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“Bursting from Slavery: Processes of Subjection and Struggles for Freedom in Hegel and Foucault”

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Title: “Bursting from Slavery: Processes of Subjection and Struggles for Freedom in Hegel and Foucault”
Author: Martin, Laura
Advisor: Stauffer, Jill; Wright, Kathleen
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Philosophy
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2011
Abstract: How do we become subjects, and what does this process of subjection mean for our freedom? This paper will speak to this question through an exploration of the dynamic differences and similarities between the work of Hegel and Foucault. Hegel claims we are progressing triumphantly towards a re-worked ideal of freedom to be concretely realized in a golden age of modernity. Foucault’s dystopic vision, however, forces us to face the possibility that the attainment of freedom is a mere mirage, and exposes the way progress conceals subtle forms of unfreedom. One conventional way to read these two views are as the positions of a modern and a post-modern thinker respectively. Indeed, the traditional conceptual, chronological narrative tells a story in which Foucault corrects Hegel’s system: Foucault denies the reconciliatory Hegelian view of a totalizing historical progression, and in doing so, takes us beyond the modern myth of progress and freedom to a place more accurately reflecting our ambivalent experience with modernity. Through the exploration of themes of power, freedom, and subjection in both thinkers’ work, I wish to complicate this philosophical order and suggest that in the realm of freedom, each thinker’s work can be used to modify and enrich the other. Foucault’s attitude towards Hegel was at best ambivalent, at worst hostile. He once claimed that the primary task of his generation was to flee Hegel. Despite the fact that his work is in part an effectuation of an intellectual separation from Hegelian themes, there are moments of surprising intimacy between the two thinkers’ theoretical visions. Foucault obliquely admits to this when he confesses, “…truly escaping Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us…” (Foucault 1972, 235) This paper will play upon one of these moments of closeness in order to compare each thinker’s understanding of how we come to 2 be subjects. This is the similar primordial scene of dominating force where both thinkers locate the birth of the subject: for Foucault, this scene is one of repeated enactment of power upon the historical body, whereas for Hegel it is the oppressive power the master exerts over the slave’s embodied self. Despite Foucault’s attempt to break with Hegelian themes, an exploration of these two processes of subjection and their implications for freedom presents us with a Foucaultian aporia prompting a return to Hegel. This partial return to Hegel generates a rich comparison, leading us to ask important questions about the nature of oppression and freedom in today’s society. The paper will be divided into three broad sections. Part I will first situate the work of Hegel and Foucault and their struggles with understanding the freedom of a historical, socialized individual within the development of modern philosophy. Next, I will describe Foucault’s theory of power, drawing attention to the innovative tools he provides to articulate subtle forms of oppression and to enact resistance against this oppression. I will argue, however, that his description of the production of the subject by power renders it difficult to understand how the subject moves from being impacted by forces to being able to resist those forces. His notion of freedom through resistance is problematized by his weak concept of the subject. Part II will focus on the alternative Hegelian vision of subjection figured in the master-slave dialectic, and will draw attention to the way in which intersubjective, self-reflexive Hegelian individual serves to respond to the aporia of the Foucaultian subject. Part III, will describe Hegel’s notion of freedom and its requirements, and will offer some reflections on how we might understand both theories in conjunction with each-other. This reflection will open up space to ask important and necessary questions about struggles for freedom.
Subject: Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831 -- Criticism and interpretation
Subject: Slavery -- Psychological aspects
Subject: Liberty -- Philosophy
Subject: Foucault, Michel, 1926-1984 -- Criticism and interpretation
Subject: Power (Social sciences) -- History
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Martin, Laura. "“Bursting from Slavery: Processes of Subjection and Struggles for Freedom in Hegel and Foucault”". 2011. Available electronically from

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