Ethics After the Genealogy of the Subject

Dissertation, Villanova University (2014)
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Abstract

This work examines Michel Foucault’s critique of the present, through his analysis of our hidden but still active historical legacies. His works from the Eighties are the beginning of what he called a “genealogy of the desiring subject,” in which he shows that practices such as confession—in its juridical, psychological, and religious forms—have largely dictated how we think about our ethical selves. This constrains our notions of ethics to legalistic forbidden/required dichotomies, and requires that we engage in a hermeneutics of the self which consistently fails to discover its imagined authentic self, or to find the happiness and freedom promised by contemporary ethics. In order to think the modern self in different terms, Foucault’s later works analyzed Classical and Hellenistic ethical sources, emphasizing their distance from today. He hoped doing so would allow us to rethink our current assumptions about ethical matters, the truth of oneself, and the relation to others. While Foucault’s genealogical descriptions critically diagnosed contemporary ills such as these, he did not prescribe a cure, preferring to let his readers experiment with new practices of their own design. This work attempts such an experiment, supplying concrete solutions to our ethical ills, in order to help us improve, as well as understand, our ethical selves. To that end, this work demonstrates that a form of subjectivity based on Benedict Spinoza’s ethical and political works avoids the pitfalls of modern ethics as diagnosed by Foucault. Additionally, the practices of the self found in Spinoza can be used to directly counter and displace each central element of “desiring subjectivity,” and thus supplies the kind of effective positive move which should follow after genealogical critique.

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Christopher Davidson
Ball State University

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