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Foucault’s Askesis

An Introduction to the Philosophical Life

McGushin, Edward F.

Publication Year: 2007

In his renowned courses at the Collège de France from 1982 to 1984, Michel Foucault devoted his lectures to meticulous readings and interpretations of the works of Plato, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, among others. In this his aim was not, Edward F. McGushin contends, to develop a new knowledge of the history of philosophy; rather, it was to let himself be transformed by the very activity of thinking. Thus, this work shows us Foucault in the last phase of his life in the act of becoming a philosopher. Here we see how his encounter with ancient philosophy allowed him to experience the practice of philosophy as, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a way of becoming who one is: the work of self formation that the Greeks called askésis.

Published by: Northwestern University Press

Title Page

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pp. ix-x

This book would not have been possible without the support of the Philosophy Department and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston College. Many thanks to Richard Cobb-Stevens of the Philosophy Department, Ourida Mostefai of the Romance Language Department at Boston College, and Laurence Frabalot of the École Normale Superieure...

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pp. xi-xxx

The title of this book is a tangle of references. First, it alludes to a line from Foucault's preface to the book Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Gauttari. Foucault wrote: "Paying a modest tribute to Saint Francis de Sales, one might say that Anti-Oedipus is an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life."1 An Introduction to the Philosophical Life is, then, a slight modification...

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Part 1. Philosophy as Care of the Self

In the following chapters I will take a close look at Foucault's interpretation of Socrates, Plato, and the tradition of philosophical practice they inaugurated. This interpretation is articulated in a number of different ways, across several different projects by Foucault. In the final two volumes of The History of Sexuality (1984), Foucault reads Socrates...

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1. Truth as a Problem

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pp. 5-42

Tradition assures us that in the West it was the Greeks who first made truth into a problem. Foucault's interpretation of philosophy in ancient Greece—as well as in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds—shows that the problematization of truth resulted in making a problem of the being who speaks the truth. Before turning to Foucault's treatment...

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2. The Socratic Moment

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pp. 43-96

So far we have seen how Foucault articulates the problematization of political life and political discourse in fifth-century Athens. The struggle for power in the assembly, because of the basic modes of self-perception that prevailed there, brought about the effacement of effective political subjectivity as expressed in free and frank discourse...

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3. The Poetics of the Subject

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pp. 97-147

In the previous chapters I have attempted to explicate and develop Foucault's interpretation of Socrates and Plato. In this chapter I want to turn to his 1982 Collège course, The Hermeneutics of the Subject. In this course, Foucault excavates what he calls a "veritable golden age of care of the self" in Greece and Rome during the first two centuries...

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4. The Cynic and the True Life

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pp. 148-172

In the preceding chapter we saw various forms of philosophical activity and philosophical life that created a space alongside the general political and social practices of life in the Hellenistic-Roman world. Philosophy as an activity inhabited a part of the day, determined certain relationships, and introduced various practices into the everyday...

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Part 2. Care of the Self and Parrhēsia in the Age of Reason

In part 1 we followed Foucault's genealogy of philosophical parrhēsia and care of the self in the ancient world. In part 2, I want to show how this genealogy transforms our understanding of Foucault's earlier work on relations of power and knowledge. The isolation of the historical problematization of parrhēsia allows us to rethink the meaning...

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5. Foucault's Cartesian Meditations

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pp. 175-194

Foucault's encounter with the thought of Descartes spans the length of his intellectual career, from his first major work, History of Madness, to his last lecture courses on "care of the self." The dialogue Foucault maintains with Descartes is perhaps easy to overlook because there are only two published works in which Foucault provides an extended...

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6. The Prince and the Pastor: Figures of Power, Care, and Parrhēsia

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pp. 195-221

It is clear that for both the early and the late Foucault, Descartes's Meditations are at least in part a spiritual practice, a form of askēsis. This links them to an ancient tradition, but they are at the same time a break with this tradition. Now we must examine the problematization that led Descartes to break with this tradition. In order to do this...

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7. Rage for Order: The Advent of Biopower

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pp. 222-241

In this chapter I want to focus on the formation of a new system of actuality. In order to grasp the historical intelligibility of Descartes's project, we must see it not just in terms of its resistance to the Renaissance and pastoral dispositif of power, knowledge, and subjectivity. We must also set it in the context of the organization of the classical dispositif. This...

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8. Toward a Critique of the Present

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pp. 242-281

With the appearance of the disciplines and biopolitics we have, in a sense, come full circle. In Athens in the fifth century B.C., self-neglect lay at the foundation of political domination. Socrates and Plato initiated a resistance against this domination (rhetorical flattery) by inventing a philosophical art of the self. This philosophical art...

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Conclusion: A New Poetics of Philosophy

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pp. 282-288

In the preceding chapters, I have assembled a few fragments from what one might call Foucault's unwritten genealogy of philosophy. The thread holding these fragments together is the problematization of parrhēsia and care of the self. This genealogy shows that our present philosophical situation begins to take shape at the moment when the ancient...


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pp. 289-290


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pp. 291-332


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pp. 333-339


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pp. 341-347

About the Author

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pp. 349

E-ISBN-13: 9780810161559
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810122826

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1