Part II, Chapter 6:(Chapter 12 in 2008 reprint)

Logical Aspects of Foucault’s “Archeology”.

This is a critical analysis of Dr. Michel Foucault’s methodology, as well as doctrine, in his celebrated The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (387 pages, plus a forward and preface)[1]. That book is a translation of Les Mots et les Choses, originally published, in France, in 1966. The author (1926-1984) was a graduate of the Sorbonne and the Université de Paris, who lectured in a number of universities in various countries.

 

1. Slippery.

2. Catch Him.

3. Healing.

 

1. Slippery.

Ordinarily, when reviewing a book on philosophy, one would present the author’s doctrines, then make a critical analysis of them and draw conclusions. However, it is also wise to keep track of methodological issues, both at the descriptive level and at the level of fitting the thesis into a broader context.

In this particular case, it turns out that Foucault’s doctrinal arguments are not his main theme. At first, they seem to be, as he discusses various developments in the ‘episteme’, the epistemological framework, of Western thinking from the Renaissance to Modern times. But as he proceeds, he makes clear, that these doctrines are not his main message; for he is willing, at the end, to deny them, saying ‘these are not affirmations; they are at most questions to which it is not possible to reply’ (386).

The main thrust of Foucault’s book is on a more subliminal level, at the level of his rhetoric, his peculiar way of thinking, the artifices he utilizes in his discourse, his ‘logic’, if the word may be used. The doctrinal material, whether on epistemology, on philology, biology or economics, or even on ontology and metaphysics — these serve both to provide an occasion for application of his methods, and also, by virtue of the subject-matter of his doctrines, to give depth to the issues and confuse them.

For these reasons, this here review is forced to begin with an analytical exposition of Foucault’s methods, as well as their applications, and then to evaluate them. I may thus say, at the outset, that The Order of Things is a very skillful and elaborate Sophistic work. I do not use the word in any pejorative sense, but in the strict sense employed by logical historians, in the sense of an age-old school of Philosophy.

Among Foucault’s literary devices are the following. They read like a list of The Fallacies, so adept and relentless he is at using a multiple of techniques, which reinforce each other’s optical illusions. He disposes of the full array of sophistic instruments; his is a concert of sophistry.

The reader is fatigued, bedazzled, bewildered, and intimidated, into submission. You can never pin the author down, because almost as soon as he says something, he also denies it; he is there, and then he is not there, so that you cannot argue with him, because he has not asserted anything, yet. It is like in the manuals on the martial arts, always to elude the opponent, strike and quickly depart, become invisible and untouchable. The only answer to that technique, is to find the slippery character, in the midst of all those feints and velleities. Where he shows himself, you are there.

Foucault’s text is filled with ambiguities and equivocations; concepts and words are left undefined or denied their customary meanings, and freely used in a variety of ways. Distinctions are imposed on similar things, or denied to dissimilar things, merely by saying so and repeating it over and over, making it seem like accepted fact. Certain distinctions are transformed into deep, unbridgeable divisions between things, which only the most naive would dare to question. He exaggerates, understates.

Florid sentences, reiterating the same thing in different words, again and again, are designed to make it seem that the thesis in question is being repeatedly confirmed, and that it has many profound facets. These flourishes also make it seem as if Foucault is going through a deductive, interpretative process, so that the sentences he intersperses here and there without proof seem like inferences.

Just as affirmation and denial are, in Foucault, arbitrary (he need only assert something for it to be as he says), so are implication and unimplication and other logical relations (he need only say that P implies Q or that P does not imply Q, and we have to believe him). Thus, non-sequiturs become implications, and obvious inferences are forbidden. Words are played on, every doubtful area in meaning or truth is used as the playground, an opportune ‘space’ for sowing confusion.

He does not make nuances, he inverts the sense of words; in becomes out, out in. Things ‘turn in on themselves’ or ‘over and against themselves’. Circular arguments are concealed in a dramatic cloud of intriguing phrases, which however serve to put over a scattered few crucial ‘terms’ (which tacitly imply certain propositions), to insert them as accepted fact into the reader’s consciousness. Paradoxical statements and self-contradictions are made unabashedly, as if their very antinomy is proof of their profundity and relevance.

Ultimately, for Foucault, propositions need not be assertoric; they may be posited, and then negated, both true and false, or considered established and then as possibly not possible (‘it is so… but it is or may be not so’). It is sufficient that they convey certain catch words or phrases, which give an impression of broad knowledge and deep wisdom. His sophism works, precisely because it seems ‘consistent’ with itself; it is so pervasive, that he has actually said nothing, so that one may not argue with him.

The theories of others that he presents, in the course of his digressions, are never his point. They are not illustrations of a thesis of his own, but mere vehicles for the transmission of this fuzzy methodology, which is his real message, as he himself admits. The historical events and ideas that he describes for us, serve only to draw and keep our attention, because they are in themselves interesting. But for him, they are only occasions, allowing him to intersperse his own peculiar outlook and terminologies as alleged explicata. They serve to give his interpolations a veneer of reflected legitimacy.

 

2. Catch Him.

By ‘archeology’, Foucault generally refers to a study of the methodological assumptions at least tacit in the thinking of different cultures and ages. On the surface, it seems reasonable enough to suppose that people, in each place and period of history will display some particular emphases in their ways of thought, which can be identified as an epistemological framework, underlying their whole cultural context. But such patterns are of course only discernible ex-post-facto, they are not predictable.

For a start, Foucault does not clearly distinguish between the epistemological practises common to all the people of a defined group, and their own theories concerning these practises, and our own estimates of what these practises and theories might be; there is always a vagueness and ambivalence in that issue, which is rhetorically useful (as already indicated).

But, as it turns out, the method he explicitly proposes allows for such lapses. He is not appealing to ordinary scientific methods, to common logic, but to the so-called Critical/Transcendental method, which was inaugurated by Immanuel Kant (Prussia, 1724-1804). Foucault frankly admits use of this form of argument, though he also claims to be using it with other contents, other terms. According to this method, the ‘critical philosopher’ can somehow ‘transcend’ the mind’s structural limitations, and make unassailable judgments from above, ‘as it were’.

Here, let me say that such argument is an ‘imposture’ from the point of view of pure logic. It is an attempt to introduce a deus ex machina into epistemological discussions. The philosopher becomes a privileged human being, capable in some untold way to become a ‘superman’, to use a Nietzschean phrase dear to Foucault. This is not logic — it is non-logic, even anti-logic. It has never been validated by the norms of logic, as a form of reasoning.

You cannot at once claim that a Subject is locked into his specificity and finitude, and at the same time capable of acts of consciousness which rise above and overcome these given limits. The two theses are strictly contradictory; there is formally no room for doubts and speculations about a paradoxical credibility in between them (Law of the Excluded Middle). We do not have here a dialectic of ‘thesis implies antithesis, therefore the latter is their synthesis’, which is the definition of valid ‘self-evidence’ arguments in logic. The proposed argument is in no way proved necessary by dialectic; on the contrary, dialectic proves it impossible.

If the Subject says ‘I see (from above, allegedly) that my consciousness is limited in distortive ways’, as do Foucault and Kant, he is automatically de-legitimizing his very own statement (an assertoric cannot imply its own negation, nor, even, imply its own negation to be possible). This means, in formal logic, that the proposition in question is false; a conceptual claim which is logically self-incapacitating is simply incapacitated, it is alethically impossible and not worthy of any further consideration. Yet these people continue to try to evade this absolute law for the resolution of paradox.

Foucault claims that the Kantian ‘method’ marked a radically new stage in epistemological history. I agree that arguments of this sort have since Kant received considerable ‘prestige and importance’; but I do not agree that they are indubitable, quite the contrary, they are entirely spurious. Their credibility is due to the paradox which negates them, rather than to the existence of a paradox which posits them; they are not self-evident, or even possible, they are self-rejecting, logically impossible.

This is not a ‘radically different’ ‘configuration of science’ as he suggests (nor are the findings and theories of Ricardo, Cuvier and Bopp, formal examples of such an ‘other’ science); it is illogical and it is therefore not knowledge (366). Foucault’s alleged transcendence of language, is not a sort of mystical state of silent meditation on the noumenal, but an alienation from even ordinary reality. Perhaps he is describing his own peculiar relation to words and things, but it is not a relation I personally recognize in me, and so it cannot be universal.

This peculiar method is contrasted to the Classical/Scientific method, which Foucault rejects as naive, half-witted and tiny-minded. He claims the change ‘irreversible’; but, I say, surely, criticism, too, can be criticized, it is not itself alone above criticism, the exclusive domain of those who are for it. I agree, however, that the Kantian method was a radical break from the Classical — in my view, an unfortunate break. The ‘second degree’ of language, the language of science, is simply a clarification of ordinary language, a selection and re-affirmation of its most intelligent potentials; it is not something essentially different than ordinary language, and (a-fortiori) nor can the critical method be so construed.

In any case, it would be untrue, historically, to say, as Foucault does, that either the Classical method or the Kantian is exclusively representative of the episteme of its cultural era. Surely, that is hyperbole. Is he referring to university professors, to the scientific community, to intellectuals or to the whole population, of all ages and intelligence, socio-economic milieu, educational level, ethnicity? The indefinition in the subject of his propositions allows him to turn particular ones into universal ones.

But what is clear throughout, is that Foucault does not properly understand the scientific episteme (any more than Kant did, incidentally). His knowledge of logic is limited to actual-categorical propositions and processes, which are used to construct simple classification ‘tables’ — drawings which display the similarities and differences of things. This is only one of the tools of scientific logic, and not its whole method (thinkers may use a technique long before they become aware that they were using it).

Foucault does not know modal logic, conditional logic of various de re modal bases, causality, or the inductive and deductive capacities of logical conditioning. Class-logic clearly brings out the perpendicularity between the space of objects (subsumed by classes) and that of ideas (classes or classes of classes). When evaluating the content of a thesis, we are duty bound to consider the methods used in formulating it. He borrows terms like ‘validation’ from logic (which are meaningful to us, only because of their value within logic), and reverses their meanings. He says that certain ‘…laws of fluctuation and change… cannot be fitted over natural laws’, as if formal logic cannot handle transitive relations.

Our movements of thought always display certain patterns, whether philosophers and historians are yet aware of them or not; changes in logical science may effect changes in the frequency and concentration of our use of these thought processes, but not invent them — their discovery implies that they were there already, because it is only possible by an act of self-consciousness. Foucault’s use of phrases like ‘partial totalities’ (he means ‘contexts thought to be total, then found partial’, to be exact) or ‘thoughts that we cannot think’ (when he should say ‘things we cannot think of’ — which is less dramatic, but more accurate), prevents him from developing a healthy outlook.

Because he lacks this logical training, he imagines that Science consists only of simple tables, and he is always very surprised to discover, in history, events or ideas which do not fit this narrow model. For this reason, he sees the logic of science as flawed, and tries to find some alternative ‘logic’ which will somehow (he never asks or says just how) resolve the difficulties of epistemology. But it is a red herring, this Classical science of his imagination; it is not a correct image of real science, at any point in time or place.

His arguments do not therefore concern the human mind as it in fact functions; they are irrelevant. His so-called ‘archeology’ is neither omniscient nor infallible. It is of course conceivable that different people effectively, if not self-consciously, use different epistemological frameworks; but I very much doubt that Foucault has correctly identified the uniformities characteristic of the historical cultures under consideration. He tries to give the impression that his historical thinking is novel and profound, concerning an additional dimension of time; but none of the evidence he adduces for such an in-depth, into-man line of aseity inductively implies such a conclusion.

While Descartes was predominantly a rationalist, Hume was more of an empiricist, and other people were other things. In every period, there is perhaps a bell-shaped curve, with a multitude of tendencies, though some are more probable for a given time and place. There are shifts in emphasis, perhaps some quick movements or quantum leaps from curve to curve, but there are no ‘revolutions’ in a strict sense of profound discontinuities. Foucault keeps insisting on them, but he fails to convince (me, at least).

A distinction cannot be transformed at will into a radical difference. Logic, scientific epistemology, have always, since Aristotle at least, sought for timeless generalities about the human means of knowledge. Such a universal science acknowledges freely that different people, at different times in their lives, as well as in different societies and epochs, may use an arsenal of logical techniques which are incomplete or even fallacious.

The logical philosopher has two tasks: to observe the human thought potential and to validate it. That valid potentials are not in all cases actualized, or that invalid potentials are all too often actualized, in no way affects the universality of the logician’s findings, for they exist in a modal framework. It is modality which allows the reconciliation between the finitude and specificity of the thinker, and his ability to formulate apodictic statements which are both empirical and rational.

Since logic is able to validate itself very well, thank you, there is no need for a ‘transcendental’ non-logic; the ‘critique’ is a redundancy, it has no problem to solve (let alone whether it is capable of offering a credible solution). The Kantian method, and Foucault’s applications, are not exempt from the inductive and deductive conditions set by logic; and it does not matter how we characterize the meaningfulness of words.

It must be admitted, however (and this is the faint shining of credibility that the transcendental method has behind it), that there is in fact a ‘movement of thought’, which consists in ‘going above or under’ or ‘taking a step back or aside’ from the situation at hand. And this ability of the Subject to withdraw from a context and conceive of a wider context, is of course perfectly possible and legitimate as a logical act. What Kant achieved, is to remind philosophers to take this distance repeatedly, so as to ensure an overall consistency at all levels. The trouble is, Kant wrongly defined the formal aspect of this movement of thought, as a sort of paradox. It is this interpretation of the event by Kant, which is at issue.

Hegel and Marx were of course among those who adopted this interpretation, misunderstanding the psychology of synthesis. One of the more interesting statements in Foucault’s book (which shows that good insight can sometimes come out of a bad method, though I do not agree with it all), is the following; I see it as an attempt at poetic description of the consciousness relation between Subject and Object, which is of course so unique as a universal that it is undefinable:

It is no longer their identity that beings manifest in representation, but the external relation they establish with the human being. The latter, with his own being, with his power to present himself with representations, arises in a space hollowed out by living beings, objects of exchange, and words, when, abandoning representation, which had been their natural site hitherto, they withdraw into the depths of things and roll up upon themselves in accordance with the laws of life, production and language (313).

At a couple of points, to his credit, Foucault waxes romantic (whether sincerely or as a pose, I cannot tell) about the Same, thus suggesting that the ultimate goal of this sophistic self-contradiction dialectic is a Unity. At this point, he returns right back to Nicholas de Cusa’s more theistic idea of the ultimate One. Indeed, this sort of Return, of which Foucault is conscious enough, and which makes him human, is also found in his theory of philology. At first, words were understood as being deeply related to the universals in objects at some level; then they were conventionalized; but at the end, they return to a richer content and relation.

 

3. Healing.

It should be noted that not all historians agree with Foucault’s historiology or historiography. The History of Philosophical Systems[2], for instance, characterizes his Classical period as Early Modern, implying that Kant did not affect developments that radically (how could he? common-sense persists). Another ‘deep chasm’ Foucault proposes is that between the Classical period, and the Renaissance and Late Medieval.

According to him, this period was characterized by a frivolous concern with irrelevant relations of ‘resemblance’, regarding labels of things as real symptoms of them, and all hearsay or text concerning them as in a sense true and significant. This epistemology, confusing the sign for something (an accidens), which is a word, and the sign of something, which is a real aspect or effect of the object (an incidens) — this is claimed by Foucault to be the overriding episteme of the Pre-Classical period in Europe. Note well Foucault’s own confusions in the logic of ‘semiology’.

That proposition might seem conceivable, but further reflection puts it in doubt. Had people lived only by that philosophy, would they have been able to function at all? Surely, ordinary people of all classes were doing some valid observation and reasoning, in their everyday lives. In that case, the Renaissance would only be less rigorous in logic than the Classical period, and not wholly different in some big, earth-shattering way. Formal logic is not affected by such changes; it indeed requires that we make an clear effort to distinguish between imaginary, intimate phenomena, noetic projections, and seemingly external, independent and physical ones.

It is true that, as Wittgenstein objected, the relation of indication (pointing to something, and saying I mean ‘this’) underlying all verbalization is itself a vague act; but context-changes gradually sort and purify such primitive ideas of their possible ambiguities and equivocations, until there can be no mistaking what one is pointing to. Nothing in this act previews the strength of signifying relation involved, whether it is the vocalization or diagram of an insight into real universals, or a merely conventional equation. Modal logic allows for a range of word-thing relations at our disposal.

Even today we continue to have bumbling ‘Don Quixotes’ who confuse their fantasies with reality; nothing has changed much. What of Sartre’s distress at his role-play of models of behavior he himself constructed? What of the power of today’s media (novels, movies, TV, video) to produce role-models? There is essentially nothing methodologically criticizable with drawing water from the traditional wells of wisdom. Is Foucault himself not engaging in ‘commentary’ and ‘exegesis’ (though with regard to other, less ancient sources), even as he writes that very book of his?

The Classical concept of semiology, as ‘representation’ of one idea by another idea (according to the Port-Royal definition Foucault mentions; and equally in the work of Bacon, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and Descartes) was of course also flawed, though in a different way than the Renaissance way. The formal definition of signification is, the relation between an image or conventional symbol and an apparent object, whatever that relation (or its object) might happen to be essentially. Foucault fails to clearly analyze the term ‘representation’; now he takes it as neutral, now as pictorial, now as pure label, oscillating as convenient (to his theories) between these various senses.

In any case, again, Foucault’s presentation of facts is contradicted by those by other historians. The examples he focuses on in support of his case are not necessarily, just because he thinks so, the most illustrious, most typical or most numerous. Hamlyn[3], for instance, mentions as among the most significant of that period, Nicholas de Cusa (1401-64, rather early perhaps), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600, an important figure, a precursor of Phenomenology, who discussed the aspect of ‘intentionality’ in consciousness), Galileo (1564-1642, a founding-father of modern science, mind you), and Francis Bacon (1561-1626, a great logician and philosopher, who clarified the inductive process of focusing on the elimination of hypotheses contrary to experience, rather than on the confirmation of hypotheses).

Furthermore, Foucault’s method is flawed, because he refers to a very limited time and place, Europe in the last few centuries. He does not consider other periods of history or other strata of the societies in question or other peoples and cultures. His empirical sample is thus very limited, and he makes hasty particularizations and generalizations, and that is why his research is so distorting. A sophistic method applied to arbitrarily selective data.

Many epistemic and epistemological threads appearing even today, are well-known to have roots in deep antiquity. Had Foucault considered them, he could not claim what he describes to be novel and fundamental. Even the philologies, biologies, and theories of political economy he (very ably) describes (and prescribes) for us, have some evident roots. In a sense, we can say that Astrology and Alchemy are early forms of Astronomy and Chemistry; that the changes in methodology and subject-matter and doctrine, intended by these name changes, expressed a difference of degree, however large, rather than a total upheaval.

Just because ‘natural historians’ were concerned with more concrete, superficial, and spatial aspects of living beings, whereas later a more anatomical, functional and abstract science of the phenomena we call ‘life’ was reached by ‘biologists’, does not mean that a basic change of consciousness occurred. The visible at the surface and the visible below the surface are both concrete, and all science is to some degree abstract, anyway. Aristotle’s work in this field should have sufficed to make Foucault see that the name change was not so significant.

The discovery of grammatical inflection as a tool for the comparative study of languages, in no way logically implies that similarities and differences in words and meanings are no longer relevant to that study. Foucault suggests to us that this event somehow changed everything, so that ‘general grammar’ was replaced by ‘philology’. Just as he implies that ‘general grammar’ earlier displaced the Hebraic model of semiology (which admittedly Nicholas de Cusa subscribed to, indirectly at least).

Rather, I would say, the Enlightenment equivocations in the word ‘representation’, its ambiguity as ‘idea’ versus ‘object’, caused a lot of havoc in philosophy, with Kant as a failed attempt to redress the duality. The grammatical inflections — declension of nouns and pronouns, conjugation of verbs, comparatives and superlatives[4] — are merely, from the point of view of advanced logic, condensed propositions, abbreviated signals of statable relational forms. Foucault does not seem to be aware that the modalities of terms and copula are always proportional, whatever their type or category.

Similarly, nothing in logical science excludes that classifications be made on the basis of more complex and abstract relations than simple comparison and contrast of any degree. Nor does logical science make a great formal distinction between more concrete and more abstract contents. Class-logic allows of subsumptions on the basis any type of de re or logical relation, actual or modal, subsumptive or transitive, categorical or conditional in any respect. It is clear that Foucault does not know these things, he only mentions the extensional mode (even the logical mode seems beyond him).

For these reasons, the modern interest in functions of organ-systems (a return, note in passing, to purposive relations) and evolution of species (just a collection of changes), simply refers to causal or teleological logic. These processes in no way necessitate a ‘new logic’, as Foucault claims so vehemently; they are a formal outgrowth of traditional elementary logic. Likewise, the concepts of labor and production do not displace traditional concepts of economics, since nothing in their logics is that different.

I repeat what I argued in my book Future Logic: none of the developments in philology (using the term in a neutral, open sense) in the past few centuries of Western thought in fact, formally speaking, at all undermined the premises and conclusions of Judaic philology. That is clear to me, and Foucault’s arguments to the contrary have not succeeded in convincing me otherwise; they are mere sophistries. I do not imply that they are calculated, I simply state a fact from the point of view of pure logic.

My feeling toward Foucault, who is evidently a brilliant writer, is sadness that such a potentially fine mind could have become so mixed up, frankly-speaking. Every writer of theories is saying something about himself, ‘where he is at’, in the way of a subtext. As European society became secularized (in some cases, atheistic), it sought other unifying principles like ‘Nature’, and then ‘History’, to replace the loss of ‘Providence’. Foucault is an end-product of this march into a sort of alienation from reality, or madness, and his implied cries of despair in the last pages, when the masks of cunning intelligence are unveiled, and the lame imitations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s jolly iconoclasm peter out, are touching.

Still, such a book as the one we have here reviewed is inexcusable. It is not philosophy, the serious study of reality and knowledge; it is ‘philosophism’, an impish love of mischief. If any revolution is needed in philosophy, it is surely one away from such tendencies (if such a miracle is possible). The educational system ought to cease giving credence to such diversions; they waste humanity’s time. The philosopher must be more self-critical and have a stronger commitment to finding a reasonable and empirically-based philosophy.

 


[1] 1966. New York: Vintage, 1973.

[2] A History of Philosophical Systems. Ed. Vergilius Ferm. 1950. Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams; 1961.

[3] Hamlyn, D.W. A History of Western Philosophy. 1987. London: Penguin, 1988.

[4] The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Chicago: English Language Institute of America, 1977. (p. xix.)