Foucault's Archaeology (3): Contradictions
June 23, 2015
Discursive practices are networks of interrelated statements that display both regularity and constraints – this is the basis of Foucault’s method of archaeology traced in the analysis of discourse last week. Because networks of discursive practice cannot simply be traced like lines on a map, it is necessary to perform a certain kind of detective work to expose the ethereal boundaries of each discursive formation. For this, Foucault relies extensively upon the idea of examining contradictions – indeed, of taking contradictions themselves as something that marks a point of interest, an area to investigate. Throughout, he distinguishes his method from that of ‘the history of ideas’, which paints the development of thought as a narrative of progress:
By taking contradictions as objects to be described, archaeological analysis does not try to discover in their place a common form or theme, it tries to determine the extent and form of the gap that separates them. In relation to a history of ideas that attempts to melt contradictions in the semi-nocturnal unity of an overall figure, or which attempts to transmute them into a general, abstract, uniform principle of interpretation or explanation, archaeology describes the different spaces of dissension.
Here in lies the key to Foucault’s method, for the contradiction is both the marker of a boundary between one discursive formation and the next and the engine of discussion and disagreement within each discursive practice. Each discourse is a “space of multiple dissensions”, the model of which is “the simultaneous affirmation and negation of a single proposition”. Telling discursive formations apart becomes a matter of establishing whether any given contradiction has occurred under the same “conditions of enunciation”, or whether a different network of statements (and thus, a different context of ideas, rules, concepts, relations) governs the claims being made.
An example that Foucault frequently invokes to explain his ideas is the distinction between the seventeenth and eighteenth century scientific discourse of Natural History, and the science of biology that follows it in the nineteenth century. He is keen to stress, in a manner Kuhn would equally defend, that identifying these two discourses as distinct does not imply that Natural History was the precursor of biology – far from it! The way Natural History approached the world was in terms of statements “concerning the resemblances and differences between beings, their visible structure, their specific and generic characters”. It was a discipline engaged in taxonomy, of classification and ordering, based on an assumption of a created, ordered universe. It was not conceivable for Natural History to engage in the kind of discussion of life that takes place under biology, because the general concept of ‘life’, of the living world conceived as systems, was not generalised until biology. The attempt to cast Natural History as the precursor to biology, as Kuhn also affirms, is an act of retroactive continuity (a ‘retcon’, as the comics fans say): the roots of biology lie just as much in other discourses, and its methods and regularities are not at all like those of Natural History.
In the case of Natural History, a key intrinsic contradiction was between systematic and methodical natural philosophers (since, at the time, the term ‘scientist’ had not been coined). Systematic natural philosophy understood nature as an ordered pattern, a table of positions within which all animals and plants could be positioned. This approach, to which Linnaeus (pictured above) was a practitioner, was akin to the periodic table of the elements, although this was not formulated until the nineteenth century. A “rigorous perceptual and conceptual code” was used to describe flora and fauna in the ‘systems’, and the approach was united with a view of fixism that was based on Linnaeus’ claim that all creatures came from an egg and each egg produces something like its parents, ergo there were no new creatures at this time. (Although successive stages of creation were later proposed within this discursive formation). Conversely, methodical natural philosophy examined the details of each plant or animal, e.g. counting the fronds and noting the arrangement of the elements of leaves, abstracting such connections into a common genus.
The opposition between the methods of systematic and methodical natural philosophy was not ‘terminal’, for they did not produce contradictory claims about the same object, and although arguments between those using one approach or the other were characteristic of the discourse of Natural History, and there were many attempts to resolve their disagreements. This can be contrasted to the extrinsic contradiction between Linnaeus’ fixism and Darwin’s evolutionism that marks two entirely distinct discursive formations (although Foucault notes that to identify this contradiction we must first neutralise the differences between Natural History and biology). Statements made in the biology that emerges after Darwin both refer to different kinds of objects and make contradictory statements where they can be applied to the objects of Natural History. Evolutionism prior to Darwin was based on ideas of successive creations or an internal progressive quality in-built into animals; indeed, Darwin was reluctant to use the term ‘evolution’ for fear his ideas would be misunderstood.
It is important to appreciate here that biology did not simply result from Darwin’s insightful observations concerning descent with modification, which massively changed what evolutionism could be taken to imply. Foucault points out that it was not a case of Natural History becoming biology but of multiple different concepts, some within and some outside of Natural History, converging into a new discursive formation. Pasteur’s work, for example, led to a microbiology that was inconceivable to the natural philosophers of preceding centuries, but that was central to biology – indeed, more important in many situations than Darwin’s hypotheses. Something new came about with the discourse of biology, a new positivity, as Foucault puts it, and the final element of his archaeological method is to understand the thresholds that define not only when a new discursive formation has come about, but also when such formations become scientific or formal.
Next week, the final part: Thresholds
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.