“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” – Michel Foucault. Discuss.
Foucault’s academic title was Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. He was interested, principally, in “Man as a thinking being”. The idea of evolving and changing – which, for Foucault, is thinking – is more interesting than what eventually evolves or becomes. It is the process that he was invested in; which he likened, at one point in his writing, to the reading of a novel or a book. No one reads just the beginning and the end of a story; it is the plot and character development – the often overlooked “middle” – that is often the most prolonged and significant.
And yet, the reality of the world that we exist in does not fit into neat wrap-up endings and beginnings. Every narrative is part of another; everything is woven into itself. Before we are born, there are the stories of our parents, where we came from, the people before us. And when we die, there is the legacy that we leave through our previous actions. Everything is a ceaseless series of prologues and epilogues that are themselves epilogues and prologues to other stories. I think that this is what makes Foucault’s assessment limited; that there is some determining point in which you become what you are; and the process to that is interesting. Even by his own understanding of this process as the linear progress of thinking, thought never ceases so long as there are humans to think.
If we consider the wider (almost galactic) implications of this, it means that humankind is incredibly valuable. There have been many theories by astrophysicists and philosophers about our place in the scale of the universe and the existence of other intelligent life-forms but what we do currently know (setting aside Grand Design) is that we are the only such beings who inhabit our own solar system and (most likely) galaxy. If thinking is being, as Foucault suggests, then it is the most valuable entity in the universe because it subscribes meaning. And humans, who have the ability to define and think through meaning – above “animal rationale” – are, as it stands, the only source of meaning in this galaxy.
We should never forget this in our quest for self-determination. Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum gives us the concept “I think therefore I am”. Foucault almost inverts this; he would say “I am therefore I think”. But to take it even further, we could consider the totality of: “everything is because I think”. This is the power of thought that Foucault is interested in and, by exploring it on such a macro level, we might begin to grapple with the omnipotence of a collective ability to determine and imbue meaning.
The importance of individual expression has come to the fore in the 21st century. The legacy of democracy that gives each citizen an individual vote and the dominance of capitalism ostensibly, through wealth creation, allows individuals the opportunity to determine their own economic and social destinies. Revolutions, like those that happened in eighteenth-century America and France, were fought for the cause of individual freedom and liberation. From a Western-centric perspective, this has meant an increasing interest in the identification of self-hood that became more and more important. However, our identities fundamentally cannot be divorced from the larger narratives, the great sweeping sagas, if you will, of human history and socio-economic institutions that define our lives. Whilst this might make it feel like we are beholden to greater forces for our identity, if we think about this from an aforementioned macro perspective – it once again situates power (through thought) in the individuals (humans) who collectively make up all meaning.
The point, therefore, that I would like to make is that who we are is more complex than what Foucault suggests. I think he deliberately limits his perspective here to what he is interested in but, in reality, the eternal nature of “becoming” and “thinking” ties into a larger discussion of society and civilisation. “Who is man in the infinite?” wrote Pascal; who are we in the grand spectrum of all time and matter? One philosophical argument is – nothing. In the infinitude of everything, the finite is always inconsequential because its oblivion is inevitable. The extreme reverse of this is solipsism which places the individual’s perspective as the apex of everything since only the self exists – third person vs. first person narration. It is thought, and I also agree, that this positions us differently – it makes us significant within a never-ending plenitude. It gives us the value of being able to determine meaning – even if we don’t believe ourselves to be solipsistically central to it. I think this is a way of negotiating our apparent inconsequence and, therefore, I do think it is important to wrestle and think about who we are.
We might not know who we are, as Foucault says. But we should want to know. We should desire to know. And we should think about it. Otherwise, if we allow things to unfold, if we never try to know ourselves, we will lose out on our most valuable resource – we must never forget that we are the ones who give everything meaning. From the universe to ourselves.