Michel Foucault’s time in the United States in the last years of his life, particularly his time as a lecturer at UC Berkeley, proved to be extraordinarily productive in the development of his theoretical understanding of what he saw as the central question facing the contemporary West: the question of the self. In his 1983 Berkeley lectures in English on “The Culture of the Self,” Foucault stated and restated the question in a variety of ways—“What are we in our actuality?,” “What are we today?”—and his investigations amount to “an alternative to the traditional philosophical questions: What is the world? What is man? What is truth? What is knowledge? How can we know something? And so on.” So write the editors of the posthumously published 1988 essay collection Technologies of the Self, titled after a lecture Foucault delivered at the University of Vermont in 1982.
In that talk, Foucault notes that “the hermeneutics of the self has been confused with theologies of the soul—concupiscence, sin, and the fall from grace.” The technique of confession, central even to secular psychoanalysis, informs a subjectivity that, for Foucault, always develops under the ever-watchful eyes of normalizing institutions. But in “The Culture of the Self,” Foucault reaches back to ancient Greek conceptions of “care of the self” (epimelieia beautou) to locate a subjectivity derived from a different tradition—a counterpoint to religious confessional and Freudian subjectivities and one he has discussed in terms of the technique of “self writing.” (The Care of the Self also happens to be the subtitle of the third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and “The Culture of the Self” the title of its second chapter.)
The notion that one is granted selfhood through the ministrations of others comes in for ridicule in the first few minutes of his “Culture of the Self” lecture above. Foucault relates a story by second century Greek satirist Lucian to illustrate a humorous point about “those guys who nowadays regularly visit a kind of master who takes their money from them in order to teach them how to take care of themselves.” He identifies the ancient version of this dubious authority as the philosopher, but it seems that he intends in modern times to refer more broadly to psychiatrists, psychologists, and all manner of religious figures and self-help gurus.
Foucault sets up the joke to introduce his first entrée into the pursuit of “the historical ontology of ourselves,” a consideration of Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” In that work, the most prominent German Enlightenment philosopher describes “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage,” a term he defines as “the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” From there, Foucault opens up his investigation to an analysis of “three sets of relations: our relations to truth, our relations to obligation, our relations to ourselves and to the others.” You’ll have to listen to the full set of lectures, above in all five parts, to follow Foucault’s inquiry through its many passages and divergences and learn how he arrives at this conclusion: “The self is not so much something hidden and therefore something to be excavated but as a correlate of the technologies of self that it co-evolves with over millennium.”
The Q&A session, above, was held on a different day and is also well worth a listen. Foucault addresses several queries about his own methodology, issues of disciplinary boundaries, and other clarifying (or not) concerns related to his main lecture. See this site for a transcript of the questions from the audiences and Foucault’s insightful, and sometimes quite funny, answers.
Hear Michel Foucault Deliver His Lecture on “Truth and Subjectivity” at UC Berkeley, In English (1980)
Michel Foucault and Alain Badiou Discuss “Philosophy and Psychology” on French TV (1965)
Watch a “Lost Interview” With Michel Foucault: Missing for 30 Years But Now Recovered
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness