Philosophical Practice as Self-modification: An Essay on Michel Foucault’s Critical Engagement with Philosophy

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

    50 Downloads (Pure)


    This essay argues that what makes Michel Foucault’s oeuvre not only stand apart but also cohere is an assiduous philosophical practice taking the form of an ongoing yet concrete self-modification in the medium of thought. Part I gives an account of three essential aspects of Foucault’s conception of philosophical activity. Beginning with his famous characterization of philosophy in terms of ascēsis, it moves on to articulate his characterization of philosophical practice as a distinct form of meditation, differing from both Cartesian meditation and Hegelian meditation, as it aims to stand vigil for the day to come and operates as a preface to transgression. Part II begins the articulation of crucial traits left implicit in this understanding of philosophy by turning to Foucault’s in-depth investigation of philosophy in Antiquity during his lectures at the Collège de France in the 1980s. First, it develops how philosophy here begins to constitute and distinguish itself by establishing itself as an activity that has a privileged relationship to truth and truth-telling as an unremitting, existentially determining challenge for the philosopher. Further, it instantiates how Platonism elaborates the need for a sustained ‘auto-ascetic’ ethical non-compliant differentiation as the condition of possibility for accessing and stating truth, and then describes how the assertion of an ethical differentiation and attitude in Cynicism takes the form of an insistent combat for another world in this world. Finally, it underlines how the ethical-practical philosophical work upon oneself in Antiquity is developed in an ongoing critical and political exchange with others. Part III indicates how ethical differentiation according to Foucault remains an essential precondition for the practice of philosophy and is further developed in the modern age. This is particularly perspicuous in Kant’s determination of the Enlightenment, in the attitude of modernity exemplified by Baudelaire, and in the history of revolt since the beginning of early Modernity. On this background, Part IV develops how philosophy as an ongoing meditative practice of self-modification leads to an affirmative critique, confirming the virtuality of this world in order to investigate the potentiality in the examined. In this manner, the essay presents Foucault’s philosophical practice as well as an outline of the history of ideas of a seemingly alternate, yet still agenda-setting conception of philosophical practice today.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalFoucault Studies
    Issue number25
    Pages (from-to)8-54
    Number of pages47
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • Philosophy
    • History of ideas
    • Ascēsis
    • Transgression
    • Historicity of revolt
    • Potentiality
    • Virtuality
    • Knowledge
    • Truth-telling
    • Platonism
    • Cynicism
    • Enlightenment
    • Kant
    • Baudelaire
    • French Revolution
    • Iranian Revolution

    Cite this