The Hermeneutics of the (Bio)Subject

Truth and Pedagogy and an Ecological Model of Subjectivity

We will call ‘philosophy’ the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth. If we call this ‘philosophy,’ then I think we could call ‘spirituality’ the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. (Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject [2005])

The subject and truth: ‘there can be no truth without a … transformation of the subject’

[All references are to Foucault’s (2005) 1982 Lectures at the College de France. They are hyperlinked when available via Google Books.]

Foucault asks, ‘In what historical form do the relations between the “subject” and “truth,”… take shape in the West?,’ and he responds to his own question by suggesting there is a distinction between a ‘philosophical analytics of truth in general’ and a ‘formal ontology of truth’ (p. 2). The question of the conditions under which true knowledge is possible creates a ‘historical ontology of ourselves’ and the complex ways we have constituted ourselves as subjects of knowledge and truth. Foucault writes: ‘In short, I think we can say that in and of itself an act of knowledge could never give access to the truth unless it was prepared, accompanied, doubled, and completed by a certain transformation of the subject; not of the individual, but of the subject himself in his being as subject’ (p. 16).

He maintains that the modern age of the history of truth ‘begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth’ (p. 17). Foucault thus returns to the ancient Greek notion of epimeleia heautou as ‘care of oneself.’ He examines how epimeleia heautou as care of the self ‘remained a fundamental principle for describing the philosophical attitude throughout Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman culture’ (p. 8). This is a revelation and departure from the history of philosophy for epimeleia heautou has long been overshadowed by gnothi seauton as a foundation for the moral imperative ‘know yourself.’ Epimeleia heautou, Foucault claims, is important in the figure of Socrates, as he says: ‘Socrates is, and always will be, the person associated with care of the self’ (p. 8). Thus, Foucault locates care of the self with Socrates at the very beginning of Western philosophy, and he rehabilitates the notion alongside the imperative ‘know yourself.’

Socrates is entrusted by the gods to encourage others to take care of the self. It is one of the major functions of the philosopher and teacher, and Socrates has given up everything in order to teach others to care for the self. His role is to awaken others and to drive home the care of the self like a thorn into the citizen’s flesh so as to provoke a kind of continuous ‘restlessness’ throughout life in returning to the question, especially important then for young men – ‘You must care for yourself.’ Foucault traces the history of the notion in late Stoic and Cynic texts and especially Epictetus in the Discourses.

Gnothi seauton as the imperative ‘know yourself’ has been traditionally taken as the foundation of the relations between the subject and truth but is not a principle of self-knowledge; rather, it is more of a demand for prudence: in the sense of the Delphic origin, ‘you should always remember that you are only a mortal after all, not a god’ (p. 4). Gnothi seauton is coupled with epimeleia heautou: the former is formulated within the latter, as is made clear in three passages in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates emerges as the person who encourages others to care for themselves.

The notion of care for the self was important to Plato and also for the Epicureans: ‘Every man should take care of his soul day and night and throughout his life’ (p. 8). Epicurus uses the verb therapeuein, which carries the notions of service and worship as a kind of therapy for the soul. Foucault also refers to the significance of the notion for the Cynics and Stoics – central to Seneca. This notion has ‘traversed and permeated ancient philosophy up to the threshold of Christianity’ and within Christianity, in ‘Alexandrian spirituality’ (p. 10), Epimeleia (of care) in Philo, Plotinus, in Christian asceticism and in Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, where care of the self takes the form of freedom from marriage as the first form of Christian asceticism.

From these early textual references, Foucault extracts three principles:

  1. epimeleia heautou is an attitude towards the self, others, and the world;
  2. epimeleia heautou is a certain form of attention, of looking. (The word epimeleia is related to melete, which means both exercise and meditation).
  3. epimeleia heautou always designates a number of actions exercised on the self by the self, actions by which one takes responsibility for oneself, and by which one changes, purifies, transforms, and transfigures oneself. (pp. 10-11)

Why then did Western thought and philosophy neglect the notion of epimeleia heautou (care of the self) in its reconstruction of its own history? As he explains, the relations between subjectivity and truth petitions the subject: (i) In ancient philosophy, there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject; (ii) the subject can and must transform himself in order to have access to the truth is a kind of work; (iii) the truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquillity of the soul.

The hermeneutics of the self as epimeleia heautou is an ethical reading in terms of practices of the self; a problematisationof the subject where there is a concern about one’s virtue and soul, famously expressed by Socrates in the Apology. Care of the self is to know oneself understood as an obligation, a principle and a practice, as a form of life. It is a therapeutics of care of the self in relation to politics, pedagogy and self-knowledge.

Foucault’s lectures at the College de France, 1982

The Collège de France was founded in 1530 as a higher education and research establishment in Paris in the 5th Arrondissement, or Latin Quarter, across the street from the historical campus of La Sorbonne. The Collège is considered to be France’s most prestigious research establishment, and professors are required to offer one course of twelve lectures per year which are open to the public so anyone can attend. Foucault’s lectures were very well attended, and there was a large lecture hall and adjoining room that made the live presentation available to those who could not get into the lecture hall. In the Foreword, Francois Ewald and Alessandro Fontana write:

Michel Foucault’s courses were held every Wednesday from January to March. The huge audience made up of students, teachers, researchers, and the curious, including many who came from outside France, required two amphitheatres of the College de France. Foucault often complained about the distance between himself and his “public” and of how few exchanges the course made possible.5 He would have liked a seminar in which real collective work could take place and made a number of attempts to bring this about. In the final years, he devoted a long period to answering his auditors’ questions at the end of each course. (pp. xiii-xiv)

Foucault was elected to the chair he called ‘The History of Systems of Thought’ on 12 April 1970, which replaced the chair held by Jean Hyppolite. Foucault was 44 years of age. He gave a course of lectures every year except for a sabbatical year (1976–1977) until his untimely death in 1984. The lectures were summarised from audio recordings and edited by Michel Senellart and later translated into English and edited by Graham Burchell. In The Hermeneutics of the Subject (1981–1982), Foucault (2005) elaborates on the truth as a historically shifting concept in the human sciences, how the self is discursively produced and accepted as true, and the significance of the discourse of truth for the experience of the self.

Foucault followed the method of theoretical and general exposition in the first hour, followed by a textual analysis in the second hour. In the text below, I have given a truncated summary and overview of the contents of each of Foucault’s twelve lectures with an indication separating the first and second hours: the first hour was generally more theoretical; the second, devoted to readings and exegetical remarks.

Some attention should be paid to the title of the course of lectures and, in particular, the term ‘hermeneutics’ which was used in connection with the self. While hermeneutics has a rich history in Continental philosophy as the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of ancient texts in literature and philosophy. The question of ‘who is the author’ of a text or statement figured in the early forms of interpretative praxis dating from the Middle Ages. The interpretation of the self as a text analogue also dates from early modern, although the actual distinction between ontological and epistemological hermeneutics is explicitly made during the modern period. Foucault’s approach is focused on the agency of the subject and a set of broad assumptions concerning the truth and truth-telling practices involved in ethical self-constitution, often through the interpretation of texts. Foucault argues that treating the subject as a historical cipher to be interpreted, the hermeneutics of the self, is essentially a Greek and Christian form of the self in relation to itself. In Christianity, the transformation of the self is intimately connected to exposing one’s sins to a moral authority, demonstrating the role that truth-telling plays in the formation of modern subjectivity.

In About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self (Foucault, 2016), a transcript of the lectures ‘Subjectivity and Truth’ and ‘Christianity and Confession’ delivered at Dartmouth College in 1980, Foucault traces the genealogy of the modern subject focusing on the centrality of confession as a medieval technique of the self that sets up a medieval association between confession, self-renunciation, and spirituality. This exposes the depth of technologies of the self as a form of modern government based on the ethics of self-examination where a sinful self is replaced by a virtuous self through the vocalisation of truth. The truth of the soul is found through various early medieval Christian practices that are part of the hermeneutics of the self that employs the redemptive power of the Church to harness forms of self-reflection in order to develop the knowledge to guide one’s actions.

In The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault (2005) investigates the genealogy of the self in relation to care of the self and how this imperative has been eclipsed in the history of Western philosophy even though it has unquestionably been the basis for the mortality of the first centuries BC. Rules governing the care of the self appeared and reappeared in the Christian obligation of self-renunciation and in secular obligations towards others and were transformed by the ‘Cartesian moment’ that requalified gnothi seauton (know yourself) in terms of modern epistemology as ‘self-evidence’ in the Meditations and ‘by discrediting the epimeleia heautou (care of the self)’ (p. 14).

The Cartesian approach recalibrated gnothi seauton as the starting point and epistemological foundation while displacing and discrediting epimeleia heautou and its potential role in modern philosophy. Foucault argues that, if philosophy is ‘the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth,’ then spirituality is ‘the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth’ (p. 15). Such spirituality only has the right to access to the truth through an act of transformation that demands he becomes other than what he is. In other words, contrary to Descartes, ‘the truth is not given to the subject by a simple act of knowledge (connaissance)’ – ‘there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject’ (p. 15).

The transformation of the self takes place through love (eros) or work (askesis): ‘Eros and askesis are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualising the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth’ (p. 16). Finally, ‘the truth enlightens the subject’ where the act of knowledge is accompanied by spiritual transformation. In modern philosophy, the ‘Cartesian moment’ focuses on the act of knowledge alone, which does not require self-transformation or spiritual enlightenment (p. 16).

The Hermeneutics of the Subject: An outline of the course

The first lecture prepares the way forward for an understanding of the hermeneutics of the self as a narrative examined by Foucault in the remaining eleven lectures, which focuses on the Socratic care of the self and the soul as the subject of action to the self as an axis of training and correction, and the emergence of the philosopher as a master and guide of the processes of subjectivation. Pedagogy figures strongly in these accounts alongside erotics of boys with its first cross-overs into early Christian forms of pedagogy. An overview and synthesis of the lectures are provided in schematic form below:

First Lecture

Care of the self as precept of ancient philosophy and first Christian texts.

The Cartesian shift from care of the self to self-knowledge and the loss of spirituality as a set of practices. The education of and care of the self in The Alcibiades.

Second lecture

The Socratic care of the self; academic and erotic limits of Athenian pedagogy. Self as soul and soul as subject of action. The need for a master of the care. Care of the self as self-knowledge in Alcibiades. Political action, pedagogy, and the erotics of boys.

Third Lecture

The care of the self (from Alcibiades to the first two centuries AD)

Care of the self as axis of training and correction; convergence of medical and philosophical activity. The privileged status of old age; care of self and sectarianism

Fourth Lecture

Practices of the self in the first and second centuries. The question of the Other: three types of mastership in Plato’s dialogues. The figure of the philosopher as master of subjectivation. The professional philosopher of the first and second centuries and his political choices. Systematisation of dietetics, economics and erotics in the guidance of existence. Examination of conscience (correspondence between Pronto and Marcus Aurelius)

Fifth lecture

Neo-Platonist commentaries on the Alcibiades (Proclus and Ohympiodorus).

A philosophical art of living according to the principle of conversion; the development of a culture of the self. Questions from the public concerning subjectivity and truth. The Epicurean conception of friendship. The Stoic conception of man as a communal being.

Sixth Lecture

Care of the self, opened up by pedagogy and political activity. Conversion to the self.

Defence of a third way, between Platonic epistrophe and Christian metanoia.

General theoretical framework: veridiction and subjectivation. Knowledge (savoir) of the world and practice of the self in the Cynics: the example of Demetrius. Description of useful knowledge (connaissances) in Demetrius. Ethopoetic knowledge (savoir). Physiological knowledge (connaissance) in Epicurus.

Seventh Lecture

Conversion to self as successfully accomplished form of care of the self (metaphor of navigation; pilot’s technique as paradigm of governmentality). The idea of an ethic of return to the self. Platonic recollection and Christian exegesis. The movement of the gaze in Natural Questions. The movement of the knowing soul in Seneca: description; general characteristic; after-effect. Conclusions: (i) essential implication of knowledge of the self and knowledge (connaissance) of the world; (ii) liberating effect of knowledge (savoir) of the world; (iii) irreducibility to the Platonic model.

Eighth Lecture

Knowledge (savoir) in Marcus Aurelius: the work of analysing representations; defining and describing; seeing and naming; evaluating and testing; gaining access to the grandeur of the soul. Examples of spiritual exercises in Epictetus. Christian exegesis and Stoic analysis of representations. Virtue and its relation to askesis. Askesis as practice of the incorporation of truth-telling in the subject.

Ninth Lecture

Conceptual separation of Christian from philosophical ascesis. The ascetic rules of listening: silence; precise non-verbal communication, and general demeanour of the good listener; attention. The practical rules of correct listening and its assigned end: meditation. The ancient meaning of melete/meditatio as exercise performed by thought on the subject. Writing as physical exercise of the incorporation of discourse.

Tenth Lecture

Parrhesia as ethical attitude and technical procedure in the master’s discourse. The adversaries of parrhesia: flattery and rhetoric. The points of opposition between parrhesia and rhetoric: the division between truth and lie; the status of technique; the effects of subjectivation. Analysis of parrhesia. Galen’s ‘On the Passions and Errors of the Soul.’ Characteristics of libertas, according to Seneca: refusal of popular and bombastic eloquence; transparency and rigour, incorporation of useful discourses; an art of conjecture. Pedagogy and psychagogy: relationship and evolution in Greco-Roman philosophy and in Christianity.

Eleventh Lecture

Meaning of the Pythagorean rules of silence. Definition of ascetics. Appraisal of the historical ethnology of Greek ascetics. Alcibiades: withdrawal of ascetics into self-knowledge as mirror of the divine. Life’s work. Techniques of existence; Exercises of abstinence. The practice of tests and its characteristics. Life itself as a test. Seneca’s ‘De Providentia’: the test of existing and its discriminating function. Epictetus and the philosopher-scout. The transfiguration of evils: from old Stoicism to Epictetus. The test in Greek tragedy.

Twelfth Lecture

The grasp of self by the self in Plato’s Alcibiades and in other philosophical texts. The three major forms of Western reflexivity: recollection, meditation, and method. The illusion of contemporary Western philosophical historiography. The meditation on death: a sagittal and retrospective gaze. Examination of conscience in Seneca and Epictetus. Philosophical ascesis. Bio-technique, test of the self, objectification of the world: the challenges of Western philosophy.

There are several elements that repeatedly occur throughout the twelve lectures beginning with education of and care of the self in The Alcibiades. There is a historical trajectory from an ancient philosophy based on a set of techniques with methods and objectives that took the form of a ‘pedagogy’ relying on a relationship with a master and guide, especially in the first and second centuries, a requirement that fades away and gives way to other functions, especially in the adult world.

Foucault’s course summary

One of the few requirements at the College de France was to provide a course summary. That for the theme of the hermeneutics of the self in 1982 was first published in Annuaire du College de France (Histoire des systemes de pensee, annee 1981–1982 [1982; t pp. 395–406]). This summary provides a careful retrospective on what topic was pursued during the year. In this case, Foucault writes: ‘It involved studying it not only in its theoretical formulations but analysing it in relation to a set of practices which were very important in classical and late antiquity. These practices were concerned with what was often called in Greek epimeleia heautou and in Latin cura sui. To our eyes, the principle was that one should “take care of the self,” a theme that was often combined with and formulated in terms of the theme of self-knowledge’ (p. 491). This theme was important for citizens because it taught them to take care of the city-state as much as themselves, rather than simply accumulating wealth and taking care of one’s material goods.

Foucault reveals that the same notion of care for the self surfaces eight centuries later with Gregory of Nyssa (b. 335–395), a bishop venerated as a saint in Roman Catholicism who was strongly influenced by Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian scholar and ascetic who adopted the ascetic lifestyle of the Sophists. Origen is also alleged to have castrated himself. Gregory is often seen as a Trinitarian theologian (‘one essence in three persons’) who believed in the universal salvation of all human beings, after necessary purification that could take a long time. Foucault presents him as a Christian theologian who uses the care of the self as the reason to ‘renounce marriage, detach oneself from the flesh, and, thanks to the virginity of heart and body, rediscover the immortality from which one has fallen’ (p. 492). Thus, ‘Christian asceticism, like ancient philosophy, places itself under the sign of the care of the self and makes the obligation to know oneself one of the components of this basic concern.’ But it is clear that care of the self was not ‘an invention of philosophical thought’ but rather an activity: ‘The term epimeleia itself refers not just to an attitude of awareness or a form of attention focused on oneself; it designates a regular occupation, a work with its methods and objectives’ (p. 493).

It becomes a philosophical precept for all of Greek life, and, in the Alcibiades, it becomes clear that it is a form of activity engaged in during one’s life where early training and pedagogy give way to a self-critical (an ‘unlearning) to rid oneself of ‘bad habits’ and ‘false opinions.’ The training was conceived of as a struggle where individuals were given both the courage and techniques to enable them to fight throughout their life, rather like an athlete or warrior protecting and fighting for their soul. This, in essence, provided the background for what Foucault calls the ‘culture of the self’ that has both a therapeutic and curative role, closer to the medical than the pedagogical model, designed to cure the diseases of the soul. This culture, at least in the first and second centuries, was dependent on a relationship with a master or guide based on love and erotics, although the need for the relationship lessened over time. The relationship took different social forms, sometimes purely scholastic, sometimes private counsellors or family and friendship relationships. The notion of a culture took the form of ‘a set of practices generally designated by the term askesis’ (p. 497), aided by true and rational discourses (logoi) to provide theoretical knowledge (‘the principles that govern the world’), that were ready to hand. The ‘ascesis of truth’ (p. 499) emphasised the importance of both listening, writing and taking notes on readings and conversations that could be memorised in taking stock of oneself. As Foucault elaborates:

There is then a whole set of techniques whose purpose is to link together the truth and the subject. But it should be clearly understood that it is not a matter of discovering a truth in the subject or of making the soul the place where truth dwells through an essential kinship or original law; nor is it a matter of making the soul the object of a true discourse. We are still very far from what would be a hermeneutics of the subject. On the contrary, it is a question of arming the subject with a truth that he did not know and that did not dwell within him; it involves turning this learned and memorised truth that is progressively put into practice into a quasi-subject that reigns supreme within us (p. 501).

Foucault distinguishes between forms of training involving endurance and abstinence from those that involve a training in thought, including the praemeditatio malorum, ‘the meditation on future evils’ (p. 501). He indicates ‘Between the pole of the meditatio, in which one practices in thought, and that of the exercitatio, in which one trains in reality, there is a series of other possible practices designed for testing oneself’ (p. 503); and ‘At the pinnacle of all these exercises there is the famous meiete thanatou – meditation on, or rather, training for death’ (p. 504).

Figure 1: Principles of the juridico-political model

  1. The juridico-political model centrally involves being sovereign over oneself.
  2. It is an ancient philosophy based on a set of techniques with methods and objectives – that is, a pedagogy – that gives way to other functions and an adult function. In the first and second centuries, the relation to the self is always seen as having to rely on the relationship with a master or a guide.
  3. The culture of the self, comprised of a set of practices, is generally designated by the term askesis of truth based on listening, writing, taking stock of oneself, memory exercises for what one has learned.
  4. The meditation – one practices in thought: techniques for linking the truth and the subject; ‘a training in thought and by thought’; praemeditatio malorum, the meditation on future evils (imagining the worst).
  5. Exercitatio – one trains in reality: exercises of abstinence, privation, or physical resistance.
  6. Practices designed for testing oneself.
  7. Meiete thanatou involves meditation on or training for death.

The hermeneutics of the subject is a historical investigation in Hellenistic and early Christian philosophy that brought into question the relations between the subject and truth, providing a general ethical framework based on care for the self, designed to analyse the different forms of experience of the relation between the subject and truth. Foucault maps the emergence of the modern age when, in the history of truth knowledge (connaissance) and knowledge by itself, unaccompanied by any demand for change, inner transformation, or work on the self, grants access to the truth.

Foucault’s (2005) 1982 course on the hermeneutics of the subject focuses on the different conceptions of care of the self, an ethical transformation of the self in the light of truth, an existence based on truth and on truth-telling practices, first investigated in his studies of ancient sexual ethics in The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (1988), volumes in The History of Sexuality. He provides an accessible elaboration in the interview ‘The Ethics for the Concern of Self as a Practice of Freedom’ (1984) and his final courses The Government of Self and Others (2010) and The Courage of Truth(2011) on the ethical practice of parrhesia, which he gives in a series of lectures called Discourse and Truth at the University of California, Berkeley in 1983 (Foucault, 2001). Foucault’s final volume of Histoire de la sexualité 4: Les aveux de la chair, was published by Gallimard in 2018. Confessions of the Flesh (2022), the book Foucault was working on while in hospital in his final days, was published despite Foucault’s wish for no posthumous publications, focusing on ‘The formation of a new experience,’ ‘Being a virgin’ and ‘Being married’ and later based on the Church Fathers’ sections that dealt with the monk and the married man. As he argues: ‘The “flesh” is to be understood as a mode of experience, that is, as a mode of knowledge [connaissance] and transformation of the self to the self, as a function of a certain relation between the cancellation of evil [mal] and manifestation of the truth’ (pp. 50–51). In this text, Foucault investigates the first few centuries of the Western Church, returning again and again ‘to the relation between wrong-doing and truth-telling, and the importance of telling the truth about oneself’ (Eldon, 2018).

The culture of the self

The Course Context elaborated by Frederic Gros (1982, pp. 507–550) is essential reading to understand Foucault’s course and the Hellenistic and early Christian obligation to tell the truth expressed as care for the self and understood as practices of truth-telling, confession and self-examination in various schools of philosophy and in the early Christian monasteries framed by rules and practices in a relationship of obedience to a spiritual master or director. In the preparation of the course for publication, Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner, a sociologist and heir to Foucault’s estate, made available to Frederic Gros five bound dossiers entitled ‘Alcibiades, Epictetus,’ ‘Government of the self and others,’ ‘Writing the self,’ ‘Culture of the self – Rough Draft’ and ‘The Others.’ On a careful reading of the Dossiers, Fredric Gros (1982) argues:

The Hellenistic and Roman care of the self is not an exercise of solitude. Foucault thinks of it as an inherently social practice, taking place within more or less tightly organised institutional frameworks (the school of Epictetus or the Epicurean groups described by Philodemus), constructed on the basis of clan or family (Seneca’s relationships with Serenus and Lucilius), woven into preexisting social relations (Plutarch’s interlocutors), developing on a political basis, at the emperor’s court, etcetera. The care of the self goes as far as to entail the Other in principle since one can only be led to oneself by unlearning what has been inculcated by a misleading education. ‘Rescue, even from one’s own infancy, is a task of the practice of the self’ Foucault writes (dossier ‘Government of the self and others’). Here the folders’ ‘age, pedagogy, medicine’ of the ‘Government of the self and others’ dossier, and ‘critique’ of the ‘Alcibiades, Epictetus’ dossier, are explicit: Taking care of the self does not presuppose the return to a lost origin, but the emergence of a distinct ‘nature,’ though one that is not originally given to us. (p. 536)

Quoting from the Dossiers (‘The Others’), Gros makes it clear that Foucault conceives of the culture of the self as less of a choice than a form of life structured through life practices where the relationship to the self predominates over any other relationship: ‘In laying down the principle of conversion to oneself, the culture of the self fashions an ethic that is and always remains an ethic of domination, of the mastery and superiority of the self over the self’ (p. 540). In this exposition, Gros then reveals the political stakes of the course where he introduces the concept of ‘the governmentality of ethical distance’ isolating the power relations in a relationship to the self, which is, at the same time, a relationship to sovereignty, a fact that defines one’s participation in political and public life.

An ethics of the care of self as a practice of freedom

In his 1984 interview, Foucault, in the year of his death, examines an ethics of the care of self as a practice of freedom:

The concern with freedom was an essential and permanent problem for eight full centuries of ancient culture. What we have here is an entire ethics revolving around the care of the self; this is what gives ancient ethics its particular form. I am not saying that ethics is synonymous with the care of the self, but that, in antiquity, ethics as the conscious practice of freedom has revolved around this fundamental imperative: ‘Take care of yourself’ [soucie-toi de toi-meme].

In the late 1970s, Foucault turned away from political analyses of how subjects are produced through disciplinary and complex institutional practices to how individuals produced themselves as moral subjects – as individuals who subject themselves to moral codes and various spiritual techniques that were designed to construct the self as an autonomous agent. Some scholars describe this as a shift from politics to ethics. ‘The Subject and Truth’ was Foucault’s major theme in his last years, using the titles Truth and Subjectivity, Hermeneutics of the Self, The Government of Self and The Government of Self and Others in his last courses, posing the question: How does the individual become ethically self-constituting subjects? As he says in Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, six lectures were given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct.–Nov. 1983, where he begins to investigate the meaning of the word ‘parrhesia.’ The word appears for the first time in Greek literature in Euripides (c. 484–407 BCE) and occurs throughout the ancient Greek world of letters from the end of the Fifth Century BC. But it can also still be found in the patristic texts written at the end of the Fourth and during the Fifth Century AD, dozens of times, for instance, in John Chrysostome (AD 345–407). ‘Parrhesia’ is ordinarily translated into English by ‘free speech’ (in French by ‘franc-parler,’ and in German by ‘Freimüthigkeit’). ‘Parrhesiazomai’ is to use parrhesia, and the parrhesiastes is the one who uses parrhesia, i.e., is the one who speaks the truth. As Foucault explains:

My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth but with the problem of truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity. By this, I mean that, for me, it was not a question of analysing the internal or external criteria that would enable the Greeks and Romans, or anyone else, to recognise whether a statement or proposition is true or not. At issue, for me, was rather the attempt to consider truth-telling as a specific activity, or as a role.

In asking the question concerning the history of the relations between the ‘subject’ and ‘truth’ Foucault responds, as we have seen, by observing a distinction between an analytics of truth in general, on the one hand, that is, a formal ontology of truth, that examines the conditions under which true knowledge is possible, and the historical ontology of ourselves, on the other, that addresses the questions of how we have constituted ourselves as subjects of knowledge and truth. Foucault is at pains to point out that an act of knowledge could not give access to the truth unless it involved a transformation of the subject. And he surmises, ‘I think the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth’ (p. 17). Here, Foucault makes reference to truth and knowledge as an outcome of the birth and method of the empirical sciences based on observation and experiment.

He demonstrates that, in ancient philosophy, there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject: the subject can and must transform himself in order to have access to the truth is a kind of work, and the truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. Western thought and philosophy neglected the notion of epimeleia heautou (care of the self) in its reconstruction of its own history and obviated and obscured spirituality as the practice and the search through which the subject transformed him- or herself in order to gain access to the truth.

Rehabilitating the pedagogical model: Bioethics, biopower, biopolitics

The hermeneutics of the subject demonstrates the fundamental role that pedagogy and the pedagogical model played in establishing the culture of the self, its institutional arrangements, its relationships, and its ascetic practices, employing various metaphors of athletics and war, initiating the exercises of a training regime sometimes overlapping with the medical model but always directed at care for the self and the development and purification of the soul as an ongoing life project. This was essentially the juridico-political model that centrally involved being sovereign over oneself, and, while care of the other was always part of the culture of self, self-sovereignty involved self-transformation, an inner-directed set of activities designed to achieve transformation and purification of the self. It was not primarily a model that was directed toward the transformation of the community and nor did it entertain models that accentuated the larger ecology of the self or what I would like to call ‘the ecological model of subjectivity’ that depends upon a biological conception of the self and subject that admits an environmental dimension of the subject not only in terms of social and physical development but also in terms of human flourishing within a sustainable political community.

Since Foucault gave this course of lectures, the literature has grown and expanded both in relation to historical and textual studies on original sources and also, in terms of philosophy, building on Foucault’s work in education and across the humanities and social sciences. There are interesting historical questions in relation to the differences in pedagogy in Hellenistic and in the first schools of early Christian culture. There are also more reflective accounts that attempt to use Foucault’s corpus to provide a framework for analysing both education and pedagogy today, where the ‘spiritual’ transformation of the self no longer holds sway but rather a crude ‘competitive individualism’ of neoliberalism constructs the individual as homo economicus, where truth has given way to forms of ‘post-truth’ in the governmentality of the subject.

For all the emphasis on changing historical forms and differences in Western conceptions of the self, Foucault also revealsthe remarkable durability of certain Greek ascetic practices and the extent to which they underwrote early Christian practices than previously thought. The focus on the relationship with a master or spiritual director that became one of the founding practices of the architecture of the early Western Church instrumentally brought together confession of sins, individual salvation, and reconciliation with the Church as a necessary act to obtain divine forgiveness. Confession and the ability to grant absolution, originating in the early monasteries, gave great power to priests and other spiritual guides, and, while the practice changed over time, as did the system of penance, it proved to be an enduring feature of the Church surviving into the modern era.

The relationship at the heart of confession has survived intact, although it has taken different forms in the modern world, even though the sacrament is often offered only by appointment. Even as a more formalised practice within the Church, confession has also proved to be a network of unequal power relations applied in ways that have corrupted the subject and have compromised the relationship between the priest and members of his flock, which has been especially problematic for young boys and girls. The corruption of the pastoral relationship of care within modern Christianity is not confined to confession but overlaps with education where the priest is also teacher and where teachers are unchecked. Forms of sexual abuse in the 20th and 21st centuries have come to light in many cases involving widespread allegations, investigations and trials with institutional cover-ups by Church administrations. These cases have revealed the extent to which the pastoral relationship, constructed in a network of power relations, has been subject to systematic abuse. The hermeneutics of the subject, therefore, also needs a genealogy of the dark secrets of abuse that has accompanied the pastoral relationship in organised religion, in education and schools, in hospitals and medicine and in many institutions that exist in the modern world. It is substantially still the unwritten hermeneutics of the subject.

As Foucault demonstrated, sex became the privileged focus of confession that was historically connected with the obligation to tell the truth about oneself. Through the confession of inner secrets, truth becomes the means by which the subject seeks to improve herself. Foucault’s investigations adopted a more general form of argument that ‘Western man [sic] has become a confessing animal.’ Foucault shows us that confession has become one of the most valuable techniques for producing truth in society, and, in moving from religious to secular forms, has become the basis for Foucault’s disassembling of the ‘philosophy of self.’ Confession as an uncovering of the truth of the self together with the notion of ‘aesthetics of existence’ needs to be supplemented by the hidden history of abuse that corrupted the pastoral relationship. It has led to the traumatised subject as part of the culture of the self, a historical condition of sexual violence that now has become the basis for a third-wave feminist movement currently sweeping the Western world where sexual violation demands a recognition of a critical politics of truth (Chiacchieri, 2019). The form of a ‘pedagogy’ that relied on a relationship with a teacher as master and spiritual guide during the first and second centuries gave way to ‘adult’ models where access to truth was still a condition of the ‘inner’ transformation of the subject, but, increasingly, pedagogy was directed at the world and at forms of empirical knowledge that required no inner transformation or, indeed, spiritual change. Yet it could be argued that today, in an age of information and media saturation, pedagogy freed from its tutelary relations of powers desperately requires the discussion of philosophical truths that might furnish the necessary human values to guide humanity. This might be conceived as a modern hermeneutics of the subject based on care for the self and others that focuses more on an ecological model of the subject relocating the self as a conscious agent of the human community and networked environment – a collective ‘ecology of mind’ (Bateson, 1972) that decentres the self and enables a better understanding of the twin forces of information and biology creating ‘biodigitalism’ as a pathway of human evolution (Peters, Jandric & Hayes, 2022).

In the twenty-first century, there have been two driving developments that have become urgent and more pronounced since Foucault’s death in 1984, described in terms of the concept of interconnectivity understood in terms of ecology and information, below knowledge at the level of data. Planetary interconnectivity and interdependence signalled by the word ‘ecology’ now speak to new synthetic biology, on the one hand, and information, on the other. Immediately these twin evolutionary developments radically call into question the western emphasis on the sovereign self (the lonely cogito of western epistemology) both at the cellular and social level. Now it would seem that this new era and epistemological break requires a greater understanding of ‘care’ (Sorge) in relational terms, ethically and epistemologically: care of self + care of others + care of environment, a construction that recognises an ethics of ecological interdependence and complexity. Foucault’s work encourages a more critical account of ecology and the ecological self, especially of environmentalism, liberalism and its ideological discourses of ‘the natural’ that may ‘perpetuate problematic power dynamics, such as (hetero)sexism, racism and speciesism, integral to established environmental/ecological theory and practice’ (Foster, 2018).

In this new context, power, truth and ‘environment’ can critically examine the ecological self – eco-self, genomic/biological self and viral self – in terms of biopower and biopolitics with attention to complex systems, interconnectivity and the metaphysics of the environment together with a new emphasis on bioepistemology, biodigitalism (being digital/digital being), new synthetic biology, and biodigital convergence (Peters & Besley, 2020). One of the messages is surely that the western sovereign individual self, logically prior to society and standing separate from the environment, has been a source of the problem of a mindset that has been very damaging to the planet and destructive to indigenous communities. In Foucault, there are resources for a reconstruction of an environmental and transhuman philosophy that realises the ecological model of subjectivity that emphasises social and pedagogical systems based on relational ontologies and epistemologies. An ecological model of subjectivity provides a conceptual link with current biopolitical subjectivity where the contemporary subject is located between neoliberalism and the commons, between a neoliberal homo economicus based on first principles of (i) individualism, (ii) rationality and (iii) self-interest, and an environmental commons that characterised humanity in most indigenous communities well before the industrial revolution. An ecological model of subjectivity also helps us to reconceptualised the manner in which we should think about the subject of politics, no longer simply as the one who is governed, but as a collective subject as the body politic in conjunction with ‘sustainability’ and the ways in which ecogovernmentalities construct the ‘environment,’ ‘nature,’ ‘resource management’ and ‘environmental education.’ Foucault remarks, ‘There is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself” (p. 252), and yet, today, there is a global emergency of climate change, species extinction, and environmental degradation that signals a global model of subjectivity that relates to environmental disruption, catastrophes, scarcity and post-apocalyptic survival.

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Full Citation Information:
Peters, M. A. (2022). The Hermeneutics of the (Bio)Subject: Truth and Pedagogy and an Ecological Model of Subjectivity. PESA Agora.

Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He was awarded a Personal Chair at the University of Auckland in 2000 and became a Research Professor at the University of Glasgow (2000-2006) before being appointed Excellence Hire Professor at Illinois and Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. He has Honorary Doctorates from Aalborg University, Denmark and SUNY, New York.

Michael was Editor-in-Chief of Educational Philosophy and Theory for 25 years and is currently Editor of Beijing International Review of Education (Brill). He is the founding editor of Policy Futures in Education (Sage); E-Learning & Digital Media (Sage); Knowledge Cultures (Addleton); Open Review of Educational Research (Taylor & Francis); Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Brill) and on the board of many other journals and book series.

Michael has written over 120 books and many journal articles on a wide range of topics and has worked with and mentored many younger scholars. He was given the Social Science and Humanities Leader in China Award in both 2022 and 2023 ( and is ranked 1st in China and 5th in Asia for Education and Educational Philosophy and Theory (AD Scientific Index, 2023). He is also ranked in the World’s Top 2% of Scientists by Stanford University. His recent works includes two books on the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic philosophy to be published in 2024.