Part I: A Shout-Out for Foucault’s Amended Archaeology or How to Bake an (Anti)Humanistic Cake and Eat It Too

Several commentators of Foucault’s work have argued that his earlier archaeological methodology with its anti-humanist commitments cannot be harmonized with his later writings and their so-called embrace of the subject. Against this position, I argue that Foucault modified his methodology without completely abandoning it. Although one can find texts to make a case for Foucault the anti-humanist, quasi-positivist archaeologist, his move to an archaeology-plus-genealogy coupled with his explicit statements in later writings affirming our limited episteme-conditioned point of view, suggest that he himself recognized the shortcomings of his earlier work and adapted his position accordingly.Eating Cake

Undoubtedly, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault makes statements that put him at odds with, for example, a Gadamerian analytic affirming our hermeneutical horizons and non-neutrality. That is, in his early post-structuralist mode Foucault claims that the archaeologist must somehow divest himself of his own historically conditioned framework and step outside of the “positive unconscious” shaping him in order to unearth the conditioning rules or historical a priori particular to a historical period or what he calls an episteme. However, a huge gap in critiques along these lines is the failure to engage other texts such as, “What is Enlightenment?”, where Foucault makes clear that he no longer holds his former view.

In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault describes how his historical or critical ontology is different from yet indebted to the event called the Enlightenment. As he explains, his project “rooted in the Enlightenment” is a “type of philosophical interrogation” which “simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as autonomous subject.”[1] Foucault goes on to state that his connection with the Enlightenment tradition is not in terms of “faithfulness to doctrinal elements but, rather, the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”[2] Rather than accept the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment—an either/or false dichotomy stating that one must either remain within Enlightenment rationalism or become a critic of the Enlightenment and “its principles of rationality,”[3] Foucault rejects this dichotomy and opts for a different path.

We must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment. Such an analysis implies a series of historical inquiries that are as precise as possible; […] they will be oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.[4]

Here Foucault admits that those living post-Enlightenment are nonetheless shaped by the effects of that socio-political, cultural, philosophical, and institutional event. Thus, he acknowledges that an event from a past episteme (the Classical episteme of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) can and does shape the subjects of a subsequent episteme (the Modern episteme of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).  The “determinism” he mentions is of course historical, contingent, and thus mutable. Our task as free (and I would add, rational) beings then becomes to investigate, analyze, and expose those limits that have been presented and accepted as necessary.

Foucault then criticizes what he views as a conflation of the (European) Enlightenment-event and (European versions of) humanism. The latter, humanism, he characterizes as a “set of themes” emerging periodically, “over time, in European societies” and “always tied to value judgments.”[5] Foucault observes that humanism as a concept is too vague, having multiple contents in different periods and having been employed and claimed by a wide range of groups—for example, Christians, Marxists, and Stalinists alike have carried programs of social “reform” under the banner of humanism. Yet, “[f]rom this, we must not conclude that everything which has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected, but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection.”[6] Though the first part of Foucault’s statement is itself vague, we may plausibly interpret it to mean that not everything characteristically or commonly associated with humanism—fighting for worker’s rights, prisoner’s rights, patient’s rights, upholding the dignity of human beings, speaking out against various forms of socio-political and economic exploitation of humans, and so forth—ought to be neglected. Such an interpretation coincides with Foucault’s own leanings as manifest in his writings on the prison and medical industries.

For Foucault to criticize the term “humanism” simply because its meaning changes over time seems completely inconsistent with his general theoretical commitments. Is it not the case that “madness,” “criminal,” and countless other concepts change in relation to their historical context (episteme), institutional “affiliation,” and function within differing discursive communities? Assuming an affirmative answer, I contend that what Foucault takes issue with is the ever-changing notion of humanism functioning “as an axis for reflection.” A few pages later, he enumerates specifically the three axes “whose specificity and whose interconnections have to be analyzed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, the axis of ethics.”[7] No doubt, knowledge, power, and ethics are also context-specific and manifest different meanings in different discursive disciplines and epistemai. Yet, there is something more basic about these concepts structurally speaking. That is, whatever they mean in a particular historical period, they occupy a fundamental place in each episteme and exert a wide-reaching influence over the body politic, shaping who we are individually and collectively. These three axes play a central role in Foucault’s “historical ontology of ourselves,” which, as he maintains, must answer the following questions: “How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?”[8]

None of the above is meant to suggest that Foucault embraces openly a traditional substantive humanism entailing the acceptance of some shared, transhistorical, transcultural quality, qualities, or essence. Because Foucault holds that the Enlightenment-event brought with it—even as it simultaneously failed in some ways to take advantage and develop this insight—an awareness of its own “historical consciousness,”[9] he is suspicious of humanisms that staticize some (preferred) quality or qualities of human beings and then refuse any philosophical (or other) interrogation of those petrified, alleged essences.  However, the issue is whether Foucault’s emphases on resistance tactics, reciprocal power relations, and emancipatory possibilities involves an implicit acceptance of some kind of substantive humanism.

Stay tuned for Part II…


[1] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 312.

[2] Ibid., 312.

[3] Ibid., 313.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 314.

[7] Ibid., 318.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 314.

2 thoughts on “Part I: A Shout-Out for Foucault’s Amended Archaeology or How to Bake an (Anti)Humanistic Cake and Eat It Too”

  1. I think the Q&A session in Berkeley that you can find in their Audio Archive ( confirm your thesis that he did not himself see a difference between the earlier and late periods in terms of methodology. But he did kind of disown the Archeology of Knowledge and the Order of Things.

    Humanism is not problematic because our idea of the human changes. It is problematic because our idea of the human is dealt us by knowledge also used to govern and ultimately condemn us.

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