Foucault investigated “those practices whereby individuals, by their own means or with the help of others, acted on their own bodies, souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being in order to transform themselves and attain a certain state of perfection or happiness, to become a sage, immortal and so on.” (p.4) This can be the definition of what came to be known as “technologies of the self.”
Foucault scanned through Western history and found this method of knowing oneself in the Classical Age and the Christian era, with differing meanings. Foucault called his research as “history of the present” – “an excavation and perspective on the bedrock of our modern conception. He also called himself an “historian of thought”, which he described as one who takes the path between social history and formal analyses of thought.
The 1981 interview with him revealed some interesting things. When asked about the intellectual influences upon his thoughts, he answered: “I was surprised when two of my friends in Berekely wrote something about me and said that Heidegger was influential…Of course it was quite true, but no one in France has ever perceived it. When I was a student in the 1950s, I read Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty…Paradoxically enough, Heidegger is not very difficult for a Frenchman to understand…Being and Time is difficult but the more recent works are clearer…”
Foucault said: “In my books, I have really tried to make changes, not in order to find the material causes but to show all the factors that interacted and the reactions of people. I believe in the freedom of people. To the same situation, people react in very different ways.”
Foucault said that he “arrived at the hermeneutics of technologies of the self in pagan and early Christian practice” by posing the question: “How had the subject been compelled to decipher himself in regard to what is forbidden? He also kept in mind the questions posed by Max Weber: “If one wants to behave rationally and regulate one’s action according to true principles, what part of one’s self should one renounce? What is the ascetic price of reason? Foucault posed the opposite question—How have certain kinds of interdictions required the price of certain kinds of knowledge about oneself? What must one know about oneself in order to be willing to renounce anything?
Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault
edited by Martin, Luther et al (1988) London: Tavistock Publications