The liberal conception of the autonomous self-interested individual is obsolete


 An excerpt from Olssen, MEH (2010) Discourse, Complexity, Life: Elaborating the Possibilities of Foucault’s Materialist Concept of Discourse In: Beyond Universal Pragmatics. Interdisciplinary Communication Studies, 4 . Peter Lang Pub Inc, Geneva, 25 - 58

As for Wittgenstein (2001), Foucault does not see language as an expression of inner states, but as an historically constituted system, which is social in its origins as well as in its uses … The rules of language were themselves seen as a bundle of interactional and public norms. Meaning is generated within the context of the frame of reference (for Wittgenstein, a game; for Foucault a discourse). Hence to understand a particular individual we must understand the patterns of their socialisation, the nature of their concepts, as well as the operative norms and conventions that constitute the context for the activity and the origin of the concepts utilised. If mind operates, not as a self-enclosed entity, as Descartes held, attaching words to thoughts, as if they were markers, but rather operated in terms of publicly structured rule-systems, then meanings are in an important sense public.

… The thesis here is that the social nature of practices defines a community context in one very important sense, a sense which is fundamentally inescapable. Such a theoretical revolution, which has largely developed in the twentieth century, has rendered the liberal conception of the autonomous self-interested individual as obsolete.

In most cases … May (1997) explains that it is multiple, or what he calls ‘overlapping practices’ that constitute a community. The central claim is that ‘a community is defined by the practices that constitute it’. This defines, he says, what it means to be in community. Practice he defines as ‘a regularity or regularities of behaviour, usually goal directed, that are socially and normatively governed’ (p. 52). While, in this sense, practices are ‘rule governed’, such rules need not be formal, or even explicit. A second feature of practices is that their normative governance is social, which is to reject the idea of a private language. This is to say that not only is the <em>governance </em>of practices social, but the <em>practices </em>are also social. Even solitary practices, like diary writing are social in this sense. In this way, says May (p. 53), ‘the concept of practice lies at the intersection of individuality and community’. Thirdly, he says, ‘practice [...] involves a regularity in behaviour. In order to be a practice, the various people engaged in it must be said to be “doing the same thing” under some reasonable description of their behaviour’ (p. 54). As a consequence of these three definitions, says May, practices must be seen as discursive, meaning that they involve the use of language. This entails:

some sort of communication between participants in order that they may either learn or coordinate the activities that the practice involves [...]. Moreover, this communication must be potentially accessible to nonparticipants, since without such accessibility the practice would cease to exist when its current participants dropped out. The communication required by a practice, then, must be linguistic. The idea of linguistic communication can be broadly constructed here, needing only a set of public signs with assignable meanings. (May, 1997: p. 55)

Such a theory of practice, says May (p. 55) ‘is akin to Wittgenstein’s idea that language games are central components of forms of life’. The central theoretical point concerning practices is that they embody actions organized according to rules which are both linguistic and cultural. As Theodore R. Schatzki (2001a: p. 48) points out, ‘practices are organized nexuses of activity’, and constitute ‘a set of actions [...] constituted by doings and sayings’. In this sense, he says, (p. 45) ‘the social order is instituted within practices’. Schatzki defines the social order as ‘arrangements of people, and the organisms, artefacts, and things through which they coexist’ (p. 43). They coexist within what Schatzki (2001b: p. 2) calls ‘a field of practices’ which constitutes ‘the total nexus of interconnected human practices’. Such practices are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding’. Referring to Foucault, Schatzki (p. 2) notes how ‘bodies and activities are “constituted’ within practices”’. It can be said, further, echoing Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, that the practices that make up the social order comprise both ‘discursive’ and ‘extra-discursive’ elements. In this way, the idea of practices highlights ‘how bundled activities interweave with ordered constellations of nonhuman entities’ (p. 3).


Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, Sheridan, A. (tr.), London: Tavistock.

May, T., (1997) Reconsidering Difference: Nancy, Derrida, Levinas, and Deleuze, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press.

Schatzki, T.R. (2001a) ‘Practice Mind-ed Orders’ in: Schatzki, T.R., Knorr Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, London and New York: Routledge, pp.42-55.

Schatzki, T.R. (2001b) ‘Introduction: Practice theory’ in: Schatzki, T.R., Knorr Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, London and New York: Routledge: pp. 1-14.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.