64. “Knowledge for its own sake”–that is the last snare laid by morality: we are thereby completely entangled in morals once more.
80. A thing that is explained ceases to concern us–What did the God mean who gave the advice, “Know thyself!” Did it perhaps imply “Cease to be concerned about thyself! become objective!”– And Socrates?–And the “scientific man”?
– beyond good and evil
through a series of careful readings of ancient Greek texts, Michel Foucault reconstructs a history of the care of the self, tracing its permutations through Plato’s dialogues, Cynic philosophy and, eventually, through Christian anthropology and “techniques of the self” to our present day. The perspective we develop through his analyses is that knowledge of the self and care of the self, as two modes of philosophical thought in action, become separated through the development of Christianity, with the former, impelled by the will to truth which undermines even its own doctrinal elements, finding its place in the scientific knowledge which pursues itself for its own sake, and the latter appearing to find little substantial enactment in our present day, with the exception, perhaps, of the lives of artists, who, engaging in a kind of ascesis, refuse to cooperate with ‘normal’ responsibilities of productivity, attending, instead to the how of living, the care of living, and the ethos of living.
Foucault calls our attention to a time when, among some philosophical circles, care of the self was in fact considered the most important. Quoting Seneca’s Book VII of On Benefits, he writes,
“Demetrius the Cynic, a great man in my view, even when compared with the greatest, was right when he used to say that it is better to know a small number of precepts which one has ready to hand for one’s use than to learn many which one does not have at hand. In the same way a clever wrestler is not one who has learned all the postures and complicated movements which one rarely has to use in fights, but one who, after having carefully practiced one or two of these movies for a long time, watches out attentively for the opportunity to apply them. For it is not important for him to know a great deal provided that he know enough to win; similarly in this study there are many things which give pleasure, but very few assure victory.”
The teaching is therefore essentially a teaching of struggle, which must teach what is needed for the struggle and indispensable for gaining victory. On that basis, Demetrius, quoted by Seneca, shows that what is difficult to know in Nature is really only hidden because knowledge of it is no use for life. For example, there is no point in knowing the origin of storms or why there are twins. We do not know these things and it would be very difficult to know them. They are hidden, since they serve no purpose. On the other hand, all that is necessary to existence, to the struggle which the Cynic life must be, is available to everyone. – Government of Self and Others – The Courage of Truth, p. 205, 206
What Foucault elaborates here, reflecting on Cynic philosophy, is a kind of minimalist epistemology in which knowledge is not pursued for its own sake, nor as an end in itself, but only serves as a means for ensuring the proper mode of existence. Thus, we have a minimalist epistemology with an aesthetics of existence, an ethos of existence. In addition, this philosophical orientation is universalizable. “On the other hand, all that is necessary to existence, to the struggle which the Cynic life must be, is available to everyone.”
It is hardly controversial to suggest that we, in our present time, are dominated by a scientific, thus, epistemological thought-framework. We understand our behavior primarily in terms of evolutionary biology and psychology. We are basically primates who have evolved over millions of years and, as ‘gene machines,’ are simply designed to propagate the species. You’re born, you reproduce, you die. Even the ways we think (or pretend to) are limited by our evolutionary psychology. What gets lost in all of the smug assertions about our ‘monkey brains’ is a sense of responsibility, a sensibility of the importance of the question of the how of living.
What emerges here is the task of wielding philosophy-as-ethos as a weapon against the dominating epistemo-cognitive normativity of scientific knowledge. The task of philosophy is not to marry itself with science, reducing itself to an obedient assistant and clarifier of scientific questions, a mere epistemo-cognitive sidekick. The task is to maintain its exteriority to science, to challenge science and present the problem of ethos to science, to interrogate science.
This task becomes ever more apparent when we consider the material conditions of possibility of science and philosophy. Philosophy is a fundamentally material process taking form through the marks and noises exchanged between thinking-primates. Philosophy requires a voice, an eye, and a hand. Science, on the other hand, requires an immensity of material resources: complex instrumentation, huge facilities, government contracts.
There is another question which needs to be asked: To what extent does science require the military? To what extent is the military the politico-economic nucleus of scientific investigation? It is not secret that the internet, microwaves, radar, and so on, all emerged out of military research, the same research which has produced Agent Orange and the Atom bomb. We still need a genealogy of the military-science complex.