of conformity to, and following of rules, in self-restraint, but not a sense of deep inner obligation to an external set of laws.  There is no deep self to be revealed here according to Foucault, just acts which enable the self to be in accordance with nature.  In that sense, as we have seen, he follows the example of Plato.

Foucault’s ontology is one of a natural self, rather than a deep self standing apart from nature.  The self does not have a deep inner self to reveal, rather it needs to constrain itself in order to keep its nature well ordered.  That ordering and self-discipline comes out of a hierarchy of tensions, which is the self, ‘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 stylisation of attitudes and an aesthetics of existence’.  The perspective Foucault creates on the ethics of antique sexuality is ambiguous since the ideas of stylisation, of the aesthetics of existence, is contrasted with a care for the self which emerges in Plato, as we have seen, along with other dialogues.  Foucault particularly emphasises the Alcibiades, though, or maybe because, it is a dialogue of disputed authenticity.  Active liberty is advocated as a value, and this only exists in the work of the self on itself, in a relation of domination.  The restraining structure is inseparable from the self in its relation with itself.  The ethical aspect, in its narrowest sense of individual life, is the hierarchy in itself.  The work of ascesis emphasises the changeable nature of that hierarchy, so the positive point may be the hierarchy that can be challenged.  Maybe it is the hierarchy and the struggle with it that makes the stylisation more than ‘just’ aesthetic style.  The physical regime must be ordered on a general aesthetic principle of  of existence, in which corporeal equilibrium is one of the conditions of the correct hierarchy of the soul.  That hierarchy is an ontological question, a question of what structure a human being must have in order to remain a human being, and to avoid dangers to that status.

(to be continued)

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

My latest contribution to the group blog Notes On Liberty

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…

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

Me at the group blog Notes On Liberty

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…

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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)