Richard A. Lynch, Foucault’s Critical Ethics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016; 248 pages. ISBN: 978-0823271252.

Reviewed by Simon Dutton, University of South Florida.

Foucault’s Critical Ethics, Richard A. Lynch’s first published monograph, is an interesting study of power with a view to a Foucauldian ethical theory. The focus is on Foucault’s works from the last ten years of his life (the 1974 course at the Collège de France and Discipline and Punish). This study begins in what is generally considered to be Foucault’s genealogical period—earlier than the ethical turn most clearly observable in the 1980s (or arguably, the late 1970s). However, Lynch does not limit himself to the texts of this period. He reaches out towards earlier works, posthumous publications, archival documents, and the complete series of lectures at the Collège de France (from 1971-84), many of which are already published in several volumes, but some of which Lynch has transcribed and translated himself from audio recordings. Lynch will justify this broader focus throughout the book. It is certainly essential to his thesis, and I will discuss his justification in this review. I introduce this caution, however, for readers searching for an in-depth analysis of Foucault’s strictly ethical works, for whom this book is perhaps not ideal. That an ethical theory will be discussed, and that ethics is a significant part of Foucault’s oeuvre, are points that Lynch will frequently claim and consistently maintain. The direct discussion of an ethical theory, however, does not begin with any rigour until the fourth and last chapter.

The lengthy discussion of power, constituting the better part of the book, is original in places without being controversial. The more contentious goal of this book is to establish an ethical theory in Foucault’s philosophy that is systematic and prescriptive—an approach that Lynch himself admits is “in a certain sense, very unfoucauldian.” (16) The concern, frequently expressed by Foucault, is that reducing his work to a prescriptive system “can only contribute to the functioning of a particular power situation that…must be criticized.” (“Interview,” 288) Lynch perhaps means to remain uncontroversial in his specific treatment of power in the hope that it will make this more controversial, “unfoucauldian” claim less objectionable. The upshot of this approach is that it makes Lynch’s book an accessible study for readers with only a rudimentary understanding of Foucault who wish to become better acquainted.

There are three organizing themes that persist throughout the discussion of power that will guide and inform the eventual discussion of ethics. Lynch frequently highlights the concept of emergence; he suggests that there is an integral quality of hope to be identified in Foucault’s work; and he stresses the fundamental significance of resistance within power relations. That Lynch carefully establishes a framework from the beginning of the book that will emerge in the final chapter is illuminating and quite elegant. There is an insistence that Foucault’s theoretical practices emerge from one another, even as they might seem to be abrupt shifts (e.g., from the genealogical to the ethical). This is paralleled in the epochal shifts in the formulation of power relations that constitute the subject of Foucault’s analysis. Lynch contends that understanding Foucault’s so-called ethical turn requires a particular understanding of his earlier work. Following this formula, Lynch’s picture of a Foucauldian ethics could not reasonably emerge without first framing the concept of power in relation to hope and resistance. This generates the conditions of possibility for what Lynch terms “bootstrapping freedom,” certainly Lynch’s most significant contribution.

The concept of bootstrapping freedom is introduced towards the end of the book as a compelling response to what Lynch considers “the most important criticisms of Foucault’s ethical theory.” (185) The central criticism is epitomized in Nancy Fraser’s accusation of a normative confusion in Foucault’s ethical works. I cannot reproduce Fraser’s powerful argument here, but Lynch provides a gloss: “Foucault is guilty, she argues, of implicitly appealing to normative standards that he cannot justify (and sometimes even seems to reject), in particular the liberal framework built around the notion of freedom.” (188) The attempt to save Foucault from these difficulties is made by an appeal to “conceptual bootstrapping, where the grounding for ethical evaluative and normative judgements are found within the critical attitude and social practices themselves.” (188) The (unabashedly Kantian) contention is that Foucault’s conceptualization of power contains within itself the “conditions of possibility for the social relations that are to be normatively evaluated.” (194)

Lynch recognizes the fact that Foucault made substantial shifts in focus throughout his career. He also notes that Foucault would constantly recast his “earlier work in his presently current terms.” (191) That Foucault can legitimately do so is essential to Lynch’s project. He needs to maintain that, rather than changing tack, Foucault’s work evolved over time. Lynch’s insistence on an evolving theoretical framework borders on an apologist account of Foucault’s revisionist reading of his own work, “for example, in the 1970’s recasting his work on madness as ‘always having been about power’.” (191) By consistently characterizing these shifts as an evolution, Lynch can maintain that each successive change grows out of its prior constitution—that, for instance, the theoretical framework of the genealogical approach might be more complex and differently adapted than that of the archeological, but that the archaeological always already contained the conditions of possibility for the genealogical. Concerning power as a cohesive theory, Lynch argues that “part of what qualifies Foucault’s analysis as a proper ‘theory’ of power is diachronic consistency.” (29) Each shift in focus must be able to utilize the analytic tools established in the previous focus. And since Lynch hopes to show that ethics and power are interrelated, the focus on power needs to maintain diachronic consistency with the later shift towards ethics.

Lynch will also need to establish a traceable continuity across the historical forms of power that Foucault analyzes, even given their apparently discrete manifestations. A review of Foucault’s work reveals that the ways in which power relations are organized (their modalities) betray significant differences from one historical period to another. To show a diachronic consistency (from pastoral power to governmentality), Lynch argues that each modality contains certain elemental properties that will emerge from within an established modality to become the subsequent modality. Rather than seeing abrupt changes in dominant modes of power relations, Lynch traces an evolution in both the modalities of power and the method of analysis. As such, a theoretical consistency is maintained, and a linkage between historical periods is traceable.

The tracking of evolution and emergence constitutes the better part of the first two chapters of Lynch’s book. He focuses primarily on Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. However, Lynch continues to make use of Foucault’s Lectures at the Collège de France. This additional resource proves to be of significant value. It allows Lynch to fill in potential gaps in Foucault’s major works. Such gaps could otherwise be fatal to the crucial establishment of diachronic consistency. It is in his 1978 course that, according to Lynch, Foucault would reframe his analysis of power by reference to biopower and governmentality; that would “thus complete the overall analysis of power within which Foucault’s ethics emerges.” (88)

Lynch characterizes biopower as a matured articulation of power, more nuanced and expressing greater complexity than the concept of disciplinary power in Discipline and Punish. He suggests that a theory derived from the understanding of disciplinary power is too bleak. He intends to defend Foucault against criticisms that suggest his conceptualization of power relations constitutes a denial of freedom. Lynch believes that “one of the motivations behind Foucault’s continuous revisions of his analyses of power…is the need to account adequately for agency on the part of individuals and institutions.” (30) In the development of biopower, there is a fuller understanding of the interplay of the necessity of resistance within power relations. Resistance presents the possibility of freedom, and the possibility of freedom entails hope. Lynch believes that freedom from particular modalities of power remains a possibility, because “[p]ower is always accompanied by resistance; resistance is in fact a fundamental structural feature of power.” (37) This fundamental feature is made more explicit in Foucault’s development of biopower, in which lie the “questions of hope and despair at the heart of his work.” (60)

The task of presenting a cohesive theory of power through Foucault’s middle and late periods is a large one. Hence, one can understand the need to dedicate three of four chapters to this problem before returning to a discussion of ethics, even in a book with the word ethics in the title. Lynch is detailed in his account, and the long journey to the fourth chapter is rewarding.

In the final chapter, the concept of bootstrapping freedom, which is central to the ethical theory, initially arises as an answer to a criticism of Foucault’s rejection of foundationalism—that his “accounts of power, subjectivity, and freedom…are not grounded in an a priori but emerge from historical practice.” (5) This rejection precludes the possibility of establishing the grounds that would legitimize an ethical theory. Lynch believes that “the most important criticisms of Foucault’s ethical project revolve around this aporia.” (185) The aporia is explicitly raised by Mark Bevir, but Lynch suggests that other critics, like Fraser, echo this criticism. Lynch begins to respond by stating that,

[E]thical or normative claims can emerge in a justified or ‘grounded’ way given Foucault’s structural analysis of power. The key for this development is Foucault’s claim that freedom and power relations are mutually constitutive for each other, a claim that we have seen emerging throughout my argument. (188)

Lynch has argued extensively that, “power relations do—and, significantly, must—presuppose freedom.” (190) An effective ground for ethics is established within Foucault’s system of power relations. Implicit in this system is the concept of freedom. By appealing exclusively to the conditions established within his system, Foucault can pull himself up by the bootstraps “to generate normative criteria.” (190)

Lynch’s picture of a Foucauldian ethics is rooted in the understanding of power relations, which emerges in an innovative response to criticisms levied against any such possibility. There is a sense that the author also has a broader goal of portraying Foucault as a systematic philosopher. Some might take issue with an attempt to systematize Foucault; some might not think that Foucault needs to be rescued from accusations of a failure of normativity. In any case, Lynch’s depth of scholarship proves illuminating—it is broad in scope while maintaining attention to meticulous hermeneutic detail. The book is a welcome contribution to Foucault studies.


Additional Works Cited

Michel Foucault (2000), “Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Power, (ed.) J. Faubion, (tr.) R. Hurley (New York: New Press), 239-97.

Michel Foucault (2009), Security, Territory Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, (ed.) A.I. Davidson, (tr.) G. Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Nancy Fraser (1981), “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” PRAXIS International, vol. 1, no. 3: 272-287.