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Studies in Philosophy and Education 20: 75–91, 2001. © 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


A Critical Theory of the Self: Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Foucault
The University of Auckland, New Zealand

Abstract. Critical thinking, considered as a version of informal logic, must consider emotions and personal attitudes in assessing assertions andconclusions in any analysis of discourse. It must therefore presuppose some notion of the self. Critical theory may be seen as providing a substantive and non-neutral position for the exercise of critical thinking. It therefore must presuppose some notion of the self. This paper argues for a Foucauldean position on the self to extend critical theory and provide a particular position on the selffor critical thinking. This position on the self is developed from more traditional accounts of the self from Descartes to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Key words: self, care of the self, critical theory, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Foucault

All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through ananalysis of him. They involuntary think of ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas, as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux, as a sure measure of things. Everything that the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers . . . what is needed fromnow on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty (Nietzsche, Human All Too Human). Introduction Critical thinking is normally considered as a version of informal logic which ‘examines the nature and function of arguments in natural language, stressing the craft rather than the formal reasoning’.1 Whilst then there is room for assessing the context in which assertions are madeand conclusions are drawn, including the intrusion of emotions and personal attitudes, conceived in this manner it may still rest as an essentially neutral enterprise, like formal logic. Critical thinking then would lack the force of critical to be found, eg, in the writings of the Frankfurt school. In this latter sense of ‘critical’ we encounter not merely skills of informal logic but also atheory of how to think critically which, starting from particular moral, social and political premises is no longer neutral.



It is this latter sense of ‘critical’ which I wish to address in this paper. Much has been written in philosophy of education about critical thinking and, indeed, critical theory (especially on Habermas) but I wish to extend the notion of a theoryof critical thinking to include a critical theory of the self. It would be a theory which adopted Nietzsche’s injunction to abandon the search for ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas and instead to see ‘man’ in an historical sense as a result of historical philosophising. I will attempt this by starting with traditional views of the self, including Schopenhauer’s and Wittgenstein’s ‘mysterious’ self,arguing that Foucault’s account of the self, influenced by Nietzsche, goes beyond traditional approaches to the self, especially dualistic positions. Foucault’s problematising notion of the self 2 denies that the self is a substance (aeterna veritas), and in going beyond binary oppositions, is a positive life affirming account of the possibilities for human beings. To that extent, I would claim, it isworthy of being seen as ‘critical’, and thereby as contributing to critical thinking.

Conceptions of Critical Theory Nietzsche provided a totalising critique of the Enlightenment but his critique culminated not just in a fusion of validity and power but a replacement of the will to truth with the will to power. This is the path to be taken by Foucault though, unlike Nietzsche, he (arguably)...