Two Experimenters in Self-Transformation: Mahatma Gandhi and Michel Foucault

by Max Cooper

Poster art, courtesy

It may seem surprising that no significant study has as yet compared the lives, works, and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Michel Foucault. (1) Foucault (1926–1984), a French political and social theorist, and Gandhi (1869–1948), the saintly Indian political leader, initially appear to have very little in common, and indeed strike us as intellectual opposites. Gandhi was a deeply religious man who committed at least an hour each day to prayer and meditation; Foucault was a committed atheist who resented his bourgeois Catholic upbringing and blamed religion for much of the malaise afflicting modern man. Gandhi believed that human society and relationships could be transformed through individual hard work, selfless kindness, and love; Foucault was concerned to draw attention to hidden motivations of power in all social relations, and emphasized the often powerless positions of individuals vis-à-vis larger institutional structures. Gandhi fasted regularly, never took food after sunset, and upheld a vow of strict brahmacharya (celibacy) for the last 38 years of his marriage; Foucault maintained a fascination with intense sensory experiences, ever seeking stronger sensations through drugs and sex, and explored his interest in sexual pleasure in his final and definitive works, the three volume History of Sexuality. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that two more different men could hardly be found.

However, we will suggest here some intriguing parallels between the two thinkers. Gandhi and Foucault’s descriptions of their methods and ends were notably similar: both described their work as “experimental,” and moreover both described this experimental work as not being directed towards changing things in the world, but almost entirely at changing themselves. This focus on self-transformation is made more striking by the fact that both thinkers’ subject matter appears to focus predominantly on “external” and worldly matters. However, we will also see the details of their desired self-transformations to be quite different. Foucault wishes to work on himself as an “aesthetic” subject, just as an artist works not merely to create works of art but to become a work of art himself; he seeks an aesthetic self-transformation. Gandhi by contrast works with the spiritual goal of his own “self-realization”; following ancient Indian traditions this entails a detachment from what we usually take to be our “self”—our life story, name, body, ego, personality—in order to discover the true Self underlying all of these, a pure and unselfish divine consciousness. Gandhi also seeks through “selfless service” to transcend his personal identity and ultimately realize his identity with the “limitless ocean of life.” We will see that a significant part of what made Gandhi and Foucault’s respective projects of self-transformation so different was their divergent definitions of themselves: Gandhi’s view of self was deeply informed by an advaita metaphysics and the desire to identify not with his individual personality but with all life, whereas Foucault’s “aesthetic” concept of self led him to work specifically on his individual personhood—precisely the preoccupation Gandhi wished to transcend.

Foucault’s Experiments in Self-Transformation

Foucault described himself as more an experimenter than a theorist:

Each new work profoundly changes the terms of thinking which I had reached with the previous work. In this sense, I consider myself more an ‘experimenter’ than a theorist; I don’t develop deductive systems to apply uniformly in different fields of research. When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before. (2)

Foucault writes not for what we might call “external” ends—developing systems to be applied by others in various fields of research—but rather works with the goal “above all to change [him]self.” This statement is particularly intriguing coming from an academic and social theorist like Foucault: we generally view academics as focusing not on themselves but on their subject matter, seeing their work as primarily externally rather than internally oriented. We see them as trying to bring other people—their academic colleagues or the general public—to a different or more complete understanding of the particular issues in their field.

Moreover, this is generally thought to be particularly so for sociological writers such as Foucault: while professors of psychology may investigate the “inner world” of the psyche, and professors of poetry may explore our feelings and our experiences of beauty, socio-political research looks decidedly to concern the world “outside”. Like other socio-political theorists, Foucault studied the structure of society, its institutions, how people come under these institutions’ influence, and related topics. Indeed, Foucault’s work appears to be characterized by the exceptionally wide scope of sociological topics he explored throughout his life, not particularly by any focus on the inner self. (3) What then are we to make of Foucault’s claim that he worked above all “to change himself,” and specifically what kind of change does he refer to?

Foucault expanded on this in an interview some years later, explaining that his desired self-transformation was primarily an aesthetic one:

For me, intellectual work is related to what you would call ‘aestheticism,’ meaning transforming yourself . . . I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. That’s the reason also why, when people say, ‘Well, you thought this a few years ago and now you say something else,’ my answer is . . . [Laughs] ‘Well, do you think I have worked like that all those years to say the same thing and not to be changed?’ This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting? (4)

Foucault felt that his work would be of little use if it did not constantly change his personal views; the evolution of his feelings and opinions was a crucial product of his academic pursuit. This again appears to be particularly different from the work of the majority of academics, who, we might suggest, more often hold fast to and identify with one particular position, often then defining their task as supporting and attempting to convince others that their position is correct — they seek not to change themselves, but chiefly to change others. Not so for Foucault: he wished not to “say the same thing” but rather to be changed through his work to the extent that he would, some years later, “say something else,” and thus continually “transform [him]self by [his] own knowledge”. His work was directed not merely outwards to teaching his readers, but inwards as a continual process of (re)teaching himself. In particular, Foucault specified, this transformation would take an aesthetic form, as if a painter did not merely work on his artwork, but sought through his artwork to become a work of art.

Foucault related the goal of self-transformation to his entire life: “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not at the beginning.” (5) For him this would constitute “straying afield of himself”:

As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity – the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting on with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one or way another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? (6)

We must avoid allowing Foucault’s description of his motivation as “curiosity,” and of his goal as “aesthetic,” to lead us to think that this self-transformation was a lightly-indulged hobby—something perhaps not worked at seriously but as an artistic whimsy. We must rather take quite seriously his evocation of “obstinacy”—Foucault was a notoriously hard worker. Many have drawn attention to his “formidably ascetic work ethic”. (7) Didier Eribon notes that Foucault’s “enormous capacity for work” allowed him to undertake an extraordinary amount of research every year, constantly seeking new fields of study; (8) Foucault often worked days and nights on end needing little recreation or diversion. He asserted that his burning desire for his own self-transformation was the reason behind this near obsessive commitment to work: “You see, that’s why I really work like a dog, and I worked like a dog all my life [. . . . ] my problem is my own transformation.” (9) Foucault did not work on himself as a mere pastime: the project of self-transformation was the driving force in his life, to which he devoted enormous energy.

Gandhi’s Experiments With Truth

Gandhi described his life’s work as experimental also. He gave his Autobiography the alternate title, My Experiments with Truth, asserting from the outset: “It is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography.” (10) Gandhi emphasized that his experiments should be taken only as working hypotheses—guidelines for those who wished to carry out their own experiments themselves:

I hope and pray that no one will regard the advice interspersed in the following chapters as authoritative. The experiments should be regarded as illustrations, in the light of which every one may carry on his own experiments according to his own inclination and capacity. I trust that to this limited extent the illustrations will be really helpful; because I am not going either to conceal or understate any ugly things that must be told. (11)

Gandhi also thus relates his retelling of his experiments to honesty and truth: his experiments are valuable largely because they conceal nothing. This emphasis on truth-telling we will see to be both a central Gandhian principle and one that intriguingly anticipates Foucault’s final ideals.

Again like Foucault, Gandhi pursued his experiments with a notoriously dedicated work ethic. The incessant busyness at Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram speaks to this: while ashrams are usually thought of as places for rest and retreat from worldly life, this was not so at Sevagram. As Eknath Easwaran relates a typical day:

Gandhi plunged into the business of the day. Every minute was given over to others, beginning with the steady stream of visitors who came from all over the world for every conceivable reason: to get an interview for the New York Times, to settle some question of Harijan voting rights, to argue with his opinions on birth control, or to get help in disciplining an unruly child . . . Gandhi gave each one his attention, fitting them somehow into his own close schedule for the day: talking to them on his morning walk, or at breakfast, or over the spinning wheel. (12)

Gandhi “had not the slightest privacy; everything he did was observed by strangers”. (13) He was perpetually busy. In addition to this busyness, we must note also that most of the issues occupying him appeared to be decidedly worldly matters—voting rights; news interviews; birth control issues: like Foucault, Gandhi’s field of work was society and politics. His work was mostly concerned with the apparently external and worldly. It is thus surprising that, just as with Foucault, Gandhi declared his work to be directed not primarily at changing the world, but rather at changing himself.

Gandhi described his work’s true goals as not outer but inner—“spiritual” rather than “political”: “You will be astonished to hear from me that, although to all appearances my mission is political, I would ask you to accept my assurance that its roots are—if I may use that term—spiritual.” (14) He expands upon this concept in the introduction to his Autobiography:

What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end. (15)

All of Gandhi’s speaking, writing, and work in politics is directed to the end of “self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha”—all seemingly inner goals. What does Gandhi mean by these terms? First: “to see God face to face” seems to suggest a personal view of the divine (for cannot only persons have faces?) As we read on however, we find that Gandhi was speaking merely metaphorically: for him, God is Truth.

For me, truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God . . . . there are innumerable definitions of God, because his manifestations are innumerable. They overwhelm me with wonder and awe and for a moment stun me. But I worship God as Truth . . . (16)

Gandhi acknowledges the innumerable possibilities of God’s manifestations and definitions. He wishes not to discount or denigrate any definitions of God besides his own; but his own chosen God is Truth. (17)

Another of the goals Gandhi stated of his work was his “self-realization.” What precisely is this “self” that he wishes to realize? Gandhi expounded elsewhere on what he means by “know[ing] oneself”—what he called “the purpose of life”:

The purpose of life is undoubtedly to know oneself. We cannot do it unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives. The sum total of that life is God. Hence the necessity of realizing God living within every one of us. The instrument of this knowledge is boundless selfless service. (18)

In speaking of “God living within every one of us,” Gandhi draws on a central tenet of much Hindu spirituality: that God is present within all creatures. (19) Gandhi wishes to realize this God living within all by “identifying [him]self with all that lives.” He aspires to identify himself not as the particular, individual self we call “Gandhi”, but rather with all life. This in turn he seeks to do through “boundless selfless service.”

As this may seem like a tall order, we shall explore in further detail the meaning and implications of Gandhi’s aspirations. To begin with, many readers may initially be baffled by his describing the identification of himself with all that lives as being a necessary condition for knowing himself. This appears quite opposite to what we usually think of as the chief condition for knowing oneself: that for one to know who one is personally, one must first distinguish oneself as an individual from other people and life forms—certainly not “identify” with these others. This we think allows us to know what makes us unique or separate.

However, this is not the type of self-knowledge Gandhi seeks. Gandhi desires rather to lose this conception of himself as a separate self. As he writes elsewhere: “. . . one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life. Realization of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life.” (20) Gandhi’s wish to lose his identification with the separate individual self or ego further illuminates his desire to help all through “selfless service”: he wishes to act selflessly in service of all humanity and even all life, and this service is dedicated further to dissolving his individual self. Gandhi wishes to lose himself (his personal self) in order to find himself (as something greater, identified with all life).

Gandhi’s philosophy bears many similarities to the Indian non-dualist school of Advaita Vedanta. Indeed, he declared that “I believe in advaita [non-dualism], in the essential unity of man and for that matter of all that lives.” (21) While he is not here committing to the full doctrinal implications of Advaita Vedanta, he is stating his agreement with the basic principles of non-dualism. Advaita Vedanta posits that our true Self or atman is in fact not what we usually take it to be: it is not our name, our body, or even our personality or life story. Our true Self is rather a pure eternal consciousness underlying all of these. Advaita actually deems these other elements—ego, personality, body, and so on—to more or less obscure our true Self, and thus holds that it is only by disidentifying with these extraneous elements that we can realize the atman; this view is held also by Gandhi:

My experience tells me that, instead of bothering about how the whole world may live in the right manner, we should think how we ourselves may do so. . . . To know the atman means to forget the body, or, in other words, to become a cipher. Anybody who becomes a cipher will have realized the atman. (22)

Gandhi believes that to know the atman one must forget the body and become a cipher (“nothing” or “zero”). This recalls what became a well-known dictum of Gandhi’s—to “reduce oneself to zero”: “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.” (23) The ideal of reducing oneself to zero describes the attempt to eliminate the personal ego and attachment to the body, in order to identify with a wider whole. It reflects again on Gandhi’s ideal of “selfless service”—by reducing his own personal desires and wishes to zero, he intends to be of maximum possible service to others.

We thus see the respective desired self-transformations and self-realizations of Foucault and Gandhi to be profoundly different. The self-transformation Foucault sought was an aesthetic one—an attempt to change his views and opinions through his work; constantly remaking himself as an artist continually produces new works of art. Gandhi’s seeking after self-realization is a spiritual one—an attempt to radically (dis)identify himself with the individual ego, personality, and even the body, and identify himself instead with the limitless ocean of life. Foucault’s self-transformation appears to relate mostly to himself, whereas Gandhi’s self-realization rather paradoxically speaks to a desire to ultimately drop all concern with himself in order to best benefit others. While it might thus appear that Foucault’s work is almost entirely “selfish,” in contrast to Gandhi’s in which the moral dimension is paramount, to assert this would be a bit too quick: in drawing attention to the machinations of power hidden in apparently harmless or benevolent societal practices, Foucault’s work was very important in revealing how certain institutions harm the vulnerable, and also sometimes in warning us away from their further harm. (24) We may note however that this is interestingly more related to the “external” side of Foucault’s work. Foucault helped draw attention to oppressive structures through his focus on institutions. On the other hand, Gandhi’s self-realization—his internal focus—was dedicated to dropping all concern with the individual self in the interest of being able to work purely for “others.”

Endnotes: (Max Cooper)

(1) A book that appears to come close is Joseph S. Alter, Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) wherein Alter, an anthropologist, examines Gandhi’s unique bodily practices through Foucault’s lens. However, the book does not examine Foucault and Gandhi’s philosophies side by side; and furthermore, despite Gandhi’s prominent place in the title, Alter acknowledges that Gandhi’s thought and even Gandhi himself, are in a sense “coincidental” elements of the work: “to some extent, [the] focus on Gandhi in this book is coincidental. What follows should be understood as a kind of case study that [uses Foucauldian analyses to illustrate] more general principles about the relationship among bodily discipline, power/knowledge, and truth”. (p. xi) To this writer’s knowledge, no work has ever examined Gandhi and Foucault comparatively, or drawn attention to Gandhi’s personal exemplification of late Foucauldian ideals.

(2) Foucault, Michel. “How an ‘Experience Book’ is Born”, Remarks on Marx. R.J. Goldstein and J. Cascaito. New York: Semiotext(e), 1991; p. 27.

(3) Though he did move increasingly towards study of the self and subjectivity over the course of his career, and finally focused on these explicitly in his final works. Our opening quotation, however, is from a 1978 interview, in which he is speaking not only of his most recent projects but of his work throughout his entire career.

(4) “Michel Foucault: An Interview by Stephen Riggins.” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: New Press, 1997; pp. 130-131.

(5) Foucault, Michel. “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault.” Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Ed. L. Martin, H. Gutman, and P. Hutton. 9-15. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988; p. 9.

(6) May, Todd. “Michel Foucault’s Guide to Living.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. Vol. II no. 3, Dec 2006; pp. 173-184.

(7) Said, Edward W. “Deconstructing the System.” A Review of Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume Three by Michel Foucault. Ed. James D. Faubion. The New York Times: Books. 17 Dec 2000. (; accessed May 2015.

(8) Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Trans. Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991; p. 63.

(9) “Michel Foucault: An Interview by Stephen Riggins,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1. Ed Paul Rabinow. New York, The New Press, p. 131.

(10) Gandhi, Mohandas. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Trans. Mahadev Desai. London: Penguin Books, 2001; p. 14.

(11) Autobiography; p. 16.

(12) Easwaran, Eknath. Gandhi the Man: How One Man Changed Himself to Change the World. 1972. Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press, 2011; p. 156.

(13) Ibid; p. 156.

(14) Speech at Guildhouse church, London, 23 Sept 1931, Mahatma Gandhi: The Essential Writings. Ed. Judith M. Brown. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008; p. 77.

(15) Autobiography; p. 14.

(16) Ibid; p. 15.

(17) Gandhi’s view here might be said to be typically Hindu: he allows that there are many Gods; and holds one’s own preference of one particular God or manifestation not in itself to be a comment on the ontological reality or unreality of various other Gods. It is a standard Hindu view that there are many gods, all of whom may be real, and each potentially more important for different people and in different ways.

(18) “Mahadevbhaini Diary”, 21 June 1932. Brown, ed., Essential Writings; p. 41.

(19) Declared for instance in the opening line of the Isa Upanishad, traditionally placed first in collections of the Upanishads: “Whatever living being there is in the world . . . [is] dwelt in by the Lord”, Isa Upanishad 1.1; Olivelle trans.; p 249.

(20) “Responses to S. Radhakrishnan.” Brown, ed., Essential Writings; p. 64.

(21) Young India, 4 Dec 1924. The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi. Compiled and Edited by R.K. Prabhu and U.R. Rao. Ahmedabad: Jitendra T. Desai, Navajivan Trust, 1960. Reproduced online, available at, p. 398; accessed May 2015.

(22) Letter to B. Mehta; August 1932. Brown, ed., Essential Writings; p. 43.

(23) Easwaran, Gandhi the Man; p. 136.

(24) Cf., Todd May’s “Michel Foucault’s Guide to Living” in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. II no. 3; pp. 173-184 (Dec 2006), which discusses some examples of this aspect of Foucault’s work.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Max Cooper writes on Indian Philosophy and Religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Comparative East-West Philosophy, American and English literature, and Gandhian studies. Much of his work can be found on his page. This paper completed: University of Delhi, July 2013.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi