Freedom, Truth, and Possibility in Foucault's Ethics

  • Réal Fillion University of Sudbury


Like Kant, Foucault challenges us to rethink the way we relate freedom and truth by stressing the idea of "maturity" understood as a release from the "self-incurred tutelage" (the expression is from Kant) that otherwise characterizes so much of our lives. Though, rather than linking freedom and truth via the concept of autonomy (or lawfulness), as Kant does, Foucault outlines a possible experience of ethics as an individualizing ideal that contrasts with the model of establishing codes within a conception of moral order. Foucault's project can be read as attempting to decouple ethics from the epistemological concern with the objectivity of a moral order in order to reconnect it to the formation of a political sensibility that sees truth(fulness) in a certain practice of freedom, as opposed to seeing our freedom confirmed or granted by a certain kind of (mode of relating to the) truth. I call this reading of Foucault's investigations into ethics the "methodological/prescriptive" approach (asking and responding to what we can do, ethically-speaking) and contrast it with the sketch of an alternative reading which I call "ontological/historical" (asking and responding to what we are, ethically-speaking). This reading, instead of pushing beyond Kant in the direction of a Nietzschean sensibility, rather challenges Kant's moral law from the space of a Hegelian insistence on the (historical) realization or actualization of freedom in and through the normative constraints structuring existing power-relations.

Author Biography

Réal Fillion, University of Sudbury
Réal Fillion teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury, Sudbury, Ontario. He situates his research at the juncture of history and philosophy, where the complexities of historical situations challenge the articulation of philosophical principles. He has recently completed work on a book that examines the way attention to the multicultural dynamics that increasingly animate social life allows us to reconsider the importance of speculative philosophy of history in helping us make sense of where we are headed. Recent publications include "Moving Beyond Bio-power: Hardt and Negri's Post-Foucauldian Speculative Philosophy of History", History and Theory, Theme Issue 44 (December 2005), 47-72; "Foucault after Hyppolite: Toward an A-theistic Theodicy", The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2005) Vol. XLIII, No. 1, 79-93; "Freedom, Responsibility, and the 'American Foucault'", Philosophy & Social Criticism (2004) Vol. 30, No. 1, 115-126; "L'idée de l'histoire chez Michel Foucault", Science et Esprit (2003) Vol. 55, No. 1, 23-34.