The Archaeology of Knowledge

by Michel Foucault, Pantheon, $10.00

LIKE THE GREAT thinkers he seeks to follow--Hegel, Nietzche, Marx--Michel Foucault stands ambiguously poised between disciplines. He was trained in philosophy and psychology; his earliest books were on literature and history. He admits, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, that he's acutely embarrassed by the question of whether this latest work is history or philosophy, and finally decides that it is neither. In the last analysis. Foucault would probably assert that he stands where it is necessary in order to radically alter the shape of our knowledge; that he works not just in the gaps between areas of inquiry but on a level beneath them.

Foucault once characterized his work, perhaps too broadly and easily, as a search for the "cultural unconscious." The Archaeology of Knowledge is intended to establish the basis of that search more specifically, to as Foucault says, "define this blank space from which I speak, and which is slowly taking shape in a discourse that I still feel to be so precarious and so unsure." "Archaeology," as Foucault calls it, is a discourse about discourses, how they are patterned, how they change, and what they embody of men.

FOUCAULT'S MOST THEORETICAL book to date. The Archaeology of Knowledge could not accomplish its task without the case studies of his earlier works. Madness and Civilization, which appeared in this country in 1965, studies changing concepts of insanity in Europe between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and how they relate to changing concepts of knowledge and of the mind. The Order of Things (1971), subtitled "An Archaeology of the Human Sciences," traces a particular pattern of discourse uniting changes in the areas of inquiry which in the early nineteenth century became the new sciences philology, biology, and political economy, Naissance de la clinique, now being translated from the French, investigates those changes in the organization and application of knowledge which gave rise to the birth of clinical medicine.

Only reference to these works can flesh out the sharp edges and obvious joints of the theoretical skeleton which Foucault articulates in The Archaeology of Knowledge. From them he derives and illustrates the basis of the methodology contained in the new book while at the same time playing off against them, shifting emphasis and reshuffling concepts.

This reference is all the more important because Foucault introduces a full set of new terms and new meanings for older terms. It is characteristic of his method that he should call it by the name "archaeology," adopting an old term and giving it a new meaning. His writing--archaeology itself--is about how concepts grow and change within the forms of knowledge, and in turn, changes those forms, how certain conditions make mutations possible in the ways men think and speak.


This abundance of neologisms, in a time when they are so frequent and so transient, is bound to draw criticism. But Foucault, in reply, would accuse his critic on this point of placing an illusory trust in language. He understands that men speak in language which is not fully theirs, which is constantly changing as they use it, and which betrays trays their meaning by existing in all sorts of unknown internal and external relations. This is why he focuses on discourse as separate from thought: men say both more and less than they think. The subject, in objectifying himself in language, is constrained by its forms. A man who wishes to create a new shape for thought must at the same time clear out space for it in language.

FOUCAULT'S ARCHAEOLOGY has its source in a fundamental change in the nature of history which he sees beginning with Marx. One aspect of this change involves the historian's attitude toward the document, the record and container of discourses. Once, the historian attempted to reconstruct the past through the document by interpretation and amplification. Now, it is the document itself which has become the historian's object:

"The document, then, is for history no longer an inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations."

History becomes a sort of excavation of human archives, with each level and each find carefully plotted in its relations to others in the site. It imitates archaeology.

Foucault finds the objects usually studied by intellectual history, the single work or the oeuvre, insufficient categories for archaeology. He prefers to investigate concepts, themes, and paradigms at all levels of discourse--the "discursive regularities." Changes in the regularities of discourse are continually occurring, but the most important among these changes is the infrequent succession of what Foucault calls epistemes, the ideas which a period holds about the fundamental nature of knowledge that lay down the field of relations and possibilities in which all discourses arise. For instance, Foucault sees a change in epistemes occurring roughly between the years 1775 and 1825, when an ordering of knowledge based on classification, qualitative differences, and static "tables" of concepts gave way to one based on organic structures, functional differences, and succession in time.

Such changes mark the boundaries between periods of intellectual history. Yet Foucault insists that the episteme is not merely the latest effort to keep alive the notion of the Zeitgeist, "the spirit of the time" Foucault claims only that "the relations that I have described are valid in order to define a particular configuration: they are not signs to describe the face of a culture in its totality." A change in epistemes occurs at different times for different thinkers and disciplians, and is partially independent of the shifts in social and political history which have often been used to mark off historical periods. The episteme presents a series of relations among disciplines and a set of possibilities for thought to take. It has its exceptions. It is only the base from which culture, in all its diversity and contradiction, is constantly emerging.

BUT IN THE VERY notions of the episteme, and all the smaller variations occuring in the forms of discourse, lies Foucault's suspicion--at which he only hints--that he is bringing to history the outlines of a change which has been gradually infecting Western culture since Kant. Looking back over his work in the conclusion, Foucault observes that"...the essential task was to free the history of thought from its subjection to transcendance..."

That task is the most radical aspect of the new, post-Marxian history, and it has two major consequences. It displaces the idea of the present subject who can transcend the limitations of time by organizing and "understanding" history, and thus recover the past intact. It also breaks down the notion of continuous history based on the flow of cause and effect, on social or cultural analogy, or, ultimately, on the necessary unfolding of an ideal pattern.

For this elusive quest, Foucault would substitute a history of discontinuities which admits chance, which recognizes a limit to our understanding, which rather than finding the "deeper" unity within differences, makes differences its basic materials and creates its unity out of them. Archaeology traces patterns among differences.

In this effort, Foucault pushes off from the work of Hegel, who in his dialectic brought history as continuity to its most complete form, the unity of a single Idea of freedom, but who also delineated cultural breaks which accompanied each stage in history. Beyond Hegel, Foucault draws on two streams flowing away from him: Marx and Nietzche. From Marx, seen through the filter of the structuralists, Foucault learns the patterns of contradiction and change. From Nietzche, he adopts a "Dionysian note of interrogation" asking and then looking beyond the answers.

In the complicated but often eloquent style of Foucault's prose these traditions run together. His writing is built around a core of highly systematic definition and explanation. But, aware of the difficulty in making his complex concepts understood, he continually recasts statements to shape out an idea from several sides, offers multiple, often spatial, metaphors, and highlights crucial areas by questioning himself and his reader.

This last technique reaches its high point in the most brilliantly written portion of the book, a conclusion written as a dialogue between Foucault the author and Foucault the self-critic. Here Foucault rejects the recurrent attempts to box him as a structuralist and denies any assertion that archaeology is a new "science." But the instinctive question of the partisan of traditional history, "But why do things change?" is not even raised. It would not satisfy such a critic to answer that the complexity of this question lies outside the scope of Foucault's inquiry, or that it belongs to an older form of history.

INCLUDED AS AN APPENDIX is "The Discourses on Language," Foucault's inaugural lecture on assuming his chair at the College de France in 1970. The title is a mistranslation of "L'ordre du discours." Appropriately, the lecture sketches out, in addition to a theory of the way in which societies regulate and suppress discourses, a number of possible projects with which we can expect to see Foucault continue his work. One such project might be an investigation of concepts of sexuality as expressed in linguistic taboos and their changes. Another, at an even more basic level, might investigate how ritual discourse in the time of Socrates, Plato, and the Sophists arranged itself into a division between true and false discourse, each with its own uses.

These are directions in which the archaeology of knowledge might be pursued further. They, like the works which have preceded The Archaeology of Knowledge, will expand, test, and redefine the usefulness of the whole inquiry. Foucault accepts the possibility that his vocabulary, style, and method may fade away, or that they may become the victims of the proven propensity of social science to make itself its own object. He knows that the full importance of a discourse can only be grasped in contrast to the changes that precede and follow it. What can be said now is that if Foucault's subsequent work is as brilliant and innovative as his work so far, then The Archaeology of Knowledge may well prove to have been what it seems now--a vitally significant book.

Night Editor for this Issue: Paul S. Koffsky '73 Ed. Night Ed. for this Issue: Henry W. McGee '74 Photo Editor for this Issue: Joseph A. Kovacs '75