I argue that Foucault’s intellectual project is best understood as a lifelong effort to account for the possibility of self and political transformation. Initially driven by a desire for a radical break away from traditional ways of thinking and being, Foucault faced the problem of trying to account for the possibility of such a change. Over the course of his career, he developed a conceptual framework that centered around a novel conception of subjectivity (highly influenced by Nietzsche, Lacan and Althusser) and of the normativity of ethical claims (in the broadest sense of “ethical”). This conception of subjectivity rendered possible the critiques of traditional conceptions of knowledge and discourse, of social institutions and political power, and of ethics and ethical subjectivity that Foucault is best known for. On Foucault’s view, to be a subject is to be subject to various normative constraints; which particular normative constraints a given subject is constrained by is by and large determined by the normative structures that are contingently dominant within her historical-cultural setting. Accordingly, while no norms bind all subjects merely by virtue of the fact that they are subjects, every subject is bound by a range of norms. On his conception of ethical normativity, the main ethical goal for us is today is not to impose restrictions on the otherwise dangerously unchecked space of individual freedom, but to constitute ourselves as robustly autonomous subjects. Ethical norms need not be seen, as they traditionally have been, as prohibitive or restrictive claims that we’re obligated to comply with by virtue of various ontological facts about what it is to be human. They function rather as productive instruments of self-elaboration and possible means for the constitution ourselves as autonomous subjects. 

Subjects to Selfhood: Foucault, Subjectivity and the Possibility of Autonomy