Hear Michel Foucault’s Lecture “The Culture of the Self,” Presented in English at UC Berkeley (1983)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Down­load 100 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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