Foucault at Kalamazoo

[What follows is a version of the framing statement I presented at the session “The History of Ethics: Continuations of Foucault’s Final Project,” held on 11 May 2013 at Kalamazoo. Inspiration for this session came from Claire Waters’s paper, “Giving God a Hand: Dialogue, Condiscipuli, and Vernacular Doctrine in the Thirteenth Century,” presented 19 April 2012 at Harvard University’s English Medieval Colloquium. I thank Claire, Rosemary O’Neill, and Fiona Somerset for their interest in this session’s experiment and for contributing such stimulating papers to it.]

Welcome to the session “The History of Ethics: Continuations of Foucault’s Final Project.” The panelists and I felt that it might be useful to say a few words, at the beginning of this session, about our purpose. I will do that, briefly, before proceeding to the session itself.

So, what is our purpose here? Taking our printed title as a point of departure, it seems to me that the key term is “ethics” and that that this term might be understood in three ways.

First, one often thinks of ethics as consisting in a set of obligations and proscriptions, that is, a moral code and its discursive exhibition. In this first sense, we ordinarily call conduct “ethical” when it conforms with moral code. Likewise, conduct that violates the code is “unethical.” So, in the first instance, ethics is an operator whose medium is conduct; it divides conduct into the ethical and the unethical.

And yet, in a second sense, the “ethical” is no longer a division within conduct, but instead another name for this entire domain of human life. Recall that the term “ethical life” sometimes names the shared characters, habits, manners, customs—or conduct—of a community or social group. This usage is less frequent today, but it has the support of the word’s etymology. According to this second sense of “ethics”, conduct is always, as such, ethical.

Now, if we compare these first two notions of the “ethical,” we see that they contrast quite sharply. The second is positive, whereas the first is normative. The second motivates a description of the way people live. The first, a census of how a people perhaps thought they ought to live. How are these two elements to be brought into relation with one another? Well, this problem constitutes a third and final sense of “ethics.” That is: the techniques and practices by which a moral code is brought to bear upon life. To recap: In its first sense, ethics consists in a set of norms; in the second sense, it consists of conduct as a domain of life; in this third sense, it consists in practices of normation, bringing norms to bear upon conduct.

In a history of moral codes, one perpetually encounters the same commandments: no stealing, no adultery, love your neighbor, don’t eat too much. And so forth. By contrast, human beings have been far more inventive when it comes the third sense of “ethics.” It seems that there is almost no limit to the number of different ways of attempting to govern human life. Foucault thought these differences were important, and we agree. When he died in 1984, Foucault was involved in a vast historical study of “ethics”, understood as techniques and practices of governing life. How, he asked, have different historical communities set about adjusting their behaviors relative to their moral codes? This question may be unpacked into a sort of research questionnaire for study of systems of ethics:

  • in what capacity are individuals called upon to engage in the work of caring for, shaping, or governing oneself? (e.g. as Christian, as king, as young aristocratic male, as human, as saint or martyr)
  • what classes of people are inducted into this ethical work? (e.g. aristocracy, laity, men or women, all Christians, a chosen few)
  • by whom is one called to this work? (e.g. parish priest, private chaplain, spiritual director, parent, tutor)
  • what specific techniques or practices are employed in ethical work? (e.g. confession, physical mortification, meditation, memorization, conversation)
  • to what parts or aspects of oneself does one address this ethical work? How must the self be conceived or constituted, such that it is possible to perform ethical work on it? (e.g. soul, flesh, will, memory, intellect, passions)
  • what is the goal or end of ethical work? (e.g. salvation, obedience, governance of other people)

These, among others, were the questions that Foucault explored in the second, third, and fourth volumes of his History of Sexuality and, more directly, in the final five years of his lectures at the Collège de France. Crucially, the Collège de France lectures also investigate links between the “government of self” and related questions of political leadership, counsel, and the “government of others.” The full scope, detail, and significance of Foucault’s work on this project are only gradually becoming visible, in the publication of these lectures, the first volume of which appeared in 1997. The most recent volume—Du gouvernement des vivants, released in French just last November—contains Foucault’s most extensive discussion of Christianity published to date. It is quite interesting.

As is well known, Foucault’s research program assumed a dual focus in the late seventies. He continued to study European modernity, roughly from the sixteenth century forwards. Yet he also made extensive explorations of European antiquity, ranging between fifth-century Greece, imperial Rome, and the first four centuries of Christianity. In other words: Foucault was approaching the European Middle Ages from either side, in a sort of pincer motion. I do not mean to suggest that, had he lived, Foucault would have completed the arc, extending his study of governmental and ethical systems through the Middle Ages. On the contrary, the point to make is just that the Middle Ages are objectively a promising area in which to continue his work.

Thus, it is not our purpose to sort through Foucault’s statements about the Middle Ages and separate the true from the false. Nor is the goal to uncover the repressed contribution which the Middle Ages may have made to the formation of Foucault’s thought. Instead, our aim is just to make a trial continuation of Foucault’s research program, by examining a few of the extremely various ethical systems that were elaborated in the course of the European Middle Ages. To that end, the papers that follow will be engaged in the concrete particularities of case studies. I am truly delighted to be able to present three such distinguished, discerning, and thought-provoking panelists in this session.

[References: I draw the tripartite definition of ethics from History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, pp. 25-26; and the interview “On the Genealogy of Ethics,” in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol. 1, p. 263. For the research questionnaire, compare (inter alia) Essential Works, Vol. 1, pp. 263-65.]

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