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A Review: Michel Foucault’s “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self”

In the fall of 1980, Michel Foucault, arguably one of the most influential philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century, came to Dartmouth College to deliver two lectures about the hermeneutics of the self: “Subjectivity and Truth” and “Christianity and Confession.” The lectures trace the genealogy of the hermeneutics of the self from Greek technologies to the development of self-examination in early Christianity, answering the question: how were hermeneutics of the self formed in Greek and early Christian societies? (210-11). Foucault’s motivation for investigating the technologies of the self during the first few centuries stems from the changes he had observed in Western philosophy during the second half of the twentieth century. After World War II, Western philosophy grew obsessed with the principle that all signification and knowledge stems from the meaningful subject: it is a requirement of the individual to give meaning to her existential choices (202). He argues that “techniques inherited from the Christian confession allow for the self to be created and subjected within relations of power that constitute modern social institutions” (199); in which case, the intention behind his historical analyses is to shed light on modern practices of self-understanding and examination.

To understand subjectivity, Foucault outlines three major types of techniques in human societies: 1.) techniques of production that determine “the conduct of individuals,” 2.) techniques of signification that impose “certain wills on them,” and 3.) techniques of domination that submit “them to certain ends or objectives” (203). However, Foucault clarifies that it is not just techniques of the society that control the subject, but rather, power is a combination of these techniques and technologies of the self that “permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on.” (203)

However, both the techniques of human societies and the technologies of the self have evolved over time, and the point of Foucault’s lectures is to understand how these modern interpretations of subjectivity vary or compare to Classical and early Christian understandings of the self.

In “Subjectivity and Truth,” Foucault focuses on Pagan philosophies, such as Stoicism and Greek philosophy, to investigate the technologies of the self. As Foucault describes, the goal of Greek philosophy was “to give the individual the quality which would permit him to live differently, better, more happily, than other people” (205). Self-examination, discourse, and truth played an important role in the process of transformation of the self. Confession was also a component, but it was not necessary for the student to confess everything about himself to his master. In Stoicism, the practitioner does not recall faults and mistakes in order to punish himself, but rather, to remember the rules from which he has strayed so that he can reactivate “fundamental philosophical principles” and readjust their application to himself (207). Rather than discovering the truth within the self, Pagan philosophies argued that “the self has . . . to be constituted through the force of truth” (210).

In the second lecture, “Christianity and Confession,” Foucault argues that there are sharp discrepancies between self-examination and confession in relation to Latin and Greek cultures, and that “the modern hermeneutics of the self is rooted much more in those Christian techniques than in the Classical ones” (211). Part of the reason for this is the role of confession as it exists in Christianity compared to the Pagan philosophies. Christianity is considered a confessional religion, meaning that, on one hand, practitioners are bound to the obligation of truth, which manifests as scripture, dogma, or “the obligation to accept the decisions of certain authorities in matters of truth” (211), but on the other hand, the light of faith cannot be explored unless the practitioner has purified his soul, which requires him to pursue knowledge of the self through confessional acts.

Sacrament of penance[1] is normally what someone imagines when they think about confession, but in the first few centuries, this was not yet a practice in Christianity. Instead, manifesting the truth about oneself was found either in penitential rites[2] or monastic life. Penance was considered to be a status that required the penitent to follow specific rules, like exomologesis, in order to be reintegrated into the community. Exomologesis is a process of self-revelation that unfolds as the penitent experiences reconciliation with her sin (213) through public displays of anguish, shame, humiliation, and suffering. For example, the penitent who “seduces” a married man will mortify her breasts and display them publicly in order to contemplate her sin. In short, it is an obligation to “show oneself” (214). However, exomologesis did not require penitents to verbally confess their sins; only to symbolically express them through physical acts of discomfort. It was a way for the sinner “to express his will to get free from this world, to get rid of his own body, to destroy his own flesh, and get access to a new spiritual life” (215).

Exomologesis was framed as a breaking away from the self in the pursuit of faith, even if the renunciation of one’s self meant physical death. In such an example, the dead person would be considered a martyr: “. . . self-revelation in exomologesis is, at the same time, self-destruction” (215).

In contrast to exomologesis, there also existed monastic institutions, which served as another form of confession. Monastic institutions were similar to the Pagan philosophies because the life of a monk was thought of as a way to pursue a higher philosophical and spiritual life, but unlike Stoicism, practitioners of the monastic order were required to “keep the spirit of obedience as a permanent sacrifice of his own will” (216).  Additionally, a monk was expected to continuously “turn his thoughts to that single point which is God, and his obligation is also to make sure that his heart, his soul, and the eye of his soul is pure enough to see God and receive light from him” (216). Self-examination in monasticism is concerned much more with thoughts than with actions, and the examination of his thoughts addresses the subtle shifts in his consciousness: “the imperceptible movements of the thoughts, the permanent mobility of soul” (217).

While examining his thoughts, the monk is not concerned with his relationship to materialism, like whether a thought is right or wrong, but rather, he is concerned with the subtleties of materialism as it manifests within him. In monasticism, “the problem is not to know if there is a conformity between the idea and the order of external things; it is a question of examining the thought in itself” (218). The monks need to decipher their thoughts as “subjective data which have to be interpreted, which have to be scrutinized, in their roots and in their origins” (211); however this creates a relationship between good and bad, creating duality. How does one know which self to trust?

If the monk is the person who filters through his thoughts, discerning the “pure” thoughts from the “evil” thoughts, but he is also the one who manifests his thoughts, then he faces a challenging subjective experience: “how is it possible to perform this necessary hermeneutics of our own thoughts?” The answer, according to early Christianity, was to tell one’s thoughts to a master or spiritual leader. The seniority of the spiritual leader “permits him to distinguish between truth and illusion in the soul of the person he directs” (219) for two main reasons: 1.) the spiritual leader is trained as an objective observer who evaluates the subjective experience of the monk, and 2.) the act of verbalization itself is a tool that filters the thoughts. If a practitioner has a difficult time sharing his thoughts, then “that is proof that those thoughts are not [as] good as they may appear” (220). For this reason, it is important for the practitioner to confess his thoughts often and continuously, going “as deep as possible in the depth of the thoughts” (220). Similarly to exomologesis, verbalization is a self-sacrifice, a way to renounce oneself, and this processed was called exagoreusis. Similarly to exomologesis, the belief was that “you will become the subject of the manifestation of truth when and only when you disappear or you destroy yourself as a real body or as a real existence” (221).

Foucault argues that early Christianity developed more complicated technologies of the self than the Greek system, and ultimately, the Christian forms “became victorious after centuries and centuries, and it is nowadays dominating” (222); however, there is a discrepancy between the way in which hermeneutics of the self were imagined during the first few centuries and how they are imagined today. During early Christianity, hermeneutics of the self implied a sacrifice of the self, but modern Western culture, on the contrary, has developed systems—like the judicial, medical, and psychiatric systems—that “constitute the ground of the subjectivity as the root of a positive self” (222). Using confessional and disciplinary techniques reminiscent of early Christianity, the emergence, rather than the destruction, of the self has become paramount.

[1] The practice of private confessions of sins to a priest. [Google]

[2] The Penitential Act is a form of general confession of sinfulness that normally takes place at the beginning of the celebration of Mass in the Roman Rite. [Wikipedia]

Works Cited:

Michel, Foucault. “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth.” Political Theory, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 198-227.

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