On Problematization: Elaborations on a Theme in “Late Foucault”
1. What is a “Foucault”?
For at least four decades now, the ideas of Michel Foucault have resonated across a wide range of academic fields in the English-speaking academy. While this influence is perhaps most clearly felt in the humanities, Foucault has also provided a frame of reference in social science disciplines, including sociology, cultural studies, human geography and anthropology, amongst others.1 Foucault’s work is often used to bring a darker image of power relations to social theory, and to recommend that social scientists should develop an historical imagination towards their objects of analysis.2 In these and other uses, the authority of “Foucault” is most often deployed to support models of critical social science, understood as a set of procedures for revealing the operations of power in the routines of everyday and organisational life.
Across these fields, there are different versions of “Foucault” at work, ranging from a theorist of power, to a model of intellectual commitment, or an inspiration for new models of ethico-political practice.3 And across these fields, there is also a hardening division of labour between an increasingly sophisticated field of exegesis and a longer standing tradition of application of Foucault’s ideas.4 Cutting across this division is another, between readings of Foucault by “ontologizers” and by “empiricists.”5 This division might also be characterised in terms of readings of Foucault’s work in search of grand concepts (of power, of biopolitics, of discipline), and readings that find there a model of analysis, if not quite a methodology (some version of archaeology, genealogy, or perhaps discourse analysis).6
In light of these varied uses of “Foucault” in social theory, I want here to reflect on the relevance for social science inquiry of the notion of “problematization” that Foucault discussed on various occasions towards the end of his life. According to Foucault, analysing practices through the “study of problematizations” involves asking, “how and why certain things (behavior, phenomena, processes) became a problem.”7 Foucault characterised the genealogy of problems as involving a double movement “in which one tries to see how the different solutions to a problem have been constructed; but also how these solutions result from a specific form of problematization.”8
A large part of the interest in the notion of problematization arises from Foucault’s own use of this term to characterise the sweep of his own work. Problematization is an idea that appears in interviews, lectures, and publications from the last few years before his death. Foucault claimed that his own work found its “theoretical coherence” “in the definition of the historically unique forms in which the generalities of our relations to things, to others, to ourselves, have been problematized.”9 Foucault once referred to problematization as “a barbarous word.”10 He used it nonetheless to clarify the emergent shape of his work on issues of government, biopolitics, and the care of the self. In particular, it is a notion through which he rethinks his previous work in light of the development of the project to undertake a history of modern sexuality.11 Interviewed by Francois Ewald shortly before his death in 1984, Foucault identified the notion of problematization as the common element of all of his work from History of Madness onwards, “though I had not yet sufficiently isolated this notion. But one always moves backwards toward the essential; the most general things appear last.”12 By his own account, Foucault had moved from investigating the problematization of madness and mental illness, to the problematization of relations between delinquency and punishment, and on to the ways in which sexual activity was problematized. It is in light of these kinds of remarks by Foucault that Arpad Szakolczai has argued that problematization is “the guiding thread of his work,” and Colin Koopman has suggested that it is the idea that provides “a kind of master concept for Foucault’s methodology.”13
Problematization easily appears to be Foucault’s last word on how best to interpret not just his last works, but also the whole trajectory of his work. Colin Gordon has, however, warned against the tendency to read Foucault’s last works as offering “final answers and testamentary messages,” when in fact Foucault might have been “setting up a battery of new tools and frameworks for analysis” for anticipated future work. Gordon suggests that the future work would have developed Foucault’s stated concerns with modes of truth telling as both a political practice and personal activity.14 The significance of the notion of problematization should be located within this incomplete project. Interest in the theme of problematization in Foucault’s late work has been given impetus recently by the publication of Colin Koopman’s book-length study, which uses this idea as the basis for outlining a pragmatist interpretation of Foucault’s work, as well as by recent essays by Paul Rabinow drawing attention to the influence on his own work of both Foucault’s ideas and John Dewey’s account of the relationship between inquiry and problematic situations.15 Koopman and Rabinow both locate the significance of the idea of problematization in the wider context of Foucault’s diagnosis of modernity as founded on the splitting of concerns with truth from concerns with conduct. I want to develop this line of thought, in order to explore the ways in which the notion of problematization interrupts some of the conventional interpretations of what “Foucault” offers to social theory. Interpretations of the idea of problematization cut to the heart of different ways of engaging with Foucault’s ideas. It seems at first sight to provide a refined model of critical practice. On closer inspection, it turns out to be better interpreted as a contribution to a more descriptive understanding of the tasks of social inquiry.
2. Thinking problematically
Foucault discussed problematization primarily in the context of his work on Greek and early Christian practices of the cultivation of the self. The Uses of Pleasure, published in 1984, opens with a justification for the departure from the original outline of the project for a history of sexuality since the publication of the first volume in 1976.16 Foucault states that he has come to see his work from a new vantage point:
I seem to have gained a better perspective on the way I worked – gropingly, and by means of different or successive fragments – on this project, whose goal is a history of truth. It was a matter of analysing, not behaviours or ideas, nor societies and their “ideologies,” but the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought – and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed.17
Foucault here locates the idea of problematizations within a broader theme of pursuing a “history of truth.” In this light, we might ask what relevance should be ascribed to the ethical backdrop to Foucault’s discussion of problematization. The relations between the concern with problematization, truth telling, and care of the self are key to grasping why this “barbarous word” should not be too readily assimilated to the routines of academic critique.
It is worth noting that Foucault’s commentary on his own work as oriented around the analysis of problematizations is frequently elicited under a certain sort of interrogation. It is an idea that appears often in interviews and question-and-answer sessions, in which the political imperative for him to state the significance of his work was often paramount. For example, speaking in 1978, Foucault invoked the analysis of problems to support his careful avoidance of prescribing political positions or visions: “I concern myself with determining problems, unleashing them, revealing them within the framework of such complexity as to shut the mouths of prophets and legislators: all those who speak for others and above others.”18 The commitment to analysing problems is related to a specific sense of the political vocation of the intellectual, one in which the elaboration of problems that “cannot be easily resolved” is given precedence to the recommendation of strategies or solutions (Remarks on Marx, 158).
Michael Warner has pinpointed the significance of Foucault’s own presentation of problematization as an alternative to the demand that he speak authoritatively as a subject of critical truth on topics deemed to be politically urgent.19 Warner identifies two routes to interpreting Foucault’s comments on problematization:
The term “problematization,” awkward enough under the best of circumstances, has become rather confused by its use among post-Foucauldian academics, for whom it often means nothing more than taking something to be problematic. To problematize, in this usage, means to complicate. (Publics and Counterpublics, 154)
In contrast to this usage of “problematization,” Warner suggests there is a more innovative idea to be found in Foucault’s approach to the analysis of problems:
For Foucault it has a much richer meaning, connected with the argument in volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality. There, he treats a problematic not just as an intellectual tangle, but also as the practical horizon of intelligibility within which problems come to matter for people. It stands for both the conditions that make thinking possible and for the way thinking, under certain circumstances, can reflect back on its own conditions. Problematization is more than arguing; it is a practical context for thinking. As such, it lies largely beyond conscious strategy. (Publics and Counterpublics, 154-155)
Warner succinctly summarizes what is most distinctive about Foucault’s account of problematization, which is the concern with how problems relate to the practical conduct of people’s lives. Warner also acknowledges that Foucault’s own presentation of this theme was made in an ethical register, a strand of his work that has proved decidedly difficult to integrate into standard interpretations of Foucault as a critical theorist of power. It is common enough to accuse Foucault of veering away from politics in favour of ethics in his last works. The force of the accusation keeps the conventional understandings of both categories intact. I will argue below that the ethical framing of the theme of problematization would be better interpreted as providing an account of the plural rationalities of action.
The most common interpretation of Foucault’s remarks on the theme of problematization takes them as an endorsement of a broadly critical constructionist approach to social analysis.20 In this kind of interpretation, the notion is invoked to support a focus on the practices through which problems and potential solutions are defined and institutionalised. But key features of Foucault’s own comments on the theme of problematization are consistently elided in the authoritative use of this idea to bolster standard critical methodologies. I advance this argument below not so much in order to lay claim to the authentic understanding of what Foucault really meant by the idea of problematization. Nor am I primarily concerned with establishing just how this notion connects with some of its more or less obvious intellectual precursors, a list of relations which would include Gilles Deleuze, Georges Canguilhem and Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Max Weber, amongst others. Koopman, for example, argues that Foucault is heavily indebted to Deleuze’s account of philosophical problematization (Genealogy as Critique, 292-293). Thomas Osborne, by contrast, suggests that there is a significant division between Deleuze, as well as Bergson, for whom the concern with problems remains a resolutely philosophical exercise, and the more analytic orientation to problems developed by Canguilhem as well as Foucault.21 I prefer this latter view, and I want to develop it further in exploring how Foucault’s notion of problematization might be used to inform a mode of analysis that is broadly empirical in its orientation.
3. Doing things with “problematization”
Uses of the notion of problematization in recent social science oscillate between two aspects of this term. First, there is the idea that a problematization is an object of analysis. For example, the process by which modes of living or modes of self-care become problems is what is meant by problematization. This is the prevalent sense in which Foucault used the term.22 And it is in this sense that Foucault once claimed that his work was concerned with developing a genealogy of problems, one which investigated “Why a problem and why such a kind of problem, why a certain way of problematizing appears at a given point in time.”23 One can find this first aspect of the notion at work in various strands of social theory more or less closely associated with Foucault, including governmentality studies and actor-network theory.24 There is a strong tendency in these traditions of social theory to present problematization as a purposive act of strategic rupture, akin to a process of framing in which problems are defined in ways that enroll various partners and shape subsequent pathways of action, decision, inquiry and intervention.
There is a second aspect to the notion of problematization in contemporary social science. Here, the assumption is that problematization refers to a method of analysis, a procedure to be followed by researchers. David Howarth refers, for example, to “Foucault’s method of problematization.”25 The attraction of this interpretation is that it aligns quite easily with the idea that the task of analysis is primarily to call into question taken-for-granted assumptions and identities and settlements. This usage is increasingly common in critical social science.26 The view that problematization refers to a style of critique has a longer pedigree than Foucault, certainly. As Raymond Geuss observes, it aligns with a view of critique understood “as putting into question, or as a way of problematizing something.”27 And as he continues, this view is associated with a distinctive set of assumptions about how the world ordinarily hangs together: “The principal targets of this problematizing approach are the apparently self-evident assumptions of a given form of life and the (supposedly) natural or inevitable and unchangeable character of given identities” (“Genealogy as Critique,” 211).
While the two aspects of the idea of problematization sometimes define distinct fields of analysis, for some commentators the two aspects of problematization are presented as two sides of a single approach.28 In particular, the doubling of problematization as verb and noun has been made central to accounts of how Foucault transforms the idea of critique. Thomas Lemke, for example, suggests that these two senses of problematization are key to appreciating Foucault’s distinctive style of critique, in which attending to problematizations as objects of analysis is a first step in the task of then problematizing one’s own frames of experiential reference, and those of other people too.29 Likewise, Koopman refers to the “dual-dimensionality” of the notion of problematization as both “an act of critical inquiry” and “a nominal object of inquiry” (Genealogy as Critique, 98). The two senses of problematization easily support a model in which the critical task is presumed to be one of exposing the contingencies of supposedly naturalized formations. In this usage problematization is used to refer, firstly, to the idea that certain problems that appear to be naturally given or objective are actually the effect of historical processes, social practices, and political strategies. Problematizations, in this first sense, are an object of analysis. In turn, secondly, the assumption is that the task of critical analysis is to expose the contingency of apparently stable and taken-for-granted definitions of problems. Problematization, in this second sense, is a prerogative of the critic as the active subject of revelatory truth.
I want to question the degree to which the two dimensions of the notion of problematization, as both verb and noun, are best cashed out in terms of a clear distinction between an object of analysis and a style of critical analysis. It is worth remembering, at this point, that the problematizations that Foucault investigated have a long duration and are dispersed across a number of fields: three or four centuries of ancient discourse about love and truth, or two or three centuries of modern medicine, for example. As with other uses of Foucault’s ideas, the temptation to think of problematization as a method of critical analysis derives from concertinaing the long durée of Foucault’s genealogical perspective into a succession of contemporaneous episodes of governing, subjectification, and critique.
In the eagerness to make problematization a new name for a fairly standard model of critical exposure, two things fall from view. First, the sense in which the notion of problematization seems to suggest that life is lived in a perpetual state of problem-responsiveness is elided by the default assumption that Power works by putting things beyond question or by establishing settlements. Second, and related to this, the sense one finds in Foucault that problematizations emerge in some relation to troubled or uncertain situations is often overlooked. In these two related moves, the difference introduced by the idea of problematization is erased by returning us to a view that prioritizes the demonstration of the constructedness of social orders. The question of why problematizations should be thought as problematic in the first place slides from view. In part, the issue here turns on the tendency to presume that the demonstration of the contingency of a state of affairs must derive its value from puncturing the appearance of naturalness or inevitability. Attempts to develop more formal accounts of problematization as a critical method assume in advance that social relations are reproduced through naturalization, stabilization, and normalization. The assumption that social life is ordered through processes of naturalization or universalization is a projection of favoured theoretical paradigms, ones that place a premium on debunking the appearance of ontological fixity upon which the reproduction of social relations is assumed to depend. Thinking problematically, by contrast, requires us to think of contingency as a relational quality rather than a fact to be demonstrated, so that the task of analysis becomes one of clarifying the conditions and situations to which problems are a response.30
My point here is that in order to properly cash out the value of Foucault’s notion of problematization we should depart from the conventions of critical theories that seek to expose the power-ridden quality of processes of subject-formation. The notion is better understood in relation to the more or less implicit theory of action that emerges from Foucault’s late works. In this respect, it is worth acknowledging that Foucault discussed this idea in the course of outlining the possibility of undertaking “history of thought.” Foucault insisted that “thought” is the “essential element in human life and human relations” and that it should not be treated “as so much wind.”31 The very possibility of criticism, he suggests, depends on the recognition that there is “always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits” (“So Is It Important to Think?,” 456). In presenting the swerve taken by his own programme of research on the history of sexuality, Foucault claimed that his concern was with understanding “the very historicity of forms of experience.”32 On this account, sexuality is understood as a singular form of experience that can be analysed according to a familiar three-fold division that Foucault reiterates in one form or another across different commentaries: as a domain of knowledge, a type of normativity, and a mode of relation to the self. And Foucault identified the history of thought as the domain where the “development and transformation of forms of experience can situate themselves”:
By thought, I mean what establishes, in a variety of possible forms, the play of true and false, and which as a consequence constitutes the human being as a subject of learning (connaissance); in other words, it is the basis for accepting or refusing rules, and constitutes human beings as social and juridical subjects; it is what establishes the relation with oneself and with others, and constitutes the human being as ethical subject. (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 334)
Here, “thought” is a medium for setting in play a movement of learning in relation to a specific distribution of truth and falsity, norms and expectations. Understood in this way, thought is not only a feature of philosophy or science or other formal fields of knowledge, but is an aspect of “every manner of speaking, doing, or behaving.” Thought, in short, is “the very form of action,” in so far as action implies “the play of true and false, the acceptance or refusal of rules, the relation to oneself and others” (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 335). For Foucault, then, the focus on action is meant to define any investigation of the practices through which forms of experience are configured: studying the historicity of forms of experience is undertaken via the investigation of practices, as long as that term is taken “to mean the different systems of action insofar as they are inhabited by thought” (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 335). Foucault’s interest in problems derives from an understanding in which thought is a reflective practice provoked by focussed engagement with particular fields of action. By concentrating a little further on this notion of “thought,” we will see how the theme of problematization points to a type of inquiry that departs from the conventions of critical social analysis.
4. The work of thought
Foucault’s most extensive elaboration of the notion of problematization is found in a series of lectures, essays, and interviews dating from the last two or three years of his life. In the published transcriptions of lectures presented at Berkeley in 1983 on the topic of Parrhesia, Foucault describes changing interpretations of the problem of truth-telling, freedom, democracy and education in ancient thought.33 In these Berkeley lectures, Foucault expounds on what distinguishes the project of a “history of thought”:
I would like to distinguish between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought.” Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. I am trying to analyse the way institutions, practices, habits, and behaviour become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways, who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. The history of ideas involves the analysis of a notion from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its setting. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices, which were accepted without question, which were familiar and “silent,” out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behaviour, habits, practices, and institutions. The history of thought, understood in this way, is the history of the way in which people begin to take care of something, of the way they become anxious about this or that—for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth. (Fearless Speech, 74)
We see here a sense in which the becoming problematic of a field of practice is presented as an occasion through which things come to matter for people, come to be considered matters of care and concern to them. However, it is also important to acknowledge that here and elsewhere, Foucault has recourse to a vocabulary in which routine experiences are presented as “familiar” or “silent” prior to being taken up by thought and problematized. In developing my argument below, I will question this simple sense that problematization is best thought of in terms of the exposure to questioning of what are ordinarily unproblematic modes of action.
In his interview with Paul Rabinow shortly before his death in 1984, Foucault draws out the degree to which the notion of problematization is one aspect of a concern to think through the possibility of freedom. For Foucault, “the study of thought is the analysis of a freedom”:
It seemed to me that there was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought: this was what one could call the element of problems, or, more exactly, problematizations. What distinguishes thought is that it is something quite different from the set of representations that underlies as certain behaviour; it is also something quite different from the domain of attitudes that can determine this behaviour. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it its meaning; rather, it is what allows one to step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals. Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects it as a problem. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 388)
What emerges from this account is that “thought” is the name that Foucault gives to practices of situated reflexivity: to those modes of being a subject of one’s own life that are the focus of his late works on “ethical” topics such as pleasure, truth-telling, and sexuality. In Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia, the history of thought is presented in terms of “a history of ontologies which refer to a principle of freedom in which freedom is not defined as a right to be free, but as a capacity for free action” (The Government of Self and Others, 310). It is “thought” in this sense that Foucault defined as the primary object of his genealogical investigations in these late reflections. And problematizations are presented as the “element” through which the trace of “thought” is made available for analysis.
If problematizations have a special relationship with the project of a history of thought oriented to tracing situated practices of freedom, then it is important to stress the ways in which Foucault proposed that situations of uncertainty and difficulty play a key role in inciting thought:
[F]or a domain of action, a behaviour, to enter the field of thought, it is necessary for a certain number of factors to have made it uncertain, to have made it lose its familiarity, or to have provoked a certain number of difficulties around it. These elements result from social, economic, or political processes. But here their only role is that of instigation. They can exist and perform their action for a very long time, before there is effective problematization by thought. And when thought intervenes, it doesn’t assume a unique form that is the direct result or the necessary expression of these difficulties; it is an original or specific response—often taking many forms, sometimes even contradictory in its different aspects—to these difficulties, which are defined for it by a situation or a context and which hold true as a possible question. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 388-389)
The idea given in this statement is that problematizations are provoked by a concatenation of events through which “domains of action” enter “thought,” that is, become objects of reflection and by extension occasions for “free action.” Foucault identifies two steps in this process: first, the becoming uncertain and loss of familiarity of a domain of action; and second, this situation then being taken up by thought. “Thought,” then, is the modality through which various disruptive forces are made into explicit objects of attention or concern by being problematized.
The two steps described by Foucault suggest that the specific situations to which problematizations are a response should not be immediately read-off from the content of historically intelligible solutions. These solutions, in Foucault’s retrospective account of his own work, include particular practices of health care, orders of penal practice, discourses of sexuality. But the problems to which these might be responses are not best thought as objective problems of mental illness or crime, for example:
[T]he work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has been made them possible—even in their very opposition; or what has made possible the transformations of the difficulties and obstacles of a practice into a general problem for which one proposes diverse practical solutions. It is problematization that responds to these difficulties, but by doing something quite other than expressing them or manifesting them: in connection with them it develops the conditions in which possible response will be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what the different solutions attempt to respond to. This development of a given into a question, this transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems to which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response, this is what constitutes the point of problematization and the specific work of thought. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 389)
On the face of it, the idea of a “general form of problematization” that makes a variety of solutions possible might well bring to mind the image of a structuring “problematique” or “episteme” waiting to be revealed. However, what is most distinctive about problematization as it emerges in Foucault’s comments and writing in the early 1980s is the strong sense of the situational provocation of problematizations that the structuralist tinge of these notions does not allow. The most interesting thing about Foucault’s thinking about problems is his particular understanding of the situational emergence of problems and of their manifestation in “thought.” One of the recurrent themes of Foucault’s discussion of the genealogy of problems and the “history of thought” is the insistence that problematizations are not “an arrangement of representations” (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 390). This admonition is made to affirm that problematization is a “work of thought,” that is, a practice of creativity. In turn, the content of problematizations in Foucault’s discussion is not simply a set of objective background conditions. To be precise, problematizations are concerned with problems of action—with difficulties, obstacles, and uncertainties. And the reason to continue to use the “barbarous word” problematization is to keep in view this sense of the emergence of problems as a creative response to situated disruptions of specific fields of action.
5. Acting problematically
We have seen that in Foucault’s discussions, problematization is one term in a broader conceptualization of how experience and thought, understood as functions of practices of reflection, are historically variable, and in turn how thought in this sense is occasioned by uncertain situations. The emphasis on the historicity of thought gains its distinctive Foucauldian sense from this reference to the situational emergence of problems. However, it should be acknowledged that Foucault himself continued to invoke a vocabulary in which what was rendered problematic in this movement were things normally taken as “familiar,” “given,” or “silent.” This vocabulary threatens to return us to the terrain of standard forms of critical constructionism, and it is here that we should have the courage to interrupt Foucault’s own train of thought on this topic.
To fully realize the potential of Foucault’s remarks on problematization requires us to reconfigure the presumed relations between ordering and contingency that underwrite standard critical perspectives. Rather than thinking of the notion of problematization according to a simple division between settlements and disruption, or between naturalization and exposure, we might think of problematizations in terms of the intensification of always already difficult situations. I am here following the direction taken by the pragmatist social theory developed by Luc Boltanski, Lauren Thévenot and others. In this tradition, the focus of attention is on tests and justificatory practices that serve as the routinized means of coordinating uncertain situations.34 Boltanski and Thévenot present patterns of questioning and testing as ways of stabilizing relationships in contexts of contingency; by contrast, the economic sociologist David Stark suggests that contingency and its dissonances are the very medium through which social life is given dynamic forward momentum.35 Across this difference of interpretation, one finds a shared understanding in which the discordances and contingencies of social life are not something that need to be naturalized at all, but are the very mediums through which social life is routinely coordinated and ordinarily transformed.
The lesson to be taken from this strain of social theory is that it is best not to suppose that domains of action are fields of mechanically repetitive behavior, waiting to be disrupted and unsettled so that they might be made into objects of reflection. We might instead think of these domains as the sites of habitual modes of action. But habit, here, should be thought of along Deweyian-inspired lines as an embodied, acquired, thought-imbued sensitivity to the negotiation of practical situations.36 This would lead us away from a view in which the problematic qualities of life do not befall it in the mode of crisis or catastrophe, or one in which they arise from a purposeful strategic intervention. They are, rather, a feature of the everyday world as it is lived and experienced and are for that very reason open to further analytical explication.37 If we follow this line of thinking, we will be led to conceptualize problematizations as occasions when the difficulties inherent in any field of action are intensified or given further amplification, rather than exposed or revealed for the first time. The idea of thought in Foucault might, in short, be best modelled on the idea of inquiry in John Dewey’s work, that is, understood as a practice through which an uncertain situation is clarified, what is at stake for those affected is determined, and its significance is assessed.38
We are now in a better position to appreciate the relevance of the “ethical” framing of the theme of problematization in Foucault’s work. It is a theme that indicates that Foucault’s work contains the kernel of an account of the plural rationalities of action.39 As already noted, Foucault’s most extensive elaborations of the notion of problematization in his own published work are found in the final two published volumes of the History of Sexuality project, The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self.40 In social theory, these works retain a certain eccentric status in the canonical interpretation of Foucault’s work as first and foremost a style of critical theory of modern power. They involve the rather detailed exegesis of ancient commentaries on topics relating only somewhat tangentially to issues of sexuality as this had been trailed in the first published volume of the project. There is certainly a line of critical social theory that seeks to synthesize the discussions of the care of the self in these works with the analytics of governmentality and biopolitics. It does so by recuperating the sense of “subjectivation” in Foucault’s discussions of the care of the self into a standard psychoanalytically infused, post-structuralist model of subjection. In so doing, it elides the qualitative differences between modalities of action analyzed by Foucault, reducing notions such as governmentality or the biopolitics of security to just a scaled-up version of disciplinary modes of subjection.41
In contrast to this sort of interpretation of Foucault as primarily a theorist of subjectivity-as-subjection, it is worth giving more credence to the sense of ethical action that Foucault elaborates in his last published works. Taken together, they mark a break from the paradigm of resistance, and an opening up to a more pluralistic account of action.42 Foucault formally articulated the notion of problematization as the object of a program of research on practices through which people willfully take aspects of their own selves to be the material of ethical concern. In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault outlined a framework for analyzing the “history of ethical problematizations based on practices of the self” (The Use of Pleasure, 13). He identified four dimensions along which action was differentiated: in terms of its ethical substance, the precise aspect of behavior problematized, whether desire, or feeling, or intentions; the mode of subjectivation, the precise imperative through which action is motivated, perhaps in accordance with divine law, or rational universalization, or simply personal conviction; in terms of ethical work, the means used to enact change on one’s own self; and finally, the telos of action, the kind of self that the ethical subject aspires to become through this combination of dimensions of self-formation (The Use of Pleasure, 26-28). The fourfold frame is meant to enable a differentiation of ways of acting as an ethical subject of one’s own behavior. It is, in short, an account of the plural rationalities that might be combined to shape any particular pattern of action.
The thematic of “ethical problematization” spelled out at the start of The Uses of Pleasure supports a reading of Foucault’s later work as outlining a pragmatic account of the actions through which self-formation is facilitated through variable practices.43 Ancient practices of truth-telling stand as an example of the freedom to act differently towards oneself and others in relation to the availability of a repertoire of practical resources. It is this same emphasis on acknowledging different ways of acting that Foucault articulates in his discussions of the analysis of “modes of veridiction” and forms of what he called “alethurgy,” where the concern is with elaborating on the specific forms of relation to the self that anchors acts of truth-telling.44 Foucault is concerned in these writings with the various ways in which people are able to articulate their behavior as their own action. In particular, he is concerned with elaborating the forms of transformation that are required to become a subject of certain forms of truth-telling. In Foucault’s lecture course of 1981-1982, he identifies two styles of conceptualizing the relation between truth and subjectivity, one “philosophical” and one “spiritual.” In the former, truth is something that is given to the knowing subject, and the focus is on asking under what conditions such a subject can make true statements. In the latter, truth is something that requires a work of transformation by the self. The contrast is between a mode of questioning about how it is possible for a knowing subject to have access to the truth “such as he is,”45 and a mode of questioning about “the price to be paid for access to truth” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 15). In Foucault’s narrative, modernity is shaped by the renunciation of the “spiritual” dimension of truth, that is, of the idea that truth has a relation to the practical conduct of the self (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 190-192).
The idea of “spirituality” that Foucault invokes in these remarks resonates with the fourfold formula about the parameters of ethical problematization, understood as the series of actions taken by people in order to be the active subjects of their own behavior, as well as in his discussions of modes of veridiction and forms of alethurgy. The recurrent theme across these discussions is an idea of the subject’s relationship to truth being a practical one, in the sense of being an ongoing accomplishment. According to Foucault, from Descartes onwards, these questions of what sort of modifications a subject must carry out on themself to have access to the truth fall away (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 189). Foucault’s claim is that the “Cartesian moment” consists in the emphatic disassociation of truth from any practice of transformation of the self: “the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 17).
Foucault’s remarks on “philosophical” and “spiritual” approaches to truth present the culture of modern scepticism as a forgetting of the forms of transformation that are required to entertain doubt about matters of truth. This is the implication of Foucault’s admonition of Jacques Derrida for narrowly reading Descartes’ Meditations as simply a text full of propositions, rather than as a narrative presentation of a series of modifications to be performed by a subject as an exercise on their own self.46 Foucault’s argument about the moderns’ separation of truth from care, and the discrediting of the latter in formulations of the former, is not meant as a nostalgic exercise. The point is not to assert that ancient practices of the care of the self can be recovered. It is to draw into focus the ways in which practices of the self do in fact underwrite modern forms of truth without their being fully acknowledged. It is an encouragement to investigate how practices of knowledge are always also practices of work on the self and self-other relations.47
I have dwelt on Foucault’s discussions of ethical problematization, modes of veridiction, and care of the self because these themes all illustrate that the operationalization of the notion of problematization in his work was oriented to providing an understanding of how practices of subject-formation, if we must retain that vocabulary, are best understood not in terms of a logic of reproduction through subjection, but in terms of the reflexive, focussed, situated transformation of selves. This spirit of Foucault’s concerns about problematization has begun to be developed into a nascent field of the anthropology of ethics.48 One finds here work that traces transformations of modes of selfhood that cannot be reduced to simple processes of subjection, nor to affective tunings that escape reflexivity, or merely a generalized process of reflexive individualization. Rather, there is an attention to the specific modes of engagement that enable situated transformations of relationships between subjects and their own selves, and between selves and others.49
If we think of problems as creative responses to situations of uncertainty, then we are moved away from the circularities of subjection and resistance towards an account in which subjectivity is formed in relation to horizons of difficulty, questioning, and interrogation. We are now in a better position to elaborate on the relevance of Foucault’s own remarks about the relationship between problems and the situations around which they form. The notion of “situation” is admittedly a rather elusive one, despite its heritage in social science in the work of W.I. Thomas, Erving Goffman, J. Clyde Mitchell and others, as well as in French thought since Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleu-Ponty. Across this field of usage, situation is the name for a problem of its own: how to theorize the relationship between conditions of action and action itself. Situation can be thought of as a term that has “motivational bearing,” as Kenneth Burke once put it: usage of this term indicates a particular configuration of relations between scenes, contexts, and conditions, on the one hand, and action, agency, and purposes on the other.50 In this light, the use of the idea of situation in Foucault’s remarks on the theme of problematization is an index of a concern to avoid the reduction of action to scenes, or action to motion, while not severing the connection between action and its conditions completely.
6. Situations of thought
Foucault’s elaboration of the notion of problematization is of value in so far as it can inform a situational analysis of the formation of problems, in contrast to a debunking style of critical exposure and revelation. By “situational,” I mean simply the sense in which relationships are oriented by certain sorts of selective attention, to paraphrase Goffman.51 In 1983, in affirming that he now saw the whole sweep of his own career as a succession of attempts to “analyse the process of problematization,” Foucault explicitly distances his understanding of this procedure from any appearance of “historical idealism”:
For when I say that I am studying the “problematization” of madness, crime, or sexuality, it is not a way of denying the reality of such phenomena. On the contrary, I have tried to show that it was precisely some real existent in the world which was the target of social regulation at a given moment. (Fearless Speech, 171)
Foucault goes on to affirm “I think there is a relation between the thing that is problematized and the process of problematization. The problematization is an ‘answer’ to a concrete situation which is real” (Fearless Speech, 172). In making reference to the idea of a “concrete situation,” Foucault emphasises that problems are in part the products of strategic interventions, rather than just naturally occurring events to which a response must be provided. The crucial emphasis, however, is on problematizations being not so much strategic, but creative:
A certain problematization is always a kind of creation; but a creation in the sense that, given a certain situation, you cannot infer that this kind of problematization will follow. (Fearless Speech, 172-73)
The emphasis on the creative dimension of problematization underscores that the relationship under examination is not one merely of a representation or even a refraction of a situation in thought:
Given a certain problematization, you can only understand why this kind of answer appears as a reply to some concrete and specific aspect of the world. There is the relation of thought and reality in the process of problematization. And that is the reason why I think that it is possible to give an analysis of a specific problematization as the history of an answer—the original, specific, and singular answer of thought—to a certain situation. (Fearless Speech, 172)
The claim that the relation between problems and situations “cannot be inferred” confirms that, for Foucault, the primary concern is neither with situations per se, nor indeed with problems. It is the creative movement of thought itself.
The reason to emphasise the situational emergence of problems is to provide stronger grounds for thinking through the problematic qualities of problematizations. The term situation foregrounds the sense of uncertainty, loss of familiarity, and difficulty introduced into existing domains of action as the conditions to which problematizations are a response. The importance of the difficult or troubled relationship between situations, problematizations and action delineated by Foucault is given its fullest elaboration in the recent work of Paul Rabinow. Rabinow reminds us of the degree to which the idea of problematization is not sourced from Foucault alone. Rabinow’s synthesis of John Dewey’s pragmatist account of problematic situations and Foucault’s ideas reinforces the view of problematization as a potential object of inquiry, rather than as the name for a methodology that is applied to disrupt or expose settled formations (“How to Submit to Inquiry”). For both Dewey and Foucault, Rabinow suggests, reflection is provoked when action is faced with obstacles of some sort; for Dewey, as for Foucault, thinking “begins when things break down” (Anthropology Today, 48). Rabinow stresses that obstacles and tensions provoke occasions for thought, which are manifested in the form of problematizations. He makes clear that problematizations are formations that arise in relation to some issue or state of affairs that has become uncertain or difficult in some way. Dewey and Foucault share this sense that indefinite or uncertain situations generate problems, and also that “inquiry” (Dewey) or “thought” (Foucault) is a creative response to situations.
As already noted, what Dewey brings to the fore is a strong sense that habitual actions are never merely matters of unthinking execution, but are better thought of as modes of engaging with situated fields of open possibility. After Dewey, problematic situations are not understood as sudden intrusions into a settled environment, but rather as something becoming off kilter in the course of ongoing activity.52 The importance of the notion of situation in clarifying what is at stake in Foucault’s discussion of problematization therefore lies in foregrounding the problematic qualities of action. The lineage of the notion of situation in social theory draws into view the inherent “problematicity” of routine action. It reorients the concept of habit away from the idea of things being taken for granted or even actions being done almost automatically, towards a view of an embodied sensitivity to contexts. Habit is, then, a mode of preparedness or orientation to a field of action that is also a condition for those environments being significant, of them mattering to participants.53
An objection to this pragmatist supplementation of Foucault’s account of problematization might reiterate a recurring criticism of Dewey’s account of indeterminate and problematic situations, namely that it leaves no scope for actors to define either problems or the range of solutions available. In its very emphasis on the practical contexts in which action is immersed, does pragmatism leave any room for genuine creativity or freedom? And if not, is it not then an uncomfortable partner for Foucault’s incomplete history of thought? The charge carries weight only in so far as pragmatism is thought to hold to an objectivist or ontological conception of the source of problems. Hans Joas provides a counter to this accusation, arguing that for Dewey the relation between habitual actions and existential conditions is not “a simple collision between habitual actions and reality, but rather the diffusely problematic quality of an action situation as a whole.”54 For Dewey, it is the always already engaged quality of action that means that the emergence of problems is an active process, not the sudden intrusion of brute reality on a dumbly habitual realm. Furthermore, this movement should be understood as a thoroughly social one, in the sense that the force of situations is not best thought of as imposing itself through a subjective act of individual apprehension, but is felt more in relation to broadly shared purposes and habits.55
The same sense of reflexive action oriented to situations can be gleaned from Foucault’s discussions of problematization. Foucault presents reflexivity as an emergent quality that arises in conditions of difficulty or discordance, and thereby indicates that conditions and creativity run alongside each other, folded together around a problematic situation. Taking problematizations as objects of social science analysis therefore involves adopting a particular stance towards domains of action. Reading Foucault alongside Dewey helps us to avoid the temptation of thinking in terms of settled, naturalized behaviors that are suddenly disrupted. This is a view which lends itself easily to the idea that problematization is also available as a strategy of academic critique. This view rests on the idea of truth as something awaiting exposure by a privileged subject of critical insight. Problematizing, on such a view, interrupts the normal, naturalized, settled flow of events. In contrast to this view, I have suggested that the notion of problematization as it has been elaborated in Foucault’s work, and especially in supplementary commentaries, requires an acknowledgement of the inherent problematicity of action. Domains of action are never merely habitual or routine, if by this it is presumed that they are reproduced automatically or without thought. Foucault’s remarks on the relations between situation, thought and problematizations, and his emphasis on thought as a medium of freedom, points towards a view in which problematic situations emerge in relation not to settled or naturalized states of affairs, but in relation to patterns of action that are always already focused, partial, and oriented to particular concerns. And perhaps what following this path requires is a shift in the dominant spatial register in which action is conceptualized: away from a view in which fixed conditions become unmoored by the force of crisis or criticism, towards a view in which routine ways of moving along become uncertain.56
7. Putting thought to work
I have sought to clarify just what is at stake in the idea of social science inquiry that takes problematizations as its object of analysis. I have argued that problematizations are best conceptualized as intensifying or interrupting existing patterns of problem formation and problem solving, calling for further rounds of clarification and determination. Dewey was insistent that the task of inquiry was not to clear up confusions of the mind, but to elaborate on what was at stake in problematic situations, to develop a level of determinate understanding of what is significant in such situations, and point towards how best to proceed in relation to those difficulties (Logic, 108-16). Attending to problematizations in this spirit requires us to suspend our credulity in the face of apparently urgent problems, as Foucault himself recommended (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations”). The key difference between Dewey and Foucault lies in their respective orientations to the problems they focus on. Dewey favours a vocabulary of repairing troubled situations. Foucault is oriented more towards freeing up and exploring the possibilities opened up by new problematizations.57 Both share the sense that problematizations are occasions when people seek to clarify and determine the significance of their troubles.
Following Foucault, we should not think of problematizations as being mere representations of pre-existent conditions, nor, however, are they mere constructions of discourse developed with no external reference. Any application of the notion of problematization in social science inquiry needs to negotiate certain protocols of reading that shape how ideas associated with Foucault are interpreted. Primary amongst these is the insistence on reading Foucault for signs of a refined method of critique. I have argued against the easy idea of problematization as a name for a critical method, one to be more or less instrumentally deployed for the purposes of revealing settled conditions of possibility or exposing naturalized relations of power. I have instead suggested that the idea of problematization might actually invite us to question the idea that social life is governed by settlements, orderings, naturalizations, and stable patterns in the first place. If we see problematizations as amplifications or intensifications of domains of engaged action, then the pressing analytical task is no longer viewed as one of critical disruption, but rather one of rearranging what is already known, of seeking to “make visible what is visible.”58 The notion of problematization might, in short, point towards a mode of descriptive analysis that helps to draw into view the significance of the difficulties and concerns that already animate people’s actions. Rather than underwriting a model of critique in which it is presumed that people’s subjectivities are readily available for re-making under the force of the revelatory exposure of contingency, elaborations of Foucault’s notion of problematization invite us to give more credence to how aspects of people’s subjectivity come to matter so strongly to them, and in turn to ask what price would have to be paid in the pursuit of transformation.