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Foucault’s Care

Foucault’s emphasis on the ‘care of the self’ is usually hailed as a significant challenge to the understanding of ethics. With the tendency of ethics to focus on the ‘other’ and how one relates to that other, the turn to consider the construction of the subject seems to be radical. This was also Foucault’s answer to the perennial problems of ethics . . .

Foucault’s emphasis on the ‘care of the self’ is usually hailed as a significant challenge to the understanding of ethics. With the tendency of ethics to focus on the ‘other’ and how one relates to that other, the turn to consider the construction of the subject seems to be radical. This was also Foucault’s answer to the perennial problems of ethics: apart from the other, these include the tension between universal precept and particular origin, as well as the concomitant problem of moralising, of telling others how they should live.

Context of the Inward Turn

To my mind, however, this turn by Foucault to consider the construction of the subject was drastically mistaken, devolving in his late work to what he calls, in the third volume of The History of Sexuality, the care of the self.[1] That third volume was actually an effort to bring together the two different directions of the previous two,[2] the first concerned more directly with sex and the second with the self, especially the argument that the ancient Greeks were not so much interested in moral codes or even a hermeneutics of the subject. Rather, they were interested in techniques of existence, modes of subjectivation, processes that requires a Greek ‘to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve and transform himself’[3] as an open-ended programme. The third volume was then an effort to mediate the two, focusing as it does on an ‘intensification of the relation to oneself by which one constituted oneself as the subject of one’s acts’[4] in the first two centuries of our era. This then provides the basis of a genealogy of ethics, through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents, defined by our relation to sexual activity. Equally revealing are his posthumously published lectures, course outlines and interviews, especially those which speak about ‘technologies of the self’, where he maps out the project that came to be the incomplete History of Sexuality.[5] These ‘technologies’ – one of those arresting and fuzzy terms so beloved by Foucault – are the specific practices used by individuals in constructing their own selves. Or in Foucault’s words, these practices ‘permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality’.[6]

In the perpetual effort to map his changing patterns of thought, this technology of the self marks a shift in the last years of his life from the interest in power, domination and what he came to call ‘governmentality’, to the actions an individual exercises in constructing his own self (the pronoun is quite deliberate, for the model in the end is Foucault as his own project). He does so by making a troubled classicist move, turning to the perceived roots of the West in ancient Greece and Rome, specifically the first and second centuries CE, as well as the ascetic Christian practices of the third and fourth centuries. And so we come across a diverse and changing collection of practices: reflection; writing; listening; letters to friends and self-disclosure; examination and review of self and conscience; ascesis as an act of mastery over oneself in order to acquire truth (Stoics) and then later renunciation (Christian)[7]; interpretation of dreams; exomologesis as the recognition of the fact of sin leading to repentance through renunciation of the self; exagoreusis as a dual process of obedience and contemplation that achieves its goal through verbalising and thereby renouncing your will to a master. These various practices carry through, flowing together and then running off into different channels, from the probably spurious Platonic dialogue Alcibiades I, through the Stoics and then to the early Christians.

Aristotelian Causes

More extensively, Foucault offers four categories for the care of the self, modalities that provide a full range of ethical concerns that are summed up in four words: what, why, how and end.[8]

1. ‘What’ concerns ethical substance, the material of ethics, which he describes as the will to truth, or, more prosaically, what aspect or part of oneself that is concerned with moral conduct.

2. ‘Why’ deals with the mode of subjectification, the form it is given or the mode of self-stylisation: it explores the way the one recognises one’s moral obligations, establishing a relation to the rule and recognising that it needs to be put into practice.

3. ‘How’ is the ethical work itself, entailing critical activity, thought interacting with experience, the work performed to change oneself into the ethical subject of one’s own behaviour; in short, the process of self-formation.

4. ‘End’ or telos entails, obviously, the purpose of ethics, the being to which one aspires by behaving in a moral way. For Foucault this is nothing less than disassembling the self, of releasing oneself from oneself – his curious definition of freedom that emphasises the specific practices of freedom rather than liberation of a given human nature from its constraints.[9]

The overwhelming focus is on the ethical subject: out of what, for what reason, in what way and to what purpose is that subject constructed. However, in developing this fourfold schema, Foucault works in his characteristic fashion, plundering the thought of others without attribution, reshaping categories to suit his own wishes. In this case, he has, with a wink to those in the know, taken on Aristotle’s four causes – material, formal, efficient and final. With trademark audacity, Foucault welds together the usual starting point for ethical reflection – Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – with the Metaphysics.

1. For Aristotle, of course, the material cause is ‘that from which, as its constitutive material, something comes, for example the bronze of a statue …’ In Foucault’s appropriation it becomes the ethical substance, a more intangible matter than Aristotle’s bronze used for a statue, or, to add an example of my own, perhaps the old wood one might retrieve in order to make a bookshelf for all those books, or indeed a bicycle from old parts in order to carry them home.

2. The formal cause, for Aristotle, is the account of what the statue or bookshelf is – perhaps that bust of Lenin that I place on top of the bookshelf or the bicycle with its two wheels, handlebars, chain, seat and carry-rack. Yet both can arise only from some idea, a plan that gives shape to the material at hand. For Foucault this formal cause becomes the mode of subjectification, the constitution of a subject into which the ‘material’ sources of ethics are to be shaped.

3. Then we find the efficient cause (in English ‘cause’ properly refers to this category), which is ‘the source of the first beginning of change’. Aristotle uses the example of the father being the cause the child, but in the case of our statue or indeed bookshelf and bicycle, the crucial element is an agent which brings about the transformation, producing something with the statue mould, the hammer, nails, sand-paper and dowelling, or the spanner, allen-keys and cable-cutters. This agent brings about change in the matter in order to produce the form of the object. So too with Foucault’s interest in how the ethical subject comes about; it is not a given but requires work, yet once again understood intangibly, as critical reflection, thought on experience, the process of self-formation by reflecting and acting in light of the books on ethics that I now have on my new shelf.

4. Finally (quite literally) comes Aristotle’s famous end or purpose, ‘that for the sake of which’ something is done – deliberately, unintentionally or blindly. Walking may be for health (Aristotle’s example – the first moment of ethics as self-help?), the statue may be for adoration or as an ironic nod, the bookshelf for books, which I have bought to make me healthy, wealthy and wise, and the bicycle to transport those books, although it now may have other ends, such as getting me to the shops or as a way to travel over long distances. And for Foucault, the purpose of ethics is the constitution of the moral subject, one who acts in a moral way.

Foucault’s effort to link ethical categories with the modes of causality is not without warrant in Aristotle’s work, for the latter’s modes of causation are woven in with the main features of his thought – form and matter, for instance, or agency, or the outcome of physics where there is no conscious purpose. But what has happened in Foucault’s appropriation is a de-substantialisation of the four causes for the sake – paradoxically – of Foucault’s central concern, namely, the self.

Care of the Self

But why is Foucault interested in all this? To begin with, he wishes to recover a nearly forgotten dimension of ancient practices, that of care of the self, rather than the dominant memory of the ‘know thyself’ of the Delphic oracle. The key phrase is epimeleisthai sautou, which Foucault translates in a curious moment of repetition as ‘to take care of yourself’, to take ‘care of the self’, ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself’.[10] He argues that for the Greeks and especially those of the Hellenistic era the latter was far more important than the oracle’s brief statement from Delphi. But the repetition of definitions is telling, for it marks not so much a trauma as an obsession with the care of the self. Why? He seeks not to return an archaic age, but to see what can be recovered for the present for his own project of the constructing the self. He wishes to overturn the way in which morality has become based on external law, whether theological or secular (he actually identifies this external law as secular, which is a curious and mistaken slip), as well as beat a path away from ‘knowing oneself’, especially since that has, since Descartes at least, becomes the basis for the philosophy of knowledge. Above all, he wishes to challenge the overwhelming concern of ethics with the other by focusing on the self. But it is a subject that is not a given, not an essential unity upon which one gives due attention with the aim of improving oneself. Rather, Foucault’s concern was with the self as a problem, requiring production and manipulation and thereby becoming a basis for ethics.

So rather than a code, provisional or absolute, rather than reflection as the basis for action or an effort to resolve the moralising tension, and rather than a concern with the other, the project of the self becomes the basis for morality or ethics. It is an ingenious move, but one fraught with problems. I find myself wanting to criticise his comments on theology: the deeply and unacknowledged Roman Catholic nature of his take on Christianity shows up all too readily, especially when he suggests that salvation is the passing from death to life by means of a set of rules of behaviour to transform the self. His abiding interest in confession, in self-knowledge as a basis for purity of the soul, in perpetually slipping by the Reformation and preferring the Counter-Reformation as the major path, in replicating the conservative theological argument for Christian exceptionalism – all these represent strange twists that hover between illumination and obfuscation.

But the major problem with this ‘turn to the self’ is not only the content of these late interviews, lectures and written texts. In them we find a constant process of self-reflection, of critiquing his own earlier work, identifying where he has changed direction and trying to make sense of it; is this not one of the tell-tale signs of an intellectual becoming self-obsessed and self-indulgent?[11] The very act of turning to the self leaves its mark in the material that tries to account for such a turn in his project. In fact, Foucault relished the inability of people to locate where he stood politically, in their accusations that he has changed his mind: ‘I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation’.[12]

The Problem of Class

However, a deeper and more persistent problem bedevils this project – that of class. The examples Foucault gives of the care of the self are telling: one of Plato’s contested dialogues – Alcibiades I – in which Socrates instructs the young Athenian leader from the ruling elite, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Christian fathers pondering the ascetic life. All of these are part of a small and literate elite, precisely those who had the time and leisure to be able to write, to think and retreat and undergo self-examination and self-construction. The possibility of doing so depended, as Ste. Croix has shown so well, on the surplus produced by slaves and indentured peasants. Foucault partially recognises this problem, pointing out that the possibility of living the beautiful life was restricted to very few among an elite, that Greek society in particular was a ‘disgusting’, virile and dominating one, in which women and slaves were passive objects of pleasure and boys a problem (since they would grow up to be men).[13] But that is it. The point does not make him ask further questions, especially to explore the nature of ancient morality and its class and economic associations. Even when he discusses ethos, describing it in terms of a way of behaviour, clothing, appearance, gait, calmness (all for the sake of ‘freedom’), he fails to ask what these various elements of ethos actually mean on the level of class and economics, especially when they entail the glaring class signals of terms such as goodness, beauty and honour, which clearly signalled ruling class concerns.[14] Instead ethics turns inward, becoming nothing less than a relationship to oneself, an elite self-indulgence he calls rapport à soi.[15]


Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Translated by Paul Rabinow. Essential Works of Foucault 1854-1984.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000 [1994].

———. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley.  New York: Pantheon, 1981 [1976].

———. The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure.  New York: Vintage, 1985 [1984].

———. The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self.  New York: Vintage, 1986 [1984].

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self  (New York: Vintage, 1986 [1984]).

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1981 [1976]); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure  (New York: Vintage, 1985 [1984]).

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure: 28. See also his comment concerning ‘a stylization of attitudes and an aesthetics of existence’ (p. 92).

[4] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self: 41.

[5] See especially Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, trans. Paul Rabinow, Essential Works of Foucault 1854-1984 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000 [1994]), 223-51, 269-80.

[6] ‘The individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept that he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve his moral goal’. Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 225.. See also Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure: 28. Foucault delineates this technology as the fourth type, the others being technologies of production, sign systems and power, which he acknowledges – in a rare moment of attributing the source of an idea – come from Habermas (see p. 177).

[7] I find the interest by the later Foucault in asceticism not so much a personal agenda for the construction of his own self as the appeal of a way of life rather different from his own drinking, drug-taking and sexual practices.

[8] See  Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 262-9; Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure: 26-7.

[9] Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 282-3.

[10] See Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 226. On p. 269 he uses epimeleia heautou while in the third volume he interchanges these two words. See the important discussion in Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self: 43-68.

[11]  For example, see Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure: 3-13.

[12] Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 131.

[13] Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 254, 257-8. In The Uses of Pleasure one struggles to find an adequate discussion of class and economic issues. In the section designated ‘Economics’ (pp. 143-84) precious little appears, while the brief comments in chapter entitled ‘The Object of Pleasure’ (pp. 215-25) the brief comments on class in relation to sex with boys is very weak. So also in the chapter called ‘The Political Game’ in volume three. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self: 81-95.

[14] Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 286. It is worth noting that when Foucault was interviewed in his last years, he would quickly step past questions concerning ethics and the other, let alone any hint of class. See especially, the group session that was published as ‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 281-301.

[15] Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: 263.

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