Barber, Stephen M
philosophy, Michel Foucault, ethics, critique, power
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Care of the Self and the Will to Freedom
Faculty Sponsor: Stephen Barber, English
What do subjectivity, power and ethics have in common? For French philosopher Michel Foucault, each of these concepts inherently resides within the others. His works, spanning from the mid-1950s to his death in 1984, offer a profound theoretical approach to the complex questions that obtain between the individual and society. Foucault’s works present careful and intricate theories about the relationships of the past with the present, the individual with society, and power with truth. Many of his writings explore how the individual is made subject to dynamics of power and truth, and they consider as well the possibility for the individual to escape a self-identity seemingly dictated by social, political and economic discourses.
According to Foucault, one may escape dominant constraints of subjectivity through an ancient practice called “care of the self”. Although his focus remains fully grounded in the present, Foucault often turns to ancient Greek and Roman philosophies as a critical framework for his theories on ethics, individuality, and freedom. Care of the self constitutes a lifelong practice of self-formation and ethical exercises as a means of creating what Foucault calls an “art of life”. It is a way of examining and freeing oneself not by socially-constructed norms and standards, but according to one’s own ethical code. Foucault deems this practice as an essential element of maintaining freedom from oppressive power dynamics. As such, his ethics evolves not to a withdrawal from the world but instead into an intensified relation to its politics.
What might constitute subjectivity in the twenty-first century? What are the limits of this subjectivity, and how might care of the self, despite the concept’s age, still provide us with a means of escaping subjectification? With recourse to Foucault’s work and other supplemental articles, I explore some possible answers to these rather weighty questions. I contend that freedom, subjectivity and ethics are often overlooked and even criticized by most academic and professional fields, and that Foucault’s work provides a crucial and timely critical framework with which to examine the individual’s relationship with and identification within our social structure.