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Fr. 530

June 23, 2014

Before moving to the question of what such a practice consists in, it is worthwhile to note that we had previously, and quite strikingly, underlined a similar necessity and intuition in Fr. 514 in relation to Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. In short, our question asks whether the individual can reasonably be expected to carry out the exploration and elaboration of self which an approach like Taylor’s seems to entail in order to resolve political disputes or, at least, bring out the areas of contention more clearly:

This last example leads us indirectly to our second question. If, generally speaking, it falls to a learned scholar like Taylor to reveal and create the modern moral framework and identity, it remains to be seen who is to carry this out on a more limited scale for the concrete individual or person. Is the person him or herself to have a hand in this process? At best, Taylor seems ambivalent about this possibility: “But beyond this, articulating any particular person’s background can be subject to controversy. The agent himself or herself is not necessarily the best authority, at least not at the outset” (p. 9).

In short, Taylor holds that, at least at times and in certain areas, third-person access and perspectives are at least as effective in setting out the bounds of the person’s moral framework as the first-person access and perspective available to this person. More simply, in some respects, outsiders have a more accurate take on specific aspects of the person’s moral framework. To what does this irregularity owe? One reason might be found in the cognitive shortcomings and personal biases with which psychologists and cognitive scientists are well acquainted. That said, Taylor attributes this to a lack of internal consistency between the person’s express beliefs and the implied.

This same concern can be transposed, with some amending, into the context of Foucault’s lecture at the level of implication rather than explicit argumentation. In the final part of his lecture, Foucault is keen to underscore the importance of an other, an outside authority, in carrying out work on the self.

In the first and the second centuries of our era, the relation to the self has become considered always as relying on the relationship with the master, a director, or, in any case, to someone else, but more and more independent of the amorous relationship. It is very generally admitted that one cannot occupy oneself with oneself without the help of another […] But those necessary relationship between a disciple and a master are a kind of technical or sometimes administrative, institutional relation and nothing to do with the erotic relation.

If, at this point, Foucault leaves the characterization of this relationship to other more or less indeterminate, he does take care both earlier and later in his lecture to flesh out this relation. In particular, Foucault has already noted the analogy and close connection, made by Greco-Roman thinkers, between care for the self and the medical practice. In a number of texts, the physician is held up as that figure to help individuals work through problems of the self, problems of the soul. For problems of the self and obstacles to care call precisely for this outside, third-person expertise of which the individual is unlikely to be capable, either due to necessary objectification and critical distance or lack of knowledge in the field of care of the self. More precisely, Foucault notes:

But above all, this cultivation of the self has a curative and therapeutic function. It is much nearer to the medical model than to the pedagogical one […] I would also wish to insist on the practical correlation between medicine and the cultivation of the self. Epictetus did not want his school to be considered simply as a school or as a training place. Rather, he wanted his school to be considered as a doctor’s consulting room […] He wanted it to be a dispensary for the soul. And he wanted his pupils to take conscience [sic] of the fact that they were ill. A doctor […] considers it to be within his competences to heal the soul from the passions, that is to say, from disordered energies, rebels to reason, but also the errors which are born of false opinions.

As the above example suggests, the oversight of a “physician” relieves precisely this lack of distance or knowledge. Foucault’s isolation of this theme here joins the conundrum to which Taylor alludes without providing much in the way of resolution. Certainly, the latter notes that the individual is often not best placed to word the elements of her identity relevant to this or that context. Yet Taylor fails to draw the connection between a physician-esque authority and the maladies of self-articulation afflicting the individual identity.

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