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The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Study Questions

Key Facts


Explain why, according to Foucault, the œuvre is a false unity.

The œuvre is a false unity in terms of the analysis of discourse, because discursive relations are far too numerous and varied to remain within the boundaries of the œuvre. An œuvre is defined simply by the presence of the name of the author. But the unity apparently given by this name ignores the variety of ways in which the documents in the œuvre relate to the sign of that name (this relation is different, for example, in a novel, a posthumous publication, or a tax form). The archeological method takes the author not as a psychological entity whose presence ultimately binds a set of texts together, but rather as a function that relates to those texts in a myriad of ways. This function is itself highly variable, and it can be put into action in multiple ways by a single author or a single way by multiple authors.

Define the statement in its relation to materiality and to propositional content. What does 'material repeatability' mean?

The statement is related to materiality in the sense that materiality gives the statement its historical 'coordinates,' the discursive position from which it was uttered. But the statement is not completely defined by these coordinates. If it were, no statement would ever be truly repeatable (since its material coordinates would differ each time it was articulated). Statements can in fact be repeated, despite the importance of their materiality. The statement is not defined at all by its propositional content. 'What it says' is analyzed only in relation to other statements, and only in the interest of determining the conditions of possibility of the statement and tracing its transformations within the field of discourse. 'Material repeatability' refers to the unique property of the statement by which it is partly defined by its materiality while remaining capable of repetition.

Give a brief account of the concepts of rarity, exteriority, and accumulation. What concepts or notions are they meant to replace?

'Rarity' is the term Foucault's method opposes to the twin notions of 'plethora' and 'totality' in the history of ideas. The history of ideas generally sees all statements made in a given discourse as variations on a single, totalized, hidden theme or idea. Thus, the range of statements appears as a 'plethora' of expressions of a single, underlying totality. Foucault's method analyzes the statement in its rarity, in the uniqueness of the set of conditions that allowed that statement to be made from that specific discursive position. Foucault opposes 'exteriority' to the various ways in which the history of ideas sees discourse as the trace or surface of something deeper, an 'internal' psychology or spirit. Archeological analysis treats discourse not in the interest of what lies beneath it (whether this be a psychology or a historical stage), but solely in terms of its exteriority, its appearance and transformation within the describable processes of discourse. 'Accumulation' revises the traditional understanding of the archive as a static collection of old documents. For Foucault, the archive is a system by which statements accumulate according to a set of describable processes. These processes involve both properly discursive elements like repetition and institutional elements like the library.

Suggested Essay Topics

In his Introduction, how does Foucault describe what's happening to the field of historical studies at the time he's writing?

List Foucault's four 'hypotheses' about discursive unity, and explain why each of them breaks down.

Explain the difference between subject and subject-position (enunciative position). What are some factors involved in the emergence of such positions?

Why is the statement 'neither visible nor hidden'? What does Foucault mean when he says that statements have 'the quasi-invisibility of the “there- is”'?

What is the difference between the 'regular' as it appears in the history of ideas and 'regularity' as it functions under Foucault's method?

What are the two general types of 'contradiction' in the history of discourse as understood by the history of ideas? How do these ideas of discursive contradiction differ from Foucault's?

Describe the place of knowledge as understood by archeological analysis.

What are some of the criticisms leveled at Foucault's project by his imaginary critic (in the Conclusion)? How does Foucault respond to them?

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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.

See all 4 readers' notes   →

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