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The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Part IV, Chapters 3, 4, and 5

Part IV: Archeological Description, Chapters 1 and 2

Part IV, Chapter 6: Science and Knowledge


Chapter 3: Contradictions

The history of ideas generally assumes an underlying coherence to the discursive materials it analyses, seeking to reduce internal contradictions and dissonances to mere defects or mistakes and thereby revealing a deeper level of unity. This is both a prerequisite to research in the history of ideas and an end-product of that research. There are, however, multiple kinds of unities to which the historian of ideas appeals; these range from ideal, logical systems to more poetic, thematic unities based in common culture or individual psychology. For this method, 'contradiction is the illusion of a unity that hides itself or is hidden.' The history of ideas sometimes comes to the opposite conclusion as well: contradiction and difference are in fact the very principle of discourse itself, driving it into being. This position is still, however, a reduction of complex systems of contradiction to a single principle of contradiction that underlies all discourse. Thus, for the history of ideas, 'to analyze discourse is to hide and reveal contradictions.'

Archeological analysis, on the other hand, takes contradictions neither as illusion nor as deep principle but as 'objects to be described' in their specificity. Archeology measures 'the extent and form of the gap' that separates two statements or discursive formations; in short it describes 'spaces of dissension.' Archeological analysis is generally not interested in contradictions that result from opposing descriptions of the same object in the same enunciative mode. Instead, it is concerned with 'intrinsic oppositions,' in which the contradiction stems from the clash of enunciative sub-fields within a discourse (i.e., from two different 'ways of forming statements'). Intrinsic oppositions are not blunt facts, but must be described in detail, with attention to the specific type, level, and function (within a given discourse) of the opposition in question.

Chapter 4: The Comparative Facts

Archeological analysis proceeds partly by comparison between statements or whole discourses, although it describes a wide range of different kinds of separations and relations. This mode of comparison itself differs significantly from that used in the history of ideas. First of all, archeological comparison is always 'limited and regional,' seeking to describe the relations between a set of statements or discourses rather than taking that set to represent variations on a more general background (such as 'the totality of contemporary discourses'). Thus, 'archeological comparison does not have a unifying, but a diversifying, effect.'

Secondly, and for the same reasons, archeological analysis excludes certain kinds of comparisons that seek identity across different discursive formations (comparisons, for example, that ask what categories Turgot used both in his analysis of coinage and in his theory of language). Archeology can describe 'isomorphisms' between discourses, but only at the level of the enunciative field (rather than ideas, knowledge, or experience). When it does describe such isomorphisms, it does so in detail, with attention to slight re- arrangements of enunciative rules. With this method, isomorphisms can be found in radically different discourses, and radical differences can be found between two uses of a single word.

Thirdly, archeological analysis describes relations between discourses and 'non- discursive domains' like institutions or economic practices. It does so not in the interest of showing lines of causality or motivation for a set of statements, nor to show that discourses and practices both reflect a general spirit of the times, but in order more fully to define 'specific forms of articulation.'

Chapter 5: Change and Transformations

The history of ideas charts historical development; it is committed to describing a 'slow and [otherwise] imperceptible' set of changes. Archeology, by contrast, seems to ignore the movement of time altogether, fixing discursive regularities and networks in a frozen set of relations without giving any account of moments of change. Is this really the case? Not exactly. Archeological description does not depend on simple temporal succession, but it frees itself from this dependence precisely in order to describe the form of temporality proper to a given discourse. The temporal succession of statements and events plays a varying role in the various conditions of enunciation for various statements. Some discursive events are more closely tied to temporal succession than others; it is this relation that the archeological method tries to describe in all its variety.

Archeology insists on describing differences and discontinuities rather than treating them as obstacles. How does it do this? First, archeology recognizes different levels of events rather than a string of homologous statement-units. These different levels never submit to one overriding hierarchy; thus, the replacement of an entire discursive formation does not always have the same effects at the level of the statement or the level of discursive objects, concepts, or strategies. Second, archeology replaces the general, homogeneous category of 'change' with the description of various 'transformations.' Third, archeology recognizes the extent to which transformation and stability are related in specific ways. If some aspect of a discourse remains stable, this is not through inertia but through processes every bit as 'active' as those that form the conditions for transformation. Fourth, archeology 'disarticulates the synchrony of breaks' or ruptures in discourse or of a discourse. A rupture in discourse is not simply a temporal point, but a complex system of transformations whose description does not depend solely on a chronology.


These three chapters conclude Foucault's set of four points by which his archeological method is distinguished from the history of ideas, a field whose method and results might otherwise seem quite close to Foucault's. The overall aim here is familiar from the introduction: Foucault lays out a set of rather bulky, uncritical assumptions about history and replaces them with a set of complex descriptions. Here, however, there is a greater level of detail.

These chapters are filled with examples from Foucault's own research in eighteenth-century medical, economic, and grammatical discourse. These examples are often responsible for page-long sentences, in which Foucault lists all of the various levels at which a given aspect of archeological analysis should proceed and gives a very brief historical example for each.

Foucault's task in the face of the history of ideas is, as elsewhere, to 'maintain discourse in all its many irregularities. As usual, he is intensely, rigorously suspicious of any received notions about historical continuity. Here, such suspicions aim beyond the level of the long, logical totalities of history that were excoriated in the Introduction. Foucault rejects not only 'continuity' here, but also 'contradiction' and even 'change' itself, two ideas that don't initially seem to force history into systematic molds.

Even as innocuous a concept as 'contradiction' is quite controversial here. Foucault's own method depends on describing the 'differential' nature of discourse, the 'uniqueness' of statements over and against other statements. Thus, contradiction is by no means foreign to archeological analysis altogether. What Foucault rejects, then, is contradiction as some sort of uniform principle, an idea that defines all discourse either in its role as the obstacle to be overcome (in analyses that attempt to find the overall spirit of a discourse) or in its role as the principle of difference that is the fundamental cause of discourse. On Foucault's method, there is no single principle of contradiction; it must be described anew in the context of each discourse or sub-discourse examined.

Comparison (of one statement or discourse to another) is criticized along the same lines. In the history of ideas, comparison is generally of two or more things of the same order: two successive schools of philosophy, for example, or two eighteenth-century sciences. Such comparisons tend to depend on (or even to generate) a kind of homogeneous background on which the compared items rest: a gradual progression of philosophy, or an overall worldview of eighteenth-century science. What Foucault finds at fault, then, is not comparison itself, but the assumptions of homogeneity that are built into the particular form of comparison used. In archeological comparison, elements are compared at and across a great variety of different levels (the level of statements, the level of discursive objects or strategies, the level of discourse, etc). The result is, again, a greater attention to detail, variety, and difference.

Finally, the bulky, homogeneous principle of 'change' is replaced by the notion of 'transformations,' for similar reasons and with similar effects. A key point here, which we've heard before, is that the various levels of discourse, like the various aspects of language, can interact and transform independently of each other. Just as the propositional content can remain the same when a sentence is repeated in a totally different enunciative framework, an entire discourse can be transformed or replaced even while many of its objects, concepts, subject positions, and strategies do not (and, of course, vice-versa). The general principle of 'change' in the history of ideas is not sensitive to such complex transformations.

In these chapters, Foucault is lending more detail to his overall insistence that archeology describes the positivities of discourse with the greatest possible attention to difference. Difference becomes not only something to pay attention to in the study of discourse, but also a crucial factor in designing the analytical tools that archeology will use. The notion of change, as it is traditionally conceived, is a blunt tool in this sense; if it is more general than the set of different tools that fall under the notion of 'transformations,' it will fail to uncover the full range of differences present in the archive.

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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.

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