The best books on the making of the modern self

Who am I?

My interest in this topic began after my father died when I was a young teenager and I was left looking for answers, explanations, and meanings. My dad was an architect and had written a book on Jeremy Bentham’s panoptican and prison architecture published before the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s famous Discipline and Punish. A small collection of Foucault’s books stood prominently on my father’s bookshelves and I really wanted to understand them. At university I studied all of Foucault’s works and many authors inspired by him. These are the best books that explain how we have developed philosophical and psychological theories to understand ourselves in the contemporary world.


I wrote...

The Metamorphosis of Autism: A History of Child Development in Britain

By Bonnie Evans,

Book cover of The Metamorphosis of Autism: A History of Child Development in Britain

What is my book about?

My book explores the background to contemporary theories of child development, and the neurodiversity movement, by explaining the rapid increase in diagnoses of autism in children that occurred at the turn of the 21st Century. I argue that the way we understand children’s thoughts, motivations, and actions is directly influenced by the legal models that have been established to protect them as individual subjects with unique social rights. Drawing from a large array of government and scientific archives, I explain how the closure of state institutions and the growth of special education was accompanied by a complete metamorphosis in the meaning of autism in the 1960s and 1970s that had a knock-on effect on everyday diagnoses in educational, psychological, and other settings. 

The books I picked & why

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History of Madness

By Michel Foucault, Jonathan Murphy (translator),

Book cover of History of Madness

Why this book?

Foucault’s classic 1961 book, History of Madness, was republished in 2006 in its entirety, exposing the serious omissions of the earlier English translation. In its full form, it stands the test of time as a groundbreaking book that exposed the origins of the modern rational self as the product of repeated attempts to understand, exclude, contain, eliminate, and treat ‘madness’. Foucault’s main argument was that since the Renaissance, our understanding of madness shifted from a philosophical phenomenon into an objective medical science. In the Renaissance, madness could still provide wisdom and insight. Yet, during the 17th and early 18th Centuries, numerous institutions of confinement, such as asylums and poor houses, were established to contain both madness and economic redundancy.’

Foucault characterises the modern experience of madness as defined purely by medical science. He claims this perspective is limiting and definitely not a move towards the ‘truth’ of madness. His critical views on psychiatry were caught up with the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s but his thesis was far more sophisticated than that, essentially explaining how rational Western thought relied on the denial of the madness of humanity. It is hard to underestimate the extent to which Foucault’s work has influenced intellectual culture in the late Western world as it has struggled to comprehend its liberalism.


Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self

By Nikolas Rose,

Book cover of Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self

Why this book?

Nikolas Rose’s exceptional book Governing the Soul expanded Foucault’s arguments, focusing on how government networks were created in collaboration with psychological specialists in the 20th century to create unique webs of expertise that helped individuals to manage and govern themselves. The result is an excellent exposition of the theory of governmentality. Rose begins with a discussion of how the Second World War encouraged new forms of ‘psychological warfare,’ where strength of mind could be assessed and selected to create the most successful fighting subjects. This created a group of professionals who also advised on the organisation of labour forces and who could teach the population to be productive and contented workers.

This expertise was extended to training children as young citizens who had to adapt to government needs via schools and social services. Rose’s point is that this created a system of power and government that was not top-down but worked in the interests of individuals themselves, whose psychological efforts paid back as they became productive subjects. It also set the ground for multiple psychological and self-help therapies that could help people manage their own selves in their obligation to be free autonomous individuals.  


Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory

By Ian Hacking,

Book cover of Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory

Why this book?

The brilliant Rewriting the Soul was published in the mid-1990s when the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder was booming, particularly in the USA. The text reflects these times in its focus on the sciences of memory from the late 19th century. Hacking links discussions on memory, trauma, and consciousness in the study of multiple personalities in the 1980s and relates these to earlier discussions on ‘double consciousness’ in the 19th century. He argues that contemporary liberal societies have become obsessed with individual memory and how to analyse and assess it. Hacking skilfully weaves together historical and philosophical perspectives to explore case studies in depth. He questions how and why facts about our memories have become so important in contemporary culture, and how psychiatry has always struggled with interpreting the meaning of memory for its subjects. We are left with a deeper understanding of how a diagnosis ascribed to so many people can expose and reveal deeper questions about identity and truth that still plague our culture. Hacking shows how these questions can never be answered by the human sciences in isolation from their history. 


The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry

By Henri F. Ellenberger,

Book cover of The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry

Why this book?

The epic 900-page Discovery of the Unconscious is a phenomenally detailed and well-researched book that still challenges many of today’s psychological ‘truths.’ Ellenberger takes as his starting point models of the unconscious developed by Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung, which still influence many contemporary therapeutic treatments. He then skilfully links these models of the unconscious mind back to exorcism, magnetism, and hypnotism. Ellenberger’s detailed account of the use of magnetism and hypnosis by Jean Martin Charcot and others is fascinating because he explains exactly how Charcot's approaches premised new “uncovering” models devised by Nietzsche and the neo-Romantic movement. He also explains how Charcot’s work related to the growing interest in instincts and sexuality inspired by Darwin that culminated in the Freudian unconscious. In doing so, Ellenberger exposes what was genuinely new in the modern unconscious, and which parts of it have a much longer history. The result is an affirmation of the unconscious mind via a phenomenal journey of discovery; a truly remarkable book. 


Thinking in Cases

By John Forrester,

Book cover of Thinking in Cases

Why this book?

Forrester’s excellent, yet sadly unfinished, Thinking in Cases, advanced a radical new way to consider the history of the human sciences and their modelling of the self or the individual. Whereas Hacking and Foucault focused on population-based statistical styles of reasoning as the means by which the modern state operated, Forrester argues that these ‘styles of reasoning’ were always supported by what he has termed ‘case-based reasoning.’ In doing so, Forrester considers how biopolitical power has been advanced via both legal and medical cases. He describes his approach as being informed by ‘three rhizomic structures,’ namely ‘the psychoanalytic case history; the historical sociology of the sciences; and the individual in the human sciences.’ This rhizomic model is unique to Forrester’s approach, and allows him to move freely between law, anthropology, medicine, politics, psychoanalysis, and the social sciences, in his reflections on the case. He asks us to reflect on how cases generate new forms of knowledge, and how the case is a ‘style of reasoning’ that has produced multiple forms of knowledge about human individuality. 


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