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)

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