The Relation to Oneself and the Other - Ethics in Michel Foucault

Essay, 2011

12 Pages


The Relation to Oneself and the Other: Ethics in Michel Foucault


If it is now asked, ‘do we presently live in an enlightened age’ the answer is, ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’[1]

The ‘ontology of the present’ that Immanuel Kant undertakes in “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” provokes the presence of a self-imposed immaturity in ourselves, and for that reason he claims that we are yet to have an opportunity to live in an enlightened age – immaturity in the sense that humanity is not yet being equipped with the ability to put its own reason to use without subjecting itself to any authority of the other. “If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men…regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficulty.”[2]

It is interesting to examine, why continental philosophy had to return to antiquity when trying to address the basic question like ethics, freedom and the role of philosophy, rather than exploring them entirely through a problematization of enlightenment. The general disenchantment with the course of the enlightenment project is quite clear in almost all the major figures in continental European philosophy from the post war period – to name few, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Levinas etc. Foucault’s journey to the antiquity, which is materialised in this general intellectual environment of suspicion, opens a problematic of thought, a search for an alternative to the modern western normative-morality in Greek life and practice of ethics. Present study, in general, is intended to examine how this general suspicion is manifested in Foucault’s writing, through a systematic reading of his works, and to evaluate the alternative that his self-reflection proposes.

In the later years of his life, Foucault associates his genealogical studies of discourse, institutions and practices to the Kantian ‘ontology of ourselves,’ insisting that they, like Kantian ontology, are focused on something within our present in order to initiate change from within.[3] His reflections on the question of “what our present is?” provide an experience of modernity precisely that aspect of it which is mostly fragile or sensitive at the present time, to permit us to emerge from it as transformed.[4] To put differently, the point is to show that what appears obvious to us from the standpoints of modern scientific, legal and moral discourses is not at all so obvious. This fragility of the present beliefs and practices, Foucault argues, must be grasped in the question “what it is?” and should be attempted to transform by using the desire for freedom. In a similar line, Kant argues that “have courage to use your own understanding” is the motto of enlightenment.[5]

Foucault defines “the history of thought,” as the critical activity of the work of thought upon itself, and that for him, is crucial to self-transformation. This conceptualisation has to be read together with Immanuel Kant’s critique of the direction of enlightenment project precisely to identify the real problematic in Foucault’s late works. Kant writes, the inability of the reason to subject itself to a self-imposed law is the true cause of its immaturity, and therefore, it is certain that it “must bow beneath the yoke of laws which someone else imposes upon it.”[6] The self-reflection that Foucault envisages through aesthetic of existence is not just simply for the purpose of determining knowledge at one’s disposal, but also for facilitating autonomy and freedom of the others, since nothing “can continue to operate for long without some kind of law.”[7] Then the problem is: is it possible to consider the pleasure of the other in our own ethics of acts and their pleasures? Or are we able to integrate the pleasure of the other in our pleasure, without reference either to modern law, science and morality?[8]

Thought is, Foucault defines, “what establishes, in a variety of possible forms, the play of true and false, and consequently constitutes the human being as a knowing subject [ sujet de connaissance ]; in other words, it is the basis for accepting or refusing rules, and constitutes human beings as social and juridical subjects; it is something that establishes the relations with oneself and with others, and constitutes the human being as ethical subject.”[9] In other words, “thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects on it as a problem.”[10] In this conceptualization, thought is not merely the abstract formulations of the kind in philosophy and science, rather it is the totality of all kinds of ‘speaking, doing, or behaving in which the individual appears and acts as knowing subject [ sujet de connaissance ], as ethical or juridical subject, as subject conscious of himself and other.’ Hence it can be conceived as the “very form of action” involving the play of true and false, the acceptance or refusal of rules, the relation to oneself and the others.[11] Ethics, as a field of our self-constitution as a subject, therefore, is a set of attitudes, practices and goals that are at our disposal to guide our moral self-fashioning.[12] But then the question that left unanswered to some extent is: does the practice of freedom that derives through a genealogy of thought inevitably seek the relative autonomy of the subject? Are the field of thought and self-reflection ontologically located outside power relations? Or are they purely existential by nature, as Foucault has conceptualised?

In one of his late interviews, Foucault tries to re-imagine the genealogical studies that he has undertaken over the years on science, politics and ethics in the light of his turn towards ethics and in the same line his arguments on ethics has developed: to find a new ethics is to wish to recreate ourselves. It is possible to identify three domains of genealogy: “first, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to truth through which we constitute ourselves as the subject of knowledge; second, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to a field of power through which we constitute ourselves as the subject acting on others; third, a historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents.”[13] It is the third possibility of genealogy that deals with realm of ethics; addresses the mode of subjectivation by which we bring ourselves to obey or disobey a set of moral codes, and that to Foucault is the sub-set of the aspect that he deals in the first and second possibilities of genealogy.


[1] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History and Morals, trans., T Humphrey, (Hackett Publishing Co: Indianapolis, 1983)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984)

[4] Michel Foucault, “What Our Present Is,” interview by Andre Berten, trans., L Hochroth, in The Politics of Truth, ed., Sylvere Lotringer, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997)

[5] Immanuel Kant, 1983 op cit.

[6] Immanuel Kant, Kant: Political Writings, 2nd edn., ed., Hans Reiss, trans., H B Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p no. 248

[7] Immanuel Kant, 1991, op cit.

[8] Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work In Progress” in Paul Rabinow ed., Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and truth (London: Penguin Press, 1997), p no. 258

[9] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, volume II, The Use of Pleasure, trans., Robert Hurley, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988)

[10] Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault” in Paul Rabinow ed., Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and truth, 1997, op cit., pp no 117-18

[11] Ibid.

[12] Timothy O’Leary, Foucault and the Art of Ethics (London: Continuum, 2002) pp. no 11-12

[13] Michel Foucault, 1997, op cit., p no. 262

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The Relation to Oneself and the Other - Ethics in Michel Foucault
Jawaharlal Nehru University  (New Delhi)
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Foucault on Ethics and Aesthetics
relation, oneself, other, ethics, michel, foucault
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Abhilash G Nath (Author), 2011, The Relation to Oneself and the Other - Ethics in Michel Foucault, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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