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. 

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The books I picked & why

History of Madness

By Michel Foucault, Jonathan Murphy (translator),

Book cover of History of Madness

Why did I love 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.

By Michel Foucault, Jonathan Murphy (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked History of Madness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When it was first published in France in 1961 as Folie et Deraison: Histoire de la Folie a l'age Classique, few had heard of a thirty-four year old philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault. By the time an abridged English edition was published in 1967 as Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault had shaken the intellectual world.

This translation is the first English edition of the complete French texts of the first and second edition, including all prefaces and appendices, some of them unavailable in the existing French edition.

History of Madness begins in the Middle Ages with vivid descriptions…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Nikolas Rose,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Governing the Soul as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work is now widely recognised as one of the founding texts in a new approach to analyzing the links between political power, expertise and the self. This "governmentality" perspective has had important implications for a range of academic disciplines including criminology, political theory, sociology and psychology and has generated much theoretical innovation and empirical investigation. This second edition adds a new introduction setting out the methodological and conceptual bases of this approach and a new final chapter that considers some of the implications of recent developments in the government of subjectivity.

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Ian Hacking,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rewriting the Soul as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Twenty-five years ago one could list by name the tiny number of multiple personalities recorded in the history of Western medicine, but today hundreds of people receive treatment for dissociative disorders in every sizable town in North America. Clinicians, backed by a grassroots movement of patients and therapists, find child sexual abuse to be the primary cause of the illness, while critics accuse the "MPD" community of fostering false memories of childhood trauma. Here the distinguished philosopher Ian Hacking uses the MPD epidemic and its links with the contemporary concept of child abuse to scrutinize today's moral and political climate,…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Henri F. Ellenberger,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Discovery of the Unconscious as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic work is a monumental, integrated view of man's search for an understanding of the inner reaches of the mind. In an account that is both exhaustive and exciting, the distinguished psychiatrist and author demonstrates the long chain of development,through the exorcists, magnetists, and hypnotists,that led to the fruition of dynamic psychiatry in the psychological systems of Janet, Freud, Adler, and Jung.

Thinking in Cases

By John Forrester,

Book cover of Thinking in Cases

Why did I love 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. 

By John Forrester,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thinking in Cases as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What exactly is involved in using particular case histories to think systematically about social, psychological and historical processes? Can one move from a textured particularity, like that in Freud's famous cases, to a level of reliable generality? In this book, Forrester teases out the meanings of the psychoanalytic case, how to characterize it and account for it as a particular kind of writing. In so doing, he moves from psychoanalysis to the law and medicine, to philosophy and the constituents of science. Freud and Foucault jostle here with Thomas Kuhn, Ian Hacking and Robert Stoller, and Einstein and Freud's connection…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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