Foucault Among the Humanists

Paras_cover Corey McCall in Other Voices:

Readers of Foucault’s texts have long been perplexed by the apparent shift his writings underwent in the late 1970s. Following the appearance of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (Le volunté de savoir, translated as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) in 1976, Foucault’s investigations inexplicably change focus: from an investigation of the prison and the mechanisms of power that produce the modern individual in Discipline and Punish, the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality focus on practices of the self in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, at the time of his death, Foucault was at work on a fourth volume examining the practices of the self in the Christian era.1 How does one account for the fact that the thinker who had written in 1966 that the one could “certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand and at the edge of the sea” was suddenly writing about the various practices of the self prevalent in the ancient world, practices that were meant to ensure individual freedom and autonomy?2 This, after all, was the thinker that had famously feuded with Jean-Paul Sartre and labeled him an outmoded thinker of systems, better suited for the nineteenth century than the twentieth, who was now writing about themes seemingly much more at home in Existentialist writings than his own anti-humanist ones.

Eric Paras’ book represents the latest attempt to come to terms with this perplexity. What sets Paras’ work apart from previous attempts is the archival work that he marshals in support of his bold claim. Paras has done extensive research in the Foucault Archives, and he uses this research to claim that Foucault basically renounces his former, anti-humanist self in order to begin a project that resonates with certain core humanist values such as freedom and universal human rights. Foucault’s work after 1976 until his premature death in 1984 represents not an attempt to reassess his former positions and provide them with more depth, as some have argued.3 Instead, Foucault’s later writings enact a radical break from the doctrines he previously held. According to Paras, Foucault sought a position “beyond power and knowledge” and found it by delving into various ancient practices of self-cultivation. I am sympathetic to the more moderate claim that Foucault’s later writings represent an attempt to make good on the genealogical claims of his earlier texts and thus are continuous with his previous work rather than an outright renunciation. In the review that follows, I will attempt to outline this case as an alternative to Paras’ more radical claim. Despite the fact that I take issue with the author’s central thesis in the review that follows, Paras’ book stands as a worthy attempt to make sense of Foucault’s sometimes maddening intellectual odyssey.