The Introduction and first chapter of The Archeology of Knowledge focus largely on contradicting received ideas about the continuity of history. Foucault argues that even the new study of the history of ideas, although it targets moments of transition between historical worldviews, is ultimately dependent on continuities that break down under closer inspection. The history of ideas marks points of discontinuity between broadly defined modes of knowledge, but the assumption that those modes exist as wholes fails to do justice to the complexities of discourse. Discourses emerge and transform not according to a developing series of unarticulated, common worldviews, but according to a vast and complex set of discursive and institutional relationships. These relationships are defined as much by breaks and ruptures as by unified themes; in fact, discontinuity is an integral component of unified discursive formations.

Discontinuities in discourse can take the form of internal contradictions, and here too Foucault takes the history of ideas to task for failing to examine its own assumptions. The history of ideas depends on a view of discursive contradictions as obstacles to be explained away in historical analysis. Paradoxically, however, it also takes contradiction as the deep, almost metaphysical principle on which discourse depends (without contradictions, what would there be to discuss?). Foucault sees both these notions of contradiction as violations of the attempt to describe discourses on their own terms. For him, contradiction is yet another general label for a set of widely divergent discursive processes. Foucault critiques not only assumed forms of historical continuity, but also assumptions that historical discontinuity is one (continuous) kind of thing.

Foucault's emphasis on discontinuities is also a function of his strict definition of what discourse is and his tireless insistence on describing that discourse in its clear, definable details, without any “interpretation.” The archeological method aims to describe discourse only in its active existence in the world and eschews any reading of it that seeks a psychology, a spirit, or anything else beyond the statement itself and its describable relations with other statements. This means that archeology must assume nothing about the hidden unities that secretly bind together the many things people say; any discursive unity must be described anew, on its own terms.

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