S. Joel Garver


Going Along with the Crowd:
Discursive Formations and Responsibility


A crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.

Soren Kierkegaard,
The Point of View for My Work as an Author

In the last chapter we examined Foucault's account of how discursive formations and power play a role in belief-formation. While this illuminated and deepened our account of how doxastic practices function, what it is for one to be well-established, and what it takes to properly engage in a practice, it also shifted the focus almost exclusively to the "discursive" realm. This shift, by its focus on the social, linguistic, and political factors of belief-formation, had turned our attention away from the matter of responsibility for belief and made it all the more difficult to account for that responsibility. It is, therefore, to the issue of responsibility that we again return in this chapter.

In his later writings (the three volumes of the History of Sexuality and related essays and interviews) Foucault, it seems, became increasingly aware of the problems his analyses posed in respect to agency, responsibility, freedom, ethics, and so on. So in his History of Sexuality volumes Foucault turned his attention to these and related issues (they are somewhat ill-named volumes: "I must confess that I am much more interested in problems about techniques of the self and things like that rather than sex"; Foucault 1983:229). His "history" is, in some ways, continuous with his earlier "genealogical" work and therefore designed as a "history of the present" by which the present order of things is unmasked as historically situated and contingent, and in doing so, its hegemonic status and its power are questioned and undermined. Despite this continuity with his earlier work, many of Foucault's commentators (among whom I count myself), as well as Foucault himself, have seen new interests and goals at work (cf. Foucault 1983; Habermas 1987, Lecture X; Davidson 1994: Bernauer and Mahon 1994).

In these later writings Foucault "probes a new axis of intellectual responsibility: in addition to the domains of power-knowledge relations, he excavates a specific axis of the relationship to oneself, the ways we fashion our subjectivity" (Bernauer and Mahon 1994:143). Ethics, as Foucault sees it, centrally involves this "relation to oneself" as expressed through ways in which we shape our freedom. He writes that ethics is the

process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. (Foucault 1985:28)

This quote provides the basic structure of Foucault's analysis of ethics, and thus, responsibility. In the following sections I will outline Foucault's approach to the ethical (which he conceives quite broadly so as to include many of the epistemic concerns of the previous chapter). I will draw some connections between his theories and Nietzsche's discussion of "how one becomes what one is." While I do not really accept either Foucault's or Nietzsche's ethical perspectives, I do believe that they provide important insights into the issues concerning responsibility for belief. And they do so within a context that is fully aware of and sensitive to the kinds of problems that are raised by an analysis of doxastic practices as socially enmeshed and emergent. To round out the chapter these insights will be drawn together with some additional and complementary points drawn from Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor.

[ home | la salle university | connelly library | yahoo! | the bbc | about such things ]