“Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?”


“Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?”


Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt exemplify two different and, indeed, in certain respects, opposed visions of politics. This realization must not obscure the fact that their conceptions also agree on some fundamental points. Both see the political side of our existence as deeply endangered but also as something worth rescuing or restoring. Political life is for both of them, indeed, a significant aspect of who we are but also one that is frequently misunderstood and particularly so in our time when common opinion tends to denigrate it as an evil or, at best, as an evil necessity. Against this popular prejudice, both Schmitt and Arendt seek to assert the dignity of the political. This gets them to reflect again and again on the nature and meaning of the political. Both focus their theoretical attention, accordingly, on the terms of the political discourse and both seek to reconstitute, in particular, our concept of the political.

Schmitt and Arendt agree, moreover, in thinking that politics must be conceived primarily in terms of human activity not in terms of some institutional order. Both are equally set against thinking of it in terms of abstract norms or principles. Their kind of political theory differs thus sharply from the sort that has prevailed in the tradition from Plato to John Rawls. “All essential concepts of the spiritual sphere, … can be understood only out of the concrete political existence,” Schmitt insists accordingly in his Barcelona lecture. All such concepts are, in effect, “existential and not normative.”[1] And Arendt accuses Plato, in a similar spirit, of having “deformed” political philosophy by setting it the task of providing “standards and rules, yardsticks and measurements” for human affairs.[2]

Despite this shared point of departure, Schmitt and Arendt reach, however, quite different conclusions about the nature of politics. Where the one conceives political activity as fundamentally a form of decision-making leading to a separation of friend and enemy, the other conceives it as communicative and deliberative interaction which establishes a common world where human beings can act in concert. This disagreement has far-reaching implications. While Schmitt singles out the antagonistic side of politics (and hence the always remaining potential for conflict and warfare) Arendt is focused primarily on the cooperative aspect of politics.  Schmitt is, of course, not forgetful of the need for political cooperation but, in a Hobbesian fashion, makes it depend on the threat of enmity. It is in facing a common enemy that we find ourselves driven to joint political action. In a reverse move, Arendt acknowledges that there are agonistic tendencies in human politics but, following Aristotle, she allows for the possibility of political friendship and cooperation apart from them. We are always capable of positive interactions and, in consequence, of concerted political action but these capacities, she thinks, are frequently stifled by human quarrelsome- and competitiveness. Schmitt’s and Arendt’s views are, in other words, constructed on different and, indeed, incompatible conceptual grids. Where antagonism is for the one definitive of politics, it is for the other an obstacle to being political. Where the one operates with the bi-polar scheme of friend and enemy, the other employs a one-directional scheme of more or less friendly cooperation. Both views may, of course, strike a responsive cord in us. Why not assume that politics is sometimes the one and sometimes the other, sometimes antagonistic in Schmitt’s sense and sometimes cooperative in the sense of Arendt? But this requires, in essence, a new understanding of the nature of politics – one that diverges from both the Schmittian and the Arendtian model. And, in consequence, it also calls also for a different concept of the political.



Such a concept is developed in Michel Foucault’s writings of the 1970’s. Foucault came to it through his attraction to both the antagonistic and the cooperative model of politics. On the one hand, he was drawn to characterizing politics, more or less in the spirit of Schmitt, as the continuation of war by other means. On the other, he also wanted to see it, similarly to Arendt, as a search for new forms of friendship.[3] Such fluctuations are by no means uncharacteristic of Foucault’s thinking. His saw himself, in fact, throughout his life as “an experimenter and not a theorist,” not someone “who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytic, and applies it to different fields in a uniform fashion.”[4] In The Archeology of Knowledge he wrote defensively: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same” – a warning we must keep in mind as we turn to the political side of his thinking.[5] The contrast to Schmitt and Arendt is evident. While Schmitt defined himself consistently as a political and legal theorist and Arendt spoke of herself always as a political philosopher or theorist, Foucault addressed political matters, indeed, only intermittently and often in conjunction with other themes. And where Schmitt and Arendt possessed surprisingly stable views on politics, Foucault’s emerge only in stages and with hesitation. His observations and reflections on politics are scattered through numerous writings and interviews – some substantive and some incidental – while Schmitt’s are gathered, we can say with only little exaggeration, in a single essay, The Concept of the Political, and Arendt’s in a single book, The Human Condition.



Foucault came to political thought, in fact, in a roundabout and belated fashion and his work in this field, while invariably striking and innovative, leaves us often with a sense of improvisation. Nonetheless, there are certain significant respects in which it takes us further than Schmitt’s or Arendt’s.

When Duccio Trombadori interviewed him in 1978, Foucault described how the Second World War had initially alerted him to the need for a radically different society and how subsequently, under the influence of Nietzsche, he had come to hope for “a world and a society that were not only different but would be an alternative version of ourselves.”[6] Having joined the Communist Party in the 1950’s as a “Nietzschean communist” (!) and having left the Party again a short time later because of its Stalinist tendencies he had ended up, as he put it, with “a degree of speculative skepticism” towards all politics.[7] But his reluctance to concern himself with political matters had dissolved towards the late 1960’s as a result of two and half years of teaching at the University of Tunisia where he came face-to-face with the political activism of his students and was moved by their readiness to expose themselves to the most fearful risks. “It was a real political experience for me,” Foucault told Trombadori.[8] He emerged from this time newly energized and politicized and when he returned to France after the 1968 riots these energies inspired, first, his engagement in the prison reform project and then, at the theoretical level, the books Discipline and Punish of 1975 and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 of 1976.

I mention these biographical circumstances in order to stress that Foucault’s concern with politics arose just as much out of historical uncertainties as Schmitt’s and Arendt’s. For Foucault, as for those two others, the traditional political institutions could no longer be taken for granted and the concept of the political could therefore not be explained in their terms. Like Schmitt and Arendt, Foucault made, in fact, no effort to revive the old formula of politics as rule of the polis. But in seeking to recast the concept of the political the Foucault of the 1970’s also did not move in direction Schmitt and Arendt had taken. Instead of conceiving human activity (acts of deciding or deliberating) as constitutive of the domain of politics, Foucault sought to understand it as a domain of power relations. In The Concept of the Political Schmitt had, by contrast, rejected the thought that the political could be analyzed in this manner. “In those definitions of the political which utilize the concept of power,” he had insisted, “this power appears mostly as state power.” [9] Such definitions thus presupposed the for Schmitt derivative concept of the state. Foucault’s challenge is then from a Schmittian perspective that he needs to come up with a notion of power that does not, in turn, presuppose that concept. Arendt, on the other hand, presents a second challenge to Foucault’s reliance on the notion of power. For the concept of power is itself a derived notion since power arises from concerted action. Arendt’s challenge to the Foucault of the 1970’s is then that he needs to explain the relation between action and power – a theme he did not get to till the 1980’s.

The Foucault of the 1970’s did, in fact, not have a theory of action at all. He spoke of power, instead, as consisting of “nonegalitarian and mobile relations” that “take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions,” that generate “wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole”[10] and that may even furrow “across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds.”[11] Far from being conceived on the model of action, power was for Foucault  “both intentional and nonsubjective”[12] and thus constituted “a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”[13] His language, as we see, is vivid and metaphorical (power as a fluid circulating through the social body) but it certainly relates power, in no way, to the “intentional and voluntary actions” of men “in their singular being,” that concerned Foucault in the 1980’s.[14]



How the Foucault of the 1970’s sought to understand politics in terms of power-relations becomes clearest in an interview he gave in January of 1977, that is, shortly after the publication of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Lucette Finas, the writer and teacher, was trying to get Foucault to expand on this occasion on the theme of sexuality. But Foucault declared quickly that the whole point of the book had for him been “a re-elaboration of the theory of power,” adding sarcastically: “I’m not sure that the mere pleasure of writing about sexuality would have provided me with sufficient motivation.”[15] The impetus for thinking about the problem of power, he added, had come to him “during the course of a concrete experience that I had with prisons, starting in 1971-72.”[16] This had left him realizing that one needed to substitute a “technical and strategic” understanding of power for the traditional, “judicial and negative” one. It had taught him to reject thinking of power in terms of “exclusion, rejection, denial, obstruction, occultation, etc.,” and to focus, instead, on its capacity to “make positive mechanisms appear.”[17] Such a perspective could, in fact, help to analyze institutions “from the standpoint of power relations, rather than vice versa,” as he was to put it elsewhere.[18] This would make evident in particular, so he said to Lucette Finas at the time, that the institution of the state could not account “for all the apparatuses in which power is organized.”[19]  There existed relations of power “between all points of the social body,” as, for instance, “between a man and a woman, between the members of a family, between a master and his pupil, between everyone who knows and everyone who does not.”[20] One needed, in other words, to assume the existence of a myriad of particular mechanisms of power. Power, as he had said already in the History of Sexuality is “everywhere” and “comes from everywhere” and is as such not confined to the classical domain of politics, the polis or state.[21]

But if power relations are ubiquitous and politics is to be conceived in terms of them, does it not follow that everything is political? By 1977, some of Foucault’s more adventurous readers were, indeed, drawing that sweeping conclusion. The same thought was clearly also on the mind of Foucault’s interviewer when she asked: “Can one adopt a political standpoint regarding power? You speak of sexuality as a political apparatus. Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?”[22] But Foucault was not to be trapped into endorsing the simplistic formula that was being ascribed to him.  He responded cautiously instead: “To say that ‘everything is political’ is to affirm this ubiquity of relations of force and their immanence in the political field but this is to give oneself the task, which as yet has scarcely been outlined, of disentangling this indefinite knot.”[23]  One had to remember, he added, that “political analysis and criticism have in a large measure still to be invented.”[24] He was not expressing ignorance thereby of the long history of political philosophy, but affirming his belief that political analysis had to be radically recast, that it could not rely on the old understanding of politics in terms of the institutional order of a polis or state and their rule or government, and that it needed to reconceptualize the domain of politics instead in terms of the concept of power. Such a rethinking of the basic concepts of politics had, in fact, been on his mind since the early 1970’s when he had told Gilles Deleuze that the concepts of domination, rule, and government “are far too fluid and require analysis.”[25]

Foucault obviously understood that there was something seductive in the formula that everything is political, just as there is in saying “everything is sexual,” or “everything is in the mind,” or “all action is selfish,” or even “everything is beautiful in its own way.” Each of these utterances seems at first sight illuminating in its stark generality (the “Wow!” effect) but each of them proves on closer examination to be empty of meaning. Each robs, indeed, its crucial term (be it political, sexual, mental, selfish, or beautiful) of its discriminatory power. This is not where Foucault was going. He was ready to grant that all social relations belonged to “a political field,” as he said to Lucette Finas, but he meant to speak of politics itself instead very precisely as a “more-or-less global strategy for coordinating and directing those relations.”[26]

The simplest picture of politics that one might derive from this formulation would involve a binary division between a domain of inherently non-political relations (the “political field”) and a second level of “strategic” political relations of power that coordinate and direct relations within this domain. But this two-tiered picture is not right for two reasons. (a) The relations within the domain of power-relations, the political field, are for Foucault by no means to be considered “elementary and by nature ‘neutral’.”[27] They are, rather, typically the outcome of other and earlier strategic interventions. (b) The strategic relations that constitute politics are once more relations of power and so themselves once again potentially subject to strategies of co-ordination and direction. It appears, then, that we must replace our first, simple, two-tiered picture with the following more complex one:

There exist among power-relations a particular subset of strategic relations that co-ordinate and direct force relations in society. Politics consists precisely in these relations; it is constituted, in other words, very precisely in terms of power relations coordinating and regulating power relations. Political relations are relations of power whose object are other power-relations. We may speak of such relations as supervenient and characterize the domain of politics then as the domain of supervenient power-relations. It is with this idea that Foucault makes an important advance over Schmitt and Arendt. In Foucault’s terms we might say that Schmitt and Arendt sought to understand politics in terms of the specific relations within the primary, political field. Foucault, on the other hand, understood that there are all kinds of relations of power that obtain in that field and that none of them are as such distinctively political. Some of these relations will have the character of Schmitt’s friend-enemy interactions, others will be acts of mutual self-revelation in Arendt’s sense. But none of these are as such political. Political relations are, rather, power-relations that set up, maintain, transform, regulate, or suppress the kinds of relations that Schmitt and Arendt are singling out as determinative of the political. From Foucault’s perspective, the two are locating the political at a too elementary level. Despite occasional hints at a more satisfactory view, Schmitt and Arendt fail to understand the strictly supervenient character of political relations.

It is important, however, to Foucault that the power-relations that constitute supervenient strategies of political coordination are themselves only a subset of power-relations. They can, therefore, like any other such relations be subjected in turn to new acts of coordination and direction. There exists therefore the possibility of a whole hierarchy or network of strategic relations of power that apply to other strategic relations which, in turn, supervene on yet other strategic and political relations. Politics has to be understood, in other words, as a process that reproduces itself at ever higher levels of coordination, as a system of nested strategic relationships.

There are certainly at any given moment non-strategic, non-supervenient relations of power. They constitute “the set of relations of force in a given society [that] constitutes the domain of the political,” i.e., the set of relations to which supervenient political strategies are directed. It is important to realize that not every relation in that domain will at every moment be actually subjected to strategic, supervenient political intervention. Political economy seems to forbid this. There exists then in every society whole arrays of power-relations that are at any given moment politically dormant. Currently dormant relations within the political field may have been subjected to supervenient power-relations at some earlier time and they may become once again subjected to such interventions. We then call them “politicized” relations of power. These must, of course, be distinguished from the supervenient strategic relations that have politicized them.  That currently dormant power-relations may have been politicized at some time in the past and have always the potential of becoming so in the future, determines their status as belonging to the political field. All such relations are “potentially politicized,” they are t all “politicizable.” Merely politicizable relations must, of course, be distinguished from actually politicized ones.

Finally, we must take note of Foucault’s thought that all or almost all relations within the political field have at some point of time been subject to political intervention. They have all or almost all been “politically constituted.” That, too, is meant by Foucault when he says that power relations all belong to the political field. To be politically constituted does not mean the same as to be actually politicized at any given moment nor does it mean actually politicizable now or some future time though it may be the case that everything that has been politically constituted at some time in the past can also become once again politicized at some time in the future. Whether this is so will once again be determined by the facts of political economy. To call something politically constituted does, in any case, not mean that it is now politicized. The contrary is often the case. What is politically constituted must, however, in every case be distinguished from the strategies that originally brought about the political constitution. There remains, in other words, still a difference between strategic, political and politically constituted relations.

Such schematic distinctions call for exemplification, in particular so because what is neatly separated in our terminology does not always occur separately in reality. Relations within a family, for instance, may constitute a political field in Foucault’s sense and we may, in participle, be able to distinguish in this field among relations that are subject to strategic, supervenient interventions and those relations that constitute such interventions but that distinction may, in practice, be often invisible. The difference between political strategies of co-ordination and direction and the domain to which they are said to apply is, perhaps, most easily perceived in cases of organized, institutional actions. Take, for instance, the case of law making. Legislating is a political activity which issues in politically constituted laws and that concerned permitted, or forbidden activities. Thus traffic rules regulate the relations between people engaged in driving behavior. Economic legislation organizes and legitimates business relations. Here the distinction between the supervenient, strategic, political intervention (the legislating) and the power relations that are being coordinated and regulated (the subject of the legislation) is straightforward.

Of decisive importance for the Foucault of the 1970’s is, however, the fact that dormant power relations can at some point become politicized. Family life may at some point have been considered immune to political intervention, but the relations between parents and children and between marriage partners have now become politicized. It is in this sense that Foucault’s tells Lucette Finas that it is necessary now to oppose a process of politicization to the use of existing techniques and mechanisms of power. The basic political challenge of our time is not, he declares, the choice between political positions in “a pre-existing set of possibilities.” It is, rather, “to imagine and to bring into being new schemas of politicization.” He illustrates this by adding: “To the vast new techniques of power correlated with multinational economies and bureaucratic states, one must oppose a politicization which will take new forms.”[28] Corporate and bureaucratic power have been for too long outside the purview of politics, in other words, and must now be subjected to political intervention. Ever new areas of social relations may in this way become politicized over time while others may cease to be so. Foucault had made a similar point already some years earlier when he had said in an another interview that “the frontier of the political has shifted, and so now subjects such as psychiatry, internment, or the medicalization of a given population have become political problems” and politics has in this way “colonized areas that had been almost political yet not recognized as such.”[29]



Foucault’s thought moved away in the 1980’s from treating power as a basic concept and this led him, in turn, to rethink his own earlier account of the nature of the political. He declared now even that it had never been his goal “to analyze the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate the foundations of such an analysis.”[30] Instead, he claimed to be concerned and to have always been concerned with “the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought” and with “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves.”[31] This change of language was accompanied by a relative shift in focus away from politics and towards ethics, away from social relations of power towards the care of the subject or self. He could write now accordingly that “it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research.”[32]

The nature of this move for his political thinking became first apparent at the end of the nineteen seventies when he began to speak of political power “as a mode of action upon the actions of others.”[33] The shift is made most explicit in the essay “The Subject and Power” of 1982 which argued that “what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action” and that the exercise of power is to be understood therefore “as a mode of action upon action.” [34] The term “power” must thus be understood to designate, as Foucault said, “relationships between ‘partners’” and power exists, in fact, “only as exercised by some on others.” (p. 340) Where he had previously taken power to be  coming from “numerous points” and as passing through bodies, it is now seen as exercised by human agents. He continued, however, to maintain that “power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social.” (p. 345) To live in a society means to live in such a way that some individuals act on the actions of others. “A society without power relations” so he remained convinced, “can only be an abstraction.” (p. 343) Indeed, “all human relationships are to a certain degree relationships of power,”[35]

In characterizing the exercise of power now as action directed at actions rather than people or objects, Foucault sought to preserve the insight that there are supervenient relations. But where he had previously explained politics as supervenient power-relations, he now, in effect, treated all power-relations as supervenient. This opened up the question whether he now wanted to say that the exercise of power is always political. This would not have forced back into the vacuous assertion that everything is political. For he was distinguishing now after all between ordinary actions and acts of power and could have insisted that we need to distinguish between the field of human action which may or may not be in some way or other politicized and political acts of power. And this would have allowed him to retain all the distinctions he had made in the interview with Finas. But Foucault turned, in fact, in another direction. He began now to distinguish between political and non-political exercises of power. Only kind of exercise of power, he now suggests, is concerned with “government” in a broad sense of the word. (p. 341) But government in this sense is not necessarily identical with politics. It appears to be that for Foucault only, if it is institutionalized in some form of other. It is certainly characteristic of our own period, but not necessarily of every historical period hat power has become “progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions.” (p. 345) There is a suggestion here that Foucault was returning to a narrower and more traditional understanding of politics as the exercise of power in distinctively “political” institutions.

If this was a retreat of some sort, we can also say that for Foucault the characterization of power as action on action served to clarify the notion of power itself. It also helped him to separate the concepts of power and force that he had used earlier on almost indiscriminately. He could, moreover, speak now of a connection between power and freedom that had previously remained mysterious. And he could, finally, provide a rationale for the formula “where there is power, there is resistance,” which he had asserted so triumphantly but without any justification in the History of Sexuality, vol. 1. With respect to the distinction between force and power, Foucault now wrote: “A man who is chained up and beaten is subject to force being exerted over him, not power.” But if the man can be induced to talk, he continued, rather suffer death, “then he has been caused to behave in a certain way… He has submitted to government” and has thus submitted to power. While submitting to power the individual still remains free – however marginal his freedom may be – and this freedom guarantees that “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt.”[36] It is clear then that “power is exercised only over free subjects and only insofar as they are ‘free.’”[37]  But this justification of the famous resistance-formula turns out to be disappointingly formalistic one. It is true simply because we would by definition be in the grip of force rather than that of power, if there was for us no possibility of resistance, if we were not at least in a minimal fashion free.

Foucault’s turn from power to individual action and, in particular, to action through which individuals constitute themselves as subjects did not mean that he had lost all interest in politics by the 1980’s. He certainly remained active on behalf various political causes but the way he addressed them was now shaped very much by his new way of thinking. He now spoke about politics increasingly in moral terms. In a 1984 appeal on human rights he spoke, for instance, of common men as “members of the community of the governed, and thereby obliged to show mutual solidarity.” He also spoke of “the duty of this international citizenship to always bring the testimony of people’s suffering to the eyes and ears of governments” and he declared it to be a right of “private individuals to effectively intervene in the sphere of international policy and strategy” and to wrest from governments “little by little and day by day” the monopoly of action that they have attempted to reserve for themselves.[38]

The changing language suggests a shift in Foucault’s political thinking. This expressed itself first and foremost in his increasing preoccupation with what he called the care of the self and that his increasing inclination to treat public, political engagement as a mere consequence of this need for a care of self. “The problem of the relationships with others,” he wrote at that time, “is present throughout the development of the care of the self.”[39] Indeed, “the care of the self appears a pedagogical, ethical, also ontological condition for the development of a good ruler.”[40] When he spoke in these final years of an aesthetics of existence as focused on the care of the self, he did certainly not mean to foster a solipsistic preoccupation with one’s own individual selfhood. The care of the self was meant, rather, to include new forms of socialization, an ethics of friendship, and the shared pursuit of new types of experience. These might be thought to involve also a search for new forms of political community though not necessarily one conceived on the model of the state or any other rigid institutional structure. Foucault also realized that the care of self, whether focused on the individual or understood politically, could not proceed in a social vacuum but had to take place under existing conditions of power and he remained highly skeptical about the way every power structure tends to “subject” the individual to its own demands. Hence, there remained for him the task of constant struggle against the existing power structures. This struggle might take different forms at different historical moments. It might be directed against ethnic, social, and religious forms of domination; it might also be a struggle against economic exploitation. But it might finally also be a struggle “against that which ties the individual to himself and submits him to others,” and here Foucault added that “nowadays, the struggle against the forms of subjection – against the submission of subjectivity – is becoming more and more important, even though the struggles against forms of domination and exploitation have not disappeared, Quite the contrary.”[41]

Given this premise of the increasing importance of resisting subjection it becomes clearer why for the late Foucault became more and more preoccupied with the care of the self. From the seventies onwards Foucault had conceived of politics broadly as involving supervenient relations of power or, subsequently, as involving actions supervening on actions. Now he began to consider that these relations of supervenience can be found not only in the sphere of large-scale, institutionalized, and public politics, and not only within the relations of the household, business, or the academy. His interested was now turned to the phenomenon of supervenient actgions in relations of the self to the self.



Foucault has dealt with the supervenience of the political under a number of different labels. He has spoken of the supervenience of discipline, of power, and of action on action. The term he eventually settled on to characterize the phenomenon of supervenience was the notion of care. Care was for him, in other words, the kind of action by means of which we organize and direct our actions. This concept of care deserves our attention because it bears also on Foucault’s ultimate understanding of the nature of politics.

That we extend care is, indeed, one of the most characteristic features of human life.  In all cultures and at all times human beings care for babies and children but also for the sick, the old, and the dying. We certainly care for those who are near to us; but we care also (at least, occasionally) for strangers when they suffer spectacular misfortune or are strikingly disadvantaged. We care, in addition, for animals (particularly our own) and nurture (our own) plants. We also, of course, do care for ourselves or occasionally fail to do so. We care, finally also at times for our city, our country, or even humanity. This is not meant to suggest that we are often and characteristically in a caring state of mind with respect to others, to ourselves, to animals, and plants, that we feel concern towards … ,  or sympathy, or compassion, or even love. What matters is, rather, that we engage frequently and normally in acts of care-taking. How we feel bears, no doubt, on what we do. When we are in a caring state of mind we may be more inclined to engage in acts of care-taking. But the feeling is not the essential thing – certainly not in the political context. The crucial thing is rather the practice of care-taking itself.[42]

These observations are intended to say something that is in a way obvious and they are not, in any case, meant to advance a philosophical thesis. I am certainly not saying that care-taking is essential to being human or that it is an aspect of human nature. Nor am I saying that we should exercise care or have an obligation to do so. I am neither in the business of determining essences or natures nor in that of making moral prescriptions. I am merely recording that caring is pervasive and normal in human life as we know it. Something more can be noted, however, without trying to score heavy philosophical points.  It is that we are who we are only through caring. I would probably not be alive, if it were not for my mother’s nurturing. I would surely not have my present life without the care that my parents and teachers extended to my education.  Looking further a field, I see that I depend on various services that others extend to me just as they depend on services I extend to them. I take care of my pupils, students, patients, clients, or customers and I am or become at times a pupil, a student, a patient, a client, or a customer. It is, in effect, not too much to conclude that human culture is pervasively a structure of care.

This care-structure has not drawn much attention so far from our philosophers and I do not plan to make up for that shortcoming here.[43] I will consider, instead, only one of its features that is of particular interest for thinking about politics. It is that human care comes in significantly different forms and that we can usefully distinguish between what I will call simple care, guiding, and attending. There is, first of all, then the simple care we exercise when we concern ourselves with the life and wellbeing of someone or something. This is the kind of care we extend to babies, the sick, and the old. Babies and children need simple care because they are as yet immature, they are weak, and they are unable to exercise rights. They would most probably not survive for long on their own and would surely also not flourish on their own. The sick need care because they are handicapped by their disease, perhaps even bound to their bed, because they require therapy, and because they have all kinds of special needs. Without care their survival and health would once again be uncertain. The old and dying need care because they are worn out, perhaps even mentally confused, and because they are easily taken advantage off. They need our assistance in the transition from life to death. Once again their survival (whatever it is) and certainly their well-being depends on simple care. We can recognize the same in the way we treat animals and plants. The farmer who takes care of his animals and crops as well as the city-dweller who cares for her pet and nurtures her house-plants are concerned with assuring their life and well-being. Taking care of oneself is also in the first instance that simple care in which we seek to assure our own life and health.

From this we need to distinguish a second sort of care which is directed at actions rather than bodies and their well-being. A mother who takes care of her baby directs her action, of course, first of all at the baby and more precisely at the baby’s physical life and wellbeing. But when she teaches her child to speak, or to eat, or to be polite, the object of her caring becomes the child’s behavior, its actions. We can speak of the latter kind of care as action-guiding or simply as guiding. Guiding is similar to simple care in being a form of action; but it differs from simple care in that it is action directed at other actions. We can speak accordingly here of higher and lower levels of action in order to distinguish the action directed at another action from the action at which that action is directed. We can therefore also classify guiding specifically as a higher form of action. I will try to illustrate the point. Consider then the blow of a hammer crushing a vase. In this action the vase itself or, if you wish, its destruction is our object. But now consider that I stay the hand that is about to come down on the vase or, alternatively, that I show how to wield the hammer more effectively. My action is here in the nature of trying to prevent or enhance another action. My act is an act of guiding and thus of higher level than the act at which it is directed, that is in this case the blow of the hammer. I have said that we engage in simple care for various reasons and the same thing is true for acts of guiding but their reasons differ from those that motivate our extending of simple care. One reason why we engage in guiding is that almost all human action requires skills that have to be learned. (I leave it open whether all action is of this kind.) This learning may be occasionally self-administered – I still remember how I taught myself reading – but more generally it requires instruction from someone who already possesses the appropriate skills. Such instruction may, in turn, include the demonstrating of the action to be learned and sometimes its verbal description or again an explanation, but it will also typically include the learner’s repeated and supervised practice; it will certainly often involve that the learner be given encouragement and motivation and on some occasions it requires that he or she be disciplined and controlled, it may include reward and punishment, the production of pleasure and pain. Human actions are, moreover, often so complex that they need planning, regulating, supervising, as well as reviewing and assessing. Some actions are, in addition, difficult to execute or dangerous and thus call for exhortation and spurning on, while other actions so detrimental that they call for restraining, controlling, prohibiting, or resisting. That we guide ourselves and others is due then to the features of action in which we engage, want to engage, or want others to engage in. Guiding involves, moreover, many different activities; guiding is a multi-form thing.

The most important kind of guiding is that which relates to human interactions. This kind of guidance has a character of its own and deserves to be given a separate name. I will speak of it simply as tending. Human beings need tending or attending for some of the same reasons why they need guiding. Human interaction is after all a form of human action and is thus, like any other action, in need of guiding. We will engage in tending then for the same reasons for which we engage in guiding and tending will include all the activities that fall under the heading of guiding. Tending is thus at least as multiform as guiding. We engage in tending however also for additional and more specific reasons and tending finds characteristic expression also in a number of additional and distinctive activities. Interaction differs from plain action in that it directly engages more than one person. But different human beings, different agents are always on different trajectories, they are embarked on different courses of life. Interaction occurs only when these trajectory intersect. Each of the participants in the interaction may have a different purpose. Their interaction will be a product of its parallelogram of forces that  may consequences intended by neither party. Interactions are for that reason more problematic, more haunted by failure than simple actions. They call therefore also for more intensive and prolonged form of tending. These acts of tending include the establishing and maintaining of dialogue, negotiating, coordinating, conducting, reconciling, the formulating of terms of agreement and difference, the producing of compromises or alternatives,  the drafting of agreements and contracts, the telling of stories that can unite the different parties, enticing and threatening, the breaking of resistance, the enforcement of actions, etc. etc. In order to interact effectively each party must, moreover, have some understanding of their own needs, desires, and interests but also an understanding of the needs, desires, and interests of others. The participants must learn to move and speak appropriately, they need to be able to pick up on signs, gestures, customs, rules, and laws. To interact means to act in concert but such action, particularly at a large scale, calls for constant correlation, coordination, conducting, tending.

Tending can have three different kinds of object. It can be directed towards one’s own interactions with others. It can be directed at the interactions of individual others, and it can equally be directed at the interactions of whole groups and communities. Thus, (1) a man may be said to attend to his own interactions with others when he endeavors to become more patient, more understanding, or more forgiving in his relations to them, (2) a mother may be said to tend her child’s interactions with others, when she participates as an adult in their games, when she encourages or constrains her children’s interplay, and (3) the state can be said to attend to the interactions of its citizens when it makes laws to circumscribe their commercial, social, and political behavior. These forms of tending must not be confused with each other. The first is what the Greeks called the care of the self (epimeleia heautou). The second concerns the care of others and was known to the Greeks above all under the term paideia, that is the process by which human beings are formed in their coexistence. The third is what the Greeks knew as the care of the common (epimeleia koinonias or epimeleia tou koinou) of which politics is an instance. The care of the self takes the forms of exercise and discipline, of controlling one’s own needs, potentials, and limitations.  The care of others involves encouraging and deterring, nurturing and educating, and more specifically holding fast and letting go, praising and reprimanding, rewarding and punishing but may also have the more egalitarian character of various kinds of cooperative and mutual endeavor. The care of the common, finally, displays all the variety of action that we find in politics. The three kinds of tending are neither the same nor inevitably linked together. The care of the self may go hand in hand with a neglect of others and the care of others with carelessness towards oneself. Both differ, in turn, from the kind of care that is political in character. The care for oneself or that for a few select others may stop us from partaking in the care of the common.[44]

Simple care, guiding, and tending (the three types of care-taking I have here distinguished) are themselves varieties of action and specifically of interaction. They have all the characteristic features of such interaction and are, therefore, also always subject to same possible failures. Our attempts to provide care, guidance, or tending prove in many cases just as fragile as other types of interaction. We often fail, indeed, to take care of ourselves. Parents often fail to take care of their children. The state often fails to take care of its citizens. Someone or something may need care but the care that is offered may be flawed or weak, ineffective, unreliable, or irrelevant; it may prove wrong-headed, perverse, and even destructive; the care that is actually extended may be unneeded, unwanted, dictatorial, or oppressive. The notion of care does not, in other words, single out a morally admirable class of actions since there exists both genuine and false care, both benevolent and malignant care as well as care that is neutral between the two.[45] Because every act of care-taking (whether of simple caring, or guiding, or tending) may always fail it may call, in turn, for new acts of caring. Our caring itself needs care-taking; our guiding needs guidance, our tending needs tending. A government may, for instance, adopt a law but its citizens may resent and resist it and turn to the courts to have it reviewed. The court action is here an action directed at the government’s action which in turn sought to regulate the action of citizens. In this way, the levels of care may multiply. There will, of course, in each instance be an end to this process – not a logical but a factual end. There will always be acts of care that will not be subjected to caring, acts of guiding that have nothing to guide them, acts of tending that are left unattended. But the caring, the guiding, the tending that terminates this process will always itself once again be problematic, fragile, and fallible like all other human interaction and as all other caring, guiding, and tending. Care is the only response we have to the uncertainty of the human condition, but no kind of care can fully relieve that uncertainty.

Politics, I have said, can be understood as the care of the common. But I have not yet said whether all care that is tending of the common should be considered political or whether political tending is a distinctive subclass of the care of the common. I have not yet determined whether tending as such is political. It appears from what I have already said that tending includes many activities that are characteristic of politics in the most ordinary sense of the word. It includes a wide range of activities that stretch from forms of participatory consultation to the most imperious forms of commanding passing through all the conceivable varieties of political organization; from ad hoc interventions aimed at specific and momentary interactions to systems of regulations that prescribe general patterns of interaction; from the production of symbolic representations as templates, reference points or rules for interaction to the erection of physical boundaries that constrain interactions. But many of these activities occur also in domains where we are less used to speak of politics (such as the family, or church, or a modern corporation). Political action is certainly always action-guiding and it is, in particular, a tending of interactions. But what is required for such tending to be considered political? Is such tending political only when it takes place in an institutional framework? What then are we to say of those acts of tending through which we constitute ourselves as a group so as to establish a state? Are they not to be considered political? And is tending political in any kind of institutional order? Is the politics of a fraternal society, for instance, a genuine form of politics? Is tending political only when the institution has a distinctively political character? Here we are thrown back again to our initial question on how to understand the political, the question what makes an order or an action political.

We must grant that there is more than one way to employ the word “political.”  Like all ancient terms it has wider and narrower uses. There is most clearly the kind of political tending that occurs in a formally instituted community. We can speak here of organized politics. But there is also a tending in temporary and informal communities. That allows us to recognize a communal politics. Even the interactions between individuals in small temporary associations call for tending and this tending may on a  broad view be conceived as political. We should recognize therefore that there is such a thing as a politics of the family or a politics of friendship and even of love and that we are here speaking not just metaphorically. We can speak of a political tending even when we consider the actions that an individual uses to exercise him- or herself. The idea that of a person may be relating politically to him- or herself is surely not beyond our capacity of understanding. It might be useful to distinguish the latter two cases by calling them proto-political in contrast to the former which might be considered political in the stricter sense. And it is in the narrower sense that we can perhaps understand the generic characterization of politics as the care of the common.

Foucault borrowed the notion of care from the Greeks. It was Plato’s Alcibiades that acquainted him with the concept of the care of the self. In that dialogue he also discovered the idea that this care of self was essential for making oneself into political beings. Adopting this line of thought, Foucault began to speak of politics as an aspect or consequence of the care of the self. He failed to see that there is a difference between the care of the self and the care of the common. He failed to see also that the Greeks did, in fact, distinguish the two. Plato cites, in fact, the sophist Protagoras as the source of the concept of the care of the common. But it is possible that Protagoras was drawing, in turn, on still older ideas and that the concept of the care of the common arose together with the idea of democracy. If this conjecture holds, we must place the thought that politics is the care of the common historically before philosophy attained its classical shape. It certainly preceded the classical, Platonic-Aristotelian formula that politics is the rule of the polis. The latter conception is, in fact, not independent of the older one. Plato came to his concept of the political by arguing that politics is indeed the care of the common but that such care necessarily takes the form of ruling a polis or, in modern terms, of governing the state. Given that this formulation is now problematic to us, we may find it useful to return to the pre-philosophical understanding of politics as care of the common. Freeing ourselves from the entanglements of the classical and thus philosophical concept of the political may require that we unearth first the roots from which that classical concept has sprung.



[1] BL, p. 134.

[2] Hanna Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research, vol. 57, 1990, pp. 102-103.

[3] I am unsure about Foucault’s familiarity with either Schmitt or Arendt. There are no references to them in his writings and there exist only hints of his acquaintance with the two. Their affinity seems to be due, rather, to the fact that they drew on related sources.  Where Schmitt developed his new concept of the political with the help of Hobbes as seen through the eyes of Kierkegaard and Arendt did so with the assistance of Aristotle,  Heidegger and Jaspers, Foucault’s enterprise was conducted under the auspices of Nietzsche. The thinkers they drew on belonged, in other words, all to the existential tradition. Given this affiliation, it may not be altogether wrong to classify Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault together as existential political thinkers.

[4] “Interview with Foucault,” The Essential Works, vol. 3,  p. 240.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon Books, New York 1972, p. 17.

[6] “Interview with Michel Foucault,” pp. 247-48.

[7] Ibid, p. 279.

[8] Ibid.

[9] CP, p. 20, note 2.

[10] The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, p. 94. (Hereafter referred to as HS)

[11] HS, p. 96

[12] HS, p. 94.

[13] Ibid. , p. 93.

[14] The Use of Pleasure, p. 10.

[15] Michel Foucault, “The History of Sexuality,” in Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books New York 1980, p. 187. 

[16] Ibid., p. 184.

[17] Ibid., pp. 183 and 186.

[18] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 343.

[19] “The History of Sexuality,” loc. cit., p. 188.

[20] Ibid., p. 187

[21] The History of Sexuality, vol. 1., p. 93.

[22] “The History of Sexuality,” p. 189.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p. 190.

[25] Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power, “ in Language, Counter-memory, Practice, p. 213.

[26] Ibid., p. 189.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., p. 190.

[29] Michel Foucault, “Prisons at asiles dans le mécanismes du pouvoir,” in Dits et Ecrits, vol. 2, p. 524, quoted in Didier Eribon, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, translated by Michael Lucey, Duke U. P., Durham and London 2004, p. 293.

[30] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 326.

[31] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, New York 1986, pp. 11 and 10.

[32] “The Subject and Power,” loc. cit., p. 327.

[33] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power” (1982) in Essential Works of Michel Foucault, vol. 3, p. 341. Foucault repeats this characterization of power again and again throughout this text.

[34] Ibid., pp. 340 and 341.

[35] Michel Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in Essential Works of Foucault, vol. 3, p. 372.

[36] Michel Foucault, “Omnes et Singulatim: Toward a Critique of Political Reason,” Essential Wrks of Foucault, vol. 3, p. 324.

[37] “Subject and Power,” loc. cit., p. 342.

[38] Micchel Foucault, “Confronting Governments: Human Rights,” in Essential Works, vol. 3, pp. 474-475.

[39] “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 287.

[40] Ibid., p. 293.

[41] “The Subject and Power,” loc. cit., pp. 331-332.

[42]  Harry Frankfurt speaks of caring as an “indispensably foundational activity through which we provide continuity and coherence to our volitional lives.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, Necessity, Volition, and Love, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 162.)  This is close to what I am here suggesting but still differs in detail. For Frankfurt caring is a “reflexive” activity “constituted by a complex set of cognitive, affective, and volitional dispositions and states.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, p. 85)

[43] An exception is Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time which examines some of its characteristics though not ones that bear immediately on the understanding of politics as the care of the common.

[44] It is Foucault’s merit to have rediscovered the crucial importance of the notion of the care of the self for Greek ethics and for ethical thought in general. He failed, however, to pay attention to the Greek notion of the care of the common. Instead he proposed a dubious argument to show that the care of the self implied political engagement.

[45]  The nurse takes devotedly care of her patients; the gangster takes viciously care of those who oppose him; the shopkeeper takes care of his business.

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