Skip over navigation

The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Part I: Introduction

Philosophical Themes, Arguments, Ideas

Part II: The Discursive Regularities Chapter 1: The Unities of Discourse


Foucault begins by outlining recent trends in two branches of historical method. Firstly, historians have come to address the 'great, silent, motionless bases' that lie beneath the political successions, wars, and famines with which traditional historical practice has been concerned. Examples include studies like 'the history of sea-routes, the history of corn or of gold-mining,' which seek to address the deeper, underlying processes of history. This trend has led to a shift in the theory of history as well, with older questions about the unifying causal connections between events giving way to questions about the isolation of certain 'strata' of history and about the possible 'systems of relations' in which those strata may be understood.

Secondly, there has been a shift in disciplines that address the history of ideas (of science, of philosophy, of literature, etc). The shift here has been from a focus on 'continuities of thought' toward a focus on 'disruptions,' moments of transformation or threshold when ways of thinking have undergone large-scale changes. This view of history is most interested in discontinuities, with historical relations taking the form of passing or contingent affinities or 'compatibilities' (Foucault calls these 'architectonic unities'). The historical problem in these fields, then, 'is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits; it is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations' (any idea of ultimate origins, then, becomes irrelevant). Historical causality is also problematized, as these new methods uncover what Foucault calls 'recurrent distributions,' the multiplicity of frameworks that must be applied to any one area of history: in the case of the history of science, for example, there are always 'several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science.'

In short, then, history proper seems to be seeking deep, hidden, stable structures, while the history of thought seems to be discovering ever more discontinuities and ruptures. But Foucault says that this apparent contrast is a false one: both kinds of historical practice pose 'the same problems,' and they have only 'provoked opposite effects on the surface.' In fact, all of the new problems that Foucault has just outlined stem from one process: 'the questioning of the document.' Instead of its traditional role as a mere vehicle for history as a kind of memory, the document is now becoming important in and of itself. This change stands to redefine the entirety of the historical practice: 'history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked.' This new view of history, in which documents become artifacts or 'monuments,' means that history now aspires to be a kind of 'archeology.'

This change has four major consequences. First, there is an intensive questioning of received ideas about the various kinds of series that constitute history; rather than taking for granted certain kinds of progressive series (primarily the assumption of a 'continuous chronology of reason … invariably traced back to some inaccessible origin') and then fitting events into that series, historians are questioning the series themselves. This process has resulted in the 'surface effects' detailed above in history and in the history of ideas. Second, the notion of discontinuity assumes a major and pervasive role in historical practice across the board. Discontinuity precedes the work of the historian, as he or she tries to select between discontinuous levels of analysis and types of periodization in which to address their (documentary) material; and, paradoxically, it also results from their description, because they are showing historical limits and moments of breakdown.

Third, there ceases to be any possibility of a 'total history,' a history that depends on a united frame for all history or on the essential spirit or 'face' of a given period. Totalizing history is replaced by 'general history,' in which no continuities are presumed in the open field of documentary evidence. We cannot even posit the traditional 'parallel histories' of law, economics, the arts, etc.; we must rather accept a much more heterogeneous 'form[s] of relation.' Finally, this 'questioning of the document' raises a host of new methodological problems for the historian: how should one construct and delimit bodies ('corpora') of documents? What levels of analysis and what 'principles of choice' inform such constructions? What kinds of limits should be drawn to define groups, regions, or periods? These problems existed before in the field of the philosophy of history, but they now characterize the methodological field of history itself.

Foucault asks why this massive and pervasive change has not been noted before. His answer is a largely psychoanalytic one: the idea of an ordered, teleological, and continuous history serves to make 'human consciousness the original subject of all historical development and all action.' Essentially, we have insisted on a whole, centered notion of the human subject, and therefore on the continuous history that goes hand in hand with such a subject. Marx (by founding a purely relational analysis), Nietzsche (by replacing original rational foundations with a moral genealogy), and Freud (by showing that we are not transparent to ourselves) all challenged this tradition of keeping history in a 'tranquilized sleep' by introducing a radical discontinuity to history and its human subject.

The Archeology of Knowledge is to be a book that gives a broad theoretical account of Foucault's method in his previous, directly historical works: Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things. (Each of these works, he notes, had a flaw owing to the then- undeveloped nature of the theoretical ideas published here: the first came too close to 'admitting a general subject of history, the second threatened specificity by being too structural, and the third may have implied a 'cultural totality').


The Introduction situates Foucault's overall historical project in relation to the contemporary state of historical studies. This context is particularly necessary for Foucault, whose understanding of history posits an intimate link between the practice of the historian and the subject matter of history; this is clear from the definition of history cited above, in which 'history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked.' The historian does not simply study history as a kind of memory, but adds to and alters the accumulation of and relation between documents that constitute history. In addition, the mass of historical documents provides the conditions of the very possibility of the historian's enterprise; the historian does not think in a vacuum, but owes what he or she is able to enunciate in part to what has been enunciated before. In light of Foucault's mention of Freud in relation to his project (both introduce 'discontinuity' to their respective fields), we might note that this critique of the historian is linked to a critique of the human subject in general: just as the historian is not a detached, self-transparent consciousness passively observing past events, neither is the human subject a totally independent entity passively observing the field of memory. This interlocking of human subject and human history is used to explain why the historical changes Foucault observes here have not been observed before: we resist them because our old, continuous, rational story of history guarantees that we don't have to confront our selves as anything but fully-independent, rational subjects.

This complication of the traditional role of the historian as subject of history is one effect of a change in the conception of what constitutes history. The most important component of this change is the document. Much of the rest of the Foucault's discussion will be devoted to an explication of what kind of a thing the document is, so we will not look too closely at it here. In the Introduction, Foucault is primarily concerned with listing the effects that the renewed 'questioning of the document' has had on the field of historical studies. Roughly, we can class all of these effects under a kind of massive complication of received notions about how to interpret historical materials, how to put them in relation to each other in terms of causality and in terms of their place in an overall schema. The primary characteristic of this complication is that it rejects large-scale narratives about the progression of history. One primary target in the background here is Hegel, who nonetheless is only the most exhaustive and influential exemplar of the idea that all of history fits into a single overall schema and tends toward a single end (in his philosophy, this end is the total earthly realization of the rational Spirit).

Foucault observes a number of shifts in contemporary historical practice that question such a teleological narrative. In the field of history proper, there has been a turn away from sequences of political events (successions, wars, the stuff of classical history) toward highly specified, underlying histories (like that of corn). This is a history with new specificity, focused less on the interpretation of the decisions and actions of men than on the movements of material. Although Foucault does not say so explicitly, the implication is that this kind of deep, specific history is much more closely tied to the document and less to historical 'events' as such, and that it therefore resists grandiose speculation about the teleology of human history. In the various branches of the history of thought, on the other hand, there has been a new emphasis on moments of transition, not from one stage of a progression to a logical next step, but from one kind of thinking to a kind that is deeply discontinuous with the first. This is a history of breaks, eruptions, of radical shifts in the limits of possible thought; in short, a history of discontinuities (though Foucault points out that these discontinuities are 'positive,' that they are not simply absences but can be and are described).

Though these two sets of changes are apparently different, Foucault finds they can be described by one phenomenon (which has so far been unrecognized): a renewed questioning of what a document is and a consequent elevation of its status to part of history. In tracing the aforementioned changes, then, Foucault was merely pointing to the field of events that he will now theorize. He does not claim to have initiated these changes on his own (though his three previous books certainly participated), but neither is he simply a passive observer that will simply 'explain' them. Rather, this book is itself a document in the full sense, an enunciation that both depends on previous enunciations for its conditions of possibility and establishes new conditions of possibility. The document, including Foucaul'ts document, always has this triple existence in relation to past, present, and future. It will remain interesting, as we proceed through the Archeology of Knowledge, to consider how Foucault sees his own document in terms of his theory of documents, how he historicizes his own present work. In the end, Foucault will always see himself (as author) swallowed up in the vast mass of documents that constitute history for the historian; this is always a melancholy (and often a dramatic or grandiose) moment of realization for him. As he says at the end of the Introduction: 'I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.'

The primary sense that we should take away from this Introduction, besides Foucault's redefinition of the historian, is the sense that history is suddenly shifting from a progressive, linear story written by historians to a expansive field comprised of endless micro-stories, each with their own multi-leveled relations (whether affinitive or disruptive) to the contingencies of their past and future, and each with their own material existence: the document. There are also a few brief protests on Foucault's part that he is not a structuralist. Structuralism implies the kind of generalized framework of interpretation that Foucault wants to complicate. This persistent label will be a frequent problem for him, and we will return to it further on in the book.

More Help

Previous Next
Sociology student

by imsocoollalala, September 28, 2013

The study guide doesn't make things easier to understand.


by LillyK13, October 02, 2013

I'm really having a hard time understanding what "discursive" means... This isn't helping me at all.

See all 4 readers' notes   →

Follow Us