The Archaeology of Knowledge  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Archaeology of Knowledge (L'Archéologie du Savoir) is a book written by Michel Foucault and was published in 1969. This volume was Foucault's main excursion into methodology, providing an anti-humanist excavation of the human sciences, particularly but not exclusively psychology and sociology. He wrote it in order to deal with the reception that The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses) had received. It makes references to Anglo-American analytical philosophy, particularly speech act theory.

Foucault directs his analysis toward the "statement", the basic unit of discourse that he believes has been ignored up to this point. "Statement" is the English translation from French énoncé (that which is enunciated or expressed), which has a peculiar meaning for Foucault. "Énoncé" for Foucault means that which makes propositions, utterances, or speech acts meaningful. In this understanding, statements themselves are not propositions, utterances, or speech acts. Rather, statements create a network of rules establishing what is meaningful, and it is these rules that are the preconditions for propositions, utterances, or speech acts to have meaning. Depending on whether or not they comply with the rules of meaning, a grammatically correct sentence may still lack meaning and inversely, an incorrect sentence may still be meaningful. Statements depend on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse. It is towards huge entities of statements, called discursive formations, that Foucault aims his analysis. Foucault reiterates that the analysis he is outlining is only one possible tactic, and that he is not seeking to displace other ways of analysing discourse or render them as invalid.

Foucault's posture toward the statements is radical. Not only does he bracket out issues of truth; he also brackets out issues of meaning. Rather than looking for a deeper meaning underneath discourse or looking for the source of meaning in some transcendental subject, Foucault analyzes the conditions of existence for meaning. In order to show the principles of meaning production in various discursive formations he details how truth claims emerge during various epochs on the basis of what was actually said and written during these periods of time. He particularly describes the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and the 20th Century. He strives to avoid all interpretation and to depart from the goals of hermeneutics. This posture allows Foucault to move away from an anthropological standpoint and focus on the role of discursive practices.

Dispensing with finding a deeper meaning behind discourse would appear to lead Foucault toward structuralism. However, whereas structuralists search for homogeneity in a discursive entity, Foucault focuses on differences. Instead of asking what constitutes the specificity of European thought he asks what differences develop within it over time. Therefore, he refuses to examine statements outside of their role in the discursive formation, and he never examines possible statements that could have emerged from such a formation. His identity as a historian emerges here, as he is only interested in analysing actual statements in history. The whole of the system and its discursive rules determine the identity of the statement. But, a discursive formation continually generates new statements, and some of these usher in changes in the discursive formation that may or may not be realized. Therefore, to describe a discursive formation, Foucault also focuses on expelled and forgotten discourses that never happen to change the discursive formation. Their difference to the dominant discourse also describe it. In this way one can describe specific systems that determine which types of statements emerge.

In his Foucault (1986), Deleuze describes The Archaeology of Knowledge as "the most decisive step yet taken in the theory-practice of multiplicities."


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