Home > Philosophy, Postmodernism > Foucaultian Histories: ‘Archaeology’ And ‘Genealogy’- Part One.

Foucaultian Histories: ‘Archaeology’ And ‘Genealogy’- Part One.

Foucault’s histories are broken down into two classes, ‘archaeology’, and ‘genealogy’, Gutting states he does not locate Foucaultian histories in any strict scientific sense of the term, as in they are not archaeological in the scientific sense, but rather are located in a much more fluid realm in which they are “retrospective” descriptions, and are “driven much more by the specific historical subject matter than by prior methodological commitments”. As such he proposes

…tracking Foucaultian histories along four dimensions: histories of ideas, histories of concepts, histories of the present, and histories of experience. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7)

Keen observers will see in this language a similar use to the metaphysical discussions of philosophers of the Enlightenment, Gutting notes that Foucault speaks ill of these traditional  theories, but still parallels his histories of ideas (in particular) along them sometimes, for example a central theme in his The History of Madness is Descartes’ discussion on the possibility that he is mad as a grounds for doubt. Due to my recent investigations into pragmatism I might surmise that Foucault’s discussion of ‘concepts’ will bring him into conflict with philosophers of science, as surely an atheistic, naturalistic analytic philosopher who discusses the categories of scientific investigation will have differing thoughts to a Continental Postmodern, post-structuralist (if these labels even apply) philosopher like Foucault who discusses concepts, and conceptual structures across disciplines, but alas, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Gutting states that much of Foucaultian histories fall under the genre of “the history of concept’s” which he adopted from his friend and mentor Georges Canguilhem:

This approach flows from an insistence on the distinction between the concepts that interpret scientific data and the theories that explain them. By contrast the standard Anglo-American view (…) is that theories are interpretations of data and therefore define concepts in terms of which data are understood. On Canguilhem’s view, concepts give us preliminary understanding of data that allows us to formulate scientifically fruitful questions about how to explain the data conceptualized. Theories then provide different – and often conflicting – answers to these questions… As long as concepts are regarded as functions of theories, their history will be identical with that of the development of theoretical formulations. But for Canguilhem concepts are “theoretically polyvalent”; the same concept can function in quite different theoretical contexts. This opens up the possibility of histories of concepts that are distinct from the standard histories that merely trace a succession of theoretical formulations. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7-8)

Foucault demonstrates this use of Canguilhemian concepts through many different forms, provided by Gutting, the most interesting of which is the way in which Foucault, provides accounts of the empirical sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his The Order of Things. Although Gutting admits this text is a simple history of the relevant concepts of this field, Foucault goes further on Canguilhem’s method in this work;

For Canguilhem concepts correspond to disciplines, and the history of a concept is written within the confines of the relevant discipline. But Foucault links apparently very different disciplines by showing similarities in their basic concepts. (Gutting, 2003, p. 9)

An example of how he does this is when he argues that the Classical empirical sciences of “general grammar, natural history, and analysis of wealth” share a closer common conceptual structure with each other than their modern counterparts, that is philology, biology and economics (one might feel a twinge of Wittgenstein’s “language games” and “forms of life” as a possible explanation of this phenomenon), Foucault calls this phenomena an “episteme”: that is a “system of concepts that defines knowledge for a certain era” (p. 9). The result of this method by Foucault means that now the historian is now not limited to define a discipline by its own terms, one may deal with the first-order concepts of say biology (such as nervous systems, gaseous exchange), but one may also use second-order concepts as Foucault did such as “representation and historicity” (p. 9) that, as Gutting states are the “conditions of possibility for the first-order concepts.” (p. 9).

As Gutting mentions this discursive look at the “intellectual subconscious” of  scientific practices was the focus of much of Foucault’s work, predominantly handled by his archaeologies:

Archaeology is an important alternative to the standard history of ideas, with its emphasis on the theorizing of individual thinkers and concern with their influence on one another. Foucault suggests (…) that the play of individuals’ thought, in a given period and disciplinary context, takes place in a space with structure defined by a system of rules more fundamental than the assertions of the individuals thinking in the space. Delineating the structures of this space (the goal of the archaeology of thought) often gives a more fundamental understanding of the history of thought than do standard histories centered on the individual subject (…). (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

Foucault’s motives for embarking on this journey are due to the fact that he finds the current institutions, disciplines, and social practices “intolerable”, his archaeologies are about using the past to point to some aspect he felt needed addressing in the present, usually to the aformentioned categories. That Foucault used the past to speak about the present might be considered standard fare states Gutting, particularly for Enlightenment thinkers who might think that where we are now is inevitable given our history, where Foucault’s thought is unique is in his ability to show the contingency of history and thus current thought:

Intolerable practices and institutions present themselves  present themselves as having no alternative: How could we do anything except set up asylums to treat the mentally ill? How deal humanely with criminals except by imprisoning them? How attain sexual freedom except by discovering and accepting our sexual orientation? Foucault’s histories aim to remove this air of necessity by showing the past ordered things quite differently and that the processes leading to our present practices and institutions were by no means inevitable. (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

The example Gutting uses to demonstrates this is Foucault’s history of madness in which Foucault assaults our modern conception of madness and mental illness, stating there have been alternative conceptions of madness throughout history (such as madness as a “moral fault” in the Classical Age, rather than as antisocial and/or dangerous behaviors as we do now), but that neither definition and practice of madness and the treatment thereof deserve special placement as having access to the “truth about madness”, no, to Foucault they are “social constructions, intelligible and apparently compelling in their own periods…” (p. 11) Moreover Foucault sees modern psychiatry as less about being a triumph of scientific objectivity and more as a “product of scientifically and morally suspect forces peculiar to the social and intellectual structures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (p. 11)

This is a very short look at Foucault’s histories and an even briefer look at his archaeologies, Gutting goes into an interesting analysis of Foucault’s views of ‘man’ for example how he is in a perplexing position to be “both an object in the world, but also an experiencing subject through which the world is constituted.” (p. 12) Modern thought takes this to be the only such conception of man, but as Foucault notes this is just “one contingent construal of that reality” (p. 12) Although as interesting as this analysis is, it only serves to demonstrate the same critique presented by Foucault’s look at psychiatry and as such I left it out. In our next post we will look at his genealogies.

***Edited*** I’m adding here what I thought would turn into a second blog, but as I’m not reading this book anymore, I’ll simply attach my final notes:

Finally let us look at Foucaultian his genealogies. Gutting states:

We have seen how Foucault’s archaeological method is an outgrowth of his use of Canguilhem’s history of concepts. Similarly his genealogical method can be understood in terms of his desire to write histories of the present.  In fact, in one use of the term, Foucault simply identifies genealogy with history if the present, regarding it as any effort to question the necessity of dominant categories and procedures. More narrowly, genealogy is a history of the present specifically concerned with complex casual antecedents of a socio-intellectual reality (in contrast to archaeology, which is concerned only with the conceptual structures subtending the reality). (Gutting, 2003, p. 12)

As we see above to Foucault his histories are less about objective facts, and more about perspective, that is he adopts different different historical approaches to discuss particular historical realities. In particular his genealogies are an out and out attack on Enlightenment notions (grand narratives) of ‘inevitable progress’ by tracing the origins of practices and institutions to their ‘contingent’ and ‘petty causes’ (p. 14). This view has been criticized, many think that Foucault should not be called a historian, and thus not judged by the standard norms of histiography, and Gutting agrees, insofar as he thinks Foucaultian histories have an agenda, but, even if looked at from a strict historiographical perspective Foucault’s histories may still provide us with a solid historical footing “they may still be adequate to their task of grounding a historical critique of current malpractices.” (p. 15)


Gutting, G. (2003). ‘Introduction’, in G, Gutting (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.



Categories: Philosophy, Postmodernism
  1. June 5, 2014 at 1:47 am

    Have you started reading Foucault’s work yet (rather than people telling you about his work)? Foucault, with his discussion of ‘madness’ and modern psychiatry / psychology, etc –

    He seems to be quite right, in some ways – as a discipline seeking to *understand* the human mind, psychology is ok – somewhat dodgy, but ok. As a discipline seeking to ‘cure’ people of mental illness – it is this ‘labelling’ that I think Foucault is really attacking. What constitutes ‘mental illness’? Latest figures suggest that 1/3 people (or higher) will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lives. Alarming.

    What seems to me, to be more alarming, is the social, ethical and political ramifications of using mental illness as a concept. As someone who has done CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) [did you look at theories of mind?] as a patient – I can tell you that (with my [very political/philosophical] mind) it really did seem about politics/economics. Not about developing a person, but about reframing a persons problems in order to meet social needs. Labelling my problems with my life a ‘mental illness’ meant that there was something wrong with what was going on in my head – It was about getting a person capable of going ‘back to work’.

    Not once did they allow the consideration that it may not have been a problem with me: The problem couldn’t be with the world. It couldn’t be a problem with society. It is all about your internal thinking, and outward behaviour. It is absolutely individualistic and atomistic. THIS is the problem with psychology and psychiatry. While I can accept my dominant role in my own thinking – this thinking, these behaviours, and my life, are all shaped and placed under pressure by all these other factors that interplay with my own thinking processes.

    This isn’t to say that some do not require medical intervention, or psychiatric intervention – some do, at least for a time – but about the very idea that anything outside of a social norm (which may not actually be ‘normal’) is deemed to be an ‘illness’ – whether moral, social, mental or physical.

    Its a large part of the reason that several years later, I ended up studying academic philosophy. Far more satisfying, and far more helpful.

    If you’re enjoying the Continentals – you should try reading Deleuze and Guttari. Difficult to get hold of, and honestly some of their stuff will be difficult to read – but interesting. What little I understand of their work, I quite like 🙂

    • July 17, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      I’ve pretty much given up on this book, (a) because you’re right, reading other peoples thoughts about an author is pointless if you haven’t read the base material and (b) because I just don’t care for the Continental approach. I respect them, think they’re valuable, I try not to be ignorant to them, but I read so little, I’d rather read analytics.

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