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Synopsis of Cercle d’épistémologie, ‘Nouvelles Questions’

[‘New Questions’]

CpA 9.3:41–44

This piece is a response by the Circle of Epistemology to the previous article in CpA 9, Michel Foucault’s ‘Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie’ (CpA 9.2), which was itself intended as a response to a first set of methodological questions posed by members of the Cahiers Circle (CpA 9.1). At the end of the piece, a note says that Foucault has agreed to provide a further response, which will appear in a future number of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. This did not happen, but Foucault’s further reflection on the Circle’s questions are incorporated into his 1969 methodological work, L’Archéologie du savoir [The Archaeology of Knowledge].

The Circle begins by noting that Foucault’s ‘Response’ ‘exceeds the epistemological dimension in which we reside’ (41). But they remark that the text is valuable since it articulates for the first time the ‘system’ at work through Foucault’s earlier works, Histoire de la folie [History of Madness], Naissance de la clinique [The Birth of the Clinic], and Les Mots et les choses [The Order of Things]. Foucault’s piece ‘gives a renewed foundation to the archaeology of the sciences, and re-centres the theory of discourse that supports it’. However, it does this at the cost of undoing some of his earlier positions, such as ‘the method of reading instituted in the introduction to The Birth of the Clinic’.1

They promise to take a new departure in the discussion on the basis of Foucault’s text. Their questions are divided up into four sets.

1. On the Circle of method

The Circle charge that Foucault’s critique of continuity engages him in a methodological circle when he tries to identify the proper objects of his own theory. To say, as Foucault does, that the set of objects of study (the ‘referential’ in his terms) has no other unity than that of the ‘law that regulates the dispersion of different objects or referents’ (CpA 9.2:23; trans. 314) is to fall into a tautology in which ‘the law defines what it defines’ (CpA 9.3:41). Foucault’s theory of discontinuity is based on a ‘methodological circle’. Discontinuity is simultaneously the ‘object and instrument of research’, while also delimiting ‘the field of an analysis of which it is the effect’. However, if his method ‘finds itself constrained by virtue of its circle to take its departure from a provisional articulation [découpage]’, then how does this differ from the ‘spontaneous syntheses’ from which Foucault distances himself? (CpA 9.2:11; trans. 301). Any preliminary articulation is bound to be arbitrary. Foucault’s procedure is thus destined to be caught in a process of an interminable, ‘progressive-regressive’ correction.2 So ‘will the circle of the archaeology of the sciences end up amounting to the hermeneutic circle?’ (42).

2. On the Rule of Formation

The Circle’s second set of questions concern Foucault’s novel concept of the ‘rule of formation’, which they assume is intended to resolve ‘the problem of the unity of objects’. They object that Foucault’s construction of the four different kinds of rule of formation (CpA 9.2:26; trans. 317) obscures the fact that ‘the rule is nothing other than the name given to the relation, unspecifiable, of a variety to a unity, since its own singularity [son propre singulier] is opposed without mediation to the dispersal of the objects it traverses’ (CpA 9.3:42). What, they ask, distinguishes Foucault’s rules from the rules found in strucuralism? Finally, they point out that while Foucault says his system is only intended to account for the formations of statements that are effectively or actually produced (CpA 9.2:16-17; trans. 306-7), ‘is it not necessary to reconstitute a system of formation with indefinite productivity, before> imposing the limitation that it only produces the finite number of statements that have actually taken place?’ (CpA 9.3:42).

3. On Discourse, the Statement, and the Event

The third set of questions examines the concepts of discourse, statement and event. First, they identify three senses of the term ‘discourse’ in Foucault’s text:

1. Discourse as a grouping given to given statements, the statement here being just the indeterminate entity of a type immediately beneath the level of discourse.

2. In another sense, discourse is the concept of what maintains its unity under the four criteria.

3. Finally, discourse in the sense of ‘discursive formation’ is that which results from treating (1) by means of (2).

If a discursive formation, according to Foucault, ‘groups together a whole population of enunciative events [événements énonciatifs]’ (CpA 9.2:18; trans. 308), then it must be a discourse in this third sense. However, this conception of a discursive formation is inadequate, since it depends on a ‘missing definition of the statement [l’énoncé], a term that enters into the concept of discourse in sense (1), and which is presupposed in senses (2) and (3)’ (CpA 9.3:43). Is the statement simply the smallest unit that can be endowed with sense or meaning [sens]? The Circle question whether Foucault has after all discovered criteria for the individualisation [individualisation] of statements, given that the latter are held to unanalysable. Foucault omits to discuss the place of statements, or their position of enunciation. He says that ‘the statement is both an element in a system and an event of enunciation’, but in the ‘Response’ itself it becomes clear that he is only taking the statement as an element, and although he talks of statements being situated in events, his non-linguistic conception of enunciation does not allow him to clarify this. Events seem to be reducible to elements in statements. Do not all the characterisations he gives of the singularity of the event ‘reduce themselves to the singularity of a presence?’

Foucault claims that there is a ‘unicity’ in his discursive systems (CpA 9.2:18; trans. 307-8), but the Circle suggest that this can be analysed into three kinds of ‘unit’: (1) unities, (2) singularity, and (3) unicity (in which 2 treats 1 in order to produce 3). The Circle suggest that Foucault’s system rests on two unacknowledged postulates: first, that ‘event and statement belong to each other, every event appearing as a statement in the space of discourse’; second, that ‘in the set of statements, which is finite by right, every statement is irreplaceable’. But where does Foucault derive ‘the principle of coherence’ that allows him to reduce events in the ‘unconscious of the thing said’, to the status of elements? Does he not rely after all on a conception of the ‘Epoch’ that allows him to identify which events are pertinent, and which is never itself spelled out?

4. On the Unthought

In the final set of questions, the Circle remark upon ‘the major bifurcation in the “Response” with regard to what we have understood of Foucault’s thought’ (44). They question Foucault’s account of the exclusion of statements:

Since it is here his axiom that there is no unthought except of rules, he is forbidden from speaking of the unthought of a statement or of a discourse: this unthought will only ever be another statement, another discourse.

Is it therefore necessary that the critique of continuity (of the book, of the work, of history as a whole, or of a formation that recovers it, as metaphysics is for Heidegger) henceforth excludes a statement from being produced in order to take the place of another? That is to say: in order to prevent it from appearing, in order to repress it? That a discourse can come to the surface in order to repress some other beneath it: it is nevertheless this that appears to us as the definitive acquisition from psychoanalysis (44).

Foucault’s account of exclusion does not appeal to a notion of repression, and it is left unclear how and why certain statements are excluded from a discourse. The psychoanalytic account of repression (in addition to a Lacanian notion of enunciation) would, according to the Circle, help to resolve these perplexities. They conclude by asking, after Foucault’s ‘Response’: ‘where does Foucault stand now, in relation to Freud, and Nietzsche?’ Whereas Freud’s psychoanalysis appeals to the notion of repression, Nietzsche’s theory of forces does not; hence Foucault must now choose between Freud and Nietzsche.3

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


English translation:



  • 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.
  • ---. ‘Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie’, CpA 9.2.
  • ---. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
  • ---. ‘Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire’. Hommage à Jean Hyppolite. Paris: PUF, 1971. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, trans. Donald F. Brouchard and Sherry Simon. Foucault, The Essential Works, vol. 1: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • ---. Dits et écrits, 1954-1984, eds. Daniel Defert and François Ewald. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.
  • Gutting, Gary. Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason: Science and the History of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Han, Béatrice. Foucault’s Critical Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical, trans. Edward Pile. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. ‘Action de la structure’ CpA 9.6.


1. In the ‘Preface’ to Naissance de la clinique, Foucault had developed a Bachelardian problematic of epistemological mutation. Foucault suggested that a ‘mutation of discourse’ had occurred in the field of medicine at the turn of the nineteenth century, and that fantasmatic relations to the interior of the body had been replaced by a new ‘medical gaze’ that subjected the body to ‘rational discourse’ (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, ix). He claimed that ‘Medicine made its appearance as a clinical experience in conditions which define, together with its historical possibility, the domain of experience and the structure of its rationality. They form its concrete a priori, which it is now possible to uncover, perhaps because a new experience of disease is coming into being that will make possible a historical and critical understanding of the old experience’ (xv). In this 1963 text, however, Foucault already distinguishes his approach from Bachelardian epistemology. The new structure of medical discourse ‘cannot be ascribed to an act of psychological and epistemological purification; it is nothing more than a syntactical reorganisation of disease in which the limits of the visible and invisible follow a new pattern’ (195; cf., ‘Preface’, x). In ‘Action of the Structure’ (CpA 9.6), proposing the need for a ‘truly radical archaeology of perceptions’ which would yield up the invisible structures articulating the field of the visible, Jacques-Alain Miller says that, ‘the work of Michel Foucault today gives us the first example of such an archaeology’. In a footnote he suggests that this is ‘the explicit theme of The Birth of the Clinic. Its aim is less to discredit phenomenological discourse (for instance that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular), which remains positivistic insofar as it blinds itself to all mutation of invisible structures, than to take it up again to give it a new foundation: as rigorous discourse, in the imaginary, of the imaginary’ (CpA 9.6:98).

2. The phrase ‘progressive-regressive’ evokes Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique (1960), a text which Foucault himself famously dismissed as ‘the magnificent and pathetic effort of a man of the nineteenth century to think the twentieth century’ (Foucault, ‘L’homme est-il mort?’, interview with Claude Bonnefoy [1966], Dits et écrits I, 541–42).

3. Foucault’s 1971 paper ‘Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire’ [‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’] indicates that he takes the latter path.