Daniel Rodriguez-Navas Tackles Foucault, Religion, and Ethics

If you’re looking for Daniel Rodriguez-Navas, you’ll find him firmly at the intersection of ethics and the history of philosophy. You’ll also find him in an office at The New School of Social Research, where he is our new Assistant Professor of Philosophy. Research Matters spoke to him on his international background, Foucault, and whether a secular ethics can really exist.

Research Matters: Welcome to The New School for Social Research! We’re so excited you’re a part of our community. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your life? How did you arrive here?

Daniel Rodriguez-Navas: Well, I come from Venezuela, but I took a long detour to get here. When I was 17, I moved to Hong Kong to attend a United World College, a school that brings students from all over the world (primarily on scholarship) in an attempt to cultivate cross-cultural understanding. Then, I spent one year in Venezuela, then five years in France for undergraduate and masters degrees, then again back to Venezuela, but this time to teach while applying to grad school. Finally, I did my PhD at the University of Chicago and spent the last two years as a postdoc at Middlebury College.

RM: That’s a pretty global itinerary! At what point along the way did you become interested in philosophy, and how was that journey impacted by your travels?

DRN: My interest in philosophy was, in a way, always there. But one its main focal points, at least earlier on, was my relationship to religion. I was brought up Catholic, and attended a Jesuit school growing up in Venezuela. I took religion very seriously. But at some point early on, when I was maybe about eleven, I started questioning things a bit more thoroughly. I didn’t have many resources at the time. I found a copy of Descartes Meditations in my house. And later, through my older sister, I started reading Nietzsche and some of the existentialists — Sartre, Camus —  and that really kindled my interest in philosophy, and helped me better understand my concerns about religion, and to form my own attitude towards it. But that was a long process…

At any rate, this, and the experience in the school in Hong Kong, where I had a group of friends who also enjoyed reading and talking about and all sorts of philosophical questions, sufficed to make me want to study philosophy. Since then, I have always lived wherever studying philosophy brought me. France seemed like an ideal place to study, and education in France was almost free. So after a quite intense language studying regime, off I went.

Then, during my third year in France, I took a course on Husserl’s Fifth Logical Investigation. I found it fascinating. It seem to me that Husserl offered a more radical and plausible version Kant’s epistemological project. But I also realized that that course wasn’t enough, that understanding Husserl’s project would take a lot more time and work. So I decided to do my MA thesis on post-Husserl and Kant’s views about the role of imagination in the constitution of experience. That was my first thesis. Since it focused on the second (post-1913) Husserl, I decided to work on the early Husserl for the second thesis, on Husserl and Frege’s theories of proper names. And after that, for a number of reasons, intellectual, professional, personal and I must admit, financial, I decided to come to the U.S. While I was in France I had been working with Jocelyn Benoist, whose work and overall approach to philosophy I found (and continue to find) deeply insightful. It turned out that he got a position as a regular visiting professor at Chicago, at the time. So at that point, Chicago seemed to offer the best of two worlds for me.

RM: Do you consider yourself an ethicist, a Foucauldian, a political philosopher, none of the above?

DRN:  With respect to ethics: I grew up in a world that was created by a God. And of course, ethical questions were at the center of the worries about religion I mentioned before, to such an extent that my change of attitude towards religion was ethically motivated: it seemed to me that living ethically required giving up religion; that one can only live genuinely ethically—if one actually has a secular standpoint. Actually has, not merely lives or thinks ‘as if’ one did. All of this is of course terribly naïve, and even terribly Christian. But that’s the view I reasoned myself into back then. And yet, when it came to philosophy, for the longest time I had the view that ethical questions were the most complicated, and that I needed to get clearer about various fundamental metaphysical and epistemological questions ‘before I was ready’ for ethics.

All this to say: I always found ethics fascinating, and pressing, but always went out of my way to avoid writing on it. So when I was in grad school, I started worked on a project on self-consciousness: on the cognitive resources that a conscious creature must have in order to be capable of the kind of first person experience and thought that we’re capable of. But I also took seminars on Foucault with Arnold Davidson, and that’s when I was hooked. I had the inkling, the hunch, that I could find a deeply original, secular approach to ethics in his work….a rejection of the view [that]…unless the ‘authority’ of moral claims can be traced back to something external to us, or to something internal to us, but common to us all qua human beings… (something, you may say, external to each individual’s will), such claims lack ‘authority’ altogether.

I have the sense that while most approaches to ethics today take themselves to be secular, they remain thoroughly religious. Indeed, much of our ethical vocabulary, the sets of questions that we ask, the way we reason about ethics, are still largely shaped by the Abrahamic traditions that long dominated our tradition, both within and outside the discipline. And I was interested in exploring, by working on Foucault, a truly secular approach to the question “how to live?”, one that did dismiss various forms of relativism and voluntarism from the outset, but that did also avoid the pitfall of offering an error theory of ethical experience, or that inadvertently rendered the latter completely unintelligible (as radical versions of relativism and voluntarism, and various other metaphysically parsimonious approaches to ethics often do).

So yes, I consider myself an ethicist. And within ethics, I do have a Foucauldian approach. But more generally I think of myself as less of a Foucauldian than a Foucault scholar. I am less interested in ‘defending’ Foucault’s views than in getting them right and using the parts that I find interesting and useful to address various topics in ethics.  More broadly, I think of myself as a historian of philosophy, who works primarily, but not exclusively, on 19th and 20th Century European philosophy.

RM: What do you make of the relationship between Foucault’s early work and his late work? What is the scholarship missing, and why should the general public care?

DRN: Foucault spent his career examining the interplay between knowledge and scientific discourse, mechanisms of power and political institutions, and later on, what kind of stance an individual can take in the face of the ways in which power structures and traditional ways of thinking, being and acting (with some of their good aspects, but also with many of their horrendous ones) tend to perpetuate themselves. Foucault not only offered insightful and original analyses of these issues, but offered conceptual resources for developing effective strategies for individual and collective self-determination. All good reasons for to care about his work, perhaps specially in the current political climate.

Now if you ask me what the scholarship is missing, my view—but I acknowledge that this is controversial—is that a careful, comprehensive, scholarly analysis of the last period of Foucault’s career, the ethical period, is missing, and more precisely, of Foucault’s idea of an aesthetics of existence, and why he took such an idea to be ethically interesting.  This is what my main current project is on, so there’s a lot to say. But here’s one quick way to put the issue: the notion of the aesthetics of existence captures Foucault’s attempt to rethink ethical normativity, to move away from a deeply engrained conception of our relationship to ethical norms of conduct, not just the explicit norms that have the forms of commands, but to all sorts of standards of behavior that we either subscribe to or that we take others to hold us to.

However, it can be hard to see this (and how powerful the way of thinking that emerges can be), because Foucault passed away while he was working on this. What tends to happen in the scholarship is that Foucault emphasizes the importance of idea of “the aesthetics of existence” in his approach to ethics, but people recoil almost by reflex. The idea that ethics is about living life as a work of art, it really can sound like ivory tower babble at its worst… think of someone facing a real ethical challenge, or about the global trends in political discourse in the last few years, and then someone comes along and says, “Oh…if you want to find out what to do, just think of your life as a work of art!”

Partly because of this, and partly because Foucault famously resisted, for the most part, offering a positive ethical theory, with commands and prescriptions as to what we should do, even some of the most sophisticated readers present him as having a rather superficial engagement with ethics, and as depriving us of the means for engaging in serious political resistance. So the tendency has been to minimize the centrality of the notion within Foucault’s ethical views, and if not, to minimize the aesthetic dimension of the notion. And of course, this would be right, if all Foucault had to say about ethics is that we should treat ourselves as works of art. But I’m afraid that to do this is to proceed too quickly. Instead of really trying to understand what the aesthetics of existence is supposed to be and why Foucault took it to be so promising, scholars tend either to criticize Foucault for it, or to try to defend him from such criticisms by minimizing its importance. So we’re in this peculiar situation that while the concept has received a lot of attention, it’s content and role within Foucault’s overall ethical views, and thereby the views themselves, remains largely unaccounted for.

As for the other question, I believe the connection between the early work and the late ethical thought is internal and organic. There are no big breaks, merely shifts, sometimes methodological, sometimes perspectival. But Foucault worked on the same set of interconnected issues, with a more or less homogeneous approach, from about 1953 until his death in 1984 (this again is somewhat controversial). Simplifying matters a little: how can we minimize the permanent risk that, through our passive acceptance of traditional ways of thinking and being, we are more or less inadvertently participating in various exclusionary practices, and justifying them through scientific, medical, moral, and political discourse?

In the final period of his career, one of the focal points of Foucault’s work is ethical discourse and practices, what we may think of as ethical experience. He is trying to work out our relation to ethical norms insofar as they are rules for life, that is, rules for living self-conscious organisms. Even in the late work, with Foucault’s insistence that the subject-matter (the substance) of the aesthetics of existence is life (bios), he is trying to find an approach to ethics that emphasizes the fact that it, ethics, has always been about the governance of living organisms, of each individual organism by itself, of all by others, and of the interplay between these two forms of governance.

So that’s one way of thinking about the continuity of his project over the years, up until the final stage. But another connection is the development of an approach to ethics that makes it possible to understand the possibility of effective resistance. If power is so pervasive, so ubiquitous as Foucault argues in the mid-seventies, then how is resistance possible? The aesthetics of existence captures the rudiments of Foucault’s answer to that.

What interests Foucault about the notion, I think, is the parallel between the artists and the ethical subject’s relationships to aesthetic and ethical norms. Both live within a tradition, guided by the implicit and explicit norms that regulate conduct within the cultural setting that is an expression of that tradition. Both face the task of building on those norms in order to transform their practice. In the case of artistic practice this is clear enough: the aspiration is not to imitate the old style by simply accepting the old norms, but to transform the style by reconfiguring the norms. In the case of ethics and politics, the idea of transformation is important if one thinks­—as Foucault rightly does­—that ethical discourse is ethically dangerous, in that it can be (and how many times hasn’t it been and isn’t still to day!) used to marginalize and exclude people, to deprive them of their entitlement to be treated ethically. And in both cases, arts and ethics, it matters that one cannot simply shed the tradition and start anew from scratch. Traditional norms are constitutive of us, they thoroughly inform how we are, how we think, how we feel and what we think is possible. So how can we resist the pressure of tradition? That is one of the main questions that he is trying to answer through his work on ethics. The aesthetics of existence is key insofar as it offers a model for resistance, and for rethinking ethical normativity in a way that opens up new pathways for resistance.

RM: Shifting from your research to the present: What was your image of The New School when you were on the market, and why did you want to come here given the choice? What did you think The New School was, and why did it seem like a good place to continue developing this line of research?

DRN: The New School is a very prestigious institution, and the philosophy department is very well known. So of course it was a great position. One might have written on philosophy of language at a very analytic philosophy oriented program and still want to work at The New School! But, more important, it was an ideal job for me, because The New School is a stronghold of continental philosophy, of historically informed philosophy (the phrase used to be and still should be redundant, but it isn’t here and now!) and also for politically engaged philosophy. And  there is an emphasis on the concreteness of philosophy, of a way of doing philosophy that isn’t just about the perpetual proliferation of philosophical discourse, from and to philosophers alone. People here try to keep the world in view and want philosophy to be an agent of change. The faculty, and the history of the department, are really remarkable in this regard. So for me this wasn’t just a great job among others, but it was, to be quite frank, a dream job!