History as a Critical Tool: Michel Foucault

This paper was written for my 2016 Honours course in Critical Theory under supervision of Dr. Louis Blond


Michel Foucault is one of the recent modern philosophers to engage with the development of the Enlightenment project and the critiques of modernity that it entails. His work on developing a new understanding and method for using history as a critical tool for the present structures a framework for understanding the relationship between the subject and history that underlies most of contemporary social science research. Foucault’s central philosophical project entails remaking this idea of historical reflection on progress and traditional understandings of history as a tracking of events that are sequential, factual and legitimated. This rejection of traditional philosophical history involves two main sections: his rejection of foundational and universal accounts of a staged history model as well as a rejection of empiricist approaches to history. He replaces both these systems with an alternative view of history that aims to map transformations in forms of thought. This reworking of philosophical history forms part of a larger critique of enlightenment and modernity in which history as a form of knowledge or discourse was increasingly considered as being complicit in contemporary systems of power by providing interpretations of history and records that reinforce structures, frameworks and categories of the present.  This essay will seek to identify the central contrasts and consequences of Foucault’s use of history as a critical tool in relation to the traditional histories he rejects. By looking at a general understanding of his work and his relationship to other philosophers he responds to, shifts toward an anti-metaphysical and anti-foundational methods to historical construction will be analysed. Themes in his work as well as his new historical method will then be exemplified and discussed through an engagement with his book The Order of Things. Reflections on this method, as well as critiques around a failure to develop a truly anti-foundational historical model, will be provided prior to the conclusion of this paper.

After various social, political, religious and economic shifts into the structures that characterise post-Enlightenment globalised modernity, there were various new philosophical questions and methods that needed to be addressed. Central to this new task was the one of considering what the right social framework for justice, emancipation and freedom that the enlightenment sought when there were no more fixed societal systems. Questions of virtue, action, constitution and social relations began being considered and were often informed historically. Historical reflections were used to inform social presents and were considered neutral, objective facts that the historian was to place correctly on a timeline in order to map the progress and transformations in history. This is largely due to the fact that social orders are considered to emerge and be transformed through interplays of ordering and resistance, and history is considered to give a documentation of the progress and events that occurred within these social orders. However, this understanding of history as a realm of staggered progress is only possible if humans are considered as objects that are reducible to functions of frameworks within their social orderings that can be organised and understood empirically (Falzon 2013, 290).  This approach to history Foucault sees as traditional and problematic. In the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault states his view of traditional history and its tools as centred around long periods of time, within which there are events that are assumed as continuous and causal (Foucault 1969, 3). Furthermore, he labels historians and other subjects as using tools to uncover this history as partly inherited and partly created but always reinforcing a pre-established notion of history that is already accepted prior to the historian undertaking their interpretative work. In this sense, traditional analysis of history has formed assumptions about what history is, where it is evident and how it is constructed prior to a construction of history being undertaken.

The traditional model of history clearly reinforces a normative understanding of history rather than seeking a critical engagement or philosophical negotiation with history and its relation to past and current subjects. The necessary central assumptions behind traditional understandings of history are therefore that there is an identifiable progress visible through events and their casual relationships as markers of stages in the trajectory of time. This holds the foundations principles of events being the central phenomena places upon a metaphysical continuum from which subjects – humans – are detached. This, in turn, develops an ideology in which subjects are also seen to have a foundational essence which is external to their environment, time and historical context. These collective assumptions are what Foucault identifies as the ground for historians to claim the access to objective insights and the ability to reconstruct a historical timeline of events. As a result, there exists a subtle contradiction in the traditional views of history because it denies any potential of transformation or the ability for social change. This happens for two reasons. Firstly, the staged continuum of history is seen as separated from the subjects of history which means that it is in some way determined or held to a trajectory that humans cannot influence. Secondly, the subjects of history and historians themselves are considered as objective and therefore disassociated from the construction and execution of history and its events; meaning that they cannot engage or interact with present structures that are consequences of other historical periods. These universal principles of history, foundations of history, assumption of continuum and the objective, disassociation of the subject to both history and time is what Foucault rejects. Foucault therefore urges the need for a new approach to history, particularly for the ability to use history as a tool of critical engagement with the present. A central premise for this project that Foucault notes from the outside of his work is that the notion of history as one of truth or progress is the result of human construction and enlightenment ideals. They are not factual, truthful, neutral or objective; nor are they disconnected from power structures as they often reflect and reinforce current social orders.

Foucault situates his own philosophically informed historical reflections to map the emergence and decline of any number of social orderings to show that they are related to underlying epistemological climates of power, knowledge and truth rather than events. In doing so, Foucault begins to reject the foundational, metaphysical and progressive assumptions of traditional history by emphasising that historical mapping should be considered an interpretation informed by the social order in which a historian is interpreting from. Foucault develops new histories – often called archaeologies or genealogies – which seek events that resist being included in a continuous narrative and looks to discontinuous events or occurrences that traditional history would usually neglect in the greater narrative of progress. Foucault’s method suspends all categories or principles that unify the past, creating an historical account of the interpretative frameworks that inform thinking rather than moulding the events and subject matter of history to an already established interpretative framework of history that is considered objective and unquestioned (Falzon 2013, 290). Events and phenomena are therefore associated not by a framework of history but through underlying epistemologies that can be identified through the discontinuous events or shifts that occur that do not fit the traditional historical framework. Central assumptions for Foucault’s new critical approach to history requires a conception of history as anti-foundational, detached from questions of metaphysics and considers events as epiphenomena that offer insight into underlying epistemological climates of the subjects in that historical time.

This new critical approach to history is not one that Foucault developed in isolation however, but is rather an engagement and response to various enlightenment thoughts and critical philosophers who were negotiating the relationship between subjects and history in the construction of a historical timeline that can be validated. Foucault speaks directly to the work of Immanuel Kant, Georg W. F.  Hegel, Benjamin Adorno and Max Horkheimer whilst subtly partaking in dialogue with Karl Marx and various other social theorists focused on freedom and emancipation of subjects from traditional systems of power. Focusing on the discursive and non-discursive aspects of history to track epistemological shifts whilst considering how knowledge acquires political dimensions in certain environments, Foucault’s method requires establishing the epistemological configurations in different historical eras. This seems to be a vaguely neo-Kantian approach, despite lacking timeless categories for a transcendental subject. Rather, the historical conditions constituted in practices and culture emerge historically and are susceptible to transformation through emergence and decline seen in events. Furthermore, any causality or order within history is not considered as a function or framework of history in Foucault’s work (Falzon 2013, 284). This method of philosophical reflection is therefore an inversion rather than a rejection of Kant’s transcendentalism, seeking to raise and centre humans above history and make them a pseudo-foundation for their own thoughts and actions by critical reflecting and historicising human action.

Foucault’s work is also deeply related to the work of the early Frankfurt school who were extremely sceptical about the idea of historical progress. Adorno in particular, criticised the ideological mystification that occurs when trying to construct notions of progress and the actuality of historical fact through backward looking claims (Allen 2016, 163). Foucault also clearly develops the work done by Adorno and Horkheimer in the dialectic of Enlightenment that building a philosophy of history that does not seek dialectical reconciliation or resolution. The aim is rather to draw attention to the paradox of rationalization and utilize it to construct accurate histories of the present (Allen 2016, 169). Adorno and Horkheimer begin to use history as a critical tool in critique of the contradictory tension of enlightenment thought and Foucault takes this method and develops it explicitly and centrally through his use of history as a critical tool in critique of the present moment (Allen 2016, 173).  The scepticism about claims to progress from a philosophical point is adopted from Adorno into Foucault’s work in order to highlight that traditional conceptions of historical progress assume a suprahistorical, atemporal view of events that is not acknowledged by traditional historians and cannot be sustained beyond a metaphysical illusion (Allen 2016, 164). The central intention of Foucault’s work therefore is to write a history that is not bound to chronology or historical succession from the perspective of a progress or events but rather to reveal a history of human experience and epistemology that is not founded on a teleology of knowledge or the orthogenesis of learning. In seeking to problematize the present moment, Foucault develops a distinctive alternative methodology for his philosophies of history that utilize both vindicatory and subversive genealogies to reconstruct history as a story of simultaneous progress and regress.

The most influential philosopher on Foucault’s work however, must be Hegel. Like Adorno, Foucault’s philosophical critiques are in opposition to the work of Hegel and attempt to depart from a Hegelian philosophy of history as a staged, progressive, unified continuum. Despite this, Foucault seems to remain committed to the Hegelian thought that philosophy – specifically as a project of critique – is a historically situated endeavour and that philosophical activity consists of critical reflection on our historical presents that makes use of conceptual tools that are themselves the product of historical orders (Allen 2016, 164). Hegel was a profoundly historically minded thinker with his emphasis on the historicity of forms of understanding are mirrored in Foucault’s work but he also directly opposes a Hegelian-style conception of history centred on a suprahistorical subject (Falzon 2013, 284). However, Foucault rejects Hegel’s commitment to the notion of philosophy as a search for the timeless and essential as well as claims for conditions in which true knowledge is possible. Foucault’s archaeologies and genealogies are united in opposing traditional historical by seeking to discern forms beneath the histories of events and progress in order to retrace the past as something other than a continuous development (Falzon 2013, 284). Foucault stands in strong opposition to Hegel on the notions of universal, transhistorical characteristics of the historicity of reason or philosophy. Unlike Hegel who seems to consider humans as essentially historical and all philosophical knowledge to be historically conditioned, Foucault deems history as important because he considers the concept and framework of history to be central to our modern historical a priori which much be thought through if more modern forms of life are to be accurately critiqued (Allen 2016, 179). Foucault’s critique of history is subsequently a critique of a Hegelian account of history that holds assumptions around the progressive realizations of reason, self-realization and absolute knowing. In this sense, Foucault is attempting to reconstruct the philosophical stance of history being considered as continuous, reconciled and progressive. Despite this, the alternative understanding of history that Foucault offers does not fully reject reason nor does it attempt to construct a romantic idealization of reason as outside of the conception of history.

Whilst considering these themes across all of Foucault’s work would be the ideal framework for a good critical engagement with his work, time and resources limit this analysis to only one of this works. In The Order of Things (1972), Foucault seeks to establish and map the underlying epistemological arrangements of history that link events, knowledge and social order by using the emergence of the human sciences (Foucault 1972). Beginning with the early nineteenth century he looks at the fragmentation of the previously unified epistemological field into three distinct segments: the mathematical and physical sciences that produce knowledge through deductive and linear methods that require empirical evidence to verify propositions and anticipated claims; the sciences of language, life and economics that attempt to relate discontinuous and analogues elements to establish a causal relation and structural constant; and philosophy that serves to reflect on concepts and problems that arise in the empirical sciences but can be transposed into philosophical terms (Foucault 1972, 346). He outlines that the first two dimensions of science underlie the common plane of mathematics and the empirical sciences where the human sciences contrast by being situated at the intersection of all three of the fragments of science. Their role is primarily to show the relation of these three dimensions of science to all other forms of knowledge by acting in the intermediary spaces of knowledge. The emergence of the human sciences then, is not an event on a historical timeline, but a new engagement with the complexity of the empirical configuration where they are contextualised and their own relations to the three dimensions that give them their space. In providing this initial mapping of the sciences, Foucault is able to outline that the emergence of the human sciences as a new framework stemming from a shift in the epistemological fragments of the time.

Having situated the function and form of the human sciences at a specific point in time related to a certain structure of epistemology, Foucault can develop the crux of his work in this project: the form of the human sciences and the role and position of the subject. For Foucault, the retreat from mathematics across the sciences allowed man to constitute the self as object of knowledge and subsequently accommodates considerations of how the empirical aspects of the individual are integrated into the entirety of the living world. This is due to the fact that the ontologies of science that hold man as their subject as well as the human sciences that hold man as the subject and object. This combined body of knowledge within the human sciences are therefore not disassociated from the subject, as the empirical sciences would claim, but are rather created by subjects that are also the objects of the knowledge that is being produced. Because of this, there cannot be a claim to neutrality but rather, the human sciences create a regime of power that controls and describes human behaviour in terms of expected norms (Foucault 1972, 352). The human sciences’ function is to situate the knowledge gained from the three dimensions of science in their historical context or epistemological environments. This is done through focus on examining the way in which individuals or groups represent themselves or represent things to themselves. Human sciences provided an analysis of man’s positivity through considering the empirical information of what he produces to what enables this individual to know and act. These develop in the exteriority of knowledge and Foucault is extremely analytic about how man can be concerned with things he knows and how man can know what determines his being. Foucault therefore establishes that the position of human sciences is to focus on how humans represent themselves and where this representation is duplicated in life, labour and language of individuals as well as societies.

Here we can clearly see Foucault’s new critical approach to history being developed as a framework for the human and social sciences, where the epistemologies and forces behind the subject and object of science being foregrounded over the historical events and knowledge of the time. Foucault continues to elaborate on the human sciences as themselves being divided into three epistemological regions but that there are unresolved fundamental tensions that remain in terms of how to develop proper forms of positivity and their relation to representations of humans as both subjects and objects of research (Foucault 1972, 258). The human sciences for Foucault are seen to hold the function of interlocking and interpreting between the realms of biology as a psychological region of functions and norms, economics as a sociological region of conflict and rule and of philology as a region of law and language consisting of significations and systems. The nature of analysis in the human sciences is always applied to one of these domains when research into man as an object of science is considered. The insights and contexts of the human sciences however, are validated by the boundaries placed on them by their historical context. This becomes a vital point of recognition for Foucault, in which his analysis of the emergence of the human sciences as a new epistemology that engages with the tensions of man as both the subject and object of the traditional, empirical sciences, needs to be understood through a critical history of the present (Foucault 1972, 365). This emergence of the human sciences is not placed in a trajectory of historical progress for Foucault, but is rather a result of modernity’s rejection of a unified historical model and instead offers science as a discipline based in a history of man; specifically, one in which history itself is human centred.  This means that the arrangement of history within the epistemological spaces is of central importance to the emergence of the human sciences. In this paper, Foucault offers a global analysis of what knowledge meant and how this meaning changed with a central focus on representation. By treating the representation of the human sciences in relation to philosophical thought, Foucault makes the philosophical archaeology of thought the essential method for understanding and interpreting a historical event. In employing this method, Foucault supports historiography of thought to operate at an unconscious level rather than on consciousness of individual subjects. He replaces subject as a foundation of knowledge seen in phenomenology and in traditional historiography and instead provides an analysis to show that a given system of thought – or epistemological environment – is a result of a specific historical time and context and not continuums or trends in an established historical map.

Throughout The Order of Things, we see Foucault examining shifts in the structures of experience and legitimated knowledge. By showing shifts in science in the eighteenth century where representation of man is seen as a field outside of man’s existence making man both the subject and object of knowledge, Foucault shows his concern with the historical contingency of this development. He also demonstrates that the current social status of science and empirically based knowledge occurred as a product of the situation in which empirical inquiries were assumed as a natural order of things. However, in addressing this, Foucault shows that man is not necessary for the process of knowledge due to how recently man acquired his place at the centre of history, knowledge and inquiry (Roth 1981, 35). Through his description of transformations in the structures of experience, Foucault’s task is not to show layers of events, but rather to develop a history that contributes to the shifts it is claiming is beginning to occur. This undoes the traditional systems of history by rejecting a history that is written through use of ideas from the present or a history that shows the subject of the inquiry being made is utilizing concepts from much earlier time periods (Roth 1981, 36). Foucault’s archaeology here is attempting to give accounts of various systems of thought that are directly situated in certain points of time and do not operate from modes of thought that are drawn from a priori assumptions before developing a history.

Whilst it is unclear whether Foucault conceives this project as a replacement model for history or as his method as one that should coexist with the traditional forms of history, the central claim from The Order of Things is that the work of historians has misplaced focus by centralising the importance of the epiphenomenal events rather than investigation the structures of experiences that the objects of history, the human individuals, are undergoing (Roth 1981, 37). In a way that parallels Kant’s success in placing knowledge and thought in the realm of the subject by withdrawing it from representations of empirically validated spaces, Foucault withdraws the legitimation of knowledge and thought from the position of the human as both the subject and object of history (Roth 1981, 38). Furthermore, – like the work of Kant, Horkheimer, Adorno and Marx – the role of this work is to be critical rather than narratively explanatory. The history provided in The Order of Things is not a timeline but rather a contribution that attempts to free thought from being merely historically situated by outlining how structures of human experience and the placement of humans in an identifiable epistemological structure in time is a consequence of the modern period and not eternal elements stemming from the progress of the sciences (Roth 1981, 39). In the critique on the present modes of history and the reduction of the potential of transformation that they inherently hold, Foucault concentrates on the consciousness and intentionality beneath the surface of the current historical discourse and in doing so, avoids the tensions it usually produces. He can subsequently limit historical investigations to segments of the modern episteme whilst engaging with how history influences the power struggle in competing forms of knowledge and practice.

It seems that, broadly speaking, Foucault’s conceptual ground is the rejection of philosophies that seek universals, unchanging essences and foundations that may ground and organise thoughts and practices. In doing so, his central historical turn is in opposition to the traditional forms of metaphysical thinking in favour of his own method of philosophical reflection that undertakes traditional philosophical tasks in a more critical way. Foucault’s conception of philosophy entails a historical reflection engaging with self-reflection rather than utilizing philosophy as a transcendental reflection on the conditions of possible knowledge and action as well as denying the understandings of historical reflection as an empirical discovery of the past (Falzon 2013, 297). Historical analysis represents a framework in which a subject is a historical being who is constructed by history whilst also having the ability to create history themselves (Falzon 2013, 298). This insistence on a framework that does not rely on fixed orders or categories that are necessary or universal allows historical reflection to claim every human arrangement as finite; emerging in a particular time and eventually transforming and passing (Falzon 2013, 283). This makes it possible for history to be comprehended as developing and allows for notions of transformation and change rather than being constrained to a pre-determined historical patterning that objects are bound to, making a Foucaultian view of history one in which the focus is one the emergence and transformation of forms that humans are both the subject and object of. Philosophical reflection on categories such as knowledge, action or the self is maintained but are not sought to be understood through general essences or universal forms but rather on how particular forms of these categories emerge in particular historical contexts (Falzon 2013, 283). This allows Foucault to motivate not only a critical history that dismisses metaphysics external to history but also evades philosophical conceptions of history that rely on metaphysical essences. By removing these reductions of history to a metaphysical standpoint it becomes possible to include things that were usually deemed to be outside or history or were presupposed for interpreting history (Falzon 2013, 285). Foucault is questioning the traditional systems of finding universals through historical reflection and reframing histories as critical insights into cultural realities bound to a context but also able to change and transform.
The idea behind this new critical approach is to combine recognition that the historical context of a subject both imposes a specific interpretation of history whilst challenging any interpretation of history as contextually bound rather than universal. By rejecting continuous history and suspending categories and principles of unity that claim to represent a universal essence, Foucault foregrounds historical account of the interpretative frameworks that inform a subjects thinking (Falzon 2013, 290). By utilizing critical histories as a diagnostic tool for the present, forms of organization are able to be conceived as historically emergent and susceptible to transformation. Foucault thus offers a view of history that is seated outside of philosophy, idealism, empiricism and science in favour of a history that has principles that deem interpretations of history as historically emergent themselves (Falzon 2013, 292). History therefore emerges out of time bound encounters and negotiations, making concerns for the present founded in interrogations of the present as well as the past. Coherence of social practices are now understood in terms of their own organization and historical analysis serves to identify the interplay of power practices and forms of discourse which establish the order that is being identified. This shifting notion of history also holds a shift in the traditional understanding of the subject. Where the subject was previously considered objective and able to access and identify universals or essences, the subject is now understood as bound to a historical context in which it is formed rather than either resisting or cohering with an order or principle of history or humans (Falzon 2013, 295). Foucault subsequently developed a model of history that differs to traditional views of history in three dimensions through which human beings are considered the subjects of discursive practice, power practices and practices of the self. The aim of historical analysis is now to identify these practices and their role in the creation and self-identification of humans and culture as historical subjects that transform over time; a form of a historical ontology of the self in which the final shift in focus toward self allows Foucault to bring his new method into direct opposition to the traditional, foundational conception of history.

Whilst there are various new shifts in Foucault’s work that directly oppose traditional models and understandings of history and associated structures of power and knowledge, there are certain aspects of Foucault’s philosophy that remain mirrors of the traditional structures he seeks to undo. For a start, the central adoption of Hegel’s premise that concepts cannot be understood independent of their historical context means that Foucault’s philosophically informed accounts of epistemological histories remain a Hegelian account of historical progress, or even a neo-Kantian conception of practical reason (Allen 2016, 165-70). A second critique that must be made of Foucault is that he holds various anti-foundationalist assumptions but his method undeniably entails some sense of homogeneity, systemacity and generality (Cooke 1994, 48). His new method of utilizing history as a critical tool attempts to move beyond foundations, a traditional view of history and idealism of past or future notions of progress. However, there are questions around whether such a stance is possible or even desirable. It does not address the position of Foucault himself and whether he is working from a position of historical a priori or in a knowledge regime assumed to be outside of history. This uncertainty undermines his critical reflections on history as well as the attempts to place limits on his own culture. Through this, Foucault seems to fall victim to implicitly appealing to a unity of reason that transcends forms of rationality situated in specific historical points and also leaves an unaddressed anxiety toward relativism in his critique. This philosophical chasm leaves only two options to Foucault: to either accept a determined history of reason which disallows him to write histories of origin that he attempts or to write the histories he desires through claim to access a position outside of history which would need to be, in some form, either suprahistorical or metaphysical (Allen 2016, 183). If determining his work as either one of these positions goes against the intentions of his new method of critical histories, then is becomes simultaneously impossible to identify either a domain or methods required to carry out research inquiries into history and the present. This leaves Foucault in a position where he is working from a seemingly undisciplined theoretical effort that cannot account its claims, position or productivity (Takács 2004, 871). This philosophical “failure” however, is only a failure according to the positions that Foucault himself identifies and rejects. His works do not propose alternatives because the focus of his work is to dismiss questions of metaphysics and expose the limits of our current methods and conceptions of history (Roth 1981, 45). By straddling various positions that he does not clarify, Foucault gives himself the rooms to critically analyse what has occurred and appeared in current discourse but does not allow him to offer alternatives as they would be unfounded objective claims to idealisms.

Despite this, the question of whether the critical element to Foucault’s work holds any direct relations to his historical project as they seem useful but not necessary for the reconstruction of archaeologies and genealogies of history that he provides. What we find in Foucault’s work them is a certain case of history in each project – such as that of madness, punishment, medicine or the human sciences – but each history is written in service of a certain philosophy of either knowledge, power or subjectivity. Value in the work of Foucault can be found in his radical challenge to traditional histories and assumptions of modernity but he can be equally criticised for not engaging in alternatives beyond the implicit new methodologies that arise in his work which hold certain universals and foundations of their own. In any event, Foucault manages to disrupt traditional views of history that entail broader negotiations around philosophical conceptions of the subjects and objects of the human sciences. Whilst some internal tensions remain in his work, Foucault provides one of the best frameworks for the conduct of contemporary social sciences in the current era. However, his work simultaneously shows how little philosophical progress has been made in the last 100 years.





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