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Foucault, Michel
Laura Cremonesi
The French philosopher Michel Foucault (192684) undertook a reflection on ethics
especially in the last part of his life, between the late 1970s and the early 1980s.
In fact, in his last two books, Foucault deals with ancient ethics (see ancient
ethics) and, in particular, with one of its fields of application, that of sexual conduct
(Foucault 1984a, 1984b).
In order to study Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman morality, he developed new
concepts, which enabled him to deal with ancient thought and practices in an
innovative way, but which may also provide helpful cues to the development of a
contemporary ethics. Foucaults interest in morality is closely related to all of his
philosophical and political research, which at first sight seems to have dealt with
issues that were not directly associated with ethics.
Generally speaking, Foucaults early analysis revolved around the issues of
knowledge and power. Through his studies Foucault developed a very original
conception of the relations between power and knowledge. Indeed he believed that,
in modern societies, knowledge is always intrinsically related to power.
However, Foucaults way of conceiving of this connection is very different from
that of classical political theory or from the conceptions we find in the Marxist
tradition, which was very influential in Foucaults philosophical environment. In
fact, according to Foucault, power doesnt act by limiting the free development of
knowledge or by censoring the freedom of expression. Nor does it act by concealing
the reality of the relations of production with the help of ideology, as classical
Marxism suggests.
Rather, in Foucaults view, relations of power produce some specific modalities of
knowledge. This entails that ways of knowing are defined by some relations of power,
which are nonetheless independent and external from the field of knowledge.
Therefore, in order to analyze the way in which historical modes of knowledge were
formed, we must take into account the social practices and the relations of power
that produced them.
As a consequence of this conception, Foucault developed an original
methodological approach to what he defines as apparatuses of powerknowledge.
In the 1960s Foucault calls his method an archaeology. This method aims to
investigate the ordered procedures that regulated the historical production of certain
systems of knowledge and assess the type of connection they have with specific and
political practices.
Later on, in the 1970s, Foucault partially modified his method and called it a
genealogy, which was a tribute to Friedrich Nietzsche (see nietzsche, friedrich).
Genealogy is more focused on historical aspects of the formation of systems of
The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 20082015.
2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee260

knowledge. This Nietzschean approach aims to show that modern apparatuses of

powerknowledge are an arbitrary effect of specific historical events one that
prevails upon others by reason of its singular force and power.
Thus history features as a relevant element both in archaeology and in genealogy. In fact an important aspect of Foucaults analysis is that systems of power
and knowledge are always historical hence the effects they produce are always
Foucault (1972) studied, for example, the history of the systems of power and
knowledge connected with madness and its treatment, showing that what madness
is for us today is a historical effect of specific forms of knowledge and powers. He
conducted a similar analysis on delinquency (1975), the current concept of which is
the result of a transformation of modes of punishment since the late eighteenth
century and on modern sexuality (1976), which, as an experience, had its origin in
amutation in the knowledge and power of the medical profession in the nineteenth
First, the philosophical and political importance of Foucaults historical research
is apparent. The philosophical importance lies in the fact that, through his histories,
Foucault means to show in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory,
what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of
arbitrary constraints (1994b: 45). What we think of as necessary parts of ourselves
(such as the experience of sexuality) are instead historical effects of specific systems
of knowledge and power; even when the history of these systems seems invisible,
archaeology and genealogy enable us to trace it.
The political importance of Foucaults historical research lies in the way in which
he suggests that these aspects may be changed through political and ethical struggle.
The fact that they are effects of systems of knowledge and power may suggest that
they are immobile and cannot be changed. However, Foucault wants to emphasize
that these aspects are historical; they are effects of transformations within knowledge
and power that occurred during history: and, as such, they may still be altered and
modified. Therefore Foucaults historical and philosophical research is linked to our
present: it shows us the history of our way of being in order to highlight the points
in which this way may change.

The History of Ancient Morality

Foucaults manner of writing history and of conducting philosophical analyses led
him to become interested in ethics during the last years of his work.
As we mentioned before, among the histories that Foucault had traced, that of the
modern system of sexuality was especially important. In the late 1970s Foucault had
developed a general plan of research for a genealogy of modern sexuality, because
sexuality seemed to him a very important field for the study of modern systems of
knowledge and power: in his opinion, in the nineteenth century these systems had
found an important field of application in the sexual behavior of individuals and of
the population.

However, Foucault changed the initial plan and pushed his genealogy much
further back in time. He thought that the modern apparatus of sexuality had
inherited some of its traits from early Christianity. In fact, according to Foucault,
the role of confession a practice introduced by Christianity in the first centuries
was very important in relation to modern sexuality. Thus Foucault started to
study how early Christianity and early Christian ethics (see early christian
ethics) had changed the Greek and Roman experience of pleasures and sexual
This is the route through which Foucault was prompted to study how ancient
morality dealt with sexual behavior. His main purpose was to shed light on
differences between the ancient morality and experience and their Christian and
modern counterparts and to understand when and how the modern apparatus of
sexuality emerged.
To describe ancient ethics, and in particular the way it had dealt with sexual
behavior, Foucault produced some important methodological and conceptual
innovations in the field of the history of morality. He developed what could be called
a new conceptualization of ethics (Davidson 1994: 11618), which consists in
proposing a new set of concepts that enabled him to understand aspects of ancient
morality that had been scarcely visible until then. This new conceptualization of ethics is described by Foucault in the Introduction to the second volume of his History
of Sexuality (1984a: 329).
According to Foucault, the history of morality has been traditionally focused on
two spheres: it may study the history of the moral codes, that is, the values and rules
of action that are widespread in a given society; or it may deal with the morality of
behavior in order to find out to what extent real behaviors adhered to such codes
and rules in a given historical period. Although he thought both methods to be well
founded, Foucault focused on one further aspect, which he believed was neglected
in the way the history of morality is usually studied. Foucault set out to study the
way in which individuals are urged to constitute themselves as subjects of moral
conduct and the models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with
the self (1984a: 36).
Now, actions that comply with a moral rule may derive from the different ways in
which the individuals who perform them have constituted themselves as subjects of
such actions. Every moral action actually demands that the individual establishes
some relationship with the self and performs a work on himself, in the attempt to
constitute himself as a moral subject. Foucault clearly describes the way in which
such constitution of the self as a moral subject (or ethical subjectivation) may happen
(1984a: 335). It first demands the determination of the ethical substance, in which
the individual defines the part of himself on which he can perform the work of
moral subjectivation; then it requires a specific mode of subjection, which, for
Foucault, is the way in which an individual acknowledges the need to comply with a
rule of conduct; in addition, the individual must put in place the ethical work
proper, through which he transforms and elaborates his way of being through some
exercises and practices of the self. Finally, the ethical work must aim at a goal, which

Foucault calls the telos of the ethical subject and which is the mode of being the
individual aims at through his own moral conduct.
One of the examples proposed by Foucault may help understand the constitution
of the moral subject. The moral sexualconduct of conjugal fidelity may be connected,
for instance, to several modes of ethical subjectivation: in the ancient world, in
order to be faithful, an individual chose to act upon what the Greeks called ta
aphrodisia (sexual acts, pleasures, and desires) which, for Foucault, constituted
the ethical substance or the elements of the ethical domain by reducing
extramarital sexual activity; he obeyed to the value of fidelity in order to have a
beautiful, memorable life (mode of subjection); he practiced exercises to learn to
master the passions (ethical work) and to gain self-mastery (the telos end of
the ethical subject). In contrast, a Christian would choose desire as the ethical
substance to act upon; she would be faithful in observance of a divine law, she would
perform, as ethical work, the deciphering of the self and of her own desire, and she
would aim at becoming a pure subject, worthy of salvation.
Therefore, for Foucault, the history of morality must be focused on the ways
individuals have been led to elaborate a specific relationship with the self, one
through which they could conduct themselves morally. The part of morality that
studies forms of relationships with the self and modes of constitution of the subject
(or modes of subjectivation) is, according to Foucault, ethics proper.
Through his historical method, Foucault underlines that the modes of constitution
of the subject are historical and differ from one age to another. As we saw in the
earlier example, a great change occurred in the modes of relationships with the self
between Greek and HellenisticRoman antiquity and the Christianity of the first
centuries. According to Foucault and here he follows leading historians such as
Paul Veyne the Christian rules and codes of sexual behavior were very similar to
those of pagan antiquity. Both moral systems valued conjugal fidelity, for instance,
and they tended to restrict sexual acts to procreative ends. However, according to
Foucault, the two eras are separated by a rupture that does not concern either the
moral codes or the morality of behavior, but that revolves precisely around ethics
that is, around on modes of relationships with the self.
With Christianity, all four aspects of the constitution of the moral subject would
be deeply transformed. Through his new conceptualization of the history of morality,
Foucault is therefore able to shed light on some important historical differences and
discontinuities behind moralities that somehow can seem quite similar. This enables
him to understand certain specific traits of Greek morality and of Christian morality
that had not been explored at that time.
Foucault notices that Greco-Roman morality and Christian morality differ in the
importance they attach to the moral code and to ethics proper that is, to the
relationship with the self and to ethical work. Both moralities exhibit these two
aspects. Nevertheless, Christian morality (with some remarkable exceptions, such as
the one studied by Foucault, namely the experience of monasticism of the first
centuries ad) would have left little room for ethical work, for practices of the self,
and would have focused more on the elaboration of a code of conduct and of a

system of prohibitions and prescriptions to be enforced. Ancient morality would

instead have attached greater importance to the practices of subjectivation and less
importance to rules and codes.
In the field of sexual behavior, the laws of the Greek polis gave wide freedom of
action. However, it was precisely within such freedom of action that individuals
could choose to adopt a specific moral conduct, which therefore did not result from
observance of the law or from compliance with socially shared values, but was the
result of a free choice. Such moral conduct therefore did not value the code so much,
but was focused above all on the practices and exercises that individuals could
perform on themselves. The goal was actually to gain self-mastery, so as to make
good use of the freedom of action granted by the polis. So ancient morality is defined
by Foucault as an aesthetics of existence, because its goal is to give a certain form
to moral conduct and to ones way of life: such form is not the result of observance
of the law or compliance with some universal rule, but is achieved by performing a
work on the self. In this morality, the conduct and the way of living must reflect the
form that the relationship with the self acquires through practices and exercises.
The idea that some exercises of transformation of ones mode of being were central
not just to morality, but to the whole of ancient philosophy had already been expressed
by Pierre Hadot (2002), from whom Foucault often took inspiration in his own work.
Foucault himself focused much of his last work on analyzing such exercises or practices
of the self, not just in connection with sexual behavior, but as important elements for
a general understanding of ancient forms of subjectivation (Foucault 2001).
In the last years of his work, Foucault also explored the relationship between the
ancient modes of constitution of the moral subject and a specific kind of discourse
of truth, parrhesia, generally understood as freedom of speech. According to
Foucault, in the Greek and Roman world individuals could give a speech that was
recognized as parrhesia only if they had first performed an ethical work on
themselves to transform their mode of being and conduct: this type of discourse of
truth was therefore grounded in an ethical way of life (Foucault 2008, 2009).
Foucaults contribution to the history of morality is therefore very important:
first, it helps gain a better understanding of the transition from pagan morality to
Christian morality and to understand more precisely what new elements were
introduced by Christianity. Such new elements do not so much concern the creation
of new systems of rules and moral values as the transmission of new models for the
constitution of the moral subject and the relationship with the self. Second, the
historical method developed by Foucault helps toward a new understanding of the
typical traits of ancient morality, which differs precisely in the great importance it
attached to ethical work and to the practices of constitution of the moral subject.

Elements for Contemporary Ethics

The contribution made through the conceptualization introduced by Foucault is
not, however, limited to the history of morality; it can play an important role in
some other current ethical issues as well.

Many of Foucaults readers wondered whether in ancient morality he had found

some useful elements and whether, through his studies on ancient morality, he meant
to offer a new aesthetics of existence to the contemporary world as well. Foucault
never wrote a book about contemporary ethics: his works are mainly historical works.
However, both the way he wrote the history of morality and many of his short texts
and interviews may offer some cues for a potential elaboration of contemporary ethics.
As Veyne (1986) appropriately pointed out, Foucault had no intention to reactivate
Greek and Roman ethics, as it is inseparable from the historical and social context in
which it emerged. However, he was very attracted by the idea of a non-prescriptive
ethics, the result of free choice, more focused on working on the self than on the
development of a moral code and value system.
By studying the history of ancient morality in an innovative way, then, Foucault
found some fragments that may help elaborate a contemporary ethics: of central
importance is the idea that one can act upon ones relationship with oneself and
change ones mode of being through practices and exercises. The subject of moral
conduct is not given, it is the result of an elaboration that every individual can freely
perform. If Foucault had proposed a new morality, he would have certainly chosen
one in which ethical work prevails over the code, as it did in classical antiquity.
This suggestion of Foucaults was related by Arnold Davidson (1994) to Stanley
Cavells moral perfectionism (see perfectionism; virtue ethics). The idea of a perpetual work of self-transformation actually seems to share many traits with anethics
such as the one proposed by Cavell, which looks more like a reflection on the mode
of being of the moral subject than on the development of a code of conduct.
Foucault was accused by Hadot (2002: 32332; 30511) of having proposed a sort
of moral dandyism: in other words, a morality that is excessively focused on the
subject and disjoined from universal, shared ethical principles. However, for
Foucault, the work of transformation and elaboration of the relationship with the
self must always be associated with a wider work of critique of the present.
In the years in which he wrote the history of ancient morality, Foucault actually
developed a new concept of critique, starting from some of Kants (1999) well-known
minor writings on the Enlightenment (see kant, immanuel). Foucault defines such
critique as a critical ontology of ourselves (1994b: 50). This should, in fact, be an
analysis of our way of being, an attempt to see how it was formed historically, and
above all to show which elements may be transformed.
One can easily see that, in his concept of critique, Foucault summed up the
philosophical and political role that he wished his archaeological and genealogical
works to have: that of writing the history of the present in order to find out which of
its aspects have been historically constituted by systems of knowledge and power
and are, therefore, modifiable. In his final writings, then, Foucault suggests that this
critique of the present can be performed only if at the same time one engages in an
ethical work on oneself, in the transformation of ones relationship with the self.
Ethical work on the self therefore does not have the form of moral dandyism, as
Hadot had suggested, but is related to a specific philosophical and political critique
that individuals may conduct on their own present.

Foucault himself gave some short examples of the spheres to which such work on
the self might be applicable. For example, it may produce a new way of life, grounded
on friendship (see friendship), which in this approach may constitute a form of
resistance that tries to keep homosexual relations distinct from the apparatus of
sexuality (Foucault 1994a).
Starting from the genealogy of the ways in which ancient morality had dealt with
sexual behavior, Foucault developed a new conceptualization for the history of
ethics, which led him to find an important idea in ancient morality: that of a work of
ethical subjectivation that one can freely perform. Then he related this idea to that
of critique, maintaining that, in order to produce a critique of the present which is,
according to Foucault, the task of contemporary history and philosophy it was
necessary to perform an ethical work of the transformation ofthe self.
See also: ancient ethics; early christian ethics; friendship; kant,
immanuel; nietzsche, friedrich; perfectionism; virtue ethics
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