Skip over navigation

The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Part IV: Archeological Description, Chapters 1 and 2

Part III, Chapters 4 and 5

Part IV: Archeological Description, Chapters 1 and 2, page 2

page 1 of 3

Summary

Chapter 1: Archeology and the History of Ideas

'At the moment, things are rather disturbing.' Foucault has spent hundreds of pages replacing the history of œuvres, authors, books, and themes with a history of discursive formations, but does this history really work? What is its true 'descriptive efficacy?' The first question here is whether Foucault has not simply been creating a lot of 'new fog' to cover a project that is really no different from a well-established mode of history: the history of ideas. In general, the history of ideas operates from two opposed poles. From one, it describes 'the by-ways and margins of history,' the popular, not quite scientific ways in which people understood the world. From the other, it describes the long-lasting, officially recognized, 'great themes' of historical thought. The history of ideas traces the movement of ideas and themes between these two poles. Foucault will devote the next four chapters to describing how his method (archeology) is defined precisely in opposition to the history of ideas. The four main points of divergence are on the issues of historical innovation, contradiction, comparative description, and transformation. Before he addresses these four points, however, Foucault will set out a few basic principles. First, archeology never analyses discourse as the sign for some other, partially hidden discourse to which it obliquely refers. Discourse is treated instead in and of itself, as a 'monument.' Second, archeology does not seek the points at which a given discourse gains or loses its identity in relation to the 'continuous, insensible' progression of history. It describes discourses in their differential specificity, at all points in their transformation. Third, archeology has no use whatsoever for the œuvre; it is neither a psychology nor a sociology. Fourth, archeology is not an attempt to reach back into the past and describe statements as they existed at the moment of their birth; it does not try to re-capture the elusive past. Archeology is 'nothing more than a re-writing…a regulated transformation of what has already been written.'

Chapter 2: The Original and the Regular

The history of ideas is concerned with regularity on the one hand and originality on the other. It seeks to mark the point at which a given idea was born in the midst of all the usual things said. It is, then, a discipline that always seeks origins. In doing so, it takes for granted two notions that are in fact methodologically problematic: resemblance (of one idea to another) and precession (one idea's dependence on a previous one). But statements do not resemble or proceed one another in the same way across different discourses; thus, there is no single way of plotting the origin of ideas that accurately describes the workings of discourse. Any such 'calendar' of origin is thus only relative to the systems of discourse in question.

Similar problems surround assertions that a given statement is regular rather than original, because there is no consistent way to determine if a given formulation has already been said. Statements vary from each other subtly but importantly, and two statements made at different points in history can almost never be said to be 'the same' if we examine not only their content but also their enunciative conditions. If they are found to be the same, this will be an effect of the homogeneity of the discourses in which they are situated, not a judgment on the part of the historian.

Archeology does not use any hierarchy of originality or even of 'merit.' Statements are analyzed in their 'regularity,' but this regularity is not opposed to the irregularity of other statements. The regularity of any statement simply refers to the set of conditions in which that statement is enunciated. The field of statements, on this method, does not admit of a difference between banal, repetitive statements and original moments of discovery or insight; the discursive field is not broken up by innovation, but is 'active throughout.'

More Help

Previous Next
Sociology student

by imsocoollalala, September 28, 2013

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

discursive?

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