Michel Foucault: The Cultivation of the Self
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) spent much of the later part of his studies on the idea of the care of the self and cultivation of the self. He defined such care as using ones own reason to ascertain who one is and how he can be his best. Foucault takes several perspectives on this theme, from medical to phenomenological, to develop his focus on finding out who one is, the goal of the care of the self. Humans failure to attain and nurture this self results in the decay of this self.
Foucault saw his writings on this and other concepts as part of a philosophy known as the art of living. The art of living in this sense means one whose main purpose is to be like no one else. As such, he felt he was directly useful to the public because he created new possibilities for life. His care for his own self allowed for the possibility that he could aid others in doing the same. He was trying to develop a way for one to work on himself, which would let one invent a way of being that is still improbable. Foucault did not address himself to a broad audience; rather, he used his project of the are of the self as a model for oppressed minorities who had no voice of their own.
Foucault was fascinated by what one or a group has to suppress and reject to form a positive conception of itself. He believed that our conception of ourselves as subjects depends on controlling or excluding whole classes of people who do not fit our Enlightened category of normal. The same devices we use to understand and control these marginalized groups are also essential to understanding and controlling normal individuals.
This practice is always executed by power. Therefore, who we are is itself the result of the exercise of this power. In this sense, power serves as the other side of knowledge. For Foucault, power produces knowledge and each one directly implies the other. It is impossible for power to be exercised without knowledge, and it is impossible for knowledge not to procure power. There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. We must know what something is to have power over it, just as to know something is to have power over it. Knowledge, therefore, is power.
Though power comes through individuals, most often it is not under their control. Power creates subjects; it is not exercised by them. Efforts to rationalize or humanize power only result in an exercise of new forms of it by creating new ways of knowing what subjects are. New forms of both power (control) and knowledge go together.
However, the subject or individual does not disappear, but his determined unity is called into question. Foucault never denied that the subject exists, although he sometimes fictionalized the self in his writings. This self is not metaphysically free, but neither is it actually a fiction. The inevitable prohibition in the practice of power enables its own potential undoing because it creates the possibility of a new infraction. As a result, Foucault sees power as productive, and the subject it produces (forms of power) can be productive as well. So although the subject is not the final reality underlying history, it is a complex product of history and this ground of thought.
Because of the idea that the self is not given to us, Foucault argued that we have to create ourselves as a work of art, to think of life and art together. The are of the self was inventing who one can be, not the process of discovering who one really is. The creation of art was Foucaults model for the care of the self. Accordingly, he viewed lives aesthetically; i.e. the artistic creation of the self must use elements which one already faces.
Foucault suggests that we approach our self-cultivation in an artistic sense, but he argues that one of the most important aspects of the activity devoted to oneself is that is constitutes a true social practice. Taking care of oneself is not relegated to just exercising, meditation, readings, and the recollection of truth, although all these are necessary. There are also the conversations we have with friends, directors and confidantes. Through this type of correspondence one may reveal the state of ones soul or solicit advice, similar to Heideggers notion of self-disclosure. It also allows the possibility for one to reactualize for himself his own advice by giving his advice to others and thereby constitutes a beneficial exercise for the giver. An entire activity of communicating and writing developed around the care of the self because the work of oneself on oneself and disclosing with others were indelibly linked.
Foucault takes a medical perspective on this practice of the self. He implies that one should regard himself as not only imperfect, ignorant, and requiring correction and training, but also as one who suffers certain maladies that need to be competently treated. For Foucault, everyone must discover that he is in a state of need, that he needs assistance. The biological diseases are apparent through physical suffering. In contrast, diseases of the soul can go undetected for quite a while; they pass unnoticed and even blind those afflicted by them. A health practice, constituted by everyday life, makes it possible to know all the time what was to be done and how to do it. It implied a medical perception of the space and circumstances in which one lived. Foucault goes on to state that a certain change in ones environment may have ill effects on the body because one would imagine an entire web of obstructions between the individual and his environment. Medicine was framed by an overall context of concern for the body, health, circumstances, and environment.
The cultivation of the self begs a more general question in order to explain some diverse phenomena. Foucault felt the need to distinguish three things: a) the individualistic attitude, the degree to which an individual is independent of his social and institutional groups, as well as the absolute value given to him in his singularity; b) the positive valuation of private life, the emphasis placed on familial and domestic relations; and c) the intensity of the relations of the self, the forms in which one is called to make oneself as an object of knowledge and a field of action, so as to transform, correct, and purify oneself and find salvation. Some would say this last idea embodies the ethical thought of contemporary Christian thinkers. Foucault agrees that these three concepts are interconnected, though not constantly or even necessarily. There are instances where social or private situations are independent of each other. For example, in a social group one may assert his self-worth through actions that enable him to win out over the others without his having to attribute importance to his private life or the relations of himself to himself.
Despite the difference they present the common goal of the self-directed practices of the principle of conversion to self. In the activities, one must remember the chief objective one should set for oneself: to be sought within oneself in the relation of oneself, which should not be dispelled by idle curiosity. In escaping all the obstacles, this conversion also serves as a path by which one rejoins him.
The relation to self is also seen as a concrete relationship that allows of the possibility of one to convert to himself. If this means one may exude fear of the future, concerns of ambition, and the preoccupations of the external world, then one can go back to his past, have it unfold before his eyes as he pleases, and have an unshakable relationship with it. It is the experience of a pleasure that one takes in oneself. He has become to himself an object of pleasure by gaining access to himself. It is a pleasure joined with being satisfied with who one is and accepting ones limits. It does not allow for any immediate disturbance of the mind. It is a contrast to voluptas, a pleasure whose origin exists outside us, in places and objects we are unsure of; our desire may not be satisfied by it.
In relation to the death of the self, Foucault addressed the function of language as it has no foundation or center upon which to base its meaning.
“From within language experienced and transversed as language, in the play of its possibilities extended to their farthest point, what emerges is that man has ‘come to an end’, and that, by reaching the summit of all possible speech, he arrives not at the very heart of himself but at the brink of that which limits him; in that region where death prowls, where thought is extinguished, where the promise of the origin interminably recedes.”
According to Foucault, philosophy began with the purpose of changing peoples lives on an individual level. He viewed ancient philosophy as a way of life centered on Socrates coined term the care of the self, and later, the cultivation of the self. In many ways, Foucault embraced the tradition of philosophy as the art of living. He took himself as a model for self-creation, that through his own self-discovery he would inspire others to seek care of the self.
Foucaults general emphasis on history is apparent in one of the central premises that governed his thought: that most of the situations in which we find ourselves are products of history (an idea derived from Nietzsche), which prevent us from seeing that our own views and habits are contingent.
The other premise is that suspicion of change, of progress; every advancement had to be bought. His project, however, was essentially individualistic in that he did not adhere to change and rather rejected it. For many years he regarded change (something radically new) with suspicion.
Foucault placed repeated emphasis on the art of living as it defines the aesthetic and ethical criteria of existence. This are of living becomes universal to principles of nature and reason. The work one must carry out on oneself, in the cultivation of the self, undergoes a kind of modification. The rule of the individual over himself takes a form of enjoyment without disturbance or desire. Self-knowledge becomes more important through various exercises of control, conversation with others, self-monitoring, and knowledge as power. This, consequently, is central to the formation of Foucaults ethical subject.