Attempting to bring order into the chaos of psychiatric diagnosis in the nineteenth century, Henry Maudsley took as his aim “to clear the ground by endeavoring to think the subject into simplicity and to set forth the results in as plain language as possible.” To assume that this would be the aim of any writer would be to forget how foreign it is to some of the intellectual traditions of the continent. To Foucault, obviously, it would be flouting all the rules of the game, rather like arguing that because the matador intends to kill the bull in the end he should take a big-game rifle and use it at the earliest opportunity. Having worked hard for his erudition, his insights, his subtle deviations from more ordinary ways of thinking, Foucault sees no reason why his reader should reap the results without sharing the toil.
Besides, a reader attuned to this tradition would himself not appreciate straightforward ideas in plain language; he wants the balletic ritual, the feints, the promises and postponements of the intellectual bullfighter. He would be disappointed at missing what Maudsley shunned: “the use of the many learned names—of Greek, Latin and Graeco-Latin derivation—which have been invented in appalling numbers often to denote simple things and sometimes, it may be feared, with the effect of confounding apprehension of them.” He may perhaps get more of this than he wants. Bafflement may lead him to wonder whether in the end the bull has been slain, even whether there was a bull.
I think there was, but Foucault offers the honest inquirer the minimum of help. “In France,” he says, in a Foreword to the English translation, “certain half-witted ‘commentators’ persist in labelling me a ‘structuralist.’ I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structural analysis.” Since Jean Piaget in his Structuralism (Basic Books, 1970) spends some time dealing with Foucault as an unsatisfactory structuralist, those of us with minds no less tiny than Piaget’s have had fair warning that there are possibilities of misunderstanding. Foucault has the dreadful gift—which T. S. Eliot noted in Swinburne’s poetry—of diffusing his meaning very thinly throughout an immense verbal spate, no part of which is quite empty of meaning, redundant, or merely repetitive. But behind all the abstract jargon and intimidating erudition there is undoubtedly an alert and sensitive mind which can ignore the familiar surfaces of established intellectual codes and ask new questions.
Foucault believes that our own current intellectual life and systems of scientific thought are built on assumptions profoundly taken for granted and normally not exposed to conscious inspection, and yet likely in time, perhaps quite soon, to be discarded. To support this view he goes back to earlier periods of Western thought, starting with the sixteenth century, and discusses the similar unexamined assumptions that formed the substratum of their knowledge. He gives a full and fascinating account of what most people know in a sketchy way about the Renaissance doctrine of “signatures” and the world view it implied, arguing that for sixteenth-century thinkers the natural world described itself by a sort of sign language—that, for instance, there exists a “sympathy” between the plant called aconite, which was used to cure eye disease, and our eyes:
This unexpected affinity would remain in obscurity if there were not some signature on the plant, some mark, some word, as it were, telling us that it is good for diseases of the eye. This sign is easily legible in its seeds; they are tiny dark globes set in white skinlike coverings whose appearance is much like that of eyelids covering an eye.
Similarly the value of the walnut for internal head ailments is indicated by its resemblance to the brain, while the green rind covering the shell cures “wounds of the pericranium.” To these thinkers it seemed possible that before Babel “there had already existed a form of writing composed of the marks of nature itself,” and learned knowledge therefore consisted
…in relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great, unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak.
But a change came about in men’s underlying preconceptions about the relation between words and things. Instead of asking how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate something,
…from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified. A question to which the Classical period [the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] was to reply by the analysis of representation; and to which modern thought was to reply by the analysis of meaning and signification…. The profound kinship of language with the world was thus dissolved…. Things and words were to be separated from one another.
However, Foucault suggests that modern literature, from the nineteenth century, has tried to get back something of the quality that the sixteenth century found in words. He brings together, in this respect, the poet now and the madman viewed (previous to nineteenth-century psychiatry) “as an established and maintained deviant”:
In the cultural perception of the madman that prevailed up to the end of the eighteenth century, he is Different only in so far as he is unaware of Difference; he sees nothing but resemblances every-where; for him all signs resemble one another, and all resemblances have the value of signs. At the other end of the cultural area…the poet is he who, beneath the named, constantly expected differences, rediscovers the buried kinship between things, their scattered resemblances. Beneath the established signs, and in spite of them, he hears another, deeper discourse, which recalls the time when words glittered in the universal resemblance of things; in the language of the poet, the Sovereignty of the Same, so difficult to express, eclipses the distinction existing between signs.
This is the romantic rhetoric of the intellect, but is it saying anything that can be seriously examined? Perhaps there is a sense in which the overinclusive thinking of the schizophrenic has a similarity to some practices of poetry (and not merely recent poetry), but it seems doubtful that the two things are connected with a pre-Renaissance conception of words as being an extension of the language in which natural objects announced by resemblances their hidden properties. At points like this Foucault offers very little close examination of his ideas, little that can be tested through the analysis of particular examples; erudite elaboration and fluent verbal embroidery of what remains imprecise are his preferred methods.
With the seventeenth century comes one of the dramatic mutations that Foucault sees as establishing a new stratum in the archeology of science. He stresses the discontinuity, “the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up till then and begins to think other things in a new way.” And so, with thinkers like Descartes, came Classical thought
…excluding resemblance as the fundamental experience and primary form of knowledge, denouncing it as a confused mixture that must be analyzed in terms of identity, difference, measurement, and order.
Measurement and the relating of one thing to another as steps in an ordered series are the new methods of thought:
In the sixteenth century, the fundamental supposition was that of a total system of correspondence (earth and sky, planets and faces, microcosm and macrocosm), and each particular similitude was then lodged within this overall relation. From now on, every resemblance must be subjected to proof by comparison, that is, it will not be accepted until its identity and the series of its differences have been discovered by means of measurement with a common unit, or, more radically, by its position in an order.
All this required a system of arbitrary signs, and it was the sign system implied in Classical thought and language that
…introduced into knowledge probability, analysis, and combination, and the justified arbitrariness of the system. It was the sign system that gave rise simultaneously to the search for origins and to calculability; to the constitution of tables that would fix the possible compositions, and to the restitution of a genesis on the basis of the simplest elements; it was the sign system that linked all knowledge to a language, and sought to replace all languages with a system of artificial symbols and operations of a logical nature.
At the level of the history of opinions, all this would appear, no doubt, as a tangled network of influences in which the individual parts played by Hobbes, Berkeley, Leibniz, Condillac, and the “Idéologues” would be revealed. But if we question Classical thought at the level of what, archeologically, made it possible, we perceive that the dissociation of the sign and resemblance in the early seventeenth century caused these new forms—probability, analysis, combination, and universal language system—to emerge, not as successive themes engendering one another or driving one another out, but as a single network of necessities. And it was this network that made possible the individuals we term Hobbes, Berkeley, Hume, or Condillac.
With the nineteenth century another great change occurred, of comparable importance to that between the sixteenth and seventeenth. Foucault’s “archeological” method leads him only to identify the succession of strata in Western thought, not to explain historically how one was changed into the next. Whether from intellectual salesmanship or a desire to challenge Marxist or Hegelian thinking, or the conviction of genuine insight, he both insists on the sharp contrast between successive strata of thought systems and implies that there is something inexplicable about the cultural mutations that occur. Consequently he dismisses the error of those who write histories of biology in the eighteenth century but
…do not realize that biology did not exist then, and that the pattern of knowledge that has been familiar to us for a hundred and fifty years is not valid for a previous period. And that, if biology was unknown, there was a very simple reason for it: that life itself did not exist. All that existed was living beings, which were viewed through a grid of knowledge constituted by natural history.
“Life itself did not exist”: this is the dramatic device that Foucault uses fairly often—a misstatement, for the sake of sharper impact, of the more ordinary (though still important) observation that no body of scientific knowledge had at that time been organized around the abstract concept of “life.” With the same dramatic heightening he asserts that “we are so blinded by the recent manifestation of man that we can no longer remember a time—and it is not so long ago—when the world, its order, and human beings existed, but man did not.” This, with his related question, “Does man really exist?” provides a good line for startling any intellectual friends who have not yet caught up with Foucault.
He leads up to it through an account, erudite and interesting, of the appearance in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of economics, biology, and philology, arguing that what are commonly thought of as earlier forms of these disciplines were in reality sharply different things. In eighteenth-century natural history, for example, the world was divided into minerals (capable of growth), vegetables (capable of growth and sensation), and animals (capable of spontaneous movement). The point at which “life” was recognized in this scheme depended on the criterion you chose to adopt: if, with Maupertuis (1756), the capacity of elements to be drawn and held together, then any particle of matter has life; if (with Linnaeus) the criteria are more complex and numerous—birth, nutrition, aging, exterior movement, etc.—then “life” begins at a different point, but still only a point in a continuous scheme of classifying the whole of visible nature:
As Linnaeus says, the naturalist—whom he calls Historiens naturalis—“distinguishes the parts of natural bodies with his eyes, describes them appropriately according to their number, form, position, and proportion, and he names them.” The naturalist is the man concerned with the structure of the visible world and its denomination according to characters. Not with life.
Only toward the end of the century, he argues, did the concept of organic structure begin to be used “as a foundation for ordering nature”:
…it subordinates characters to one another; it links them to functions; it arranges them in accordance with an architecture that is internal as well as external, and no less invisible than visible; it distributes them throughout a space that is other than that of names, discourse, and language.
Where the historian of science might hope to trace in detail the conditions and earliest stages of such a development, Foucault, the archeologist of science, refers to it as “this important mutation.” Whether his dismissal of “historicity” is justified, his archeological approach and his talk of mutations do underline the profound and relatively sudden change that the grasp of a new concept may bring about. He gives a dramatic—if not melodramatic—quality to the movement of intellectual culture by identifying these periods of very rapid transformation, not just in what we know but in the unnoticed assumptions that shape our knowledge.
And he heightens the animation by suggesting that we ourselves may now be near the end of a period, approaching a point where future archeologists will detect the first levels of a new stratum. Its prophet appears to be Nietzsche who, says Foucault, rediscovered the point at which the death of God is synonymous with the disappearance of man, “and at which the promise of the superman signifies first and foremost the imminence of the death of man.” This “marks the threshold beyond which contemporary philosophy can begin thinking again.” The void left by the disappearance of man is “the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think.” If this seems not entirely clear Foucault’s own words must enlarge on it:
To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all who wish to take him as their starting point in their attempts to reach the truth, to all those who, on the other hand, refer all knowledge back to the truths of man himself, to all those who refuse to formalize without anthropologizing, who refuse to think without immediately thinking that it is man who is thinking, to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can answer only with a philosophical laugh—which means, to a certain extent, a silent one.
The disappearance of “man,” in Foucault’s sense, appears to leave human beings just as they were, with their problems, distresses, satisfactions, all that makes them interesting, unchanged; they will continue to exist as they existed in the earlier centuries before “man” first appeared:
When natural history becomes biology, when the analysis of wealth becomes economics, when, above all, reflection upon language becomes philology, and Classical discourse, in which being and representation found their common locus, is eclipsed, then, in the profound upheaval of such an archeological mutation, man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows…. In one sense, man is governed by labor, life and language: his concrete existence finds its determinations in them; it is possible to have access to him only through his words, his organism, the objects he makes—as though it is they who possess the truth in the first place (and they alone perhaps); and he, as soon as he thinks, merely unveils himself to his own eyes in the form of a being who is already, in a necessarily subjacent density, in an irreducible anteriority, a living being, an instrument of production, a vehicle for words which exist before him.
In spite of his scornful denials, and in spite of the dubious intelligibility of such passages as the one I have quoted, the fact is that Foucault’s book must be judged as a contribution to the history and philosophy of scientific thought. Its worth, far from self-evident, can be tested only by a gradual clarification of what he suggests and a winnowing that blows away the mere salesmanship and packaging and leaves the solid contribution of insight and factually supported argument. His achievement is strongest when he is able to suggest where Western thought has created its own ordering of the world, not uncovered something already there. If you get excited by the experience of having thoughts, especially wordily inflated thoughts, then the book as it stands will give you all you can ask. But if you want to think in a way that affects more than a self-enclosed game of thought, Foucault gives only tantalizing hints of any changes of outlook, feeling, and action that his cultural analysis might eventually suggest.
August 12, 1971