Foucault on Ethics and Subjectivity: ‘Care of the Self’ and ‘Aesthetics of Existence’

  • Daniel Smith Pennsylvania State University
Keywords: Ethics, subjectivity, Care of the Self, Aesthetics of Existence, form-of-life


This paper considers the structure of the ethical subject found in Foucault’s late works on ethics, and gives an account of his two major ethical concepts: “care of the self” and “aesthetics of existence.” The “care of the self,” it is argued, gives Foucault a way of conceptualising ethics which does not rely on juridical categories, and which does not conceive the ethical subject on the model of substance. The “care of the self” entails an understanding of the ethical subject as a process which is always in a relation, specifically in a relation to itself. Using his essay “What is an Author,” it is argued that the subject of the “aesthetics of existence,” like the author of a text, is understood to be fully immanent to the “object” which it is usually considered to be opposed to and separated from. Rather than aiming at a true expression of an “authentic” inner substance, Foucault’s “aesthetics of existence” leads instead to practices of “creativity,” whose form cannot be given in advance.