What gives a statement its meaning? The words act as signs with certain signification, and the grammar of the language establishes how those signs can be combined, while the logic of any proposition formed gives us a means of relating statements formally. Yet each of these elements, while an aspect of discourse, is insufficient to explain what happens between and among the statements that are made. What is it that makes some statements into knowledge?
The 1960s saw the publication of two books that took a critical view of the reigning mythos concerning scientific knowledge. The first was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, which undermined the idea that the sciences should be understood as progressing towards truth. Kuhn, a physicist and historian with a particular interest in philosophy of science, examined the nature of both change and constancy in scientific fields and concluded that the rhetoric of an inevitable progress towards truth was in effect part of the mythology of science. Kuhn presented changes in scientific fields as shifts in what he termed a paradigm, and suggested that the appearance of progress in he sciences was a result of post-hoc re-interpretations of older theories in terms of those that replaced them.
As I explain in The Mythology of Evolution, scientific techniques do indeed become better adapted to their chosen problems, but just as with biological evolution there is no ‘evolving towards’, only an accumulation of advantages through the process of ‘adapting to’. The danger to the post-Enlightenment myths of progress – particularly in connection with the sciences – is that it becomes difficult to separate knowledge from the conditions of its establishment. The idea that scientific knowledge becomes steadily ‘more true’ fails to consider which of the infinite array of things that might be true have been selected for investigation. The nature of scientific activity itself becomes obscured.
In 1966, another historian published a book crossing into very similar territory: Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things suggested that there have been a series of what he termed epistemes that set the general conditions for knowledge for a certain period of time. Kuhn’s paradigms and Foucault’s epistemes are frequently compared to one another, and with good reason! While the specifics of their methods and concepts differ, both historians were observing the same general trend – that the way we understand knowledge is never universal, but always historically situated, always conditional upon the prevailing mythology (philosophers say ‘metaphysics’) of the institutions and practices that knowledge is related to. One important difference between the usage of the two terms is that Kuhn’s paradigm is the prevailing conditions of knowledge within any given scientific practice; in any given decade, there are many paradigms, at least one for each scientific field. Foucault’s episteme is a wider construct, the ghostly pattern of relations between all paradigms, including those outside of the sciences entirely.
In 1969, Foucault followed up The Order of Things with his only methodological work, The Archaeology of Knowledge. In it, he attempted to derive his own methods for historical analysis (and critique his own early work) while further expanding upon the concept of episteme he had introduced three years earlier. However, The Archaeology of Knowledge is not primarily concerned with epistemes as such, and he does not even mention the term until the final chapter of the original draft. Rather, Foucault is exploring what he terms discursive formations, which is to say, the patterns, relations, and networks of practices that connect any given discourse. These are governed by what he calls a historical a priori, the conditions of knowledge at any given point in time, and this can be understood as being functionally identical to Kuhn’s paradigms. For Foucault as for Kuhn, the mythological image of the sciences advancing towards truth obfuscates the way the sciences renovate their methods and thus their discourse.
Foucault’s discursive formations are of particular interest to me because his analysis is one that takes practices as primary, and as such he accords with my claim that we should begin to understand knowledge as a practice, as I argued in Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing. For Foucault, every practice can be understood in terms of the statements that it will accept as knowledge, a process that is framed by the current episteme, but which is constituted by a complex network of relations peculiar to each field. While he primarily uses examples from the sciences (since these are well documented) he also suggests the general technique can be extended to understand politics, ethics, and the arts – it is a method that can be applied wherever there are practices, and hence conditions governing which statements constitute knowledge.
This serial will explain how Foucault’s methods, as espoused in The Archaeology of Knowledge, function to reveal what constitutes knowledge in any given context, while simultaneously trying to represent his ideas in a slightly simpler terminology (since Foucault, in his effort to push beyond the limitations of thought prior to his work, engages in a bemusing lexicon of technicalities). In parallel over on ihobo, I will be adapting his methods for application to understanding play as a practice, and thus showing how the three discourses about games – game design, game studies, and game criticism – are all exemplary examples of Foucault’s discursive formations. To begin with, we must understand what a discursive formation is, which requires that we dissect discourse and attempt to uncover the character of those regularities that position some statements and not others into knowledge.
Next week: Discourse