Michel Foucault – The Archaeology of Knowledge – part I-II

Michel Foucault

Archaeology of Knowledge

Part I-II

Blogger’s Intro

I’ve recently finished reading The Archaeology of Knowledge, by Michael Foucault. What I’m going to attempt to do here on the blog, is to go through the book a second time, and sort of condense and chart the procession of thought, chapter by chapter. I’ll try to keep each chapter to 3 paragraphs or so, and I’ll provide the chapter titles both because I’ve found that the chapter titles are revealing from a wide scope, and so that perhaps this personal exercise can become productive to someone else, who is, perhaps, interested in Foucault, or reading The Archaeology of Knowledge for themselves.

If the style and vocabulary used is immediately overwhelming, I’ve found that it is useful to read as though one were listening to music – it is not necessary to understand everything immediately, before suddenly something will arise that catches one’s attention.

Overview of the Text

Foucault’s book The Archaeology of Knowledge is about the conditions, rules and systems of dispersion of discourse. Ultimately, this book is an analysis of the relation between the formation of knowledge and power. The book addressed how notions of truth, or the self, are constructions and interrelations of inherited discourses that are in a malleable state, capable of being changed, and transformed.

As an ‘archaeology’, the text of this book is not interested in describing a vast continuity, period, or point of rupture in a History of Knowledge.  Archaeology questions the ready-made synthesis and groupings that we normally accept before examination. The text attempts to reach the point where discourse becomes irreducible in an effort to measure the formations and transformations of discourse that occur the fields of historical knowledge.  Foucault’s project identifies the methods, limits and themes of the history of ideas, and analyzes their interactions and dependencies. Archaeology attempts to make visible the regulations, operational rules, and the practicing possibilities of discourse in society.

Archaeology reaches down to the level where it becomes possible to examine discursive objects and concepts themselves, their domain in the enunciative field, and further, the conditions, relations and systems of dispersion that will allow a discursive object or concept to become a positivity and gain power.

The methods of Archaeology are neither formal nor interpretive. In Archaeological analysis, a discursive object is an exteriority.  Because discourse is studied as an exteriority, notions like an author, the oeuvre, or the intentions of a speaker are not considered relevant divisions in the modes of discourse. This is one reason why archaeology is disruptive to the field of historical knowledge; it suspends the interpretive act, looks beyond the authority of the author. Archaeology does not treat discourse as a document but rather as a monument. The transcendent subject disappears in archaeology, and discourse becomes a stubborn exteriority neutral to thoughts, wishes or desires of a speaker, indifferent to distinctions between the life or death of an author.

The denial of authority over a text, and the search to uncover the process of discursive formation and transformation, brings into question the human being as a self, and the role of the speaking subject. This sort of analysis is one reason I continue to return to Foucault, for all of his rigorous examination, he consistently finds a way to bring the analysis back to what it means for human beings. “It belongs to that field in which the questions of the human being, consciousness, origin, and the subject emerge, intersect, mingle, and separate off” (18 Foucault).

PART II The Discursive Regularities

1. The Unities of Discourse

Archaeology brings in to question the divisions, groupings, simultaneous or successive links of any unities of discourse such as oeuvres, notions, theories, or the work of individuals, as well as between forms such as science, literature, philosophy, religion, history, etc. Foucault points out that many of our accepted forms of groups or division, such as ‘literature’ or ‘politics’ are recent categories, which can be applied to the past before these categories of thought existed. We can apply political thought to medieval culture only by a retrospective hypothesis, and by interplay of formal analogies or semantic resemblances.

Even if one were to examine the divisions of thought contemporary to a time, the divisions themselves are reflexive categories, principles of classification, normative rules, institutional types. These classifications and unities are facts of discourse that are examined by Archaeology, as well as their relations with each other, but the notion that any of these classification systems are intrinsic or universally recognizable characteristics is dispelled in Archaeology, they are not rejected definitively, but are rather held in suspense.

“The tranquility by which they are accepted must be disturbed; we must show that they do not come about themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized” (28 Foucault).

2. Discursive Formations

The unities of discourse are not based on the uniqueness, or intrinsic values of objects, but rather on the space in which various objects emerge and are continually transformed. A good example, and one that Foucault uses, is the relation between the object of madness and the space of the institution. The unity of discourse on madness is an interplay of rules and conditions that make possible an appearance of the object of madness at a given time. A discursive object such as madness is shaped by measures of discrimination, repression, law, religion, medical diagnosis, medical codes and practices.

Another focus is the form and types of connections for discursive relations. There seems to be a system that governs the division of discursive objects, as well as a certain dependence of one object on another, especially in the way some objects seem to easily join, whereas others will be excluded from a certain area, or arena.

There is also, in an analysis of discursive formation, a persistence of themes. An evolutionist theme, for an example, once it forms in the field of the sciences, will then direct research from afar, regroup information, exclude prior discursive objects, and pave a way for a an acceptance of new knowledge. An evolutionist theme, once established, is then subject to transformation, and reorganization within itself. The continuous table of species of the 18th century was then broken down into a discontinuous groups and modes of organism and environment interaction. Here we se a singe theme, become two separate discourses.

Archaeology attempts to study systems of dispersion among the objects, themes, and relations of discourse. Archaeology suspends the chains of inference typical of history, science, and philosophy, as well as the tables of difference of the linguists. Archaeology is interested in rules of formation, or conditions of existence, coexistence, maintenance, modification, and disappearance of discursive objects, statements, concepts, and themes.

3. The Formation of Objects

a.)Archaeology is a mapping of surfaces of emergence. It attempts to demonstrate how and where objects come into play with conceptual codes and rationalization, and are accorded a status in a hierarchy of knowledge to be designated and analyzed. The surfaces of emergence are not the same for different societies, at different periods, and in different forms of discourse.

b.)It then becomes necessary to account for the authorities of delimitation.  Medicine as an institution becomes the authority of delimitation that designates, names, and establishes madness as an object. Law, Religion, and Art play a part here as well, in terms of forming the critical and tragic consciousness’ that will interact with the object of madness.

c.)There are then grids of specification. “These are the systems according to which the different ‘kinds of madness’ are divided, contrasted, related, regrouped, classified, derived from one another as objects of psychiatric discourse (in the nineteenth century, the grids of differentiation were: the soul, as a group of hierarchized, related, and more or less interpenetrable faculties; the body, as a three dimensional volume of organs linked together by networks of dependence and communication; the life and history of individuals, as a linear succession of phases, a tangle of traces, a group of potential reactivations, cyclical repetitions; the interplays of neuropsychological correlations as systems of reciprocal projections, as a field of circular causality)” (47 Foucault).

The formation of objects is made possible by groups of relations established between authorities of emergence, delimitation and specification. The ability to say anything about a particular object is dependent on relations of resemblance, proximity, distance, difference, and transformation. These relations are established between institutions, social and economic processes, behavioral patterns and norms, systems and types of classification, and modes of characterization.  Discursive relations are not internal to discourse, and are not external to discourse either, archaeology observes discursive relations as the limits of discourse. “These relations characterize not the language used by discourse, nor the circumstances in which it is deployed, but discourse itself as a practice” (51 Foucault).

The objects of discourse do not remain constant, and nor do their domain. Their point of emergence can not even be considered intrinsic because of a retroactive attribution in the history of ideas, what is consistent for archaeology is the relations between the surfaces on which the objects appear, on which they can be delimited, and on which they can be analyzed and specified.

4. The Formation of Enunciative Modalities

Who has the right, and qualifications, to be the speaking subject? To speak a particular discourse, for example, medical discourse, there is a mandatory status that must be achieved, legal conditions, competence and knowledge that must be gained. The doctor has acquired a special status to be able to speak a medical discourse. This right is due to the doctor’s relation to the medical institution and the groups and individuals who have their own status in the system of differentiation of the social space. The doctor becomes a figure with a certain right to make decisions, and is not an interchangeable person, medical statements can not come from just anyone.

There are also institutional sites that allow the doctor to speak a medical discourse, and allow that discourse to be legitimate. Sites are the hospital, the laboratory, but also the library or university where the doctor trains and acquires the right to speak a medical discourse.

The doctor acquires the right to perceptual situations beyond average interaction, the doctor is able to observe, listen, circulate the interior space of the body, and make diagnosis. The doctor has a unique ability to occupy a space in an information network. The regulation of enunciations is not defined by a transcendental subject or a psychological subjectivity, but by a totality of discourse, dispersed and interrelated in a vast system of relations.

“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. It is a space of exteriority in which a network of distinct sites is deployed” (60 Foucault).

5. The Formation of Concepts

The organization of conceptual systems is articulated against the permanence of problems. The organization of concepts involves forms of succession and orderings of enunciative series . Statements, and the arrangement of statements, are dependent upon their relations and dynamics of articulation, there are rules and limits to what statements may be combined, and which must be excluded in any particular time or setting. Natural History used different concepts and combinations of statements in the sixteenth century, than were used in the field in the seventeenth century.

There are forms of coexistence in the enunciative field in any particular time or setting. The phrase for possible statements in the enunciative field at any given time is field of presence. There is also a field of concomitance, which would be the enunciative fields parallel, or neighboring the particular field of discourse one may enter. For example, if one is in the field of presence of Natural History in the 17th century, a field of concomitance would be cosmology, philosophy, theology, etc. Coexistence is the relations between these fields of enunciative possibilities.  Lastly, the enunciative field has a field of memory, which is used to describe statements that are no longer accepted or discussed, and which no longer can be used as a valid piece of knowledge or truth.

There are then, procedures of intervention, which describes the process of rewriting history, or a scientific table, the methods of transcribing statements, and modes of translating previous discoveries into contempory forms of knowledge, truth, or untruth.

It is the group of relations that constitutes a system of conceptual formation. This type of archaeological analysis reaches a preconceptual level; the field in which concepts coexist

“These schemata make it possible to describe – not laws of internal construction of concepts, not their progressive and individual genesis in the mind of man – but their anonymous dispersion through texts, books and oeuvres” (67 Foucault)


6. The Formation of Strategies

This chapter realigns its focus a bit, and sets forth new directions that the text will proceed with:

  1. Determing the possible points of diffraction of discourse. These points are characterized as points of incompatibility, and points of equivalence. Incompatibility is the mergence of two discursive objects that cannot enter the same series of statements, whereas Equivalence describes two incompatible objects that were formed in the same way, based on the same conditions and rules, but can only be used as alternatives in the form of either/or statements. There are then link points of systematization.
  2. There is the economy of discursive constellation, which is an analysis of all possible alternatives of the sites and domains of discursive deployment, and the authorities that guide one’s choices. Between several discourses, there are relations of mutual delimitation, each giving the other singularity, validity, and the domain of application. This constellation, or group of relations, determines principles and conceptual systematizations by which certain discourses and enunciative series may be used or excluded, based on the domain.
  3. There is a function that a discourse must carry out in a field of non-discursive practices.  For example, Grammar plays a role in pedagogic practice; the Analysis of Wealth plays a role in government decisions, and in everyday life of capitalism. Here we see accepted discourses (Grammar, Economics) reaching into fields of non-discursive practices. There is an authority that designs the rules and processes of appropriation of discourse. In our society, the property of discourse, the right to speak, the ability to understand, is directly linked to the access of already formulated statements, accepted formulations of knowledge and reasonable communications for common use, that have not been designed by common people, but rather inherited from places of authority.

 These strategies are not independent of discourse, but are what make discourse possible. There is no ideal discourse that is both ultimate and timeless. There is no true discourse that is accumulating over time, and there is no discourse disintegrating. There is no fundamental project, nor is there only a secondary play of opinions being thrown back at history and the past. There is a vast system and constellation of strategies, relations, and functions that make the practice of discourse possible at any given time, but nothing is permanent or intrinsically true.


7. Remarks and Consequences

“At the outset I questioned those pre-established unities according to which one has traditionally divide up the indefinite, repetitive, prolific domain of discourse. My intention was not to deny all value to these unities or to try to forbid their use; it was to show that they required, in order to be defined exactly, a theoretical elaboration” (79 Foucault).

The question becomes, at this point in the text, can one really speak of unities?

What we are dealing with is a dispersion, full of gaps, discontinuities, entanglements, and incompatibilities. This dispersion is taking place in a system that makes possible and governs formation.

  1. Concepts are formed on the basis of forms of coexistence between statements. Modalities of enunciation are described on the basis of the position occupied by the subject in relation to the domain of objects of which he is speaking.
  2. Systems of formation are not blocks of immobility, but rather constantly undergoing transformation, and reorganization. The characteristics and possibilities of discourse are not permanent, or intrinsically true.  The origins of discourse is not in the thoughts of men, but nor are they determinations formed at the level of institutions or social relations that transcribe themselves by force on the surface of discourses.

“Behind the visible façade of the system, one posits the rich uncertainty of disorder; and beneath the thin surface of discourse, the whole mass of a largely silent development: a “presystematic that is not of the order of the system; a ‘prediscursive’ that belongs to an essential silence. Discourse and system produce each other – and conjointly – only at the crest of this immense reserve…Behind the completed system, what is discovered by the analysis of formations is not the bubbling source of life itself, life in an as yet uncaptured state; it is an immense density of systematicities, a tight group of multiple relations” (84-85 Foucault)


Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. Great Britain: Routeledge, 1989. Print.

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com


  1. Pingback: Michael Foucault – The Archaeology of Knowledge – part I-II | seymourblogger

  2. Roger

    You have done a wonderful job. I read the book only once and you reminded me of the main and principal ideas in this amazing book.

  3. J Zhou

    Very helpful overview. Thank you!

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