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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 5. The Role of Continuity in Foucault

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1In the previous chapter, I argued that Foucault used historical discontinuity as a discursive strategy – or ‘mode of work’ – in his intellectual histories. I also proposed, following Gutting and others, that the discontinuist emphasis evident in his 1960s works created the impression – for both supporters and detractors – that he remained throughout his career a ‘historian of discontinuity’. One consequence of this perception has been a number of accusations: that he was guilty of freezing history, of constructing a distorted version of intellectual history, of neglecting change and continuity – all due to his commitment to the radical break and a doctrine of discontinuity.

2One of Foucault’s most vigorous defenders, on this issue as with many others, is Alan Sheridan, translator of much of Foucault’s work. Sheridan is adamant that criticisms regarding Foucault’s neglect of the diachronic dimension are misplaced: Far from wishing to ‘freeze’ the movement of history in structures, [Foucault’s] whole work has been an examination of the nature of historical change. (Sheridan 1980: 90)

3Sheridan argues that this central aspect of Foucault’s project is evident even in those works – such as The Order of Things – which have appeared, to some critics, quasi-structuralist in their attention to system at the expense of diachronic progression. In Sheridan’s opinion, The Order of Things ‘set out to examine the continuities and transformations in European thought from the Renaissance to the present.’ (1980: 210) Given that this book has also been described as the work in Foucault’s corpus that ‘carries furthest the appearance of radical discontinuity in the history of ideas’ (Patton 1987: 230), The Order of Things is an appropriate place to commence an examination of Foucault’s treatment of continuity and change.

A ‘Magic Lantern’ View of History?

4The precis of The Order of Things provided in the previous chapter recounted Foucault’s articulation of ‘the two great discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture’ (Foucault 1973: xxii) – that is, the classical and modern ages. This precis also listed the vocabulary with which Foucault emphasises the nature of this epistemic break: ‘rupture’, ‘upheaval’, ‘shattering’. But how does Foucault describe, or theorise, the transition from one epistemic period to another?

5On the basis of The Order of Things, the answer must be that Foucault’s attempts to render change or continuity are vague and inconsistent. As pointed out by Henning, Foucault’s initial ploy is to dismiss any ‘quasi-continuities’, in specific disciplines such as economics or philology, as ‘doubtless only a surface appearance’ (Foucault 1973: xxii). Foucault insists, in the preface to The Order of Things, that archaeological analysis reveals a truer picture than is available on the level of mere surface:

on the archaeological level, we see that the system of positivities was transformed in a wholesale fashion at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. (xxii)

6Foucault is intent here on refuting the possibility of gradual continual development across the ages within disciplines. He finds it more likely that diverse disciplines may influence each other within their epistemic period:

Perhaps knowledge succeeds in engendering knowledge, ideas in transforming themselves and actively modifying one another (but how? – historians have not yet enlightened us on this point)… (xxiii)

7From this admission of uncertainty, however, Foucault quickly moves to the confident assertion that:

one thing, in any case, is certain: archaeology, addressing itself to the general space of knowledge… defines systems of simultaneity, as well as the series of mutations necessary and sufficient to circumscribe the threshold of a new positivity. (xxiii)

8The mention of ‘mutations’ here introduces the notion of change; it also injects an element of tension into Foucault’s analysis. The connotation of gradual change implicit in the word ‘mutation’ seems at odds with the vocabulary – ‘rupture’, ‘shattering’ – used elsewhere to describe transition.

9Moreover, the assertion that archaeology will provide sufficient evidence of mutations to ‘circumscribe’ the advent of change is not fulfilled in The Order of Things. Indeed, at several points Foucault reverts to the more hesitant speculation ventured in the preface – that ideas may, somehow, transform themselves or modify each other; or – in a gesture of near-resignation – that the process of change remains obscure. The discontinuity separating historical periods is described as ‘enigmatic’ (217, 238), or ‘largely beyond our comprehension’ (221). Two-thirds of the way through the book, Foucault admits that the ‘mutation of order into history’ – that is, the epistemic shift from Classical to Modern – has been ‘too sketchily outlined.’ (220) This mutation requires detailed analysis, he states, if the ‘fundamental modification’ of Classical ‘positivities’ is to be understood:

How were these ways of ordering empiricity – discourse, the table, exchange – eclipsed?… What new mode of being must they have received in order to make all these changes possible, and to enable to appear, after scarcely more than a few years, those now familiar forms of knowledge that we have called, since the nineteenth century, philology, biology, and economics? (220)

10After posing this question, Foucault first rejects the continuist explanation that change resulted from incremental progression – ‘a slight increase in the objectivity of knowledge’ (220) – aided by the odd piece of good luck or individual genius. But before outlining his own alternative account, Foucault re-states the cataclysmic nature of the change:

And it took a fundamental event – certainly one of the most radical that ever occurred in Western culture – to bring about the dissolution of the positivity of Classical knowledge, and to constitute another positivity from which, even now, we have doubtless not entirely emerged. (220)

11This stress laid on the ‘catastrophic’ nature (Henning’s term) of epistemic shift is a recurrent rhetorical manoeuvre in The Order of Things. It has the effect of overshadowing Foucault’s attempted descriptions of the minutiae of intellectual change. Again, Foucault sets himself the task of explaining this transition in all its complexity:

Its scope, the depth of the strata it has affected, all the positivities it has succeeded in disintegrating and recomposing… all this could be appraised and measured only after a quasi-infinite investigation concerned with nothing more nor less than the very being of our modernity. (221)

12Yet once more, the meticulous task of untangling these many interlocking strands is overwhelmed by a gesture towards the cataclysmic event underlying them:

The constitution of so many positive sciences, the appearance of literature, the folding back of philosophy upon its own development… are only so many signs of a deeper rupture. (221)

13The foregrounding of this ‘deeper rupture’, this ‘upheaval’ in thought, dominates the pages of The Order of Things. It is unfair to claim, as have some critics, that this book provides no account of change other than the catastrophic. While there is certainly no well-developed ‘transformational system’ (White’s term, following Piaget) at work, Foucault does at least attempt a beginning to the necessary ‘quasi-infinite investigation’. He shows, at various points, how changes in one discipline may affect other contemporary disciplines. A shift in the concept of organic structure, for example, exerted a major influence on natural history, radicalising the division between organic and inorganic (231); this change in classification in turn fed into the breakdown of representation as an intellectual base for other disciplines.

  • 1 As examples, see: p. 220, p. 231, p. 233, p. 339.

14Foucault hopes to demonstrate how small alterations within one field resonate across diverse disciplines, with the result that economics, philology and natural science all partake of a ‘miniscule but absolutely essential displacement’ (238), collectively weakening the conceptual power of representation as a cultural foundation. But even here, we are informed that this ‘miniscule’ displacement ‘toppled the whole of Western thought’ (238). In this way, description of change is overdetermined by the grand event as articulated by Foucault – sudden, seismic, instituting a rupture or radical break in intellectual history. The severity of this event at times seems to overwhelm the analytical powers of archaeology: the epistemic break remains, Foucault concedes, a ‘somewhat enigmatic event.’ (238) Rupture is accorded more significance by Foucault than the various ‘mutations’ occurring in various disciplines. The notion of mutation is certainly underplayed, despite the relatively frequent appearance of the word in the text1. It is this eclipsing, in The Order of Things, of gradual or intricate change by the radical event of rupture that has largely created the impression of this work as a paean to discontinuity.

15Part of this impression may well have been created by the hostile reception given The Order of Things by sections of the French intelligentsia of the time. In attributing the book’s success with readers to its attack on ‘historical reflection’, Sartre used a metaphor for Foucault’s method that highlighted the dominance of discontinuity in The Order of Things: ‘ [Foucault] replaces cinema with a magic lantern, movement with a succession of immobilities.’ (cited in Macey 1993: 175) Foucault was charged with an ‘anti-historical prejudice’ by Marxist critics, who joined Sartreans and Catholic humanists in an anti-Foucault coalition (Macey 176-178). For Canguilhem, who publicly defended Foucault at the time, these critics ‘were blinded by their belief in the progressive nature of history’ (cited in Macey 178), hence their misconception of Foucault as anti-historical or conservative. Yet even Sheridan admits that The Order of Things provided plentiful ammunition for the anti-Foucault cause, particularly its Marxist component. Not only did Foucault exclude socio-economic determinants in his study of discourse, but it was possible to interpret Foucault’s intellectual history as offering ‘no reasons… for the sudden mutation from one… episteme to another.’ (Sheridan 1980: 210) Foucault was readily charged with the crime of Idealism, along with his more general anti-historical sin.

The ‘Very Contrary’ of Discontinuity

  • 2 This interview appeared in Les Lettres francaises, no. 1187, 1967; a brief extract is cited in Sher (...)
  • 3 ‘I realized that things were more complicated than I had thought in the first two books, that the d (...)

16Between the publication of The Order of Things and that of The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault made several efforts to rectify the impression held by many critics of the former book. This took the form, in interviews and articles, of replying to criticisms, or of clarifying his own position. In an interview with Raymond Bellour, published in 1967,2 Foucault claimed that in The Order of Things he was interested in the way discourses of a given period may influence each other in a ‘kind of isomorphism’; this activity at the discursive level necessarily complicated any simple model of social or institutional shaping of thought.3

  • 4 This interview was first published in Les Lettres francaises, March 311966; reprinted in Foucault 1 (...)

17This explanation may have gone some way to appeasing one angle of criticism, but it did not clarify how or why discourses undergo mutation. The impression of temporal discontinuity taken by some readers from The Order of Things was so strong that it left the possibility of change occluded. Foucault was at pains to claim that this was indeed a misinterpretation of his work. In an earlier interview with Bellour, published in 1966,4 Foucault addressed this criticism:

I am told for example that I have admitted or invented an absolute break between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. In fact, when one carefully examines the scientific discourse of the end of the eighteenth century, one notices a very rapid and in truth a very enigmatic change. (Foucault 1989: 16)

18The description of this change as ‘enigmatic’ remains from The Order of Things, but Foucault insists here that he was charting in that work not a break but a set of transformations:

I wanted to describe this change very precisely, in other words to establish the transformations necessary and sufficient for passing from the initial form of scientific discourse, that of the 18th century, to its final form, that of the 19th. The set for transformations that I have defined maintains a certain number of theoretical elements, displaces certain others, sees old ones disappear and new ones arise; all that allows me to define the rule of passage in the domains I have focused upon. (16)

19Foucault emphasises here the intricacies of change – the displacements, continuities and mutations – that were lost, to many readers, beneath the cataclysmic temper of The Order of Things. Foucault is in fact moved to offer a major corrective in the face of this interpretation of his work: What I have wanted to establish is the very contrary of a discontinuity, since I have made manifest the very form of passage from one state to another. (16)

20This explicit statement is a denial of discontinuity as an end in itself. Foucault has found such a denial necessary at this point because his work has been interpreted as an exercise in discontinuity at the expense of change. Discontinuity as a strategy has been mistaken for discontinuity as a goal. Foucault now emphasises, repeatedly, that his aim all along has been to describe transformation – indeed, this word is increasingly used by Foucault in the period leading up to, and including The Archaeology of Knowledge.

  • 5 Foucault’s response was published in Esprit 371, May 1968. It was reprinted as ‘Politics and the St (...)

21In 1968, Foucault provided a written response to the editorial group of Esprit, which had questioned the political consequences of his emphasis on discontinuity.5 Foucault takes the opportunity to correct misconceptions of his work concerning the role of discontinuity. He denies that he has frozen history into epistemic periods separated by breaks. For one thing, he has not proposed a ‘unitary spirit of an epoch’ (1978: 10); chronologies of different discourses vary within such an epoch. The episteme, he claims, ‘is not a general stage of reason’, but a ‘complex relationship of successive displacements.’ (10) Foucault characterises his method as one that replaces the ‘abstract, general and monotonous form of “change”’ with the ‘analysis of different types of transformation’ (11, Foucault’s italics.) This entails replacing the ‘old forms of weak continuity’ and psychological explanations of change with a new method, one ‘stubbornly stressing instead the lively intensity of difference’. (11)

22Foucault is most concerned to demonstrate that far from immobilising history, he has in fact developed a more sophisticated technique for figuring historical development. He has thrown out the simplistic and ‘empty’ concept of change, only to install in its place a meticulous analysis of ‘the different transformations’ effectuated in history (13). He lists, as an example, a ‘small collection (about fifteen perhaps)’ (12) of modifications he has detected within the discourse of general grammar; these constitute, he insists, ‘changes peculiar to the episteme itself’, in the form of ‘redistributions’ (12). He uses this brief exercise in defining transformations to clarify his position on discontinuity:

You see why I would prefer that one say I have stressed, not discontinuity, but discontinuities (that is to say, the different transformations which it is possible to describe concerning two states of discourse). (12)

23Finally, Foucault opposes directly the criticisms levelled at his historical analyses: that he unduly privileges discontinuity; that he inscribes fundamental, yet unfathomable, breaks between epochs; and that his work contains an anti-historical bias:

As you see, there is absolutely no question of substituting a category of the ‘discontinuous’ for the no less abstract and general one of the ‘continuous’. I am attempting, on the contrary, to show that discontinuity is not a monotonous and unthinkable void between events, a void which one must hasten to fill with the dismal plenitude of the cause… but that it is a play of specific transformations different from one another (each one having its conditions, its rules, its level) and linked among themselves according to schemes of dependence. History is the descriptive analysis and the theory of these transformations. (13)

24Having re-asserted, in this brief statement, the credentials of archaeology as a method of historical analysis, Foucault provides a thorough elaboration in The Archaeology of Knowledge. He declares early in that work that the problem for historical analysis is to describe those transformations in discourses that constitute ‘the rebuilding of foundations’ (1972: 5). This is how archaeology attends to the diachronic dimension: not by charting continuities or traditions, but by analysing the complex of modifications and transformations within discourses. Foucault’s enterprise is ‘to measure the mutations that operate in general in the field of history’ (15); he readily concedes, however, that his previous books, including The Order of Things, have offered only a ‘very imperfect sketch’ of this enterprise (15). In place of the ‘rather disordered’ efforts he has so far made, he offers The Archaeology of Knowledge as an attempt at articulating his approach to intellectual history.

25Within the rather dense system of abstractions offered in this work, Foucault provides several specific detailings of discursive transformation. In discussing the formation of concepts, he outlines the overlapping of old, altered and new concepts that may operate within any discursive space at a given time. He provides the example of Natural History in the Classical Period, which used ‘certain of the older concepts (genus, species, sign)’ in different ways, while also formulating new concepts (57). It is in the chapter named ‘Change and Transformations’, however, that Foucault most thoroughly delineates the ‘archaeological description of change.’ (166) He first voices the general criticism aimed at archaeological analysis – that it ‘seems to treat history only to freeze it.’ (166) Unlike the traditional history of ideas, which at least charts ‘temporal succession and sequence’, archaeology appears to ignore the temporal relations in the discursive formations it seeks to describe. ‘Does it not therefore, ’ Foucault asks rhetorically, ‘impose the constricting figure of a synchrony on a development that may be slow and imperceptible?’ (166) Foucault eloquently paraphrases his critics: does not archaeology avoid time, allowing for it ‘only in the vacant moment of rupture, in that white, paradoxically atemporal crack in which one sudden formulation replaces another’? (166) Foucault cannot be accused of avoiding this criticism of his archaeological method; archaeology is indicted, he acknowledges, of snatching discourse from ‘the law of development’, imprisoning it in a ‘discontinuous atemporality’. Discourse, it appears, is ‘immobilised in fragments: precarious splinters of eternity.’ (166)

26After so grandly representing the arguments of his accusers, Foucault moves to situate those arguments in an intellectual context. They spring, he offers, from minds comfortably attached to old metaphors – movement, flux, evolution – of change. For a century and a half, he explains, history has been imagined with recourse to these models, including the biological one of evolution, so that change has been conceptualised as a ‘living force’ impelled by its own principle of movement (173). It is thus ‘perfectly understandable’, he concludes, that minds so conditioned would interpret archaeology as ‘the negation of history and the crude affirmation of discontinuity.’ (173)

27But this is, Foucault retorts, a severe misconstruction. ‘Far from being indifferent to succession, ’ he avers, ‘archaeology maps the temporal vectors of derivation.’ (169, Foucault’s italics) The use of the plural in this terminology is significant, a significance that Foucault had foreshadowed in the Esprit piece. The disappearance of one ‘positivity’ and its replacement by another entails, he states, ‘several types of transformations’ (172); archaeology examines ‘the system of transformations that constitute “change”’. (173) According to Foucault, archaeology actually improves on previous formulations of change: it develops this ‘empty, abstract notion’ (173) into an analysis of the various forms of transformation within such a historical development.

28In an effort to prove the superiority of archaeological analysis to the rudimentary evolutionist model of change, Foucault specifies the multiplicity of transformations possible when ‘one discursive formation is substituted for another’. (173) Foucault here explicitly refutes the notion that an epochal shift embodies a monolithic replacement of one epistemic world by another. A ‘general transformation of relations’ – that is, a generalised epistemological shift – does not necessarily alter all discursive elements. Statements within various domains may be ‘governed by new rules of formation’, but this does not mean that old concepts and theoretical choices disappear to be replaced by new ones. On the contrary, Foucault maintains that the ‘phenomena of continuity, return and repetition’ (173) may be observed and analysed across epistemic periods. Rules of formation, Foucault cautions, are not constraining factors; rather, they express the principle of ‘multiplicity and dispersion’ of discursive elements. As a result, concepts may remain throughout ‘several distinct positivities’ (173), their form and content unchanging, yet their formations becoming heterogeneous (Foucault gives as examples of this process the survival of the concepts of monetary circulation and character from one epoch to the next). Foucault also mentions the case of those elements ‘that reappear after a period of desuetude, oblivion, or even invalidation’, such as the re-activation in the eighteenth century of the old notion of an original language. (174)

29In this passage, Foucault has openly embraced continuity and transformation, even over very long time-spans. The problem for archaeology, he continues, ‘is not to deny such phenomena, nor to try to diminish their importance’, but to describe and measure them: ‘how can such permanences or repetitions, such long sequences or such curves projected through time exist?’ (174) Foucault proposes that such continuities should be treated in the same manner as historical discontinuities are analysed. Archaeology aims to show

… how the continuous is formed in accordance with the same conditions and the same rules as dispersion; and how it enters – neither more nor less than differences, inventions, innovations or deviations – the field of discursive practice. (174-175)

30Foucault’s final act of theoretical clarification concerning the archaeological rendering of change is to down-play the significance of rupture. He explicitly rejects the notion of a definitive and radical break between epochs:

The idea of a single break suddenly, at a given moment, dividing all discursive formations, interrupting them in a single moment and reconstituting them in accordance with the same rules – such an idea cannot be sustained. (175)

31Again, Foucault displaces the notion of a singular break or any other form of change, emphasising instead the multiplicitous nature of even profound transition. ‘We must not imagine, ’ he cautions, ‘that rupture is a sort of great drift that carries with it all discursive formations at once’; rather, a rupture or ‘archaeological break’ is ‘always a discontinuity specified by a number of distinct transformations, between two particular positivities.’ (175) These ‘distinct transformations’ may obey different chronological patterns (in Foucault’s terms, they may have diverse indices of ‘temporal viscosity’); as a result, there is no sense of a perfect synchronicity of transformations across different disciplines. The rupture is not a ‘lapsus’ that separates two periods; indeed, Foucault undermines the notion of the historical period itself. Taking the Classical age as an example, Foucault refuses to conceive of it as a unifying temporal figure; instead… it is the name that is given to a tangle of continuities and discontinuities, modifications within positivities, discursive formations that appear and disappear. (176)

32This ‘tangle’ of temporalities, then, incorporates concepts that have endured from earlier time-frames, new concepts or theories, as well as those which have been transformed – or ‘mutated’ – through the passage of time. Concepts, theories, or ideas (although Foucault generally avoids that term) may come and go, as discourses – each one with its own complex layering of time – interact with other discourses. To conclude his chapter on transformations, Foucault conceptualises the French Revolution not as a cataclysmic event, but as

a complex, articulated, describable group of transformations that left a number of positivities intact, fixed for a number of others rules that are still with us, and also established positivities that have recently disappeared or are still disappearing before our eyes. (177)

  • 6 Henning cites this reference (Henning 1982: 187).
  • 7 An example from The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: ‘Consider the evolution of the Catholic pastoral a (...)

33There are other references to temporal continuity scattered throughout Foucault’s works. In the essay ‘What is an Author?’ (initially published in 1969),6 Foucault refers to ‘transhistorical constants’ that operate – alongside those discursive factors specific to particular periods – in the construction of the ‘author-function’. He offers as an example the derivation of modern literary critical techniques from the Christian tradition of exegesis, originally used to authenticate texts by attributing authorship (1977a: 127). (In this respect, Foucault could also have mentioned the derivation of the hermeneutic critical approach from early Protestant scriptural interpretation). Henning remarks approvingly that in ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, a 1970 essay devoted to Deleuze, Foucault argues for ‘a notion of repetition with difference’ across the centuries of philosophical thought (Henning 1982: 187). Poster, who championed Foucault’s mode of discontinuity and used it as a critical strategy himself, nevertheless finds that in the later works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault ‘traces elements of continuity and evolution as well as their opposite.’ (Poster 1989: 70, note) While these later ‘genealogical’ works retain a focus on difference and discontinuity, the vocabulary of change is less strident than in the earlier archaeological works, while instances of gradual change are also described.7

34In this section I have provided ample evidence that Foucault, far from repressing the diachronic dimension, affords continuity and transformation a significant role in his histories. Given Foucault’s emphasis, in The Archaeology of Knowledge and elsewhere, of the complex and diverse nature of discursive transformations, the general criticism concerning his freezing of history is revealed as an unfounded accusation. Yet he professed himself bewildered, as late as 1977, by the persistent construction of his work as a history founded on discontinuity. In 1978, he was motivated to announce that ‘no one could be more continuist than I am.’ (cited in O’Farrell 1989: 48) This enduring misconception of his work may point to methodological problems within Foucault’s histories; it may indicate a misfit between his analyses and his theorising of them (The Archaeology of Knowledge is the prime example of the latter category). The final section of this chapter considers these possibilities, while attempting to draw some conclusions concerning the legacy of Foucault’s work for intellectual history and, more specifically, for the aims of this book.

Tectonic Plates of History

35There is no doubt that Foucault professes himself a historian of transformation as much as of discontinuity. The preceding section cited his repeated – even despairing – denials that his work constitutes one long treatise on discontinuity. But there remains the suspicion that however many protestations Foucault may make to the contrary, his works themselves create an overwhelming impression of historical difference, ruptures and epistemic breaks – in a word, discontinuity. This much is acknowledged even by his supporter Rabinow, as noted in Chapter Four.

  • 8 Foucault’s self-criticism appears in ‘Truth and Power’, an interview with Foucault by Alessandro Fo (...)

36Foucault himself frequently found fault with his own books, assuming a position of newly-won wisdom to cast a critical eye on his earlier efforts. As mentioned above, The Archaeology of Knowledge contained criticism of the previous book, The Order of Things, as a ‘very imperfect sketch’. By the mid-1970s, rendered ‘breathless’ by his description in the Petit Larousse as a philosopher of discontinuity, he turned on The Order of Things with a new vehemence (Morris and Patton 1979: 31-32).8 Admitting that he explained himself insufficiently in that early work, he adds a critique from the perspective of the power-knowledge phase of his career. His earlier work lacked a sense of the effects of power on the ‘discursive regime’, he states. In The Order of Things, he had confused this discursive regime with ‘systematicity, theoretical form, or something like the paradigm.’ (32) While this critical re-appraisal typifies Foucault’s tendency, in the 1970s, to revise his early works as lacking an attention to the role of power in discourse, this particular criticism of The Order of Things is significant for the present analysis. It was The Order of Things, an ‘extraordinary commercial as well as critical success’ (Sheridan 1980: 89), which established Foucault’s intellectual reputation; it also entrenched the conception of him as a historian who favoured radical discontinuity. It may well be that no matter how hard Foucault endeavoured to rectify this misconception, the effects of The Order of Things – with its refrain of ‘rupture’ – forged a lasting impression. It is also the case that despite his theoretical exposition of transformation in The Archaeology of Knowledge and elsewhere, his later books do not emphasise continuity or transformation to anything approaching the degree with which discontinuity had earlier been promoted.

37There are several other factors at play in this association of Foucault – despite his protests – with discontinuity. One concerns the polemical nature of his intervention into intellectual history. As discussed in the previous chapter, Foucault deployed discontinuity as a theoretical strategy in his opposition to teleological histories and the history of ideas, which he held in open contempt. Whereas conventional history venerated tradition and continuity, Foucault enacted a critical reversal, installing discontinuity in the place of its opposite. While this theoretical manoeuvre had the effect of positioning archaeology as a serious rival to traditional intellectual history – as well as attracting attention to Foucault himself as a bold, original intellectual figure – it came at the cost of a certain overstatement. The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge are suffused with a level of provocation; in these works Foucault defies the orthodoxies of the time with a self-confessed ‘stubborn’ insistence on discontinuity and related concepts, accompanied by language that occasionally ‘verges on the hyperbolic.’ (Sheridan 1980: 71)

38Henning’s criticism of Foucault is related to this aspect of his work. Henning regards Foucault’s ‘extremism of argument’ (1982: 187) as a contributor to the distorted treatment of intellectual history offered in the archaeological works. The undue stress laid on discontinuity stems from Foucault’s ‘principle of reversal’ (158), applied so adamantly by Foucault that it smothers a proper consideration of continuity in history. By contrast, Henning finds Foucault’s shorter works – such as the essays ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ and ‘What Is an Author?’ – less zealously committed to discontinuity, and more suggestive and subtle as a result. For Henning, these essays benefit from their less polemical approach; they ‘suggest a more cautious and thoughtful perception of the relation to tradition.’ (187) In the context of Foucault’s career and the perceptions of his intellectual position, however, they are much less influential than his major works.

39Another problem relates to the rigidity of the archaeological method. This difficulty is hinted at by Foucault when, in his act of self-criticism, he refers to his earlier confusion of the discursive regime with ‘systematicity… or something like the paradigm.’ Systematicity concerns archaeology’s emphasis of the rule in discursive regulation, which Henning considers its primary theme (1982: 154); paradigm relates to the totalising tendency – despite all Foucault’s disclaimers – which emerges, especially in The Order of Things, in the characterisation of epistemic periods. Both these facets of archaeological analysis have helped create the impression of self-contained discursive formations, obeying strict epistemological rules, forming monolithic knowledge bases which somehow shift, en masse, into a new time period under the regulation of a new set of rules. This is the very interpretation of his work that Foucault is at such pains to counter; yet it is certainly possible to find statements in Foucault’s major works that seem to support such a reading.

40The Archaeology of Knowledge is cluttered with a vocabulary of rule and regulation. A discursive formation is ‘a set of rules for arranging statements in series, an obligatory set of schemata of dependence… ’ (1973: 57); the ‘archive’ incorporating and underlying discourses is ‘the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements… ’ (129). This emphasis on deep-lying rules, governing the arrangement and distribution of discourses, pervades the text; it fosters the impression of a vast and complex system determining the regulation of statements, concepts and discourses. Foucault condemns the simplistic practice, pursued in the old-fashioned history of ideas, of charting the ‘empirical progress of ideas’ (63); yet his archaeological project, replete with a ‘bewildering proliferation of strange scientistic terminology for categorization’ (Henning 1982: 155), errs in the opposite direction – that of complexity and rigidity.

41Archaeology is charged by its creator with the task of describing ‘discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive’ (131), but the continual stress on the determining function of rules and regularities builds the impression of a vast and coherent discourse-machine, operating according to its own deep-seated rules. Dreyfus and Rabinow reach a similar conclusion in their analysis of the ‘methodological failure of archaeology’. They conclude that archaeology ‘suffers from several internal strains’, the most serious of which they outline in the following terms:

We have seen that although [archaeology] would like to be a modest empiricism describing… the positivities of discursive practice, it nevertheless claims that the regularities that describe the corpus of serious discourse also regulate its production. (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983: 90, their italics)

42For the purposes of the present discussion, this criticism indicates the methodological flaws within archaeology that may have contributed – by the description of monolithic blocks of thought obeying obscure rules specific to the time period – to the interpretation of Foucault’s works as ‘anti-historical’. Dreyfus and Rabinow further argue that

… like all other discursive systems, archaeology is, indeed, a child of its times, and that therefore archaeological discourse itself has to be accounted for and relativized. (1983: 99)

43In this respect, Henning remarks that Foucault’s obsession with rules and categorisation, together with his ‘assertion of each epoch’s ultimate epistemic cohesion’, suggest that Foucault’s distance from the ahistorical method of structuralism is ‘at least in some respects, rather less than he maintains.’ (1982: 156)

44Gutting takes up this issue of epistemic cohesion. Despite Foucault’s claims, in The Archaeology of Knowledge and elsewhere, that his analyses do not depict ‘cultural totality’, Gutting cites several instances where Foucault seems to be doing precisely that. The Order of Things contains many examples, as already noted in this chapter, of grand sweeping statements; these declarations refer to totalised, coherent knowledge bases that undergo profound shifts. The ‘entire episteme of Western culture’, Foucault claims at one point (1973: 54), ‘found its fundamental arrangements modified’; Gutting finds in statements like these a totalised conception of knowledge that Foucault’s disclaimers cannot easily erase. Again: ‘In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge… ’ (Gutting 1989: 178, citing Foucault 1973: 168). For Gutting, Foucault’s claim in The Archaeology of Knowledge that his previous book may have created a false impression due to its ‘absence of methodological sign-posting’, is inadequate. At the very least, there are enough grand totalising statements in The Order of Things to lead ‘Foucault’s readers to think that he is making global claims about the thought of an entire period.’ (Gutting 1989: 178-179)

45The impression of large-scale, epistemologically integrated bodies of knowledge, combined with the sketchily depicted, ‘enigmatic’ process of sudden change, produced the appearance, in The Order of Things, of monolithic systems undergoing capricious wholesale change. Given the interlocking, heavily regulated nature of these networks of discourse, the reader is left with the sense of them shifting in unison, ruptured by ‘momentary upsurges’ (Piaget) within the underlying structures. It is as if epistemological periods shift like tectonic plates, breaking suddenly and drastically along fault-lines, creating massive new structures that will last until the next upheaval. This is the impression that Foucault spent much of his remaining career attempting to repudiate.

46The Order of Things, however, left an exceptionally strong impression. Its magisterial style, its vivid insistence on rupture and upheaval, its confronting final image where Man himself is envisaged being washed into the sea: all these aspects of the book have contributed to the legacy of Foucault’s work in relation to intellectual history. The Order of Things expressed with great rhetorical force the concept of discontinuity that has become associated with Foucault. As we have seen, Foucault himself went to great lengths in attempting to break this association, and a careful reading of his texts reveals that his work is no ‘crude affirmation of discontinuity.’ Nevertheless, many of his most virulent critics, and many of his most ardent supporters, damn him or praise him for his representation of knowledge as so determined by epochal constraints that any continuist perspective on intellectual history becomes untenable.

47Foucault’s most striking formulation of this idea comes in the book’s very first paragraph, in a passage as famous as the book’s haunting conclusion. The Order of Things arose, Foucault tells us, from his laughter at the bizarre taxonomy in Borges’ fictional Chinese encyclopaedia. Introducing the vocabulary of absolute – almost violent – change in his first sentence, Foucault informs us that this laughter ‘shattered’ his intellectual preconceptions. That was because, he infers, those preconceptions are the product of a particular time and culture, suddenly faced with the radical otherness of thought generated from another (if fictional) system. His thought, which is also the thought of his contemporaries, ‘bears the stamp of our age and our geography’ (1973: xv). This thought – made of naturalised conventions – ‘breaks up’ when confronted by thought so disturbingly other. Any assumption of universality is destroyed by an apprehension of the specific in all its difference. The moral of Borges’ fable, Foucault argues, is that we must acknowledge, when confronted with ‘the exotic charm of another system of thought’, the ‘limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.’ (xv)

48This testament to radical difference is the starting-point for Foucault’s reconstruction of intellectual history, using the tool of discontinuity. Even his reading of Borges’ fable, however, has not escaped the attention of his critics. For Christopher Norris, the fact that Borges is capable of creating the exotic taxonomy, and that Foucault and his readers are able to situate this ‘fabulous contrivance’ in an intellectual context, proves that we are, in fact, perfectly capable of ‘thinking that.’ (Norris 1997: 493) While Norris perhaps attempts to make too much of this tale and its interpretation, his criticism raises the issue of the limits of discontinuity. If radical difference is the presiding rule governing intellectual history, how can we understand anything at all of the thought of previous epochs, even in the West? And what of those ideas or beliefs that have endured for two thousand years or more, even if in modified form? Discontinuity taken to its extreme becomes an absurdity. It vacuum-seals the thought of specific periods, rendering their intellectual codes and practices indecipherable to those of a later epoch.

Continuity and Discontinuity

49Such a conception of history cannot be seriously maintained – as Foucault, the historian most identified with discontinuity, is of course only too aware. To escape the traps of radical discontinuity, Foucault needs an operating principle of continuity. He needs to be able to figure long-term continuities – ‘permanences’ or ‘transhistorical constants’, as he terms them. He needs to be able to describe transition, especially gradual transformation. He needs a methodology capable of tracing and explaining the flux of continuities spread across myriad time-spans, as they intersect with disappearances, sudden transformations and other discontinuities. He needs to be able confidently to delineate the complex process of change, without recourse to the atemporal ‘vacant moment of rupture.’ As we have seen, Foucault very deliberately elaborated all these facets of his analytical method, most extensively in The Archaeology of Knowledge, but at other times and places as well. He was determined to avoid simplistic schematisations of intellectual history, whether they privileged continuity or discontinuity. A historical period, he asserts in The Archaeology of Knowledge, is ‘a tangle of continuities and discontinuities’. In its complex interplay of concepts and practices, some old, some new, some in the process of transformation, such a historical period embraces ‘modifications’ and ‘discursive formations that appear and disappear.’ (Foucault 1972: 176)

50For Foucault to properly realise his ambition of articulating these levels of complexity, however, he needed to jettison the method of archaeology. For the reasons outlined above, archaeological analysis restricted Foucault’s ability to articulate historical change with subtlety. Its cumbersome theoretical apparatus, its attention to discursive rules, even its totalising tendency, worked against Foucault’s expressed intention of rendering transformations in intellectual history.

  • 9 Machado explores this theme in his ‘Archaeology and Epistemology’ in Armstrong (ed) 1992.
  • 10 Goldstein is providing a ‘composite definition’ of genealogy, and of archaeology, drawn from the co (...)

51One commentator who finds compelling arguments for continuity and change within Foucault’s archaeological method is Gutting, who, like Roberto Machado, situates Foucault’s archaeology within the context of French epistemology.9 For Gutting, Foucault can draw on Bachelard in showing that discontinuity need not exclude progress, and that ‘discoveries made in one episteme may be permanent in the sense that they will have to be included (appropriately reformulated) in any subsequent episteme.’ (Gutting 1989: 275) However, most commentators consider archaeology – with its ‘vertical’ perspective on knowledge – less flexible than its methodological successor, genealogy. Jan Goldstein summarises theoretical commentary on archaeology in the following terms :10

… a basically ‘vertical’ conception of successive cultural forms, stacked one upon the other so as to emphasize their self-containment and radical difference from one another. (Goldstein 1994: 14)

52Goldstein has here encapsulated the concept of historical discontinuity, as attributed to Foucault; tellingly, this consensus view derives, according to Goldstein, from interpretations of Foucault’s archaeological works. By contrast, Goldstein claims that genealogy is generally seen as accentuating the ‘horizontal’ dimension; its ‘hallmarks are “eventuality” and narrative process.’ (14) Goldstein adds the proviso that this narrative orientation remains non-teleological, with discontinuity as its guiding principle: events are ‘eruptions’, while ‘outcomes are local and radically contingent, never adhering to a global necessity.’ (14) Genealogy preserves Foucault’s attention to difference, even to ‘rupture’; yet, freed from the rule-based theoretical apparatus of its predecessor, it is more receptive to the flow and flux of historical developments.

53This is also the view of James Faubion, who makes a similar distinction between archaeology and genealogy. The former, according to Faubion, has a ‘diagnostic “purity”’ that makes it ideal for ‘rendering historical discontinuities and ruptures, but only at the expense of historical continuities and enduring historical conduits.’ (Faubion 1998: xxxv) Genealogy, he continues, is also ‘concerned with disruption’, but its focus is on specific regions of power-knowledge, rather than on the vast discursive fields examined by archaeology. ‘Precisely in its far more refined localism, ’ he maintains, genealogy ‘opens onto the regions above or beyond the fray, regions perhaps longer or more briefly at peace.’ (xxxv) As a result, genealogy is more sensitive to the complexity of temporality, in its manifold varieties. It allows Foucault ‘to conceive of history as a plurality of encounters and temporalities.’ (xxxv)

  • 11 This article, ‘Return to History’, was first published in Paideia 11, February 1972. Translated by (...)
  • 12 This reference is cited by Faubion (1998: xxxv).

54This interpretation is supported by the development of Foucault’s work in the 1970s. Foucault ceased using the term ‘archaeology’ from the early 1970s; his remarks quoted above indicate his abandonment of its overly ‘systematic’ methodology. In an article published in 1972,11 Foucault defined history in a manner which foregrounded his commitment to understanding the ‘tangle’ of temporalities at play in intellectual history. ‘History, ’ he writes, ‘is not a single time span: it is a multiplicity of time spans that entangle and envelop one another.’ (Foucault 1998: 430)12 In this formulation, Foucault echoes the concept of history voiced by Fernand Braudel in the 1950s. For Braudel, as noted in Chapter One, the longue durée was one time span within the ‘multiplicity of time’ (Braudel 1980: 27). Even here, however, Foucault is not prepared to let continuity overshadow the discontinuity that he has deployed so effectively in his earlier works. One can, he declares, understand the processes of history ‘contrary to the old idea of continuity’; that is, a historian should ‘really grasp both the discontinuity of events and the transformation of societies.’ (431)

55Genealogy may be a more supple method than its predecessor; it may – as Gutting argues – add a more developed ‘technique of causal analysis’ (1989: 271); it may allow a greater sense of the multiplicity of change, of the ‘transformation of societies’, as Foucault puts it. However, whether due to the overbearing impression made by the archaeological works, or to the ongoing central role of discontinuity in the genealogical studies, Foucault was unable to efface the imprint he received in the 1960s – that of the historian of discontinuity. Certainly, his near-desperate pronouncement in 1978 that ‘no-one could be more continuist than I am’ is unlikely to have convinced many of his readers, whether opponents or supporters.

56At least the genealogical method permitted Foucault to chart the transformation of ideas, attitudes and modes of behaviour in some detail, whereas he could earlier have been accused of preaching the study of transformation without necessarily practising it. In one aspect, the genealogical analyses, with their emphasis on the role of power in disciplining bodies and forging ‘technologies of the self’, lie beyond the scope of this book. On the other hand, their investigation of the interplay of power and knowledge adds a new dimension to the discontinuous analysis of intellectual history pursued in Foucault’s earlier works. The ‘discursive regime’ is revealed as an assemblage imbued with specific power relations traversing both discursive and non-discursive elements. While these power relations are specific to particular societies, each discursive regime is understood as bearing within it traces of past intellectual practices and discourses.

57In addition, Foucault’s attention to specific formations of power-knowledge – such as the instituting of incarceration as a punitive system – leads Foucault, in the words of Chartier, ‘to construct a temporality of his own that bears little resemblance to the usual periodizations.’ (Chartier 1994: 179) Discussing Discipline and Punish, Chartier observes that in establishing certain temporal divisions in the transformation of punitive systems, Foucault undermines the conventional understanding of French history centred on the Revolution. According to Chartier, Foucault ‘inscribes the revolutionary period… within a longer time-span, hence eliminating its singularity.’ (180) This is an instance of the way Foucault’s genealogical works trace ‘the transformation of societies’ by analysing developments in specific domains of power-knowledge. Incorporated in this analytical process is an attention to the ‘multiplicity of time spans’.

58This concept of temporal multiplicity suggests, in part, the significance of Foucault’s work on intellectual history for this book. The complexity of Foucault’s contribution to intellectual history has often been ignored – by both his admirers and his critics. Foucault’s works are difficult, at times exasperating in their contradictions and overstatements, at times almost perverse in their problematisation of accepted concepts and practices. This complex and difficult Foucault has sometimes been displaced by a simplistic travesty: a philosopher-historian stubbornly devoted to discontinuity. The effort of this chapter has been to dispose of this travesty, to reveal a philosopher of history dedicated to unravelling some of the tangle of time. As Foucault himself repeatedly stated, that tangle is made of spans of time whose lengths and textures vary greatly. This tangle represents a multiplicity of times, containing both continuity and discontinuity, as has been recognised by Gutting, Poster, Henning and other theorists.

59At first glance, my aims in this book seem to be set in opposition to Foucault’s version of intellectual history, even given his commitment to such a multiplicity. This book aims to trace individual ideas over long time-spans, in some cases involving a duration from ancient origins to manifestation in the present. This is the very ‘empirical progress of ideas’ that Foucault rejects as part of the tawdry, complacent methodology of the history of ideas (Foucault 1972: 63). But I am not interested in a ‘progress’ in the teleological sense: there is no attempt to show the inevitability of an idea’s march from its origins to the present, nor is there any assertion of the idea’s universality, its unchanging essence. The idea of charisma, for example, as I have detailed in A History of Charisma, involves both continuity and discontinuity in its historical progression. Charisma as understood in twenty-first century Western societies is not the same charisma as discussed by Paul in his first century world. Charisma today is an idea circulating in secular, media-saturated societies; it relates to a certain presence associated with special individuals. For Paul two thousand years ago, it was a religious concept associated with the collectivity of the newly founded church. Historical discontinuity seems justified to this extent: these are two different ideas; or at least, two radically different expressions of the same idea, separated by two thousand years of cultural and political change. They are determined by drastically different ‘discursive formations’, or regimes of power-knowledge; the discontinuity between them is profound.

60And yet, there is perhaps something that endures over those two thousand years. The mysterious nature of charisma – in its contemporary formation – carries traces of the idea’s religious origins. Charisma today is considered difficult to define by rational process; it is an elusive idea; it is understood as somehow innate in special individuals: a ‘gift’. This is a persistence, however modified, of the meaning of the word – ‘spiritual gift’ – as used by Paul and the early Christians. Along with the discontinuity separating the idea’s contemporary version from its ancient counterpart, there is an underlying continuity. This tension between the continuous and the discontinuous is the central theme of this book; it is a theme richly explored in the work of Foucault.

61As this chapter has outlined, Foucault insisted that continuity should not be neglected at the expense of discontinuity. In the previous chapter I argued that, largely for strategic reasons, Foucault’s early work accentuated temporal discontinuity, an emphasis partly responsible for an enduring misconception of his work. My project takes, as part of its inspiration, however, Foucault’s insistence on the interplay of the continuous with the discontinuous. In tracing the history of ideas over long durations, I aim to describe the career of a term; this career may entail continuity and discontinuity; it may incorporate modification. The idea of charisma, to return to that example, undergoes transformation; it lies dormant for a long period before being revitalised in a new context, assuming altered meanings.

  • 13 See, for example, Foucault 1998: 430 (initially published 1972): ‘That is the mutation that is occu (...)

62Foucault used the term ‘mutation’ to signify historical transformation; he stated that Western thought was undergoing a mutation in his own time,13 a transition of which, perhaps, his work was representative. Within the large-scale cultural mutations (processes so complex that Foucault often described them as ‘enigmatic’), Foucault also identified other specific processes that may befall individual ideas, concepts or discursive practices. In The Order of Things he noted that ‘ideas could appear… only, perhaps, to dissolve and vanish soon afterwards.’ (1973: xxii) In The Archaeology of Knowledge he remarked that older concepts may be ‘used in different ways’ in a new cultural formation (1972: 57), that ‘continuity, return and repetition’ may figure in intellectual history (173), and that elements may ‘reappear after a period of desuetude, oblivion, or even invalidation… ’ (174). All these processes are relevant to a history of ideas prepared to accept discontinuity and rapid transformation as readily as it accepts continuity and gradual change. This book, in its consideration of the history of ideas over long time-spans, operates on this principle.

  • 14 The newspaper was the Italian daily Corriere della sera, which announced in September 1978 that it (...)

63Foucault himself stridently rejected the conventional history of ideas; yet in 1978 he articulated an alternative version of the study of ideas. In introducing the first of a series of journalistic reports for an Italian newspaper,14 Foucault outlined an approach to the reporting of contemporary ideas:

Some say that the great ideologies are dying, others that they overwhelm us with their monotony. On the other hand, the contemporary world is teeming with ideas which are born, are discussed, which disappear and reappear, and which stir up many people and many things. This is not only true of intellectual circles or of the universities of Western Europe; it is happening on a world scale, among people and minorities that, until now, history has not accustomed to speaking or making themselves heard.

There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals themselves imagine. And these ideas are more active, more powerful and more stubborn than politicians think. We have to be present at the birth of ideas, and at the explosion of their force, not in the books that formulate them, but in the events in which they manifest their strength, in the struggles led by ideas, for or against ideas. (Cited in Macey 1993: 406)

64Foucault’s vivid description reveals, in a simplified journalistic style, his passion for the world of ideas. These ideas, however, are not the grand universal ideas expressed by famous men. They are ideas as events in the contemporary world, with a subversive energy of their own. This account also reveals Foucault not as a freezer of history, but as a theorist attuned to the dynamism of intellectual history. Ideas come and go, are shaped by their age, yet affect that age in turn. They may burn out or they may endure. Or they may change, carrying with them the old mixed with the new, the continuous with the discontinuous.


1 As examples, see: p. 220, p. 231, p. 233, p. 339.

2 This interview appeared in Les Lettres francaises, no. 1187, 1967; a brief extract is cited in Sheridan, 1980.

3 ‘I realized that things were more complicated than I had thought in the first two books, that the discursive domains… obeyed structures that they shared with other epistemological domains, that a kind of isomorphism existed between discourses at a given period.’ (In Sheridan 1980: 210-211)

4 This interview was first published in Les Lettres francaises, March 311966; reprinted in Foucault 1989.

5 Foucault’s response was published in Esprit 371, May 1968. It was reprinted as ‘Politics and the Study of Discourse’, in Ideology and Consciousness Spring 1978. Macey (1993: 194-195) provides an account of the Esprit exchange.

6 Henning cites this reference (Henning 1982: 187).

7 An example from The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: ‘Consider the evolution of the Catholic pastoral and the sacrament of penance after the Council of Trent. Little by little, the nakedness of the questions formulated by the confession manuals of the Middle Ages, and a good number of those still in use in the seventeenth century, was veiled.’ (Foucault 1980: 18)

8 Foucault’s self-criticism appears in ‘Truth and Power’, an interview with Foucault by Alessandro Fontano and Passquale Pasquino, initially published in 1974. An English translation by Colin Gordon appeared in 1977; this interview, incorporating additional material by permission of Gordon, was published in Morris and Patton (eds) 1979. The interview is also cited by O’Farell (1989: 48).

9 Machado explores this theme in his ‘Archaeology and Epistemology’ in Armstrong (ed) 1992.

10 Goldstein is providing a ‘composite definition’ of genealogy, and of archaeology, drawn from the contributors to the volume Foucault and the Writing of History (Goldstein ed., 1994).

11 This article, ‘Return to History’, was first published in Paideia 11, February 1972. Translated by Robert Hurley, it is reprinted in Foucault 1998.

12 This reference is cited by Faubion (1998: xxxv).

13 See, for example, Foucault 1998: 430 (initially published 1972): ‘That is the mutation that is occurring at present in the disciplines of history.’ In The Order of Things he refers to the more general transformation at ‘the deepest strata of Western culture… the same ground that is once more stirring under our feet.’ (1973: xxiv)

14 The newspaper was the Italian daily Corriere della sera, which announced in September 1978 that it had in Foucault a ‘distinguished new collaborator’, presenting ‘something new in European journalism’ entitled ‘Michel Foucault Investigates.’ Cited in Macey (1993: 406).

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