Michel Foucault: Archaeology

Key Concept

Carolina Rediviva Library (Uppsala) where Foucault conducted much of his archaeological work on the history of medicine from 1955–1960

In 1968, Jean Hyppolite,1 chair in ‘The History of Systems’ at the Collège de France, died. By 1970, Michel Foucault had been elected into Hyppolite’s vacant position, as the Chair of ‘The History of Systems of Thought’.2 It was a position he, too, remained in until his death in 1984. But it was a title, unlike many others, that Foucault readily accepted.3 Moreover, it was a title which stood at the midpoint between his work on archaeology and that of genealogy, two concepts he developed as tools to for conducting a historical analytic. This post sets out Foucault’s ideas on archaeology.

Foucault’s notion of archaeology can be broadly understood as an analytical tool for uncovering alternative and disturbed histories of systems of knowledge: it suggests an unstructuring of accepted knowledge and the categories in which to describe its historical experience. In The Archaeology of Knowledge (first published in French in 1969) Foucault sets out a framework for conducting archaeological critique in general terms, having produced three earlier works which appropriated it (The History of Madness in 1961; The Birth of the Clinic in 1963; and The Order of Things in 1966).

Archaeology of Knowledge was not Foucault’s most well-received work, criticised for establishing in structural and positivist terms an approach which sought to vehemently reject such things.4 Nevertheless, the book dedicates significant space to questioning the propositions of traditional history, incessantly discarding the teleological efforts of traditional historians and compelling a rejection of historical narratives which seek to create continuity between past and present.5 Foucault critiques the search for affirmations of transcendental human consciousness (urdoxa), echoing a Nietzschean position on self-comforting narratives.6 Instead, Foucault (like Georges Canguilhem7 and Gaston Bachelard8 before him) calls for the displacement of the subject as the object of history, proffering archaeology as an alternative mode of history which holds discourse (rather than man) as its object of study.9 Foucault substantiates his framework by defining and discussing a series of interrelated concepts which constitute the archaeological method of discursive investigation. Foucault calls for the uncovering of historical ‘statements’ (defined, in its simplest form, as a singular unit of discourse)10 and an analysis of the rules and systems of thought which govern their coming into discourse, that is, their acceptance as statements of truth.11

Although published three years earlier, The Order of Things arguably takes the concept of archaeology further than in Archaeology of Knowledge, aligning it more closely with Foucault’s later thinking on the history of systems of thought.12 The Order of Things presents an archaeology of systems of knowledge which reveal the structures common to discourses of particular historical periods, which Foucault calls the ‘episteme’. In doing so, he provides an account of the relationship between archaeology and episteme:

Unknown to themselves, the naturalist, the economists, and grammarians employed the same rules to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories. It is these rules of formation, which were never formulated in their own right, but are to be found only in widely differing theories, concepts, and objects of study, that I have tried to reveal, by isolating, as their specific locus, a level that I have called, somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, archaeological.13

For Giorgio Agamben, Foucaultian archaeology was concerned with revealing the formation of the order of knowledge ‒ what Foucault calls here the ‘rules of formation’ – that govern the creation of particular discourses within particular historic periods.14 These ‘rules of formation’ govern, too, what propositions are included within this discourse as accepted knowledge, or ‘truth’, and also, therefore, what are excluded.15 As noted above, in The Order of Things Foucault sets out how, within distinct historical periods, there were similarities across the ‘rules of formation’ of different discursive regimes.16 It is the parallel relationship between various discourses of a given time which Foucault describes as the episteme: ‘the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems’.17

Interestingly, however, in Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault articulates how identifying the episteme ‘makes it possible to grasp the set of constraints and limitations which, at a given moment, are imposed on discourse’.18 Ironically, such an enquiry into the ‘constraints and limitations’ of discourse necessarily goes beyond the archaeological method which Foucault describes as ‘pure description’ (italics in original).19 The idea of archaeology being concerned only with describing historical traces of the emergence of discourse, in fact delimits the role of the archaeologist in the interpretation and analysis of the discursive statements she discovers; an interpretation and analysis necessary in order to enable an evaluation of ‘constraints and limitations […] imposed on discourse’. It is this kind of paradox inherent within Foucault’s formation of the archaeological critique which led him to rework the concept into his later notion of ‘genealogy’.

Rachel Adams is a Chief Researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Show 19 footnotes

  1. Jean Hyppolite was a key influence on the work of Foucault, particularly with regard to Hyppolite’s interpretation of Hegel, whom Foucault later rejected. See D Macey The Lives of Michel Foucault (1994) Chapter 2.
  2. Ibid, 233-236. See also the statement Foucault makes in the opening to the lecture series The Government of Self and Others: ‘what I have tried to do is a history of thought. And by ‘thought’ I meant an analysis of what could be called focal points of experience in which forms of a possible knowledge (savoir), normative frameworks of behavior for individuals, and potential modes of existence for possible subjects are linked together’. M Foucault The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983 (trans. G Burchell, 2008) 3.
  3. Foucault considered the title’s ‘philosopher’, ‘historian’, and ‘post-structuralist’ all unfitting to the work he carried out. However, the title of Chair of The History of Systems of Thought was one that Foucault would have himself suggested as part of his submission to the Collège de France. Note 1 above, xiii and 235.
  4. Note 1 above, 215.
  5. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969) (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, 1972).  
  6. Note 5 above. See also M Foucault ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (1971) (trans. DF Bouchard & S Simon, 1977) in P Rabinow (ed) The Foucault Reader (1991). 
  7. G Canguilhem A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem (trans. A Goldhammer, 1994).
  8. G Bachelard The Poetics of Space (1958) (trans. Penguin Group 2014).
  9. See also M Foucault The Order of Things (1966) (Routledge, 1989), preface. 
  10. Note 5 above, 79-87.
  11. Note 5 above, 129-131.
  12. The initial outline of the concept of the history of the systems of thought is found in Foucault’s candidacy presentation for the Collège de France. M Foucault ‘Candidacy Presentation: Collège de France, 1969’ (1969) in P Rabinow Michel Foucault Ethics: Essential Words of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 1 (2000) 5.
  13. Note 9 above, xi-xiii.
  14. G Agamben ‘Philosophical Archaeology’ (2009) 20 Law and Critique 211. See also A Snoek ‘Agamben’s Foucault: An Overview’ (2010) 10 Foucault Studies 44.
  15. Note 9 above. 
  16. Note 9 above.
  17. Note 9 above, 191.
  18. Note 5 above, 192.
  19. Note 5 above, 27.
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