11/13 | The Hermeneutics of the Subject

with special guests Rosi Braidotti, University of Utrecht, Lydia Liu, Columbia University, and Rosalind Morris, Columbia University


“We need movements that encourage care of self, self care. […] We have to incorporate rituals and processes of self care within the very processes of activism.” — Angela Y. Davis, Keynote Speech, Beyond the Bars 2016, Columbia University, Friday evening, March 4, 2016 [at 02:19:10]

Foucault’s 1982 lectures, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, constitute Foucault’s most detailed study of the techniques of the “care of the self” in Stoic, Epicurean, and Cynical writings and practices of the first two centuries CE, in conversation with Platonic philosophy. The research that Foucault conducts in these 500-pages long, twenty-four[1] lectures will form the basis of a 30-page chapter in Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self (“Le Souci de soi”), a chapter titled “La Culture de soi[2] (Foucault, Oeuvres, Pléiade Vol. 2, pages 1002-1031).[3]

These 1982 lectures are in continuity with those of the previous year:

In relation to the 1981 lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, Foucault continues to elaborate the central problematic of the relationship between the subject and truth, focusing in 1982 on how we, as subjects, reflexively constitute our selves, subjectivate ourselves, and bind ourselves through our own processes of listening, examining, meditating, truth-telling, and returning to our selves. In this sense, in 1982, Foucault pushes his analyses in two main directions: first, he leaves behind the more narrow focus from the previous year on the aphrodisia and sexual comportments, and abstracts to a higher theoretical level to explore the larger set of comportments that fall under the rubric of the “care of the self.” In effect, he broadens the objects of analysis to include the range of techniques of the self. Second, whereas in 1981 Foucault focused primarily on the late Stoics (especially Artemidorus’ The Interpretation of Dreams), in 1982 Foucault returns to the Greek and Roman Stoics and focuses on Stoic, Epicurean, and Cynical texts of the first two centuries CE, from Musonius Rufus through Marcus Aurelius, with an emphasis on Seneca and Epictetus, Philo of Alexandria, Quintillian, Pliny, Demetrius the Cynic, and Galen, among others—all in relationship to Platonic thought.

In relation to the 1981 lectures on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, there is also a double movement. First, Foucault broadens his inquiry beyond the avowal to the wider range of the ascetic work of the self on the self. And in the process, second, Foucault inverts the object of study: rather than focus on the avowal as a way to make sense of modes of existence, Foucault flips things to study a mode of existence (the Stoic care of the self) through the different techniques of the self, including truth-telling, avowal, and parrhesia. As a result, truth-telling becomes one thread in these 1982 lectures, rather than the central object of study, a thread that forms part of the making of the subject. True discourse becomes an essential preparation for the constitution of the self. Truth-telling becomes a central part of the ascetic work of self on self. As Foucault explains, “The askēsis [ascetic way of life] is what enables truth-telling—truth-telling addressed to the subject and also truth-telling that the subject addresses to himself—to be constituted as the subject’s way of being. The askēsis makes truth-telling a mode of being of the subject.” (HS, p. 327) One mode among others. It is in this research that Foucault will develop interest in the notion of parrhesia—first in relation to the openness necessary for spiritual guidance (HS, p. 137), but later and in more depth (lectures #19 and #20 on March 10, 1982) in relation to the role and function of ascesis (HS, p. 370).

The Care of the Self

The structure of these 1982 lectures, then, begins with an analysis of the Platonic vision of “care of the self” through a detailed reading of Plato’s Alcibiades in the first four lectures during the first two weeks (January 6 and 13, 1982); and then proceeds, in the remainder of the lectures (from the fifth lecture on January 20, 1982, to the twenty-fourth lecture on March 24, 1982), to the Stoic and Epicurean model of “care of the self” in constant retrospective conversation with the Platonic vision.

Foucault’s central intervention is to focus on the concept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heautou) in contrast to the notion of self-knowledge (gnothi seauton; “know thyself”) that so many other philosophers have emphasized, in order to gain purchase on the relation between subjectivity and truth. His project is to reverse the conventional wisdom regarding the relation between the two, to resuscitate the care of the self as a central problematic, to revive it from its doldrums caused by the Cartesian moment that made knowledge of self the quintessential foundation of truth. To invert the now-traditional hierarchy, and in the process to expose our contemporary paradox—namely “the paradox of a precept of care of the self which signifies for us [today] either egoism or withdrawal, but which for centuries was rather a positive principle that was the matrix for extremely strict moralities” (HS, p. 13).

In these 1982 lectures, Foucault challenges what he perceives as our presentist assumption that it is knowledge of ourselves alone that will give us access to truth. He reaches back into antiquity and the first two centuries CE to demonstrate that, at another time, there were things one had to do to oneself, conditions one had to impose on one’s being as a subject, work on and care of the self that were essential to acceding to truth. As he explained on February 3, 1982: “We should remember that from at least the Cynics—the post-Socratics: Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, etcetera—philosophy increasingly sought its definition, its center of gravity, and fixed its objective around something called the tekhnē tou biou, that is to say, the art, the reflected method for conducting one’s life, the technique of life.” (HS, p. 178)

Foucault’s argument, in these 1982 lectures, then, is that the Stoic and Epicurean notion of “care of the self” differs in significant ways from the earlier Platonic ideal, as well as from the later Christian techniques of the self. It differs in these ways:

  • The Platonic view—which Foucault extracts from the dialogue Alcibiades, where he locates the “first appearance in philosophical discourse” of the term epimeleia heautou (HS, p. 36), despite earlier Greek practices of care, purification, examination, etc.is one in which one must care for oneself during a certain period of one’s life (when one is a young man maturing into manhood) in order to pursue one’s political life and learn to govern others. When one is 50 years old, it is already too late! (HS, p. 37) In this sense, the Platonic model of care of self has a finite temporal dimension and an express political orientation. The “self” that must be taken care of is the soul (53), and the “caring” is what will give us access to knowledge of oneself, to knowledge of the divine, and ultimately to knowledge of justice: to take care of oneself leads to taking care of justice (72).
  • Foucault suggests that the Stoic and Epicurean model of care of self of the first two centuries CE, by contrast, develops into something much more expansive (HS, p. 206). It extends throughout one’s life, even in old age. It covers a wider set of ambitions, not just political. It becomes “a general and unconditional principle, a requirement addressed to everyone, all the time, and without any condition of status;” and it is done “for oneself and with oneself as its end.” (HS, p. 83) It becomes a lifetime occupation, “a general and unconditional principle.” (HS, p. 247) It becomes “coextensive with life.” (HS, p. 247).
  • By contrast, the Christian concept of the ascetic care of the self, which he only alludes to and does not really research in these 1982 lectures, is one of self-renunciation and self-exegesis (HS, p. 257 and p. 485). It is marked by sacrifice and submission to the law. (HS, p. 332) It has at its heart a notion of conversion as “renunciation of oneself, dying to oneself, and being reborn in a different self and a new form which, as it were, no longer has anything to do with the earlier self in its being, its mode of being, in its habits or its ēthos.” (HS, p. 211)

In sum, Foucault excavates and retrieves for us a Stoic-Epicurean-Cynical model of an ascetic mode of work on the self that was foundational to the constitution of the self. As Foucault explains, “Throughout the Hellenistic and Roman period, between Platonism and Christianity, an art of oneself was constituted, which for us will no doubt be just an episode permanently bracketed off by these two great models, the earlier and the later, which then dominated it and concealed it.” (HS, p. 257) By contrast to the Christian model, the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and their contemporaries made possible, as Frédéric Gros writes, is a vision in which “A true subject was possible no longer in the sense of subjection, but of subjectivation.” (HS, context, p. 511)

Central objects of the research this year include (1) the notion of “conversion,” by which the self turns “around towards oneself” (HS, p. 207); (2) the notion of ascesis, “as exercise of self on self” (HS, p. 315); (3) the different forms of exercise on the self, such as “meditation,” (HS, p. 357), listening, reading, writing, and truth telling as forms of ascesis; and (4), of course, parrhesia.

Subject and Power

These 1982 lectures also offer useful ways to connect Foucault’s later lectures (1980-1984) to his earlier ones:

  • So, for instance, Foucault draws a direct connection between these ascetic practices of conversion/returning to the self and his analysis/history of governmentality in 1978 in Security, Territory, Population: “I think we could follow the entire history of this metaphor [of navigation or piloting as a recurring metaphor for the conversion to the self and the return to the self] practically up to the sixteenth century, at which point, precisely, the definition of a new art of governing centered around raison d’État will make a radical distinction between government of oneself, medicine, and government of others, but not without this image of piloting remaining linked, as you know, to the activity that is called, precisely, the activity of government.” (HS, p. 250).
  • Foucault also draws a direct connection between this analysis in 1982 of techniques of the self and his theory of power from 1973 in The Punitive Society: “if we take the question of power, of political power, situating it in the more general question of governmentality […] then I do not think that reflection on this notion of governmentality can avoid passing through, theoretically and practically, the element of a subject defined by the relationship of self to self. […]Quite simply, this means that in the type of analysis I have been trying to advance for some time you can see that power relations, governmentality, the government of the self and of others, and the relationship of self to self constitute a chain, a thread, and I think it is around these notions that we should be able to connect together the question of politics and the question of ethics.” (HS, p. 252).

Here again, we see the importance of folding the work on subjectivity back into the analysis of governmentality and theories of power—in other words, of reading Volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality back into Volume 1, and similarly, of reading these lectures back into Discipline and Punish. As I have mentioned before, this is crucial work that remains to be done.

It is also worth mentioning that in both of these passages, we can also detect the work to come in the next lecture series, The Government of Self and Others from 1982-1983.

Another Double Movement

In conclusion, these 1982 lectures reveal a philosophical double movement: they begin with an inversion from knowledge of the self to care of the self; but they also entail as well a shift from a hermeneutics of the text to a hermeneutics of the subject. Foucault had developed this notion of a “hermeneutics of the self” [note, he was using the term “hermeneutics of the self” and not “hermeneutics of the subject”] in 1980 in his lectures “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self” at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Dartmouth College, and then again in April 1981 in his Louvain lectures. As he elaborated in 1981 at Louvain, he traced the birth of the “hermeneutics of the self” to the transition from the Stoic examination of conscience (more of an accounting and memorizing of daily rules) to the type of examination described by Cassian in the fourth century CE focused on the quality and origins of one’s own thoughts. (WDTT, pp. 148-149) It is at that time that the examination of conscience became a question of “discovering what was hidden deep within oneself—that is to say, from where did the thought come, what were its intrinsic qualities, and whether or not it carried an illusion. (WDTT, p. 148)

As Foucault underscored at Louvain the year before The Hermeneutics of the Subject, the birth of a “hermeneutics of the self” in late antiquity would have tremendous consequences for later thought. It would be, in his words, “fundamental to the history of philosophy” because it would help address the basic question posed by philosophy, namely “what are the relationships between the truth of the text, the truth of reason, and the truth of the self?” (WDTT, p. 169) At Louvain, Foucault would link this truth of the self to the abandonment of the truth of the text in seventeenth century philosophy—in the work of Descartes or the English Empiricists through the critique of Kant—and to the emergence of Freudian thought and later critique. As he would explain at Louvain:

It seems to me that this is where the problem of the unconscious—which Freud later found precisely where Schopenhauer had located it—was introduced and took root within Western thought. […] Schematically speaking, one could say that what Freud did by taking up the question of the illusion of the self about the self, right where Schopenhauer had indicated its possibility on the basis of Kant’s critique . . . to resolve, to treat this question, he used the interpretive methods of the text that the Christian tradition—or in Freud’s case, the Jewish tradition—had already refined for centuries. […] With Freud—well, with Schopenhauer—the possibility, necessity, and inevitability of the illusion of the self about the self returned for the first time since Descartes. And with Freud we witness the development of a hermeneutics of the self that would have its own interpretive techniques. (WDTT, pp. 170-71)

Foucault suggested that, by means of the notion of the hermeneutics of the self, as opposed to that of the text, it might be possible to “recross diagonally” the entire history of Western thought. That is quite a significant implication for these 1982 lectures on The Hermeneutics of the Subject.

Let me close, though, with a little gem, one of the many tucked away in hidden paragraphs of these lengthy 1982 lectures:

“The school of Epictetus appears as a sort of École Normale for philosophers, where it is explained to them how they must act.” (139)


[1] Beginning with these 1982 lectures, Foucault changes the format of his lessons at the Collège de France, and henceforth will divide his weekly lecture into two separate hours of lessons, which is what produces, this year, 24 rather than 12 lectures. It also has the effect, this first year, of lengthening his lectures, which reach almost 500 print pages, the longest of his yearly lectures.

[2] The title of the chapter, “La Culture de soi,” has been translated as “The Cultivation of the Self” by Robert Hurley in the book translation, and “The Culture of the Self” by Graham Burchell. Burchell points the reader to Foucault’s discussion of the culture of the self in lecture 9, on February 3, 1982, in support of his translation, see HS, p. 508 n.*.

[3] As noted in Foucault 10/13, most of the other material in HS Vol. 3: The Care of the Self is based on the material that Foucault began to explore in his 1981 lectures, the year before, in Subjectivity and Truth, beginning with the opening chapter (« Rêver de ses plaisirs ») on Artemidorus, then turning in Chapter 3 to matrimonial relations, in Chapter 4 to the body and regimes of pleasures, in Chapter 5 to the wife, conjugal relations and the pleasures of marriage, and finally in Chapter 6 to the love and erotics of boys, through analyses of texts of the first two centuries CE.

[Read post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]