Master of Arts
Theory and Criticism
While the work of Michel Foucault has not generally been thought to engage in questions of affect, I argue that his work entails a meaningful engagement with such questions but in a way that challenges how we tend to think about affect. Drawing from Foucault’s oeuvre, I enter a series of dialogues with thinkers of affect, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Brian Massumi, in order to understand to what extent the turn to affect—especially for Sedgwick and Massumi—represents an attempt to work through a number of difficulties and tensions in Foucault’s thought and writing. I argue that Foucault is an insightful yet challenging interlocutor for affect theorists because of his understanding of the ethical dimensions of affect, and his historicization of separate modalities of relating to those areas of life and experience that belong to affect, emotion, and feeling. In this thesis, I aim to tease out that historicization in the form of two key historical modalities belonging to modern and ancient technologies of the self: the scientia affectus, which endeavours to decipher truth in emotion or affect, and the ars pathetica, which derives truth from feeling itself.
Summary for Lay Audience
For the past two centuries, the philosophy and science of emotion has been divided by two dominant approaches. The first approach argues that emotions are rooted in physiological responses and biological mechanisms of the body. This is the physicalist approach. The second attempts to show how emotions are involved in cognitive processes, as expressions of conscious or unconscious intentions, judgements, and evaluations. This is the cognitivist approach. Both approaches tend to imply separate assumptions about differences between individuals and cultures across time and geography. The first approach has often been committed to universalist theories of emotion, which argues that emotions are comprised by a handful of basic emotional registers or affects, such as sadness, joy, fear, or anger, believed to be essentially the same experiences across all human cultures throughout history. The second approach tends to entail a social constructionist view, which argues that both the experience and expression of emotion varies between cultures and through history. While there have been more recent efforts to synthesize these different approaches and sets of assumptions, I argue that there are indeed two ways of experiencing and relating to one’s emotions that have been predominant in the history of Western civilization. One, which I call the scientia affectus (or the science of affect/emotion), views emotions as substances or objects that can be known, measured, disciplined, and optimized. This generally includes all of the previously mentioned approaches (i.e., physicalist, universalist, cognitivist, and social constructionist approaches), and has represented the dominant way of thinking about emotion for the past two centuries. The second, which I call the ars pathetica (or the art of feeling), instead views emotions as practices that give truth, meaning, and style to one’s existence. This ars pathetica was dominant in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome but today mostly exists as a memory. In this thesis I draw from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault to show the ethical, political, and historical importance of these two ways of relating to feelings, and to try to understand the large mutation in Western civilization that has led to this transformation of an ars pathetica into a scientia affectus.
Chisholm, Austin, "Foucault, Affect, History: On the Art of Feeling" (2020). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7293.