Power, Subjectivity, and Freedom in the French Context: Sartre and Foucault on a 'Post-Modern' Problem of Agency

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2005


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Thomas Rockmore

Committee Member

James Swindal

Committee Member

Tom Flynn


Foucault, freedom, power, Sartre, subjectivity


This dissertation traces the evolution of French views of subjectivity through three antagonistic pairs of thinkers: Montaigne and Descartes, Rousseau and Helvetius, and Sartre and Foucault. Its aims are twofold, one historical the other theoretical. The first aim is to offer a more nuanced account of 'modern' views of subjectivity than that proposed by standard accounts. I argue that while Descartes plays an important role in this history, Descartes' role has, to a certain extent, been misunderstood. It makes little sense to talk about 'the modern subject' in the singular, and the schism between 'modern philosophy' and what comes after is often overstated. An adequate appraisal of the history of subjectivity demands examination not only of the influences that frame Descartes' view, but also of the developments that follow. To this end, I argue that ancient scepticism plays a crucial dual role in the history of subjectivity: it not only initiates modern, subject-centric epistemology and its bifurcation into the two dominant schools that compose it - empiricism and rationalism, but it also leads to a thinning of human nature that culminates in the contemporary anti-humanist critiques of the subject that reportedly bring about its demise. As invariant aspects of human reality erode, subjects come to be viewed as progressively more malleable, and, hence, increasingly vulnerable to powers that mold or otherwise affect them. When viewed in terms of the sceptical erosion of the subject, Sartre's qualified rejection of human nature radicalized a process that was already well underway during the 'enlightenment' and provided the last logical step on the road to Foucault's 'death of man' thesis. Thus, rather than viewing the history of subjectivity as a series of epistemological ruptures that, e.g., posits Sartre as the last figure standing on the other side of a radical fissure from 'post-modernity', I argue that Sartre's denial of human nature should be seen as the last logical step in a gradual process that culminates in Foucault's proclamation concerning the death of 'Man'. Second, although subjectivity supplies the general field of inquiry, my interest centers upon how views of subjectivity frame analysis of freedom and power, and how this triadic formation evolves into a contemporary problem. As the philosophical subject becomes increasingly malleable, philosophical treatments of the relationship between power and freedom change. However, until invariance completely erodes in the sands of time, the 'post-modern' problem of agency does not arise. With Foucault we not only witness the complete erosion of invariant aspects of human reality, but also that with respect to subjectivity power is not merely repressive but also productive. While these insights prove crucial to understanding subject formation and various forms of oppression, it also leads to a problem. 'If power produces subjectivity, in other words, if power produces personal identity, desire, habituated patterns of behavior, and the conditions for how individuals speak about and interpret the world, and not only in a way that negates any space outside of power, but also in such a way that subjects are largely blind to its effects, then power determines the ways in which individuals carve the world into practical possibilities. But if choices are always already a function of antecedent power, and if the effects of power cannot be ascertained by straightforward self-observation, then what can freedom mean?' I argue that even Sartre's earliest articulations of subjectivity recognize that the subject is not entirely self-constituting but is always already traversed and conditioned by social forces. By reading Sartre and Foucault with and against one another, and by drawing on their historical antecedents, I arrive at a viable view of subjectivity and the possibility of agent-guided resistance without sacrificing the critiques of humanism offered by contemporary French philosophers.





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