Technologies of the Self – Michel Foucault (1988)

Technologies of the Self – Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self.pdf

Section I


  • Studying rules duties and prohibitions of sexuality
  • Sexual interdictions require truth telling about ones self
  • Objections:
    • Sin and confession is not just related to sexuality – but sexuality is most important
    • Sexuality is complex – hidings, decipherings, secrecy, modesty
  • Mortification of the flesh
  • Max Weber: “What is the ascetic price of reason?”
  • Foucault: “How have certain kinds of interdiction required certain kinds of knowledge about oneself?”
  • So Foucault’s question is not about what we repress, but what epistemic leaps we must make about ourselves in order to renounce or assert anything?
  • “The hermeneutics of technologies of the self in pagan and early Christian practice” are difficult…
    • as Christianity is interested in history of belief, not practice
    • hermeneutics of practice were not organised as textual hermeneutics were
    • hermeneutics of the self are inside culture, so hard to study/isolate/separate

Context of Study

  • How do humans develop knowledge about themselves?
  • Four types of overlapping technology – each with a matrix of practical reason (as contrasted with theoretical reason)
    • Technologies of Production – manipulation of things (SCIENCE)
    • Technologies of Sign Systems – use of signs, meanings, symbols (LINGUISTICS)
    • Technologies of Power – conduct of individuals, domination (POLITICS)
    • Technologies of the Self – transformative operations on bodies, souls, thoughts, ways of being, in the pursuit of happiness, purity, wisdom, etc. (PSYCHOLOGY)
  • Interaction of these technologies, e.g.: Marx’s Capital – where techniques of production requires modification of individual conduct
  • Governmentality: describes the contract between the technologies of domination of others and those of the self (e.g.: ‘madness’ studied in terms of the management that these rhetorics allow of people inside and outside asylums)

The Development of Technologies of the Self

  • Hermeneutics of the self in Greco-Roman and Christianity
  • epimelesthai sautou
    • to take care of yourself
    • the concern with self
    • to be concerned, to take care of yourself
  • Philosophic traditions have lost the ‘take care of thyself’ and only concentrate on ‘know thyself’ – Greeks and Romans were a maxim
  • The Greco-Romans thought that you had to deal with yourself before you could know yourself (consult the oracle, etc.). Examples
    • Socrates (c. 469 BC – 399 BC): an invitation to occupy yourself with yourself, occupy yourself with the city (polis)
    • Plato (424 BC – 347 BC): “wisdom, truth and the perfection of the soul”
    • Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395):  taking care of oneself as taking care of the soul, renouncing the heart and body – the “drachma within” – Christian asceticism:  “know thyself”
    • Epicurus:  Letter to Menoeceus – knowing yourself as a task to be carried through life, towards salvation
    • Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD):  Therapeutae a philosopher-people, Jewish sect, concern for oneself


  • “Know yourself” vs. “Take care of yourself”
  • Why has the former overtaken the later? 
    • Christianity: care of ourselves is immoral – selfish, escapism.  Self-renunciation and knowledge of self are paradoxically/simultaneously linked to salvation
    • Philosophy: From Descartes to Husserl, knowledge of the self (subject) takes importance as the first step of epistemology
  • Inversion has taken place – that in antiquity you had to take care of yourself before you could know yourself, whereas now we think we need to know ourselves before we can take care of ourselves

Section II

Plato’s Alcibiades I

  • Considered arch (principle, the span which supports the load) by neoplatonists of 400 and 500 AD.
  • Taking care of oneself is its first principle:
    • How is the question introduced? 
      • dialect between politics and erotics – transitioning to care of the self in order to enter into the both politics and love
      • Socrates makes a pact with Alcibiades – to submit to him in a spiritual way
      • Taking care of oneself: The intersection of political ambition and philosophical love
    • Why should Alcibiades be concerned with himself?
      • epimelesthai sautou – an active political and erotic state – tending, prendre soins
      • the concern for the self is directed towards a defective pedagogy (not knowing what the Spartan and Persian princes know)
    • What is the self?
      • What is the self of which one has to take care
        • Auto – the same – identity
        • What is the plateau on which I shall find my identity?
        • Your soul is the principle activity of caring for the self
        • How must we take care of the soul?
      • What does that care consist in?
        • The soul cannot be known unless we look at the divine – as it is a self-similar entity
        • Political and behavioural action comes out of this contemplation of the soul / divine element
        • Being occupied with oneself and political activites are linked
  • The early text sets out eternal problems:
    • 1st – relationships between ‘one’ and political activity
    • 2nd – oneself and pedagogy (the duty of the young man, or the duty of a whole life)
    • 3rd – concern for oneself and the knowledge of oneself
    • 4th – care of the self and philosophical love
  • “This theme of taking care of oneself was not abstract advice but a widespread activity, a network of obligations and services to the soul.” – MF
  • Oral cultures – rhetoric of the self
  • Written culture – writing of the self (e.g.: Augustine’s Confessions)
  • The writing of a (blog like!) letter from Marcus Aurelius’s of 144-45 A.D. to Fronto (bathing, eating, etc. – taking care of one’s self)

Section III


  • first, the relation between care for oneself and care for the political life
  • second, the relation between taking care of the self and defective education
  • third, the relation between taking care of oneself and knowing oneself

Listening as a method of self-care:

  • On the Contemplative Life, Philo of Alexandria describes banquets of silence

For Plato – looking and listening to the self for the truth within.  The disappearance of the dialectical structure – when listening to others and listening to the self are juxtaposed.

For Seneca – through De Ira (On anger) – A study on the consequences and the control of anger.  “For Seneca it isn’t a question of discovering truth in the subject but of remembering truth, recovering a truth which has been forgotten.”  This is an administrative care of the self.

Section IV

Stoic techniques of the self:

  • Letters to friends and disclosure of self (external, outward)
  • Examination of self and conscience (internal)
  • There is also “askesis,” a disclosure of the secret:
    • Logoi is where the truth lies for the stoics – memorisation, conduct
    • subjectivisation of truth is the aim
    • we assimilate truth, we do not master it
    • “It is a set of practices by which one can acquire, assimilate, and transform truth into a permanent principle of action”
    • Exercises through medete (meditiation on problems that may arise so you are prepared, ready) and gymnasia (physical exercise to prepare you for battle, etc.)
  • medete
    • premeditatio mallorum – an imaginary experience – akin to Murphy’s law or a risk assessment!   The Worst That Can Happen
  • gymnasia
    • presenting yourself with a real experience – a practical challenge (e.g.: sexual abstinence, temptation)

Section V

Techniques of the self in early Christianity
  • Illumination as the disclosure of the self
  • exomologesis – recognition of fact – public recognition of faith
    • Penitance was at first a status – not an act or a ritual
    • to make visible humility and exhibit modesty – a public, dramatic early penitance
    • rub out sin and restore purity – show sinner as he is – revealing while rubbing out
    • how did early Christians explain this paradox to themselves: 
      • medical: show one’s wounds in order to be cured
      • trinbunal: judgement – confession of faults
      • death: martyrdom, preference for death over abandonment of faith – refusal of the self – a break with one’s past identity, a new self.  revelation = destruction

Section VI

  • Later – 4th C – exagoreeusis – betrayal in the Greek, but confession in Christian literature
  • A transfer of Stoic technologies of the self to Christian spiritual techniques
  • Monastic traditions – all devoted to the master.
  • John Cassian (ca. 360-435): “Everything the monk does without permission of his master constitutes a theft”
  • Differentiate here between the Stoic rules and mastery of truth, and the constant attention to thought of the monk:
  • Cassian mill analogy: “Thoughts are like grains, and consciousness is the mill store. It is our role as the miller to sort out amongst the grains those which are bad and those which can be admitted to the mill store to give the good flour and good bread of our salvation.”
  • Cassian’s military analogy: “We must act like officers who divide soldiers into two files, the good and the bad.”
  • Cassian’s  money changer analogy: “Conscience is the money changer of the self. It must examine coins, their effigy, their metal, where they came from”
  • It is this the purpose of the ‘director’ or the ‘master’ – i.e.: we cannot be the money changer of our own thoughts, as these thoughts originate with us.  So we must permanent verbalize everything we think and tell the master about it – the verbalisation is confession

“In conclusion, in the Christianity of the first centuries, there are two main forms of disclosing self, of showing the truth about oneself. The first is exomologesis, or a dramatic expression of the situation of the penitent as sinner which makes manifest his status as sinner. The second is what was called in the spiritual literature exagoresis. This is an analytical and continual verbalization of thoughts carried on in the relation of complete obedience to someone else. This relation is modelled on the renunciation of one’s own will and of one’s own self.”

“This theme of self-renunciation is very important. Throughout Christianity there is a correlation between disclosure of the self, dramatic or verbalized, and the renunciation of self. My hypothesis from looking at these two techniques is that it’s the second one, verbalization, which becomes more important. From the eighteenth century to the present, the techniques of verbalization have been reinserted in a different context by the so called human sciences in order to use them without renunciation of the self but to constitute, positively, a new self. To use these techniques without renouncing oneself constitutes a decisive break.”

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