The Archaeology of Knowledge

The Archaeology of Knowledge

Cover of the French edition
Author Michel Foucault
Original title L'archéologie du savoir
Country France
Language French
Subject Philosophy
Publisher Éditions Gallimard
Publication date
Media type Paperback
Pages 275
ISBN 2-07-026999-X
OCLC 435143715

The Archaeology of Knowledge (French: L'archéologie du savoir) is a 1969 methodological and historiographical treatise by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which he promotes "archaeology" or the "archaeological method", an analytical method he implicitly used in his previous works Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), and The Order of Things (1966).[1] It is Foucault's only explicitly methodological work.

Foucault's premise is that systems of thought and knowledge ("epistemes" or "discursive formations") are governed by rules (beyond those of grammar and logic) which operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought and language use in a given domain and period.[1] Foucault also provides a philosophical treatment and critique of phenomenological and dogmatic structural readings of history and philosophy, portraying continuous narratives as naïve ways of projecting our own consciousness onto the past, thus being exclusive and excluding.


Foucault argues that the contemporary study of the history of ideas, although it targets moments of transition between historical worldviews, ultimately depends on continuities that break down under close inspection. The history of ideas marks points of discontinuity between broadly defined modes of knowledge, but the assumption that those modes exist as wholes fails to do justice to the complexities of discourse. Foucault argues that "discourses" emerge and transform not according to a developing series of unarticulated, common worldviews, but according to a vast and complex set of discursive and institutional relationships, which are defined as much by breaks and ruptures as by unified themes.[2]

Foucault defines a "discourse" as a 'way of speaking'.[3] Thus, his method studies only the set of 'things said' in their emergences and transformations, without any speculation about the overall, collective meaning of those statements, and carries his insistence on discourse-in-itself down to the most basic unit of things said: the statement (énoncé). During most of Archaeology, Foucault argues for and against various notions of what are inherent aspects of a statement, without arriving at a comprehensive definition.[2] He does, however, argue that a statement is the rules which render an expression (that is, a phrase, a proposition, or a speech act) discursively meaningful. This concept of meaning differs from the concept of signification:[4] Though an expression is signifying, for instance "The gold mountain is in California", it may nevertheless be discursively meaningless and therefore have no existence within a certain discourse.[5] For this reason, the "statement" is an existence function for discursive meaning.[6]

Being rules, the "statement" has a special meaning in the Archaeology: it is not the expression itself, but the rules which make an expression discursively meaningful. These rules are not the syntax and semantics[7] that makes an expression signifying. It is additional rules. In contrast to structuralists, Foucault demonstrates that the semantic and syntactic structures do not suffice to determine the discursive meaning of an expression.[8] Depending on whether or not it complies with these rules of discursive meaning, a grammatically correct phrase may lack discursive meaning or, inversely, a grammatically incorrect sentence may be discursively meaningful - even meaningless letters (e.g. "QWERTY") may have discursive meaning.[9] Thus, the meaning of expressions depends on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse; the discursive meaning of an expression is reliant on the succession of statements that precede and follow it.[10] In short, the "statements" Foucault analysed are not propositions, phrases, or speech acts. Rather, "statements" constitute a network of rules establishing which expressions are discursively meaningful, and these rules are the preconditions for signifying propositions, utterances, or speech acts to have discursive meaning. However, "statements" are also 'events', because, like other rules, they appear (or disappear) at some time.

Foucault's analysis then turns towards the organized dispersion of statements, which he calls discursive formations. Foucault reiterates that the analysis he is outlining is only one possible procedure, and that he is not seeking to displace other ways of analysing discourse or render them as invalid.[11]

Foucault concludes Archaeology with responses to criticisms from a hypothetical critic (which he anticipates will occur after his book is read).


Philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes The Archaeology of Knowledge as, "the most decisive step yet taken in the theory-practice of multiplicities."[12]

See also


  1. 1 2
  2. 1 2
  4. French version p. 117
  5. French version p. 12
  6. French version p. 115
  7. the construction rules, Dits et Écrits I, p. 728
  8. French version: p. 108, 113–14, 118–19, 134
  9. French version p. 114
  10. Gutting, Gary (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 231. ISBN 0-521-40887-3.
  11. Sérgio Campos Gonçalves, “O método arqueológico de análise discursiva: o percurso metodológico de Michel Foucault”, História e-História, - NEE-UNICAMP (Campinas), v. 1, p. 1-21, Feb 2009, ISSN 1807-1783.
  12. Deleuze, Foucault (1986, p.14).


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