The Archaeology of Knowledge by Foucault


In Foucault's youth the intellectual debates centred on the study of history. Hegelian thinking, coupled with Marxism, presented history through an rational metaphysical analysis. The post-war question in philosophy became a debate on the rationality or chaos of history. Foucault followed Hegel in linking philosophy and history.

Georges Canguilhem also influenced the young scholar's thinking by revealing the underlying structures and conditions on which psychology basis itself. Foucault used a similar approach to expose the conditions of possibility of scientific discourse.

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) is a dissertation on unconscious systems of thinking and knowledge. They define the limits imposed by language and thought at a certain time period and area of expertise. Foucault had applied the method described in his previous writings: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), and The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966):

Madness and Civilization had its basis in Heidegger's phenomenology, which aims to describe Being as more than subjective experience. This led him to analyse history from a psychological viewpoint. The book traced madness and its history as an experience made up of forms of discourse, rather than a thing. The Birth of the Clinic was less phenomenological in tone but used a similar psychological approach. This procedure was what the author termed 'archaeological' since it uncovered clinical knowledge through discourse.

The Order of Things relied on Levi-Strauss' structuralism, though Foucault rejected this labelling. It attempted to demonstrate how knowledge depended on preceeding factors such as discourses and institutions. However Foucault did not present these factors as universal structures, but sought to unfold all the variations in the historical knowledge of words and things. 

The Archeology of Knowledge is a precise exposition of the methods and ideas which contributed to making Foucault's historical works so influential.


The Archeology of Knowledge (1969) is Foucault's description of a certain approach to history which he used in his first three books on history: Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things. His aim is to rectify the flaws in these works: the first was too near an admittance of history as a general subject; the second was overstructural and so not specific enough; the third had implications of cultural totality.

The author's analysis of discourse is to be a description, not of content, but of the complexities of its processes.

Part I: Introduction.

The author noted the contemporary reinterpretations of history. These emphasised the uncertainties around historical documents and were critical of assumptions concerning historical continuity. The author attacks these continuity narratives as narcissistic since their interpretation of continuum depends on a constant human consciousness. The archaeological approach to the history of ideas has shifted from focusing on continuities of thought to discontinuities. This has led to an emphasis on the multiplicity of frameworks needed to apply to any one area of history. However, Foucault argues that both types of historical practice pose the same problems, rising from the questioning of the document itself. Instead of its place as a kind of memory, the document is now becoming important in and of itself:

"history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked."

Documents have become artifacts, meaning that history now aspires to be a kind of archeology.

(Foucault redefines the historian away from a writer of a linear story and argues for an expansive view of history composed of micro-stories, each relating to the past and present in their material existence: the document.)

Part II: The Discursive Regularities

This section questions the types of unities which exist in the history of discourse. Foucault experimented with four hypotheses which focus unity on the object of discourse: the author/s, the concepts used, the theories and themes. The conclusion was that there was no single base for discursive unity, but instead variability and complexity. 

However, Foucault's hypotheses suggest four levels of discursive analysis: the formation of objects of discourse, the formation of enunciative positions, the formation of theoretical strategies, and the formation of concepts.

Part III: The Statement and the Archive.

The author builds up the field of discourse from its smallest parts to the general total. The most detailed level of units are statements, which are not stable, but vary according to field of use. They are described as being at the level of the historical existence of sign sets. 

Foucault then moves up to the archive level which is:

"the general system of the formation and transformation of statements."

Part IV: Archeological description 

This part deals with the distinction between the author's archeological method and the history of ideas. He takes the four issues of originality, contradiction, comparison, and change to demonstrate that the archeological method can replace generalisations with specific relationships which maintain the uneven characteristics of discourse. In the last chapter he notes the reasons and methods, centering on the sciences.


Foucault defends his method against possible criticism. He rejects the label structuralism, since this refers to a master system making it difficult to detect changes in history or the role of individuals. The author includes individual discourses by analysing the conditions under which they communicate. He encompasses historical change by describing how discourses develop and grow. It is a social history, though not of dates and events, but of how discourse is constructed.



Foucault focuses on limiting his object of analysis to the processes of discourse. He studies only the narrative in its emergence and transformation, refusing to speculate on the general meaning of the statement. It is not a description of history through discourse, but a description of the history of discourse.

Discourse is not a series of propositions, nor the relic of a psychological spirit or general historical idea. It is the setting of relationships where these factors become meaningful. In short, what we know depends on how we talk about it.

Documents and Monuments

Foucault distinguishes between his archeology and the history of ideas by differentiating their approaches to discourse. A documental analysis regards discourse as a record. The historical events are understood as separate from the document. Historians of ideas are interested in the emergence of novel ideas and the continuity of cause and effect. They counter contradictions by searching for an underlying principle to synthesise opposites. Their interest lies in general categories such as 'culture' and the records of something past.

On the contrary, the monumental approach studies the discourse and its own history, tracing concepts appearing and disappearing or relating to each other in novel ways. Foucault aims to understand the rules governing the birth of discourse and explain its discontinuities and inconsistencies.

Continuity, Discontinuity, and Contradiction

The beginning chapters of The Archeology of Knowledge emphasise the traditional ideas about historical continuity. Foucault's argument is that these apparent continuities can be shown to be flawed. The history of ideas recognises broad discontinuities between modes of knowledge, but evades the realities of the complexities of discourse within the modes. These develop following a huge set of discursive and institutional relationships which are defined by ruptures as well as by united themes which themselves are discontinuous.

The history of ideas views discursive contradictions as an obstruction to be overcome through historical analysis. Ironically, traditional history recognises contradiction as the principle on which discourse depends. Foucault argues that discourse must be described in its own terms since in itself it is just another general label for distinct processes, not a continuity.

The archaeological method focuses on describing discourse, in itself and related to other discourses, rejecting any psychological or transcendental interpretation. All discursive units must be described from the start in their own terms.


"Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting."

The episteme in Foucault is no longer a set of things known but is redefined as the set of often unconscious ideas and assumptions that underlie and constrain what is accepted as knowledge in a specific time. These relationships make knowledge possible through discourse. Knowledge, though important, is simply another discursive effect. The history of ideas presents the transition between modes of knowledge: Foucault's archeology describes the conditions that determine what is recognised as knowledge.

In other works Foucault analyses the conditions of knowledge in different settings: systems of surveillance, discipline, and power. He also questions how we come to self-knowledge and label our own identity.


The term archeology was chosen by Foucault to underline his objective approach replacing interpretative historical discourse with a description of that discourse through a study of the statements, not the document. 

This shift also meant that the archive can no longer be understood as a collection of documents housing the knowledge of a period. It must now be viewed as:

“the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.”

The archive is thus seen as a set of general rules governing the longevity of statements. Historical statements are not taken as signs of something else but as physical artefacts to be described. 

Subject position

According to Foucault's methodology an author is not part of the discourse. Instead archeology finds that statements come from a specific position inside the field of discourse and institution. The most important factors of this position are authority and knowledge.

Making statements recognised as knowledge(expert opinion, scientific fact) depends on many conditions of discourse: objects of knowledge, strategies for contrasting theories against each other and so on. One condition is "enunciative modality" the mode of formulation coming from a subject position. This does not depend on a particular author, since one subject position can be used by many authors and one author can use many subject positions. For The Archeology of Knowledge the psychological author does not exist because authoring identities are integral to the discourse.

This approach questions the origin of our knowledge of self. Identity can be dispersed in all directions:

“Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.”

No comments:

Post a Comment