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Foucault's Archaeology (4): Thresholds

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.

Foucault's Archaeology (3): Contradictions

Linnaeus.croppedDiscursive 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

Foucault's Archaeology (2): Discourse

Michel FoucaultFor Foucault, the role of language goes beyond a simple mediator between thought and reality, because the statements within a discourse are related to one another in a way that is governed by the prevailing conditions of enunciation – that is, the restrictions on what can be said, which as I suggested last week can be understood as Kuhn’s paradigms. Foucault states:

I would like to show with precise examples that in analysing discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace, apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice. These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. ‘Words and things’ is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of not – of no longer – treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.

The method at the heart of Foucault’s archaeology is to track the relationships between statements within any given ‘enunciative field’. If we are dealing today with a statement in biology, that sentence and its meaning can be related to a vast reserve of other statements that are also part of the practices of biology. Within and among these statements are patterns of constraint that in turn give a meaning to biology as a discourse, what Foucault terms (in reference to Kant’s philosophy) a historical a priori i.e. the required conditions for that statement to be meaningful, understood as historically situated. Since Foucault’s meaning is precisely parallel to Kuhn’s paradigm, I will use this term in place of it and say that in any given discourse the statements form a network of relationships, governed by a paradigm that establishes what is or is not knowledge within that discourse.

At the core of his method, Foucault places the statement as the “elementary unit of discourse”. From this perspective, the importance of individual authors is reduced in emphasis in favour of tracking the relationships between statements, since within any given book, the statements made have relationships with many different sets of statements. He goes to great length to demonstrate that what he means by a ‘statement’ is not just a sentence, a proposition, or a speech act. Statements are not sentences because many different sentences can express the same statement – including, for instance, in different languages. But statements are not logical propositions because two sentences expressing the same proposition  can have a different meaning according to how and where they are stated. A novelist means something different when their book begins “No one heard” or “It is true that no one heard” even though they state the same logical assertion. Finally, statements are not reducible to speech acts, as developed by Searle and Austin (whom Foucault calls ‘the English analysts’), because a speech act like, say, an oath consists of many statements, so the two ideas are not strictly parallel.

Throughout his analysis of discourse, Foucault repeatedly draws attention to two points: that statements are related to one another in a network, and that discursive formations are descriptions of practices. Indeed, Foucault stresses that the relations between statements characterize “discourse itself as a practice”. It is because our usual way of thinking about discourse is to think of communication between people (an author and a reader) that Foucault suggests that analysis of the practices of discourse have become obscured. Discursive formations are networks of statements, and they are the practices that relate those statements. These relations constitute “an immense density of systematicities, a tight group of multiple relations” and together this “forms a complex web.” One can see in The Archaeology of Knowledge a foreshadowing of Deleuze, and indeed why Deleuze had cause to praise both Foucault, and this book in particular as “the most decisive step yet taken in the theory-practice of multiplicities.”

The method behind Foucault’s archaeology, therefore, is to examine the discourse of a particular subject area as both a network of statements and as a practice, and to recognize that these two things are part of the same conditions. He states:

A statement belongs to a discursive formation as a sentence belongs to a text, and a proposition to a deductive whole. But whereas the regularity of a sentence is defined by the laws of a language, and that of a proposition by the laws of logic, the regularity of statements is defined by the discursive formation itself. The fact of its belonging to a discursive formation and the laws that govern it are one and the same thing…

As he states in The Discourse on Language, each discursive formation “has its forms of regularity and, equally, its systems of constraint.” It is this, the paradigm of any given discourse, that determines which statements constitute knowledge, and which statements must be excluded from a given discourse. Both internally and externally, each discursive formation is positioned by contradictions that either give form to the discourse through its interior tensions or provide boundaries to it by contrasting it with something else. It is to these contradictions that we must next turn our attention.

Next week: Contradictions

Foucault's Archaeology (1): Paradigm and Episteme

The Archaeology of KnowledgeWhat 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

Mario Kart and the Cult of Originality

Over on ihobo today, some thoughts about when it might be a critical mistake to view continuity of design negatively, particularly in the context of Mario Kart (and also British developer Supersonic). The argument being advanced is that being a good custodian for player practices is not only commercial good sense, it is something we have cause to praise artistically. You can read the entirety of Mario Kart and the Cult of Originality over on

Celebrating Ten Years

10yearsOne month from today is the tin anniversary of Only a Game, at which point I will have been blogging for ten years. To mark this momentous insignificance I have prepared an overly elaborate serial that celebrates the twin themes of my blogs, philosophy and games.

Five years ago, I did a double serial on Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory, discussing his work at Only a Game in the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial, while in parallel at ihobo I ran Game Design as Make-Believe. This was to lead to my first book of philosophy, Imaginary Games, and thus to my developing philosophy as a part of my career and not just an intellectual hobby.

For the ten year anniversary, I revisit this format with a new double serial. At Only a Game will be the Foucault’s Archaeology serial, providing an introduction to the work of the philosopher-historian Michel Foucault focussing on his method of analysis, while in parallel at ihobo will be the Player Practices serial, which shows how Foucault’s work on discourse also applies to the play of games. The new serial ties together ten years of my blogs, combining elements of philosophy of language, philosophy of science, game design, and game philosophy, as well as including links to my pieces on Caillois’ patterns of play from my second year of blogging, while providing a very different way of looking at Caillois’ work.

Intriguing, accessible, and at times polemic, the double serial is a fitting memorial to the game I’ve been playing in the shadowy corners of the internet. I hope you will join me for the ride, and as always I welcome comments and discussion.

The double serial begins next week.

Hermit Stage Complete!

Back to social media this June… it is not a transition I am looking forward to, but I’m sure it won’t be so bad once I get over the initial terror at reconnecting to the hive mind.

  • If you commented on either of my blogs, replying to you is my highest priority. Blogs before slogs.
  • If you messaged me on Twitter, I will get back to you, but please allow a few days as I haven’t even installed the app on my pocket robot yet.
  • If you commented on Google+, Chrome would have harassed me about it while I was using Gmail, which is another reminder that I should try and leave Gmail this Summer.
  • Shout out to everyone I met at DiGRA, which I really enjoyed in the end. My ten minute presentation ended up having half an hour, which was just long enough to have fun with it.
  • Apologies, but I doubt I will put my DiGRA presentation online, as it is incomplete without me talking over it. I continue to mull, though, and could be swayed…

What’s in store this June? Find out tomorrow…