Foucault’s history, archaeology, and genealogy

Read or reread the book with me (Michel Foucault).

Fendler, L. (2010). Michel Foucault (pp. 38-42). Continuum Library of Educational Thought, Vol. 22, Richard Bailey, (Series Ed.). London: Continuum Press.

“Just as some philosophers do not consider Foucault to be a philosopher, some historians do not consider him to be a historian. The reasons for both are similar: Foucault’s work challenged the rules of research in both philosophy and history. For anyone who holds traditional beliefs about philosophy or history, Foucault’s work will not seem to fit properly into either one.

Scholars do not always agree on the meanings of history,archaeology, and genealogy, and they do not agree on how to interpret Foucault’s various historical projects. Many people think that Foucault’s work can be divided into successive periods or phases: the early work is called `history of ideas,’ the next period is labeled his `archeological’ work, then comes the `genealogical’ work, and the last works are described as `history of thought.’ Foucault himself rejected all these classifications, and he was not consistent in his uses of any of these terms.

Foucault’s use of the term archaeology helps to distinguish his historical work from mainstream history. In brief, mainstream history is longitudinal: it studies the development of something over a period of time. In contrast, archaeology is cross-sectional: it studies many different things that occurred at the same time. Archaeologists study artifacts of a single time: the pottery, building materials, books, instruments, and artwork of a particular stratum. Archaeologists try to make sense of how all of those various artifacts fit together. Foucault’s archaeological approach to history is similar. He examined several different things that occurred at the same time. For example, he studied artifacts of eighteenth-century European linguistics, economics, and science. Then he tried to figure out how those artifacts made sense together. Archaeologists to try to explain what was going on in one selected historical time. When he conducted archaeological studies, Foucault was particularly interested in knowledge, and he used the term episteme to refer to the knowledge system of a particular time. The episteme is the pattern that can be seen across various disciplines like economics, linguistics, and science. An episteme forms the basis for distinguishing true knowledge from false knowledge:

  • I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the `apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific. (Foucault 1980b, p. 197)

As the word suggests, an episteme pertains to epistemology. In other words, it is a historically specific way of knowing.

In sum, archaeology is the study of a cross-section of artifacts in a particular time. It is unlike mainstream history because it analyzes a variety of artifacts in one time period rather than tracing the development of one thing over a period of years.” (p. 38)

“Foucault’s use of the term genealogy is usually distinguished from archaeology. However, by most reckonings, genealogies are based on archaeologies. While archaeology works to understand how artifacts fit together in a historical moment, genealogy works to figure out what kind of people would fit into that set of artifacts. Foucault’s genealogies are generally based on archaeological-type studies. That is, he examined a cross-section of artifacts (archaeology), and then asked questions like:

  1. What kind of people would live in such a way?
  2. Given those artifacts and epistemes, how did people think of themselves in the world?” (p. 39)

“No matter whether we think that archaeology is similar to or different from genealogy, there are three major features that distinguish Foucault’s historical work from mainstream approaches to history. First, Foucault’s historical work challenges both continuist and discontinuist historical accounts. Continuous histories emphasize how much things stay the same, and discontinuous histories emphasize how much things change. An epigram of continuous history is: ‘Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.’ An epigram of discontinuous history is: `It is not possible to step twice into the same river.’ It is a matter of preference whether we emphasize how things stay the same or how things change; just as it is a matter of preference whether we see the glass as half-empty or half-full.

If you read a history of science in which science is depicted as a continuous series of improvements, then that is an example of continuous history because it emphasizes how science is basically the same; it just gets better. In contrast, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) is an example of discontinuous history because it emphasizes how science has undergone revolutionary changes. In cases when mainstream histories assume continuity, Foucault’s history was likely to emphasize differences, and when mainstream histories assume discontinuity, Foucault’s history was likely to show similarities.

For example, mainstream histories usually portray modernity as a continuation of the Enlightenment. These mainstream histories emphasize the continuous developments in reason, science, and democracy around the world. In his critical spirit, Foucault’s history challenged that continuity. He emphasized how modern institutionalization and industrialization constituted a break from earlier Enlightenment intellectual debates between rationalism and empiricism.

In other cases where mainstream histories claim discontinuity, Foucault argued for (some degree of) continuity. In one famous example, mainstream history usually portrays a historical rupture (or a paradigm shift) between Greek and Christian worldviews, especially with regard to morality. Mainstream history tends to regard Christianity as a break or rupture in history from earlier ‘pagan’ times. However, Foucault’s analysis (in The History of Sexuality) emphasizes the continuities between Greek and Christian ethical systems. He argued that both systems were governed by fairly strict and explicit principles. His analysis acknowledges differences between Greek and Christian ethical systems, but also argues that there are striking similarities between the two.

One way to understand Foucault’s historiographical approach is to say that he was being critical, provocative, or contrary. Whether mainstream history emphasized continuity or discontinuity, Foucault offered a challenge to that emphasis, whenever it appeared as an unquestioned assumption about history.

Second, Foucault’s approach to history does not try to be objective, but rather it aims to be a critical history of the present. Mainstream historians have been interested in objectivity; their approach to studying history was to find and record ‘how it really was’ in the past. Just as modern philosophers have generally been focused on finding the truth about our lives, mainstream historians have generally been focused on finding the truth about what happened in the past. Foucault’s study of history was not focused on finding the truth about the past, and therefore many historians assert that his work is not really history.

However, this does not mean that Foucault wrote history in flagrant disregard of facts. Rather, the focus and emphasis of his historical analysis was shaped by concerns about the present. Here is a sketch of Foucault’s argument about objectivity in history:

  1. No history can include everything that happened in every day in every place. In our own lives, we see that every day is filled with thousands of ordinary events, happenings, and incidents. No history includes everything about everything, so no history is really objective.
  2. Millions of people have been born, lived their lives and died. The vast majority of things that have occurred in the past have never been recorded or included in any historical account.
  3. Only a small selection of things has been included in any historical record. Sometimes the things that have been included are those that historians believed to be interesting or worth writing about; other times things have been included by habit, custom, and convention.
  4. Some kinds of things (like certain aspects of wars and particular kinds of heroes) have been regularly included in historical records, and other things (like housekeeping and child-raising) have been regularly omitted from historical records.
  5. Since it is not possible for any historical record to include everything that has ever happened, it must be the case that all histories exclude a great deal. All selections lead to exclusions.
  6. Since all histories are selective, it is intellectually ethical to take responsibility for selection bias, rather than to pretend that histories are objective.

Foucault explained very explicitly his criteria for inclusion in the historical accounts; he wanted to question our assumptions about the present. He made his selection biases explicit. He wrote history in order to help us gain surprising insight into our present circumstances. That is what ‘history of the present’ means.

Third, Foucault’s approach to history is influenced by Nietzsche’s ‘effective history.’ Foucault did not write objective history; he wrote ‘critical and effective history.’ He used the term ‘effective history’ after Nietzsche’s Wirkungsgeschichte. One helpful tool for understanding the difference between objective history and effective history has been provided by two educational historians from Belgium, Marc DePaepe and Frank Simon (1996). They use the metaphor of mirror and lever to capture political and pedagogical differences between objective history and effective history. DePaepe and Simon’s metaphor helps us understand that history can serve multiple and complex purposes. Objective history is meant to function like a mirror that provides us with a reflection of the past. In contrast, effective history is meant to function like a lever that disrupts our assumptions and understandings about who we think we are. Foucault’s history, with its provocative and ironic stance, conveys the message that mirrors make the best levers.

Finally, Foucault tended to celebrate the role of chance in human lives. As he wrote, the job of genealogy is to restore chance to its rightful place in history. Recognizing that reason has been one of the disciplinary technologies of modern societies, Foucault repeatedly reminded us that much of history cannot be explained by anything other than ‘the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance’ (Nietzsche’s Dawn quoted in Foucault 1998, p. 381). Foucault celebrated the role of chance in history because chance makes change easier to imagine. If we do not think of history as proceeding in some inevitable or predictable manner, then history is not so deterministic, and it is easier for us to imagine that things might be different in the future.

In summary, Foucault’s historical work:

  1. Challenges both continuist and discontinuist accounts of history.
  2. Does not try to be objective, but is a critical history of the present.
  3. Is strongly influenced by Nietzsche’s ‘effective history.’
  4. Allows for the possibility of chance.”
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2 thoughts on “Foucault’s history, archaeology, and genealogy

  1. Yes, this is over a year after you posted this; nevertheless, THANK YOU. I’ve been looking for a really clear encapsulation of Foucault’s approach to history for my students, and this is absolutely perfect. Hope it’s ok if I use it – with proper credit due, of course :). Brilliant stuff! No way that I could have expressed it this well.

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