Foucault – Position – Epistemic Limits

Whether coursing through archival data or meditating on turns of language, Foucault’s early works — the History of Madness, the Birth of the Clinic, the Order of Things, and the Archaeology of Knowledge — each address ways of knowing how and what we think. Based on the approach in those works, we can refocus their efforts onto a tertiary question. While lacking the familiar modulus of power, this approach can still maintain a close attention to the thought of thought as such. It helps elucidate how we conceive of the conditions to this reflexive thought, and thereby to sketch contemporary epistemic limitations. The motivating impulse here, then, is: What exists outside our conditions of possibility of thought, and how can we know it?

Each work in this early cluster examines how we express the knowledge of thought, though they do so in distinct ways. In the History of Madness, the central operative concept is difference — such as the differences that mark reason apart from or within madness. In the Birth of the Clinic, relation — as between institutions and selves — dominates analysis. In the Order of Things, thought moves through sameness — especially between the points and fields of categorization that organize our ideas. And the Archaeology of Knowledge foregrounds the method for articulating these thoughts — in particular, its historical and philosophical components. ¬†Throughout the four, archaeology works to reveal episteme, in historical situations. However, it leaves unexplained the contemporary episteme from (or in or at or with or against) which such work takes place.

A binding trait of archaeological understandings of thought remains the attention to the positive evidence of thought. Thought as such, in this conception, constitutes activity that affects the world around it. It therefore consists of a certain, knowable materiality. This is evidenced by the traces that thought, in its various incarnations, manifestations, or expressions, leaves behind on its media. The heterogeneity and massive scope of archaeology’s archive testifies to the variety of forms, structures, and processes that such traces can take. Discourse, broadly including various activities of language, helps organize this archive into identifiable fields of thought. Alongside and behind such organization, another statement, often unexpressed or marked through silence, absence, or excess, formulates the conditions and the limits of its own instatement.

We can further delineate four ways to know thought through archaeology. In one case, we have some certain, expressible, explicit knowledge, evinced by positive material traces, such as ideas spoken or written or shown, articulated in language: we know that we know these things because we can manipulate their material trace, and in so doing manipulate the thought itself. Second, we know some thoughts as uncertain or potential. We can know that questions just asked have answers, for example, without knowing the answer itself; or that problems can be solved though we do not know the solution; or that we can feel the effects of trends and patterns in behavior that have not yet emerged with names. For these¬†thoughts, we may not know their material form, but we know that they exist. Third, we can know that knowledge has been lost. Forgotten things leave anti-traces in our memories’ media — we know that they exist with certainty because present conditions rely on their having been known, but some other force blocks their manifestation in the same media in which they are forgotten. And fourth, we know some thoughts through our thoughts of them — they are ideas, Platonic perhaps, traced perhaps not in language or signification but in speculation or imagination. The latter’s archaeological evidence must necessarily be indirect — either at the level of intrasubjective motivations for behavior, or behind the episteme as its own pseudo-transcendent conditions of emergence. Though ideas are known through thought through archaeology, they do not act as causal forces. They do, however, entail mental activity, itself a mode of inscription. These categories support further questioning on the topic of thought as thought, when historical conditions are our own.

This leads to several paradoxes.

First, we can only know our own limits to thought by their conditions, which are also the conditions of our thought. To ask, impossibly, what lies behind thought, is to imagine its conditions, based on what is knowable within them, not by themselves or by what’s beyond them. In short, since we cannot think what we cannot think, but the differentiation between thinkable and unthinkable circumscribes the limits of our thought, we can only name those limits from an historically or critically distanced vantage. However, such distance changes precisely the conditions of thought under examination. Further, to mark temporal or ideological boundaries requires arbitration — a judgement, or more properly, a guess, before undertaking the thought of those boundaries’ consequences.

Second, archaeology, concerned though it may be with consequences, often chokes when asked to determine direct causality. Between structures and processes (i.e. conditions of thought and thought as activity), hosts of nuanced complications continually irrupt. Rather than apologize for these constraints on its ability to summarize an argument about discourse in history, archaeology impels itself to include more and more detail, to spread its analysis laterally through historical strata. In the process, the conditions under question here stand continually in danger of becoming irrelevant to archaeology’s questions and conclusions. Throughout his early works, Foucault demurred from any focus on speculation, concentrating instead on the positive elements of knowledge. To think the conditions of his thoguht, then — or the limits of our thought in so far as it shares or breaks those conditions — risks falling into banality, or (worse) irresponsible, disingenuous contextualization. The delicate balance between a taxonomy of possibilities for thought and a willing openness to entertain radically dfferent phenomena in that field, then, gives this line of inquiry the unenviable goal of finding political and social relevance through transhistorical (if not ahistorical) criteria.

Third, the limits of the conditions of possibility of our thought are made by our practices of thought and the constraints on the thought of thought. Spatially-metaphorically speaking, we push out to bounding limits on our thought by the activity of thought, and in particular by expanding the scope and tenor and depth of that activity when we ask it to include more, and more complex, processes. Meanwhile, the force that keeps those limits taut pulls in not on thought as such, but specifically on the metacognitive, reflective operations. This is why we can think outlandish things, but not thoughts that have not or cannot be thought. And this is why our thought-behaviors can include learning and teaching. The same practices of thought that stretch and shrink our limit-conditions incrementally also subject themselves to reflexive limitation.

These paradoxical foundations keep us at a cognitive remove from our tertiary impulse (what lies beyond our ability to think, and how do we know that?). It slips away from archaeology because to trace this thought, of the impossibility of thought without reduction to form, process or concept , requires an inscription that is not language (or, even more generally, mediation). Some other materiality must enter our investigation. For a reading of Foucault’s corpus, this helps explain the shift from archaeology in his early work to genealogy a bit later on, and the entrance into significance of power, to supplement historical change. For our adoption of his approaches in the construction of a robust contemporary methodology for thought and research, it also helps us account for data and information that escape syntax, grammar, represenation, and the other trappings of discourse in its narrow understandings.

2 thoughts on “Foucault – Position – Epistemic Limits

  1. “thoughts leav[ing] behind on their media”? I wonder whether F postulates so unstructuralist a gap between thought and materiality. It would be hard to imagine the historical a priori as a concept if one did not also consider discourse as such–not as the trace of an act of thinking otherwise unrecuperable, but as all there is, What is then to be recuperated is (as it were) the lay of the land, the contours against which discourse is laid.

    Some of what you’re articulating in the penultimate para, about thinking what isn’t thought, seem a bit like disappearing down the rabbit-hole. Or maybe a little metaphysical. But I do think the emphasis on positivity is appropriate.

    • Well honed in on. But to clarify (or obscure), I’m not suggesting that MF draws any lines between thought and materiality. Rather, I’m suggesting that the argument risks that rabbit-hole that it critiques, when it has to shift a level of abstraction, from the materiality of thought to the materiality of discourse. It’s working hard to focus only on positive elements, but in that attempt to recover topology as a kind of negative mold to its stated object, it has to turn ever-less-direct evidence of discourse, e.g. language, mediated traces, metaphor… So the challenge for archaeology (beyond staking its claims in distinction from other intellectual pursuits) seems to appear not necessarily the moments of recognition or encounter with sameness, difference, or relations, but at the moment of the articulation of those moments — the moment of argumentation.

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