Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 October 2009
Freedom is a concept that it is repeatedly used today in discourses ranging from political philosophy and rhetoric to self-help guides, yet it seems that it has never been less clear what it means. This is not only due to conceptual confusion or lack of philosophical precision. The effects of the rapid process of economic and cultural globalization have made many of our traditional ways of thinking and living redundant, and have raised critical questions about our ‘freedom’ to command our lives. On the other hand, neo-liberalism and the extreme individualism characterizing our culture have made ‘freedom’ itself a contestable value.
One strand in this present ‘crisis’ of freedom is the critique of an autonomous subject which characterizes post-structuralist thinking. Michel Foucault's thought – and post-structuralist thinking as a whole – is often read as a rejection of the subject. This ‘rejection’ is interpreted in varying terms. The subject cannot ground knowledge, meanings or morality. It is not the agent of social or epistemic changes, but rather the effect of them. There is no subject in itself prior to the normalizing cultural coding that turns the human being into a subject. All possible ways to comprehend oneself and to act in a coherent fashion are conditioned by a historically varying cultural matrix.
The charges against Foucault's thought in contemporary debates often focus on the question of the freedom of the subject and the notions that are understood as intrinsically tied to or dependent on it: autonomy, authenticity, responsibility, political agency.