Philosophy and Critical Theory

A poststructuralist moral theory for the twenty-first century
Author: Mark Olssen

To understand how subjects are constructed socially and historically in terms of power, and how they act through power on others and on themselves, but not to see this as a purely random process or activity where ‘anything goes’, or conversely, portray ethical actions in terms of fixed universal rules or specified teleological ends, constitutes the objective of this book. What a normative Foucault can offer us, I claim, is a critical ethics of the present that is well and truly beyond Kant, Hegel. and Marx, and which can guide action and conduct for the twenty-first century.

Mark Olssen

Chapter 4 examines the senses in which continuance ethics derived from Foucault, Canguilhem, and Nietzsche can claim objectivity by comparing the sense of objectivity claimed to the metaphysical sense of objectivity argued for by Derek Parfit. While it is claimed that the objectivity established is certainly different to traditional metaphysical conceptions, it still warrants being labelled as objective, and is clearly not a species of subjectivism, the dominant approach in moral philosophy for most of the twentieth century. It is objective also in that it avoids any possibility of being classified as relativistic. After this cartography of the concept, Kantian ethics is considered and rejected. Life continuance is then restated as embodying a new reconciliation of the right with the good, as well as going beyond universalism to consider contingency and cultural difference as important contextual considerations.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
Mark Olssen

Chapter 8 continues the theme of ethical engagement and the senses in which Foucault’s work can be said to support a democratic ethic. It starts by examining the critical commentary of Foucault by the American political theorist Ella Myers, in order to position Foucault in relation to her conception of democratic politics. The second part of the chapter turns its attention to a current of political philosophy in North America, notably Stephen K. White’s ‘weak ontology’ thesis, and the ethic of ‘presumptive generosity’ that White, as well as influential philosophers such as William Connolly and Charles Taylor, have supported. After doing this, Foucault’s relevance for education is explored, and the chapter concludes by seeking to relate continuance ethics to virtue ethics and asking what a Foucauldian ethic for a global world might look like.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
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Mark Olssen

Chapter 9 concludes this study by examining the issues of ethics and the subject. Drawing on writing on normative moral philosophy in relation to Foucault, the chapter introduces and critically examines the themes of personal responsibility, integrity, authenticity, and ethical comportment, drawing especially on the work of Judith Butler. It seeks to ascertain how the individual acts morally and engages ethically in a complex world and what ethical engagement, ethical motivation, and ethical commitment looks like from a Foucauldian point of view.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
Mark Olssen

Chapter 1 starts by examining the thesis advanced by Mark Kelly that Foucault’s research project is intentionally and irreparably non-normative. Contra Kelly, I argue that in important senses, Foucault cannot avoid being normative. Furthermore, I suggest, drawing on writers such as Paul Patton, Nancy Fraser, and Pierre Hadot, that the absence of normative criteria that can ground his project constitutes a major failing of his approach. The chapter then seeks to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the normative as well as to document important researches in the area, which have helped to produce the recent ‘normative turn’ in philosophy.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
Mark Olssen

Chapter 5 restates Foucault’s critique of Hegel and Marx by summarizing the major influences on Foucault’s intellectual development of two of his central teachers, Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser. The chapter charts how Foucault’s own position developed in relation to his studies of Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, a position that ultimately rejected all teleological conceptions of history. This included not only those positions associated with Hegel and Marx, but also with the later ‘ethics of recognition’ associated with Charles Taylor, and the ‘ethics of self-realization’ developed by T. H. Green, and influential among the British Hegelians. Foucault’s ethics are beyond Hegel and Marx, whether in their classical or more recent formulations.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
Mark Olssen

Chapter 6 examines the issue of naturalism through the lens of Hobbes and seeks to present a Foucauldian critique which goes ‘beyond nature’, replacing naturalism with constructivism as an approach to ethics. Naturalism, from Foucault’s viewpoint, of the sort that Hobbes is committed to, is simply an alternative route to metaphysics, and asserts postulations that are indemonstrable in an attempt to establish grounds for contentious political, economic, and social philosophical standpoints. The chapter also examines arguments from religion as constituting another form of metaphysics, and, in the closing section, provides a Foucauldian critique of modern social contract theory, as exemplified by John Rawls.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
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Mark Olssen

The Introduction seeks to state the scope and nature of the study in more extended terms, and to establish the importance of historical ontology to Foucault’s complex view of history as necessary to constructing an ethics. After presenting a very schematic survey of complexity theory, it utilizes Alain Badiou’s approach to ethics to construct the contours of the approach that I intend to take with regard to Foucault. It concludes by stating the intention to utilize research in both the Continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
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Foucault, Canguilhem, Jacob
Mark Olssen

Chapter 2 starts with a brief history of life philosophy and moves to explore Foucault’s enumeration of the concepts of life and error that he finds in Georges Canguilhem’s work. Foucault’s central thesis here is further reinforced in relation to his review and assessment of François Jacob's history of biology. The sense in which life philosophy can ground an immanent metaphysics that maintains a coherent normative focus but that varies contingently in terms of the relation between life and its environment is then explored. It is shown how such a conception also avoids vitalism. Similarities with the view expressed here are then noted in Foucault's writings on life in The History of Sexuality and The Courage of Truth. The implications of a normative conception of life are then briefly canvassed to demonstrate how life sets its own limits, and how the problems associated with moral relativism can be overcome.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics
Naturalism, will to power, normativity
Mark Olssen

Chapter 3 considers the senses in which Nietzsche can be classed as a naturalist, and then examines the functions of the will to power as the grounds for an immanent normative conception of life, as well as an objective conception of moral values. The chapter seeks to establish an objective normative conception of life based on Nietzsche's philosophy of the future. The concept of life continuance is added to the Nietzschean lexicon after a critical consideration of his concepts, as expressing both the individualist and collectivist tropes in his philosophy.

in Constructing Foucault’s ethics