A Brief Paraphrase of the First Chapter of
The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language
Michel Foucault
courtesy of
Lois Shawver

Chapter One
The Unities of Discourse

Historical accounts always encounter conceptual problems when the historian finds shift or ruptures in the way things have been.  In this book, we will study these conceptual problems. 

First, we we will try to rid ourselves of a mass of cultural preconceptions.  Take the preconception of the concept of "tradition".  Burdened with the concept of tradition we think we see that everything was much the same until something dramatic came along and changed things.  We fail to notice that what we call "tradition" was once just as new, and we also tend to attribute the newness of the shift to the genius of someone who finally understood things enough to "break with tradition" when, in fact, the rupture was not simply attributable to a single genius.

Second, let's look at the concept of "influence".  This concept brings with it an overly magical aura, as though there exists a causal process that reflects one author leaving a stamp of meaning on another author's mind, as though what passes as "influence" might not be the reader's readiness to agree with what she read, or that other authors similar statements had not prepared the reader to appreciate the last author's statement of the the new declaration.

We must rid ourselves, too, of both the notions of "development" and the the notion of "evolution" (at least as they are usually formulated in a theory of ideas, or knowledge) for these two concepts, also simplify the way ideas and knowledge systems assimilate each other and exchange materials.  These notions of "development" and "evolution"  presume far too much unity of the knowledge that supposedly "develops" or "evolves".  After, all, what is the unity that is evolving or developing?   And, while we're at it, let's abandon this notion of "spirit," as well, for "spirit" is a way of giving a false unity to our collective consciousness. 

All these concepts (tradition, influence, development, evolution, and spirit) as well as others, capture our minds in what I will call artificial "unities", leaving us with the impression that an arbitrary collection of events or ideas are, in fact, somehow integrated in a natural body of information.  "We must question these ready-made syntheses, those groupings that we normally accept before any examination..."   "...instead of according them unqualified, spontaneous value, we must accept, in the name of methodological rigour, that, [that such concepts] concern only
a population of dispersed events."

We should question such "unities", also, of "disciplinary genres" such as "science, literature, philosophy, religion, history, and fiction".  The distinction between these genres is not so complete as we, as a culture, take for granted. 

Let's erase, too, the distinction between a "book" and an author's "works", for they, too are artificial unities.  The book may appear as a concrete unity, but on reflection, what is its unity?  A book can be a collection of poems or chapters, or perhaps theories that are said to be authored by individuals, but the ideas of individuals are not unrelated to each other, and the poems and chapter divisions can be artificial as well.  "In other words, is not the material unity of the volume a weak, accessory unity in relation to the discursive unity of which it is the support?"   And the author's collected 'works" are surely even more of a collection of disparate items, jottings and and wonderings, abandoned sketches of ideas never intended for publication, notes on reading other authors, and some more heavily reasoned passages.  How can we seriously combine all such fragments into a meaningful unity?

Let us continue to renounce such unities, such as the practice of presuming that there is always a secret origin of every event, a secret cause, perhaps, to some misfortune, or a single mysterious reason that things turned out as they did,  "so secret that it can never quite be grasped in itself."  Mesmerized by this unity, someone might ask, "What is the true reason that a war was lost?" as though there was only one true reason, or that any reason we could conceptualize could be entirely and simply true.

Similarly, we should renounce our tendency to try to attribute whatever is said to an historical context, as if it's validity no longer has merit on its own.  .

I do not want to hold that all these artificial unities should be forever be dismissed.  What must be dismissed is our tranquility when we accept them as the natural way things are.  We must disturb that tranquility.  We must recognize that these unities are not as simply true as they may seem at first sight. 

Of course, I shall., like everyone, start off with unities in my own mind, unities such as "psychopathology, medicine, or political economy"...but I shall not place myself "inside these dubious unities..." presuming that they are natural and inevitable ways to configure the world around us.  "I shall accept the groupings that history suggests only to subject them at once to interrogation; to break them up and then to see whether they can be legitimately reformed; or whether other groupings should be made..." at all.

Once we stop taking our conceptual unities for granted, then we will be in a position to think about matters more creatively.  The space that is cleared by this ridding of old unities is not empty.  It is in a neutral state of myriad events and objects that we can reconfigure with new concepts.  There are some limits as to how much we can reconfigure things.  We do not have an entirely free hand, but we will have some power to escape the old conceptual traps.

But how will we decide what to say?  How shall we configure what is before us.  I argue that we should decide what statement to make on the basis of our determination of what the speakers we will report were trying to say, even if what they were trying to say was Unconscious.   Ideally, our analysis would grasp the intended intended meaning of someone's statement said quite exactly, even showing, why the intention of meaning could be none other than what we suggest.

We will have failed in our task if we return to the unities we abandoned before our analysis.  Instead, of returning to old unities, we will look for what emerges in the cracks of our understandings, often very tiny emergences of meaning, and never completely or exhaustively deciphered by us,   Our purpose in going this route is not to spread a blanket of facts over a neutral background.  It is to be sure that the understanding of an occurrence is not deformed by taken-for granted unities, but rather permits, the intention of the authors or players to become more transparent, and, secondly, to clear the field for an interplay of hidden nuances of meaning to be revealed.  Thirdly, we will hope that such a clearing a way of old concepts might permit us to create different unities than we had before and to realize the plurality of possibilities.

Of course, it is not possible for us to dismiss all unities that we inherit, however.  We need some provisional guidelines as to which unities to erase.  Still, the field of unities we dismiss should be vast and we should reflect in depth on the alternative statements that emerge from our reconfiguring of the new space conceptual space.

Two facts must be borne in mind in this analysis, that the original designation of the field we will be re-thinking is in no way limited to an original design in which we sketch (as I seem to have sketched here) the field that we will be rethinking, and, secondly, the way we divide this new field into new unities is not intended to be permanent.  It too, would remain available for revision.

This first chapter, then, provides the outline for the project which provides the substance of the present book.



Compare this paraphrase with the 
full chapter on Amazon
The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language www.amazon.com

Learn about  Foucault's big colorful life at

The Lives of Michel Foucault


Check out a book by the the psychologist author of this paraphrase, Lois Shawver
Nostalgic Postmodernism: Postmodern Therapy




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