Foucault's Archaeology (4): Thresholds
June 30, 2015
By examining contradictions (as discussed last week), Foucault’s archaeological method distinguishes between one discursive practice and another, each being networks of relations between statements with their own regularities and constraints. Foucault is particularly intrigued by the ways that discursive formations pass through various thresholds that change the relationships between statements into ever stronger bonds. It is the passage across these thresholds that is the final aspect of Foucault’s work this serial will consider, and doing so returns us to Kuhn’s theme of scientific revolution discussed at the beginning.
The first threshold is that which establishes a new discursive practice, what Foucault calls (with characteristic grandiosity) the threshold of positivity. ‘Positive’ here refers to existence: until a new positivity occurs, there is no distinct discursive formation and statements are governed by different practices. The second threshold is the point at which a discursive formation establishes ways to systematically arrange (or rearrange) its claims – we can say that crossing this threshold (the threshold of epistemologization) makes what was previously just a way of speaking into a knowledge practice. ‘Knowledge’ in this sense means the internal knowledge of the practice, and as such it may later be deemed utterly wrong: phrenologists had knowledge about the relationship between the cranial measurements and behaviour... it only later transpired that this was all rather fanciful. The way this threshold is crossed, and the nature of the knowledge that results, depends upon the prevailing conditions for knowing in the era the practices take place, the episteme. There is an element of domination involved in this transition; a way of thinking about a given topic becomes bound by new regularities – and certain kinds of statements become excluded in the process.
Foucault’s third threshold is what he terms the threshold of scientificity, and as such we can say that crossing it establishes a scientific practice. Such discursive formations have even greater systematic structure, since the practitioners of such a way of speaking have formulated the rules by which statements in the given field are constructed. Perhaps an easier way of understanding this transition is to say that to move from a knowledge practice to a scientific practice requires there to be laws that govern it. Such laws need not be ‘the language of nature’, as Galileo put it – they could be completely specious and arbitrary provided they serve the role of governing claims firmly. Consider the example included last week of Natural History: it was a scientific practice, in Foucault’s terms, because its methods were clearly law-governed. That our understanding of life changed our understanding of its claims after biology had formed a new practice does not mean Natural History was not also a scientific practice – a point similarly made by Kuhn.
Lastly, Foucault describes a threshold of formalization, when a discursive practice can state its own principles and axioms. Mathematics is the key example given in The Archaeology of Knowledge – and intriguingly, Foucault makes the point that for mathematics the four thresholds were crossed all at once; the moment there was a discursive formation that could make statements about the relationships between numbers, it was also a formal practice (even though the composition of its axioms and principles were to be revised several times over successive epistemes). This is the final point to consider: that there is no pattern to the ways in which discursive practices pass through the four thresholds – and indeed nothing says that any given knowledge practice can cross the threshold into scientific or formal practice. The presumed march of the sciences towards ever greater truth-giving distorts their history.
In the previously discussed case of Natural History and biology, Foucault states that the former had crossed the threshold of scientificity – both its methodical and systematic methods were very much regulated by conceptual laws. When biology crossed the threshold of positivity, and became a new way of speaking about life, it simultaneously crossed the thresholds of epistemologization and scientificity. Those who made statements in biology inherited regularities from their background disciplines (not all of which were part of Natural History). Other fields have crossed each threshold at different times, in some cases with a century or more passing between each stage, and Foucault cautions that it would be a mistake to think of these thresholds as describing necessary developments, like the life cycle of a butterfly where one state must inevitably follow another. The transitions between discursive practices are far more fluid than this.
Crucially, whether or not a knowledge practice ‘brands’ itself as a science has no bearing on whether it will be able to cross into law-governed scientificity, as Foucault describes it. He seems particularly sceptical that economics and psychology, despite being sciences in the sense of being distinguished from humanities, are capable of becoming scientific or formal practices in his archaeological terms. This does not mean they do not possess knowledge, nor that they might not accurately report phenomena – it just sets a limit to how systematically regulated that knowledge can become. Psychology, for instance, is not law-bound in anything like the ways of Natural History or biology. Its methods are largely statistical, and such an approach is quite unlikely to ever cross the threshold of formalization. The situation is even worse in the case of spin-off fields like parapsychology and evolutionary psychology, as the internal knowledge of these practices either struggles to describe its own findings (in the case of the former) or lacks plausible methods of verification.
In Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, just as with Kuhn’s history of science, the lesson is not that the sciences do not possess methods that uncover the workings of the material world. It is that those things we call sciences are not evolving towards perfection, towards ever greater truth. Some fields, like optics, will cross the threshold of formalisation and become incredibly robust systems of knowledge. But others might never cross the threshold into becoming law-governed scientific practices at all. The mythology of science that views it as a single ever-perfecting system of knowledge massively distorts both the complexity of the methods and the achievements of the scientists within individual fields in making the world ‘talk’ – as the suffix ‘-ology’ implies. Besides, from everything we have learned about biological evolution we would be naive to think of anything evolving towards something, since the accumulation of advantages we observe in the living world is always the result of adaptation to the prevailing conditions. So it is with the sciences. Each is unique, each has its own strengths and its limitations, its own regularities and constraints shaped by the prevailing conditions of knowledge. But what will become of each of these discourses is not something that anyone can truly know.
The final part of the parallel serial, Player Practices, is tomorrow on ihobo.
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