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Lecture on Foucault’s “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self”
Lecture on Foucault’s “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self”
Political Theory. Vol. 21, no 2. 1993: 198-227.
(Also available electronically via JSTOR)
In this lecture that Foucault delivered at Dartmouth in 1980 (four years before his death of AIDS Related Complications in June 26 th, 1984) we can see clearly the foundation upon which he basis the theoretical approach to most if not all his work dating back to his best-selling Les Mots et Les Choses (1966).
As I excavate Foucault's lecture on the "Hermeneutics of the Self" I will also necessarily touch on several theoretical threads that he either unravels (Descartes) and/or extends (Nietzsche) in an identification of his "archeology" of knowledge.
Let me first begin with points of clarification so as to help contextualize several of Foucault's statements on epistemology and more generally philosophy.
Foucault declares at the outset that Western metaphysics has been "dominated by the philosophy of the subject" (202). For Foucault all of philosophy up till the end of the 1950s (and we see this also in Derrida's 1968 lecture "The Ends of Man") has focused exclusively on man-as-subject and thus has considered humanity as the center both of knowledge and of the giving of meaning to things (knowledge and values).
Foucault is right to declare Western philosophy anthropocentric. Indeed, up till the late 19th century was a field of study that embraced physics, chemistry, zoology, astronomy, mathematics even. Nearly all academic disciplines that we know today were once part of philosophy. Indeed, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the different elements contained under the umbrella of philosophy began to assume their own disciplinary identity: psychology, zoology, and etc. As far back as Aristotle we see philosophers tackling problems of metaphysics, mathematics (logic), and also writing a treatise on, say, zoology (see his "On the Sky", for example) as well as formulating theories on rhetoric (art of persuasion and argumentation) in different literary genres.
All these subjects and more had been subsumed under the rubric of philosophy because philosophy was the name given to this particular form of activity developed by man consisting in interrogating phenomenon: the asking of the why of things as they appear to the senses in order to discover beyond the surface of such appearances that which underlie such phenomenon: the laws of nature. So when Foucault mentions in his lecture humanistic tradition in philosophy, he refers to that long history of interrogating phenomenon (appearances) to get to their essence.
These splinterings took place at different historical moments and coincide with the moment when the essence of phenomenon studied became more restricted a field of research and interrogated by increasingly specialized scholars. For example, while physics was first a part of philosophy at a certain moment a certain number of people began to study the study of physical phenomenon and to find their essence--the laws of physics such as the law which governs the travel of light, gravitation, and so on--and thus was shaped a science. That which was once covered by philosophers like Aristotle now becomes an independent field of inquiry.
This is to remind us that in its inception, philosophy was an encyclopedic knowledge. Its purview has been shrinking ever since. More importantly, it reminds us that to determine methods to understand the epistemology, mind, language, aesthetics, and/or logic philosophers must attend also to advances made in other fields of inquiry including the sciences. One can't be a philosopher of mind without paying a considerable amount of attention to the results of research in the different sciences. (This, I argue is the same of the study of rhetoric and/or aesthetics in literary studies where we must also take into account advances made in the cognitive and neurosciences. We can’t study literature without finding out about conclusions arrived at in a certain amount of scientific studies.)
Foucault identifies such a Western philosophical tradition (whole and/or splintered) as not only anthropocentric but ultimately destructive. Taking W.W.II as his proof, he declares that "hermeneutical man"--that entity that gives meaning and values to the world--is based on a faulty epistemological foundation. Hermeneutical man will not lead to knowing the world in ways that will be positive, but rather has only led to the devastations of humanity seen in the irrationality and violent torturings and maiming of peoples apotheosized in W.W.II .
The "absurdity of wars" (202) along with a long tradition of an "emphasis on the philosophical subject" (202) has lead, according to Foucault, to "two hidden paradoxes" that can no longer be avoided. He identifies them as follows: "The first one was the philosophy of consciousness had failed to found a philosophy of knowledge and especially scientific knowledge, and the second was that this philosophy of meaning paradoxically had failed to take into account the formative mechanisms of signification and the structure of systems of meaning" (202). For Foucault these two theoretical paradoxes are contained in the philosophy based on the subject, especially identified in the work of Plato through Descartes to post-W.W.II Sartre.
Indeed, like Heidegger and then Derrida, Foucault states that all philosophy based on man as the creator of knowledge and values is a philosophy that is obsolete. For Heidegger, it's this long historical development from Plato to modern era is characterized by this forgetfulness of Being; we’ve forgotten Being. We have centered all our attention/ total absorption of attention in beings and therefore the forgetting of Being in the concentration of entities and dominated by what he calls "technical thinking"; that is all thinking based on logic, science, mathematics. All thinking that is centered on usefulness; on seeing beings only in terms of, is this something I can control and turn into my usage and thus dominate? This has made us forget Being. Thus, for Heidegger we must change our attitudes for Being to come to us. And while Derrida is less concerned with the forgetfulness of Being, he proposes that we need to stop relying on this "technical thinking" as if it were the only kind of thought possible; technical thinking should be challenged and constantly be shown to be unstable and not the grounding for anything. Hence his identification of the non-method of deconstruction.
As proven by the devastation of W.W.II, Foucault begins at the same place as Derrida and Heidegger by declaring that any thinking that has been focused on man as the agent capable of rational knowledge and capable of attributing meaning to natural and social reality is bankrupt. And, for Foucault this is a paradox, a logical contradiction: that all philosophy that is centered on man and thus centered on man's capacity for knowledge up till now has failed to give us a rational explanation of consciousness. We still don’t know what consciousness is.
Recall Descartes' position that a solid foundation for philosophy and knowledge generally can be established precisely because while we can doubt the existence of everything (pain, colors, even we can doubt of all our feelings, perceptions, and so on) we can never doubt that there is an entity doing the doubting. Hence his “cogito ergo sum”--the act itself of doubting shows that there is an agent doing the doubting--as the foundation for building knowledge of the world.
In so many words, for Foucault it is this Cartesian model (man as center of knowledge and attribution of meaning) will only ever lead us to a dead end. To base foundations of knowledge generally on this bankrupt Cartesian model will fail. Foucault's implicit stance: science and all logical positivism/logical empiricism has failed.
Another logical contradiction that Foucault finds in all philosophy based on Cartesian Logic is what he calls the "philosophy of consciousness". That is how a philosophy of meaning fails ultimately to take into account how meaning is created (its structures and systems) and how the mechanisms of meaning or signification work.
Here Foucault is aware that Marxism presented itself as an alternative to surmount these theoretical paradoxes. However, for Foucault Marxism failed to give a correct account of knowledge, objectivity, and thus of signification. Foucault's proof: Marxism is a humanistic discourse that supported and thus hid the barbaric political reality of, in so many words, Stalinism (202). (It's important to note here that Foucault is right in being critical of Stalinism, but that he also misidentifies and mystifies Marx's work as an "ism" here.)
In the period after W.W.II Foucault identifies the splitting off of two paths that, he states, "led beyond the philosophy of the subject" (202). He identifies the two paths that attempt to move beyond the dead-end Cartesian model as that of: a) logical positivism and in general all philosophies attempting to base themselves directly on science; and b) structuralist approaches in anthropology (Levy-Strauss) and Lacanian psychoanalysis that spun out of "a certain school of linguistics" (i.e. de Saussure). While Foucault identifies these new approaches as attempts at moving beyond the Cartesian subject, they, too, fail. He proposes a third path--his path that is indebted to "philosophers who, like Nietzsche, have posed the question of the historicity of the subject" (202). It is a path that gets out of this Cartesian model in the identification of a genealogical method--or as he states, a "genealogy of this subject, by studying the constitution of the subject" (202).
Foucault's genealogy and/or "archeology" to name the method of his third path. Why genealogy? Foucault not only proclaims his debt to Nietzsche, but names his method after his famous Genealogy of Morals. And, of course, by declaring his debt he identifies his allegiance also to Nietzsche's concept of truth and his concept of history.
Let me digress somewhat to clarify Foucault's genealogical method. According to Nietzsche there is no truth, there is only "perspectivism": Everything is as seen and since everything is seen according to a perspective (point of view) located in a unique time and space, nobody can say he or she holds the truth. I can't say I hold the truth of the podium I stand at because I can only see the backside of it; there might be more to it then I can see. (Notably, this perspectivism had already been articulated by the 16th century Spanish poet, Quevedo, in several lines of a poem where he states that nothing is true, all is a lie, all is true according to the lenses through which it is seen.) As for Nietzsche’s conception of history it is important to keep in mind that he was trained not as a philosopher but as a philologist--a brilliant and precocious one at that--that decided not to finish his dissertation but instead, while teaching at the University of Basil, Switzerland, wrote his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. It is here that we first begin to see Nietzsche developing his genealogical method, applying a highly speculative theory of the Apollonian and Dionysian as the prototypical cultural state of mind that gave rise to the birth of tragedy in Greece along with his coeval European culture.
The publication of The Birth of Tragedy not only severed all his ties to his fellow philologists (they considered this an act of his complete abandonment of history) but marked the beginning of what he would later identify as a genealogical method in his Genealogy of Morals. Here again we see a willy-nilly cutting into historical time then the juxtaposing of huge leaps in time glued together by speculative formulations The genealogical was boundless whereby Nietzsche could make comparisons to things that he didn’t have to account for in time and space.
In opposition to logical positivism, Marxism, and structuralism, Foucault adapts Nietzsche’s genealogy for his third path. Here, rather then study directly how the self developed, he will arbitrarily cuts into the time and space of the history of Hellenistic Greece by looking at the stoic philosopher Seneca's conception of the subject then juxtaposes this with examples from medieval Christian theologians conception of the self--a conception that is more complex then the stoics and that remains alive and active today.
Already Foucault's concept of the self is neither situated historically in terms of his account of the Hellenistic and/or the medieval Christian conception. We might ask, Why begin with Stoics, why not pre-Socratic philosophers, or even before with the Buddhism? Why begin with Hellenistic Greece and not another moment in time? More generally we might ask, what does he mean by self. Is this self only referring to that situated in the West?
In adopting Nietzsche’s perspectivism on truth, Foucault sidesteps such questions not only by rejecting any possibility of truth, but also by reminding his audience constantly that he is neither a philosopher nor a historian. (We see this Nietzschean irrationalism influencing the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, founders of the journal Critique, who were both actively anti-Marxist and who sympathized, like Heidegger, with Nazism.) Rather, as he states elsewhere, Foucault self-identifies variously as either a philosopher of science or a historian of science. (We see this also in Gaston Bachelard's self-identification as a philosopher/historian of science and in his books where we see him arbitrarily apply philosophical concepts to questions of space, time, fire, or whatever, without a sense of history.) And, Foucault insists that his third path not a direct look at the subject as situated in a past, present, and future, but a wedge into disparate times that unearth the "archeology of knowledge of technologies". Hence he declares, "I’m not trying to measure the objective value of these sciences, nor to know if they can become universally valid. That is the task of an epistemological historian. [He's not sure if this is valid, but doesn't care.] Rather, I am working on a history of science that is, to some extent, regressive history that seeks to discover the discursive, the institutional, and the social practices from which these sciences arose". This is to say, Foucault is not interested in whether sciences are valid or not. Rather, his aim is to try to see if the institutions and social practices have allowed for the birth of sciences ("technologies" dealing with the subject. Hence, we have his various histories: of mental illness of sexuality.
To defend himself against his genealogical method--its arbitrariness of when he begins and ends--we see him inventing in all of his theoretical work a whole series of terms like "biopower", "discourse", and/or "discursive formations". It is important to keep in mind here, too, that when he defines "discourse", it identifies something very specific: the social and historical conditions that at a certain moment allow the social discussion (talk or inquiry) of, say, mental illness, the surveillance of bodies (the panopticon), and/or leprosy. So a genealogical history of mental illness is an inquiry into the social and historical conditions (discursive formations) that have allowed for the emergence of a knowledge or science concerning mental illness.
Foucault's turn to Hellenistic Greece here is the same maneuver he makes when theorizing other situations. In all his research he is not interested in finding out whether the 19th century scientific definition of mental illness was solid as this is the task of the "epistemological historian" (223) . He would rather look at the social and cultural conditions that allowed for, say, the discussion of leprosy, imprisonment, masturbation, the birth of madness. So instead, he is doing an "archeological history" (223)--a third path for understanding the genealogy of the subject. It is this archeology of history that will tell us when and at what point in time such and such a subject matter became a scientific subject. And because knowledge tends to be organized more or less in chunks and around "forms and norms that are more or less scientific" (223) a study of the discursive formations of say physics or psychology can tell us something about the subject. This is also why, the study of the discursive formations (moments when considered accepted fact) of confession and repentance--even the appearance of and systematizing of Western concepts such as "know thy self"--can shed light on the genealogy of the subject.
Before I mentioned that Foucault uses genealogy and archeology mostly (but not always) interchangeably. This is because when he mentions his archeology it shares more with Nietzsche's genealogy then it does the archeological method seen when, say, one studies moves from one strata to another using empirical testing (Carbon 14 measures of radiation) in a slice through the earth's geological strata the difference between the Upper from Lower Paleolithic era.
An important point to consider here is how Foucault's so-identified archeological histories that identify the discursive (social and political systems) in which, say, masturbation-as-madness reflects the formation of the subject is not only Western centric, but limited to a sliver of time/space in France. When he pulls from the archives a book written by a doctor in France on masturbation and madness, can this say something about the formation of the human subject in Mexico, Japan, India, and all other places in the world generally?
As we see in the work of Derrida ("The Ends of Man") Foucault also seeks to move beyond Heidegger--especially with Heidegger's obsession with "techné (science and technical knowledge) that has led to the forgetting about the question of Being. Foucault doesn't reject techné as Heidegger does, but rather seeks to identify how such scientific and technical systems (discourses) give rise to the formation of the subject. Rather then obsess as Heidegger did with how techné leads to the oblivion or forgetfulness of Being, Foucault proposes a genealogical method that will lead one to ask by what social practices and "technologies" (rules that we follow in our everyday activities) is it possible for the concept of the subject to be born in the West. Since the concept of the subject includes notions of truth and error, and freedom and constraint., to know thyself, then, must concern questions of truth and error. It is this dichotomy of freedom and constraint--to know the truth what about oneself or to be mistaken about what is the truth about oneself--within various discursive moments that is the essential ingredient to understanding subjectivity. This is both a "theoretical analysis" that has at the "same time a political dimension" (224). That is Foucault argues that his genealogy is a "critical philosophy" that "seeks the conditions and indefinite possibilities of transforming the subject of transforming ourselves" (224). He promises that if we follow his genealogical method we open to those conditions that will allow us to transform ourselves.
In wrapping up my discussion of Foucault's "Hermeneutical Man" I want to suggest that in spite of his articulation of a third path as a way to move beyond the Cartesian subject, he fails. Indeed, his so-identified genealogy, "archeological history", or "critical philosophy" that seeks to identify the conditions and possibilities of "transforming the subject, of transforming ourselves" (224) still he remains firmly anchored to the Cartesian model (I think therefore I exist, I doubt everything but can’t doubt my own existence because I’m doubting) because his conception of the self is only ever that of the atomized individual. We see this when Foucault discusses how the self is formed (at what point in time was discourse on the self was born) in his conception and of the subject as a series of atomized individuals (in this case, monks and stoics). This self is always individual--doing with what you have and within one’s reach. It is the monk that prays and discovers unsuspected powers within; it is the slave who can become a stoic. All this study of the self in Foucault, if you look closely, never goes outside the realm of the atomized individual. The self that he refers and the political dimension of his thought, and critical philosophy that he refers, are all operations done within the self as an atomized individual; and whether his individual examples or the way he establishes periods (Stoic vs. Christian conceptions of self, say) all are always ahistorical. For example, he doesn’t mention at all that Stoicism was born in a very specific historical period: the more and more visible and acute and critical decadence of slavery as a mode of production, as a way in which they produced and transformed the world and how this world in turn transformed them. During this moment of hardship and great pessimism the Stoics wanted to give men confidence in themselves, but only ever as individuals and not as a collective with the power to unify and organize to overthrow slavery. All this disappears in Foucault.
In contrast to Foucault, we might turn to Hegel who had conceived of the making of subject always within history. Even though Hegel wasn’t capable of going all the way and to see man as a self created creature in history--hence seeing society/the social circumstances in which he was born and wrote (he thought of himself as being at the end of history, end of philosophy in completely different way then Derrida and Foucault)--thus Hegel couldn’t see that his own society was subject of its own deep transformation and still to come a deeper transformation required in the destruction of capitalism. As we see in Homer’s Odyssey, Hegel's subject is a subject that must over come obstacles, temptations, the taking digressive routes. At the end of the quest the subject reaches a stage where it knows which has been the route. We are conscious of our history. That is man is conscious of how man has built himself/made himself. (Of course, the problem with Hegel is that he thought that of this quest as spiritual. That is, at the same time that Hegel conceived of this progression as odyssey of man, he also the odyssey of God. It is the trip taken by this infinite Being--the Being that has to transform itself into its opposite in order to see itself.)
Whether identifying a genealogy, archeology or whatever Foucault's conception of the making of the self overlooks the fact that man makes himself and makes himself through the transformation of nature and in transforming nature transforms himself. Foucault (as also with Derrida, Heidegger, and Nietzsche) only conceives of the subject as an atomized, ahistorical individual. Foucault (also like Derrida) situates himself at the end of philosophy because (in different ways) he considers that the tradition that begun with Plato had exhausted itself and is no longer valid. And, why sweep aside of all that comes before? Might it not be more interesting to think of one's work not as a beginning at the end, but rather as continuing and enriching of a long philosophical tradition? This act of declaring oneself the One that will point to the future speaks to again to that problem already identified: the inability to conceive of the subject in the world as anything but ahistorical and atomized.
Perhaps the best way to enrich our understanding of the subject is to keep in mind the facts of history and our evolution. To keep in mind that we are all situated in history. We are all apart of history. We all make history. We are all made by history--the historical conditions that we create.