This essay is a discussion on Michel Foucault’s statement “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”. I will also explore what might have been on his mind when he made this statement.
While there are many scholarly interpretations to a statement, the key is to know what was originally intended by the person who issued the statement. It is by understanding the thinker’s thought process, motivation and intention that the meaning can be understood and deciphered correctly, and its usefulness gauged based on and applied to the receiver’s own circumstances.
A person can talk or write. But is what is present in their mind really what they are communicating or what they intend to communicate? How has it been perceived? What colours the perception of the person to whom the thoughts or words are directed to? What was the collective consciousness of the circumambient society at the time when the statement came to light? Are we reading the thought in the original language in which it was written or are we reading a translation?
After all, interpretations are complicated. Bias plays an important role, as the person who is analysing may have a different background to the original thinker and being human, as a result, also means imperfections. This person may belong to a different time period or were taught in a different school of thought which means they have their own values and notions of right and wrong. This is especially the case with translated content, which has its own difficulties with interpretation, as in what was meant and what is available as a translation may be entirely different to its original, especially when each reader has a different level of competency.
Any work in this regard is again coloured as human emotions, which fundamentally vary from person to person in the decision-making process, play a major role. A person stating something after a long period of depression will be fundamentally different from what the same person would have stated when not depressed. Similarly, what is commonplace at a certain point in time may be considered exotic in a different time frame. Consider the example of a cell phone: such a device is commonplace now, but a figment of imagination a few decades back.
So, what is the benchmark used to analyse an individual and the thoughts they share? What is the absolute standard to judge right and wrong, if there is one? When a common understanding of these factors are reached, then any deviations to bias and other factors are automatically eliminated. It is only when this golden standard is set, then not only Foucault, but anyone’s statement can be understood in its essence and can be accepted or rejected based on its relevance and its closeness to truth.
Therefore, some key points in understanding this includes:
- Who is the person issuing the statement? Is he or she aware of the reader or audience?
- What does the statement tell us? Under what circumstance was the statement delivered? Did the author of the statement give an explanation themselves or was it open to interpretation?
- What was the intention of the voice behind the statement? For example, how does the individual see him or herself in relation to Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’?
- Is the receiver of the information capable of understanding the statement in its essence or is it beyond his or her capacity?
Through reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality and understanding the context of the society at the time in which he lived, as well as studying his biographies and interviews, we can see that he was a powerful thinker who undertook a multi-dimensional study to any subject and had the patience to examine many aspects in detail. With his emphasis on knowledge and power along with how they were used to achieve societal control, we can interpret his statement as a means of self-expression. Critical minds are often lost in the labyrinth of confusion created by their analysis. But Foucault appears to be an individual who strives towards the truth with his sharp observations and genuinely curious attitude.
By claiming “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am”, he may not have meant that the concept of self-realization is an urgent need, as in needed for survival. Rather, he encourages an attitude of continual self-improvement. This is supported by the second statement that “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning”.
By integrating self-improvement into our ethos, this encourages self-analysis. This attempt allows us to see a bigger, more objective picture. In this way, there is a gradual reduction of prejudiced bias, since self-improvement makes way for understanding and improving our perceptions. While it is common sense to agree that people change over time, quantifying the change is difficult as it varies for each individual. This is what may have caught Foucault’s attention during his explorations and prompted him to make the statement.
Overall, a decision on the extent to which Foucault is right in his statement is an open question based on our own progression, but it also asks us interesting questions on life and society.