Unities of discourse (Foucault)

Foucault, and his archaeology of knowledge

I was suspicious of such unities of discourse as the ‘book’ and the ‘oeuvre’ because I suspected them of not being as immediate and self-evident as they appeared (pp.151-2)

I’m new to Foucault, but have had to read (some of) him because it seems that I have absorbed his thinking by osmosis, probably through reading other literature/philosophy along the way. In fact, my background in sociolinguistics, (critical) discourse analysis, and Fairclough might have something to do with it.

The problem is, my background is also in analytic philosophy, and my head cannot deal with a multiplicity of discourses that have no clear boundaries, premises, or logical conclusions.

Foucault is not – on my understanding – a philosopher; nor is he a linguist, a historian, or an educationalist, but he speaks the language of them all (was he a doctor? I know he wrote on the discourse of madness). My own project of understanding what academic writing is (what makes it academic? does it have a ‘unity of discourse’?) relies on theories of philosophy, language, history, and education, so I suppose I am looking for something in Foucault that speaks to this need of mine.

Foucault writes in a colourful medley of soundbites, all of which are easily quotable, and all of which resound with Bakhtinian notes and intertextual allusions to phenomenology (p. 137 on epoke), logical positivism (p. 101 on the truth/validity of statements eg. Russell’s ‘the present King of France is bald’); emergence theory (Fodor pp. 65, 66 and 82, on the point at which demarcated meaning emerges in a hierarchy of discourses); and structuralism / Wittgenstein on relational meanings (p.103).

No wonder people read Foucault and then think they are erudite! He manages to bring in just about every thinker any self-respecting academic has at least heard of, at some point in their education. He reads more like a modern-day opinionator, a media commentator who is not as accountable as an academic for his claims (cf. a more educated Russell Brand? Melanie Phillips? Germaine Greer? Am I really blaspheming here?).

The trouble is, we sort of share the same aims, i.e. those of “establishing the conditions of emergence of statements” (p. 143) and of understanding the formation of concepts (Chapter 5). So, I can’t ignore him because he’s clearly had an awful lot to say and has clearly had ‘impact’.

I may be able to use some of his soundbites as a justification (rather than as evidence) for thinking some of the things I think about academic writing. For example, in another random reference to big thinkers (Kant), Foucault coins the phrase ‘historical apriori‘ (did anyone use it before him?) to claim that discourse is not about establishing the conditions of validity of statements (as the logical positivists would have had it), but about establishing the conditions of their reality (p. 143). Leaving aside the obvious extent to which defining ‘reality’ begs the whole question, I like the way he shifts the focus of thinking from established modes, to new perspectives.

I think this is what I want to take from Foucault, his ability to shift perspectives. How those perspectives are then refined, defined, and developed is a whole other project. But I respect the fact that he took on, as did Kant, the entire structure of the way we think about reality, breaking down taken-for-granted concepts. It is easy to work within the confines of our discursive practices because we feel safe within our disciplinary definitions. But these discursive practices are not as clearly demarcated and bound as we would like to think they are.

And this is what I think about academic writing.

Foucault, M. (1969) The Archaeology of Knowledge, Routeledge

4 thoughts on “Unities of discourse (Foucault)”

  1. Foucault’s reputation unfortunately precedes any reading of him. I’d recommend just letting him help you understand scientific knowledge in terms of “discourse”, just as Kuhn might help you understand it in terms of “paradigms”. As I see it, Kuhn is just a historically informed advance from logical-positivist philosophy of science, which then set the stage for the sociological and anthropologically informed advances that were made after him. Foucault, likewise, is a historically informed advance of structuralist philosophy of science. Reading all of them (including the positivists and structuralists) makes us smarter about what science, knowledge, etc. is. But let’s not worry too much about the phenomenon of Foucault itself. I think comparing him to Russell Brand is silly, mind you. But to talk of blasphemy assumes that Foucault is an orthodoxy in itself. Some probably think so. But I’d recommend against it.

    1. Thank you, Thomas, for taking the time to respond to my ‘thinking aloud’. Yes, I agree, and having also read Khun, I can see where you are coming from. As for the comparison with RB, well, I think that came from a comparison between the speed with which he connects a million different thoughts in one single breath, and Foucault’s similar ability to intertextually weave the entire history of human thought into one sentence: I felt out of breath just reading him!

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