Foucault’s principles for historical enquiry

Avery close reading of Foucault’s work demonstrates a precise and specific— albeit not prescriptive—methodological description, particularly through the pages of The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things.2* This exposes three identifiable and interdependent principles used by Foucault.

Firstly, the production and proliferation of ‘statements’. Vital to Foucault’s wider work is the complex notion of discourse.29 Foucault consistently uses the term as a description of groups of statements ‘that belong to a single system of formation [of knowledge]’ and ‘where organization is regular and systematic’.30 Discourses arc thus comprised the regular and

An introduction to Statement Archaeology 7 systematic organization of those ‘statements which structure the way a thing is thought, and the way in which we act on the basis of that thinking’.31 The ‘statement’ (énoncéin the original) then, is the basic, irreducible, element of discourse; Foucault defines it as ‘an ultimate, undecomposablc element that can be isolated and introduced into a set of relations with other similar elements’, asking ‘how is it that one particular statement appeared, rather than another’.32 Thus the investigation of statements is at the heart of Foucault’s historical methods.33 The definition of the term ‘statement’, therefore, for Statement Archaeology can be considered to be the ‘record of an utterance (being the smallest discernible unit of a particular discourse, as discussed earlier) which is characteristic of a particular domain of discourse’.34 In his writing on engagement with discourse, Foucault highlights three specific criteria that can usefully be applied to the analysis of statements: the ‘criteria of formation’: the ‘criteria of transformation’ and the ‘criteria of correlation’.35 These three criteria arc further explored, and the implications for the practice of Statement Archaeology set out, in the next section.

Secondly, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of ‘discontinuity’ in Foucault’s work; it is ‘one of the essential characteristics’ which he never abandons.36 However, the emphasis is not espoused lightly; some arc dismissive of his emphasis and Foucault himself foregrounds it as difficult.37 Further, the notion is paradoxical:

because it is both an instrument and an object of research; because it divides up the field of which it is the effect; because it enables the historian to individualize different domains but can be established only by comparing those domains.38

Discontinuity for Foucault centres on the points at which discourses are reconfigured during transitions. He defines it thus:

the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up until then and begins to think other things in a new way.39

It is at such moments that practices become differentiated from other practices. For example, the separation of psychiatry from general medicine is, for Foucault, the point at which psychiatry becomes a differentiated practice.40 Prior to this point, ‘diseases of the head’ and ‘nervous diseases’ were dealt with alongside other diseases. The way in which some discourses become silent in these transitional changes is also important; if an idea is being discussed and then not discussed, whose interests are being served?

This then leads to the third principle. Foucault asserts that ‘It’s always the relative beginnings that I am searching for’; this is evident in his major historical works.41 For example, in the preface to Madness and Civilization, Foucault discusses briefly his attempt to ‘return, in history, to that zero point in the courseof madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience’, advocating a description ‘from the start of its trajectory’.42 Such a search, focusing on the point at which the practice becomes differentiated, facilitates an engagement with the context in which the caesura, or discontinuity, occurs through which the practice becomes possible.43 ‘What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity' of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity’.44 The notion of the ‘relative’ beginning is distinct therefore from the notion of the ‘absolute’ beginning; the focus on the differentiation of a practice from other, earlier, practices is the focus of such an investigation.

It is through a forensic examination of statements—their origin, development, repetition and non-repetition—that moments of discontinuity can be identified and, in turn, the relative beginning of practices identified. So, how does this work in practice?

 
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