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Synopsis of Michel Foucault, ‘Sur L’Archeologie des Sciences. A Michel Foucault’

[‘On the Archaeology of Sciences. To Michel Foucault’]

CpA 9.1:5–8

The Cercle d’Épistémologie sent the following questions to Michel Foucault in June 1967, shortly after he had begun work on the methodological treatise that was to become his 1969 book L’Archéologie du savoir [The Archaeology of Knowledge]1 Foucault’s ‘Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie’ [‘Response to the Cercle d’Épistémologie’] follows this article in CpA 9.2. In response to Foucault’s piece, the Cercle d’Épistémologie posed a further set of questions, ‘Nouvelles questions’ (CpA 9.3). Foucault did not reply directly, instead incorporating further answers in the text of L’Archéologie du savoir. The exchange raises a number of methodological questions, not just about Foucault’s work, but about the possibility of a theory of discourse in general. By the end of the exchange, it is possible to identify a series of points of divergence between the theoretical and practical approaches of the Cercle d’Épistémologie on the one hand and Foucault on the other.

The Cercle announces it would like to ask Foucault some methodological questions, and to ‘enunciate the critical propositions grounding the possibility of his theory and the implications of his method’. The interest of the Cercle is to ‘entreat him to define his replies with regard to the status, the history, and the concept of science’ (CpA 9.1:5). They class their questions under the following headings:

1. On the Episteme and the Epistemological Rupture

The first set of questions concerns the relation between Foucault’s concept of the ‘episteme’ (developed in Les mots et les choses [The Order of Things], 1966) and concepts of the epistemological break and rupture developed in the epistemology of Bachelard and Althusser. The Cercle start by citing and reformulating a question put in Georges Canguilhem’s recent review of Les mots et les choses in the journal Critique, about the normative status of Foucault’s archaeology and the different kinds of break or rupture that occur in the history of the sciences.

Where theoretical knowledge is concerned, can that knowledge be elaborated in the specificity of its concept without reference to some norm? Among the theoretical discourses produced in conformity with the epistemic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, certain ones, such as that of natural history, were rejected by the nineteenth-century ‘episteme’>, but others were integrated. Even if it served as a model for the eighteenth century physiologists in animal economy, Newton’s physics did not fall with them. Buffon is refuted by Darwin, if not by Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. But Newton is no more refuted by Einstein than by Maxwell. Darwin is not refuted by Mendel or Morgan. The succession from Galileo to Newton to Einstein does not present ruptures similar to those that can be identified in the succession from Tournefort to Linnaeus to Engler in systematic botany.2

The Cercle state that ‘since the work of Gaston Bachelard the notion of epistemological rupture has served to name the discontinuity that the philosophy and history of the sciences takes itself to mark between the birth of every science and the “tissue of tenacious, interrelated, positive errors” that is retrospectively recognised to have preceded it’ (5). But 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 Mendeleev in chemistry), Foucault appears to suggest that discontinuity occurs purely ‘vertically’, the rupture of one epoch with another. Does Foucault’s conception of an archaeology of the sciences imply the ‘effacement’ of this distinction, or would he want to distinguish these two registers? (6).3

Next the Cercle turn to the issue of normativity raised by Canguilhem. ‘If it is true that an epistemic configuration is obtained by articulating the pertinent selected traits in a set of statements’, then ‘what is it that governs the selection’, and ‘validates the obtained configuration’? Would it make sense to Foucault to ask ‘what defines an episteme in general?’ They probe Foucault on his view of science. ‘Does archaeology recognise a concept of science?’ Is it not possible to have a ‘concept of science that is not exhausted by the diversity of its historical figures?’ (6).

2. On Reading

Next the Cercle enquire into Foucault’s method for reading texts, navigating his conception of language and the signifier. ‘What use of the letter does archaeology suppose? This is to say: what operations does it practice on a statement in order to decipher, through what it says, its conditions of possibility, and to guarantee that one attains the non-thought which, beyond it, in it, incites it and systematises it? Does leading a discourse back to its unthought make it pointless to give it internal structures, and to reconstitute its autonomous functioning?’ (6).

Can he conceive of a possible ‘archaeology of philosophical doctrines’, opposed to the ‘technology of philosophical systems’, practiced by Martial Gueroult in his structuralist accounts of philosophical argumentation? Alluding to Foucault’s controversial discussion of Descartes in his Histoire de la folie [History of Madness], they suggest that Descartes’ philosophy could have a decisive value for such an archaeology.4

3. On Doxology

The Cercle ask what relation there is between the ‘epistemic configurations’ identified by Foucault and the mere ‘conflicts of opinion’ that unfold on the surface in the periods he studies? Perhaps alluding to Althusserian notions of ideology, they ask if it might be possible to identify the rules governing ‘systems of opinions’ (7).

4. On the Forms of Transition

In Chapter 6, part III of Les Mots et les choses, Foucault discusses a difference between the historical mutations found on the one hand in the discourses of natural history and general grammar, and on the other hand in the classical field of economics. In the former, ‘the mutation came about abruptly’, but, according to Foucault, ‘the mode of being for money and wealth, because it was linked to an entire praxis, to a whole institutional complex, had a much higher degree of historic viscosity’5. The Cercle enquire: ‘for what theory could the possibility in general of a viscosity of this nature be an object? By what fashion and according to what relations (causality, correspondence, etc.) can a form of transition be determined by such a viscosity?’

They ask further: ‘What is the motor that transforms one configuration into another? Does the principle of archaeology require the reduction of this question?’ (7).

5. On Historicity and Finitude

In conclusion, the Cercle turns to reflexive problems arising from certain of Foucault’s positions. In Les Mots et les choses, Foucault announces that the epoch of ‘man’ and ‘finitude’ is in the process of passing. How does Foucault ‘define the point from which he is able to suspend this epistemological territory [terre]?’ When he says that ‘the end of man draws near’, what status does he confer on this same pronouncement?

When in History of Madness, he says that in order to speak of madness a ‘language without support was necessary’6, how is this possible? And when he says (in La Naissance de la clinique) that in the clinic today something is beginning to change, once again, from where is he speaking? How does he explain the procedure by which he sheds light on the epistemic configurations in which he himself resides?

If we call ‘historicity’ in the case of an author their belonging to the episteme of their epoch, and if, further (as Foucault suggests at the end of Les Mots et les choses), finitude is the name our epoch, then ‘what relations or non-relations hold, according to him, between this historicity and this finitude?’ (7). Finally:

Would he accept the alternative that has been proposed to him between a radical historicism (with archaeology predicting its own reinscription into a new discourse) and a sort of absolute theoretical knowledge [savoir] (of which some authors might have had the presentiment, independently of epistemic constraints)? (8).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Foucault, Michel. ‘Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie’. CpA 9.2
  • Cercle d’épistémologie, ‘Nouvelles questions’. CpA 9.3

English translation:


Primary Bibliography

  • Canguilhem, Georges. Review of Les mots et les choses. Critique 242 (1967). ‘The Death of Man, or the Exhaustion of the Cogito’, trans. C. Porter. In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Dosse, François. History of Structuralism [1991], vol. 1, trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [1961]. Paris: Gallimard, 1972. History of Madness, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • ---. 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.
  • ---. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
  • Regnault, François. ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une coupure épistémologique?’, unpublished lecture of 26 February 1968 for Louis Althusser’s ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’. Notes on the lecture were published as ‘Définitions’, in Michel Pêcheux and Michel Fichant, Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969.


1. See Daniel Defert’s ‘Chronologie’ of Foucault’s activities in Dits et écrits.

2. Georges Canguilhem, Review of Foucault, Les Mots et les choses. Critique 242 (1966), 612-3. ‘The Death of Man, or the Exhaustion of the Cogito’, 87-88.

3. In his contribution to Althusser’s 1967-68 Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques, François Regnault suggests that epistemological breaks [coupures] should be distinguished from both the infra-ideological and infra-scientific ruptures that precede and follow them (François Regnault, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une coupure épistémologique?’, Compte-rendu made by Étienne Balibar and Michel Pêcheux, published as ‘Définitions’, in Pêcheux and Michel Fichant, Sur l’histoire des sciences, 8-12.

4. History of Madness, 44-47. According to François Dosse, Jacques-Alain Miller presented a paper on ‘the archaeology of knowledge in Descartes’ in Althusser’s seminar of 1962-63 (Dosse, History of Structuralism, I, 289).

5. Foucault, The Order of Things, 180

6. Foucault, History of Madness, xxxv.