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From The Encyclopedia of Phenomenology

               Michel Foucault.  From the publication of Folie et déraison in 1961 to his death in 1984 Foucault was a central figure in France.  His writings address not only the main philosophical movements in twentieth century Europe, but also psychology, sociology, history, medicine, criminology, literature, and political theory.  His theorizing intersects with while distancing itself from phenomenology, structuralism, and the history of concepts, and hence does not fit squarely in any of these philosophical camps.  Like others writing in French philosophy of science (Jean CavaillŹs, Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem), his writings and interviews reveal an extraordinary emphasis upon methodological protocols and, in general, the problem of the nature of reason.  Foucault's philosophical development is fraught with ruptures and discontinuities as new self-interpretations regularly reoriented the directions of his inquiry.

               Between 1945, when, at the age of nineteen, he studied with Jean Hyppolite, and 1969, when he ascended to his self-named Chair of History of Systems of Thought at the CollŹge de France, Foucault received degrees in both philosophy and psychology and taught extensively across Europe.  He published his first four main works in this period—Folie et déraison (1961), Maladie mentale et psychologie (1962), Naissance de la clinique (1963) and Les mots et les choses (1966).  Each is a specific, detailed analysis of the discursive practices surrounding the production of knowledge in psychiatry, clinical psychology, medicine, and the human sciences respectively.  The fifth major work, L’Archéologie du savoir (1969) appeared the same year thay Foucault took the position at CollŹge de France.  In it he retrospectively reconstructs and makes explicit the “archaeological” procedure of the first four books.  From 1969 until his death Foucault became more internationally politically active.  His last four books—Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975) and Historie de la Sexualité, I (1978), II (1984), III (1984) — reflect his interest in supplementing archaeological analysis with genealogical analysis.  In addition to these works Foucault has published numerous essays and interviews that are crucial for understanding his project.

               Before Foucault began writing his major “archaeologies” he was concerned with providing a historical analysis of phenomenology and existential psychology.  This was the project of his first two publications: the introduction to Ludwig Binswanger's “Dream and Existence”, and Maladie mentale et personalité (1954).  In the Binswanger introduction—later published under the title “Dream, Imagination and Existence”—he argued that the fact that dreams provide crucial insights for understanding human existence ultimately leads to a new understanding of both the symbolic structure of meaning and the relationship between dreams, the imagination, and images.  The consequence is a criticism of both Freudian and phenomenological theories of meaning.

               Foucault first criticizes dream interpretation of psychoanalysis for reducing the meaning of the symbolic images to purely semantic meaning.  In doing so the Freudian account necessarily misses the meaning contained in the linguistically structured relations among the symbols.  The root of this error is the conflation of symbols and indices.  Indices (for example, animal tracks) signify only for a person who is interpreting their referent, whereas symbols (for example, words) signify independently of any interpretation, any consciousness, and any objective referent.  Consequently, symbols are expressive of the subject in ways indices are not.  To the extent that the Freudian account is concerned only with the objective reference of the dream image and assumes that the analysis exhausts the meaning of the image, it misses the full expressive content of the dream. 

               In contrast, Foucault argues that the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl—since it both recognizes the distinction between indication and symbol, and recognizes the full expressive function of symbols—gives a more adequate account of the meaning of dreams.  Nevertheless, simply being able to account for the constitution and manifestation of meaning is insufficient for grounding the psychoanalytical practice of interpreting the existential character of dreams.  Specifically, it must be possible for the psychoanalyst to understand the meaning of the expressive act in its own context.  According to Foucault, phenomenology, essentially tied to Cartesian reductions of knowledge to self-knowledge and thus inescapably solipsistic, can not account for the event of understanding.  That is to say, Foucault thinks that phenomenology can provide an adequate account of the manifestation of meaning “but it has given no one the possibility of understanding the language.” 

               Throughout “Dream, Imagination, and Existence” Foucault demurs from providing a more comprehensive critique of phenomenology, but its outline is clear.  He thinks that Binswanger’s existential-psychological prioritizing of dreams is justified and completed in the two-fold operation of first prioritizing the imagination over perception, and then founding the imagination in dreams.  In Husserl’s account of phenomenology the imagination (phantasie) in the process of the eidetic method makes possible the intuition of the essence of the object of perception.  Foucault takes this to mean that the essence seen in the image is always hypothetical, and, as a result, any knowledge based on the image can never escape the ambiguity implicit in the imaginative act.  We can only regain the rigorous goals of phenomenology if we recognize that dreams, rather than being an effect of the imagination, are the source of the imagination.  Moreover, since dreams have a symbolic structure of their own, by analyzing dreams we analyze the fundamental structures of perception.  Once Foucault has paired ontology with an investigation of the imagination through dream analysis, however, he has eliminated tout court the possibility of the description and adequation of the contents of consciousness.  The image, created in reflection and recollection, does not present us with truth, rather it isolates us from the expressive authenticity of the structured associations of the imagination.  For truth we must turn to poetry, art, and the imaginative play of the id.

               In this regard, Foucault’s first publication on Binswanger provides the seeds of his future arguments against phenomenology, structuralism, and hermeneutics that together constitute the complexity of his critical project.  Specifically, Foucault argues that (1) hermeneutics will miss the fact that “the imaginary world has its own laws, its specific structures”; (2) structuralism will miss the fact that the materiality of linguistic practices are themselves constitutive of meaning; and (3) phenomenology will always seek but never be adequate to what exceeds it and, consequently, will fail in its foundationalist ends.  In Les mots et les choses  the critique of phenomenology becomes more explicit, although first we must see the way Foucault narrates his early reflections on existential psychology historically .

               In Folie et déraison Foucault reconsiders mental illness not as a property of a subject, but as a historically constructed category.  Likewise he replaces the imagination in its function of providing access to truths other than those accessible to reason with the discourses of the insane.  In a move that resembles Nietzsche’s derivation of good/evil out of the ressentiment of “slave mentality,” Foucault argues that the category of madness arose as a means for justifying the elite status of reason and rationality.  Madness, though a series of conceptual shifts, replaced leprosy as the disease of the outcast, which in turn elevated reason to the highest sign of health.  The representation of the mad as divinely inspired gave way in the Renaissance to the physical marginalization of the insane in society.  Foucault takes the “ship of fools” to be the best example of the Renaissance attitudes towards insanity—excluded from, but still in periodic contact with city life.  The most dramatic shift occurred in “the classical period” of the 17th century.  In France not only the mad, but the poor, sick, and criminal were confined under the guidance of Hôpital Général.  Here arose for the first time the social category of the “unreasonable” and the criminalization that accompanied it.  The mad were no longer discussed directly, but only mediately through discussion of the tools of confinement.  In the 18th century, under the auspices of humanitarianism, the insane were freed from the prisons and moved to asylums.  The mad then became objects of medical study—not in order to liberate the mad from madness, but, or so Foucault argues, to control them in more subtle and decisive ways.  As pure objects wholly excluded from the “norm,” the mad were left to silence, which is to say reason has finally excluded its other.  Foucault claims that the only voice that remains in touch with the truths of unreason is that voice heard in the “lightening flashes” of some (presumably mad) artists.

               In Folie et déraison we can witness two more pieces of Foucault’s complex thought.  First, he has turned away from the subject as the locus of meaning, appealing instead to historically constituted categories of persons.  Second, he interlaces concerns about the way societies “constitute” madness through their institutional practices and their discursive practices.  In this conjunction Foucault introduces the structuring connections between non-discursive (power) and discursive (knowledge) forms which will be a focus of his work in the 1970’s.  

               Foucault, in effect, historicizes structuralism through the use of discontinuous epistémés.  The epistémé of a particular period is identified as the structure underlying the discursive practices that regulate the determination of knowledge.  The concept of an epistémé allows Foucault to investigate the structures which determine the linguistic practices of an historical period without granting the structures a-temporal, a-cultural status.  In Les mots et les choses  he argues that there have been three significant periods in Western culture—the Renaissance, the Classical Age and the Modern Age—each with its own epistémé .  The historical division is very similar to the one in Folie et déraison, although rather than being concerned with the historical constitution of the category of the insane, here Foucault is concerned with the historical production of the human sciences and the knowledge acquired through them.  Also like Folie et déraison, Foucault investigates the Renaissance Age merely as a precursor to the Classical age, spending most of his time on the Classical Age itself and how it was transformed into the Modern Age. 

               The clue to understanding the epistémé of a particular period lies in the understanding of the ordering connections between things in the world, between language and the world, and within language itself.  In the Renaissance Age all three domains were structured along lines of analogous resemblance.  In the Classical Age, however, mere analogous resemblance was considered an occasion for equivocation and error.  Consequently, there was a transformation to the constitution of the ordering relations along lines of identity and difference among representations and the objects of representations.  Ideally, the shift to representation would allow for maximally precise descriptions free from all ambiguity of objects and their relations.  With the emphasis on precision came the ultimate goal of arranging all knowledge univocally and methodically into tables.  What was in principle absent from analysis in the Classical schema of representation was the subject and the act of representation itself.  In this sense Foucault can claim that “man” did not yet exist in the Classical Age.  It is only when the dogmatism of the connection between language and things is evidenced that the subject, in its socio-cultural finitude, becomes the center of attention.  According to Foucault “man” appears on the conceptual scene for the first time in the paradoxical and ultimately antinomous position of being the subject and the object of knowledge.  The epistémé of the Modern Age is characterized by the attempt to overcome the epistemic limitations of the finite subject by making finitude the very condition for the possibility of knowledge.  Kant, Fichte and Hegel all theorize within this “analytic of finitude,” setting the stage for Husserl’s, Martin Heidegger’s, and Maurice Merleau-Pontys versions of phenomenology. 

               The analytic of finitude manifests itself in three different ways, the first of which is the account of the subject as an “empirico-transcendental doublet.”  The empirical conditions of the subject have been presented as the condition of the possibility of the subject’s knowledge.  This reduction of the transcendental to the empirical takes one of two forms.  The “positivists” e.g., Comte, explain knowledge in terms of the processes of the body which operate in the production of knowledge; the “eschatologists” e.g., Marx, explain knowledge in terms of the historical, cultural, or economic process that operate in the production of knowledge.  Foucault’s Kantian analogy is that the positivists perform the transcendental aesthetic, while the eschatological philosophers perform the transcendental dialectic.  Each, however, uncritically accepts the givenness of initial knowledge of the body or of society which, in turn, is used to ground the account of knowledge.  Thus they both fall into uncritical circularity.  Consequently, and here Foucault has Merleau-Ponty clearly in mind, philosophers attempt to preserve both the empirical and the transcendental character of “man” through introducing a mediating analysis of “actual experience.”  Foucault claims that, nonetheless, these attempts ultimately collapse back into either positivistic or eschatological attempts to ground the transcendental on the empirical.  

               If philosophers in the Modern Age are concerned about preserving the account of “man” as both empirical and transcendental, then, Foucault argues, they will have to deny the transparency of the cogito.  Instead of epistemic immediacy and self-certainty, philosophers must make recourse to description, repetition, and verification in an infinite task of making present what is absent to the cogito—of thinking the unthought. The relation between the cogito and the unthought is the second manifestation of the analytic of finitude. Foucault argues that Husserl has provided such a contradictory mixture of Kant and Hume.  On the one hand, Husserl restricts meaning to that which stands in relation to the ego, and yet, on the other hand, Husserl acknowledges the functioning of the ego’s pre-reflective relationship to the world in the constitution of meaning.  Consequently, on this view Husserl becomes trapped between his rigorously Cartesian concerns for apodicity and his problematically Aristotelian account of the pre-reflective conditions of knowledge.  This criticism of phenomenology’s inability to reconcile “the cogito and the unthought” continues the line of argument inaugurated in the Binswanger “Introduction” and Folie et déraison.

               The third manifestation of the analytic of finitude appears in the relation between “man” and his historical origins.  In the Classical Age the origin of knowledge lies in the purely transparent initial event of the representation of an object by a word.  Because of the historicity of the Modern subject—divided between empirical opacity and transcendental constitution—, such a transparent origin is no longer accessible.  “Man” is always already in the linguistically structured world.  Rather than this resulting in the failure of historical objectivity, the subject’s historicity becomes itself the condition for the possibility of history.  In this third doublet Foucault implicitly criticizes Heidegger for complicating the divided origins of meaning in Dasein.  Indeed Heidegger places the origins at both the nearest point and the farthest point from “man.”  It is nearest in that the origin is always “proximally and for the most part” present to Dasein as the condition of the possibility for its constitutions.  This proximity, however, makes it ultimately ungraspable, and thus it remains interminably farthest from Dasein.  The origin retreats and returns in the hermeneutic relation of Dasein to its world.  Dasein’s attempt to recover its unity once more in its return to its origins becomes Heidegger’s “infinite task”, a task which must end in failure.  The problem of death traces the failure of Dasein to comprehend itself in its totality and hence the failure of a Dasein-analytic to provide the ground for an adequately clarified meaning of Being.  Consequently, the fact that its origins are always absent from itself insures that Dasein will never become contemporaneous with itself condemning Dasein to the conceptual impoverishment of its finitude.

               The irremovable presence of the three doublets attests to the contradictory project of the analytic of finitude in the Modern Age.  The empirical and the transcendental will never converge, the unthought will never fully appear to the cogito, and the origins of meaning will always retreat from conceptualization.  Against the antinomous influences of the Modern Age Foucault turns to Nietzsche.  The only alternative to the “doubly dogmatic anthropomorphic sleep” is the end of man as a conceptual foundation—the final Copernican Revolution.  This final dislocation of man is not to be mourned, but affirmed as the beginning of a new epistémé , heralded by Foucault as the return of the possibility of thinking.

               In L’archéologie du savoir Foucault most directly confronts the methodological protocols of his early project.  Unlike the structuralists who had Platonized the structures of discursive regularity, Foucault realized that, if his analysis of language and language-like entities in terms of their formal properties were to be successfully carried out, epistémés must be analyzed as unities of discursive formation.  The arguments against phenomenology in Les mots et les choses function to clarify Foucault’s theoretical project.  In contrast to the empirico-transcendental subject, Foucault analyzes the parole-langue structure of language refusing to reduce one to the other—reducing neither semantics to grammar, nor meaning to utterances.  In contrast to the cogito and the unthought, Foucault analyzes the discursive structures that determine what of the sayable is actually said.  These two projects constitute the practice of “archaeology.”  After 1969—more specifically after his inaugural lecture at CollŹge de France (“The Discourse on Language”) and his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”—Foucault explicitly added genealogy to archeology. 

               In contrast to the retreat from and return to origins, Foucault’s genealogies analyze the contingent and accidental roots of the discursive practices.  The complexity of Foucault’s positive project lies in its aims: to question not the transcendental conditions for the possibility of discourse, but to grasp the historical determinants of the actuality of discourse.  For Foucault only such a project can preserve the rigor of structural analysis while avoiding structuralism's dogmatic reductions.  The archaeologist uncovers the hidden forms which constitute and regulate the discursive practices of a period, only for the genealogist to level off the illusionary depths of the interpretations.  The twofold project of “revealing” and “levelling” insures that archaeology will never be treated “as a search for the origin, for formal a prioris, for founding acts, in short, as a sort of historical phenomenology (when on the contrary its aim is to free history from the grip of phenomenology).”

               The relation between archaeology and genealogy accompanies the internal relationship between knowledge and power—a relationship at stake in all of his works.  It is also the relation of complexity that best characterizes Foucault’s position.  Archaeology without genealogy takes the chance of intimating knowledge without the activity of power; genealogy without archaeology takes the chance of intimating power without the production of knowledge.  Foucault’s position must be distinguished precisely in its emphasis upon its complexity—a complexity resistant to all transcendental recoveries of phenomenology.  Beyond all analysis, the antinomies his analysis had grasped strike deep.  Beyond neo-positivism, his analysis attests to the complication of facts by theories; beyond phenomenology his analysis attests to the complication of intentional description and intensional meaning by concepts and extensional relations of power.  Beyond hermeneutics, it refuses the “grammatical” reduction of the present to the past or the future, attesting to the complication of explication itself.  Neither structures nor events, neither “semiology” nor “phenomenology”, can be reduced or superimposed. 

               In the end, Foucault’s writings situate themselves at the margins of phenomenality and self-presence, on the side of “The Other” over against such regimes of “The Same”—precisely in articulating the Other in their midst.  His writings formulate, then, a questioning of such self-presence in the process of telling a history of the present.  As such, in Foucault’s work, phenomenology becomes less dissolved than put into question: its semantic reductions become mirrored in conceptual and institutional analysis; its transcendental appeal to the origin becomes complicated within its own condition of possibility; and, finally, its epistemic claims to purity become obfuscated within its own motivations and complicated in the constitutive relations which overdetermine knowledge and power.



                                                                                          David Vessey & Stephen H. Watson

                                                                                          University of Notre Dame


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