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A term used by Michel Foucault to describe his methodological approach to uncovering the structures that underlie specific historical discursive formations. The meaning and utility of the term were a source of debate within the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

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Freud used the metaphor of ‘archaeology’ to describe the psychoanalytic approach to the unconscious. In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), he likened the preservation of the past in the mind to the preservation of past layers of Roman civilization in the city of Rome (SE 21: 60-61).

In Sur la logique et la théorie de la science Jean Cavaillès notes Eugen Fink’s reference to phenomenology as an archaeology. ‘To make comprehensible in the phenomenological sense is […] to dissociate the entanglements, to pursue the referential indicators in order to bring out into the open the polished system of acts which “no longer refer to anything”. In this sense, says Fink, phenomenology should be called an archaeology’.1

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, the term archaeology is most closely associated with the work of Michel Foucault. Though chiefly influenced by a Nietzschean concept of genealogy, Foucault was partially inspired in this concept by Cavaillès’s own notion of a ‘historical a priori’ that might be the site of an archaeological investigation.2 La Naissance du clinique (1963) is subtitled ‘An Archaeology of the Medical Gaze’, and Les Mots et les choses is subtitled ‘An Archaeology of the Human Sciences’. In the latter, Foucault explains that ‘archaeology’ in his sense is something different to the history of ideas or science, because ‘it’s aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theory became possible […]. What I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the episteme in which knowledge, envisioned apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or objective forms, grounds its positivity and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility […]. Such an enterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of that word, as an “archaeology”.’3 In his exchange with the Cercle d’Épistémologie (CpA 9.1, CpA 9.2, CpA 9.3), Foucault’s notion of archaeology undergoes critique and transformation.

Jacques-Alain Miller developed a concept of archaeology in tandem with Foucault. In his History of Structuralism, François Dosse notes that Miller presented a paper on ‘the archaeology of knowledge in Descartes’ in Louis Althusser’s seminar of 1962-63.4

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘La Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller describes as ‘archaeological’ his procedure for discovering ‘the logic of the origin of logic’, for isolating how ‘the logician’s logic’ emerges from ‘the logic of the signifier’: ‘This dimension of the archaeological can be grasped most suc­cinctly through a movement back from the field of logic itself, where its miscognition, at its most radical because closest to is recogni­tion, is effected’ (CpA 1.3:38). Miller compares this archaeological movement with Derrida’s historico-phenomenological Rückfrage or recovery of the origins of geometry in his 1962 Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry. However, Miller says that that constitutive occlusion proper to logic is not a mere ‘forgetting’ (as the origin of geometry is for Derrida), but a ‘repression’ (CpA 1.3:38). Insofar as Miller’s theory in ‘Suture’ is not just a critique of Frege’s logic, but also an exposition of Lacan’s logic of the signifier, it therefore also serves as an archaeology of primal repression in the psychoanalytic sense.

In volume 9, on the ‘Genealogy of the Sciences’, a section on the ‘Archaeology of Sciences’ is devoted to an exchange between the Cercle d’Épistémologie and Foucault. In their preface to the same volume, Jacques-Alain Miller and Jean-Claude Milner suggest a non-Nietzschean conception of a genealogy of the sciences to replace the notion of archaeology. The history of the sciences is caught in a paradox, because it must either treat the past of a science as a foreshadowing of the science to come, or it must have recourse to an ‘archaeology’, treating them as part of the general universe of discourse, and thus risking the loss of their specificity as scientific (CpA 9.Introduction:3). Miller and Milner thus take the project of the genealogy of the sciences to supersede that of an archaeology of the sciences.

The Cercle d’Épistémologie questions Foucault on his concept of archaeology. Whereas Bachelard presents the history of science as a sequence of breaks that are continued by further ‘horizontal’ ruptures (for instance, Galileo, Newton and Einstein in physics, and Lavoisier and Mendeleyev in chemistry), Foucault’s archaeology appears to restrict itself to ‘vertical’ ruptures between one epoch with another, which are then treated as ‘synchronic sets’. The Cercle asks whether Foucault’s conception of archaeology ‘effaces’ this distinction between horizontal and vertical ruptures (CpA 9.1:6). In his response (CpA 9.2), Foucault qualifies his notion of archaeology, and now puts his own theory under the rubric of a theory of discourse. He redefines ‘archaeology’ as an excavation of ‘archives’, in a specific technical sense. An archive is ‘the series of rules which determine in a culture the appearance and disappearance of statements’ (CpA 9.2:19; trans. 309). In their reply, the Cercle suggests that if he wishes to make his new theory consistent, and to account for the particular suppression of statements, Foucault now needs to choose between a Freudian account of repression and a Nietzschean genealogy of forces.5

In the main part of ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) (drafted in 1964), Jacques-Alain Miller writes that the theory of the subject ‘must first of all deny the phenomenological attempt to rediscover the naïve or wild state of the world by means of an archaeology bearing upon perception.’ Phenomenology tends to rely on the positing of an ‘unchanging and ahistorical support for knowledge and history’, and when it encounters ‘the invisible’, as in the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, it treats it ‘as the miraculous obverse of the visible’. ‘But if, on the contrary, the invisible is secreted within a structure which systematises the visible which it unveils, if it is the invisible that differentiates and transforms the visible, then a truly radical archaeology would begin with perceptions that are historical through and through, absolutely specified, and which can be structured like a discourse, gaining their principal identity in the distinct fields of seeing and saying’. Miller notes that ‘the work of Michel Foucault today gives us the first example of this type of archaeology’, whose aim isn’t simply to discredit phenomenology but to ‘take it up again to give it a new foundation, as a rigorous discourse, in the imaginary, of the imaginary’ (CpA 9.6:98).

Primary bibliography

  • Canguilhem, Georges. ‘Mort de l’homme ou épuisement du cogito?’ [Review of Foucault, Les Mots et les choses]. Critique 242 (July 1967): 599-618. ‘The Death of Man, or the Exhaustion of the Cogito’, trans. Catherine Porter. In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Cavaillès, Jean. Sur la logique et la théorie de la science [1942], prefaces by Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. 2nd edition. Paris: Vrin, 2008.
  • Foucault, Michel. Naissance de la clinique. Paris: PUF, 1963. The Birth of the Clinic, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1973.
  • ---. Les Mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. The Order of Things, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House, 1970.
  • ---. ‘Le Discours de l’histoire’. Interview with Raymond Bellour. Les Lettres françaises, 15 June 1967. ‘The Discourse of History’, trans. John Johnston. In Foucault Live: Collected Interviews 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996.
  • ---. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Some chapters of the book are online at
  • ---. L’Archéologie du savoir. Interview with Jean-Jacques Brochier. Quinzaine Littéraire, April-May 1969. ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’, trans. John Johnston. In Foucault Live.

Secondary bibliography

  • Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Un nouvel archiviste’. In Foucault. Paris: Minuit, 1986. Foucault, trans. Sean Hand. London: Athlone, 1988.
  • Dosse, François. History of Structuralism [1991], vol. 1, trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.


1. Jean Cavaillès, Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, 77/408.

2. Cf. David Webb, ‘Cavaillès and the Historical a Priori in Foucault’, in Virtual Mathematics: The Logic of Difference, 100-117.

3. Foucault, The Order of Things, xxii. In his review of Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses [The Order of Things], Canguilhem noted that ‘despite what most of Foucault’s critics have claimed, the term “archaeology” says just what he wants it to say. It is the condition of an other history, in which the concept of Event is retained, but in which events affect concepts and not men’ (‘The Death of Man’, 82). Canguilhem claims that this only appears scandalous ‘because history today is a kind of magical field in which, for many philosophers, existence is identified with discourse, and the acts of history are identified with the authors of histories, even histories garnished with ideological propositions’.

4. Dosse, History of Structuralism, I, 289.

5. In a 1967 interview with Raymond Bellour, Foucault already emphasises the Nietzschean aspect of his notion of archaeology. ‘My archaeology owes more to Nietzschean genealogy than to structuralism properly called’ (‘The Discourse of History’, 31). However, in a 1969 interview, he acknowledges that the meaning of the term changed for him between Les Mots et les choses and the L’Archéologie du savoir. ‘I first used the word somewhat blindly, in order to designate a form of analysis that wouldn’t at all be a history (in the sense that one recounts the history of inventions or of ideas) and that wouldn’t be an epistemology either, that is to say, the internal analysis of the structure (arche, in Greek)’.