Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault The Archaeology of Knowledge Tavistock 1972


The old questions of the traditional analysis
(What link should be made between disparate events? How can a causal succession be established between them? What continuity or overall significance do they possess? Is it possible to define a totality, or must one be content with reconstituting connexions?)
are now being replaced by questions of another type:

  • which strata should be isolated from others?
  • What types of series should be established?
  • What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each of them?
  • What systems of relations  (hierarchy,  dominance,  stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them?
  • And in what large-scale chronological table may distinct series be determined?

[The] history of a concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement, its continuously increasing rationality, its abstraction gradient, but that of its various fields of constitution and validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts in which it developed and matured. There is the distinction … between the microscopic and the macroscopic … in which the events and their consequences are not arranged in the same way. … ([In] the field of mathematics, M. Serres has provided the theory of this phenomenon). There are the architectonic unities … which are concerned … with internal coherence, axioms, deductive connexions, compatibilities. Lastly, the most radical discontinuities are the breaks effected by a work of theoretical transformation ‘which establishes a science by detaching it from the ideology of its past and by revealing this past as ideological’.

Examples of macroscopic changes are economic adjustments to demographics and climate change.

The Discursive Regularities

I have only skimmed the main parts, and used the index to look at particular issues. This parts seems well summarised by the introduction and conclusion.

The Statement and the Archive

Defining the statement

When one wishes to individualize statements, one cannot therefore accept unreservedly any of the models borrowed from grammar, logic or ‘analysis’.

The description of statements

The statement, then, is not an elementary unity that can be added to the unities described by grammar or logic. It cannot be isolated like a sentence, proposition, or an act of formulation. To describe a statement is not a matter of isolating and characterizing a horizontal segment; but of defining the conditions in which the function that gave the series of signs … an existence, and a specific existence, can operate.

Archaeological Description

The Original and the regular

A group of statements is characterized, then, by a certain form of regularity … but these regularities are not given once and for all.

The comparative facts

Foucault alludes to mathematics in the context of the ‘Classical spirit’, ‘the forms of rationality that operated in the whole of Classical science’ and ‘the attempt to establish a Cartesian mathesis‘.

Change and transformations

By going from the more particular to the more general, one can and must describe: ….
how relations between various positivities were transformed
(how the relations between philology, biology, and economics transform the relations between General Grammar, Natural History, and the Analysis of Wealth; how their respective relations with mathematics and philosophy are modified …)
It is understandable that some minds are so attached to all those old metaphors by which, for over a century and a half, history (movement, flux, evolution) has been imagined … that they cannot accept that change has been cleansed of all these adventitious models, that it should be deprived of both its primacy as a universal law and its status as a general effect, and that it should be replaced by the analysis of various transformations.

Science and knowledge

Foucault uses the tem ‘positivity’ for ‘the tangled mass that [he is] trying to unravel’.

    There is perhaps only one science for which one can neither distinguish these different thresholds, nor describe a similar set of shifts: mathematics, the only discursive practice to have crossed at one and the same time the thresholds of positivity, epistemologization, scientificity, and formalization. [Its] original positivity was to constitute an already formalized discursive practice … . Hence the fact that their [i.e., mathematics] establishment is both so enigmatic … and so valid (since it is valid both as an origin and as a foundation); hence the fact that in the first gesture of the first mathematician one saw the constitution of an ideality that has been deployed throughout history, and has been questioned only to be repeated and purified … . Mathematics has certainly served as a model for most scientific discourses in their efforts to attain formal rigour and demonstrativity .. .



The premise of the book is that systems of thought and knowledge (“epistemes” or “discursive formations”) are governed by rules (beyond those of grammar and logic) which operate in the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.


Foucault’s ‘rules’ of enunciation are clearly not those of classical logic, and mathematics and logic are the only forms of knowledge that at least approximate to ideals. It reasonable to attempt to develop sciences to be more ideal, but a mistake to think that this is achievable, even in principle.

For a mathematician, it seems a little odd to describe mathematics as a science, but at least Foucault recognizes its special nature.

The rules of enunciation are not consistent over domains or over time, and so ‘are not logical’. But Foucault’s discursive regularities seem to correspond to  Whitehead’s epochs. Thus, it seems perfectly possible to reason about them logically. There are very clear parallels to the work and Russell, particularly in the issues of the introduction as above.

See Also

My notes on logic.

David Marsay

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