Foucault Terminology

Archaeology v Genealogy

Archaeologists try to explain what was going on in one selected historical time; they look at objects from a particular time period: the pottery, building materials, books, instruments, and artwork of a particular stratum. Archaeologists try to make sense of how all of those various artifacts fit together. Foucault’s archaeological approach to history is similar. He examined several different things that occurred at the same time. For example, he studied artifacts of eighteenth-century European linguistics, economics, and science. Then he tried to figure out how those artifacts made sense together.  When he conducted archaeological studies, Foucault was particularly interested in knowledge, and he used the term episteme to refer to the knowledge system of a particular time. The episteme is the pattern that can be seen across various disciplines like economics, linguistics, and science. An episteme forms the basis for distinguishing true knowledge from false knowledge:  In sum, archaeology is the study of a cross-section of artifacts in a particular time. It is unlike mainstream history because it analyzes a variety of artifacts in one time period rather than tracing the development of one thing over a period of years.

Although our readings make a sharp distinction between archaeology and genealogy, genealogies are based on archaeologies. While archaeology works to understand how artifacts fit together in a historical moment, genealogy works to figure out what kind of people would fit into that set of artifacts. Foucault’s genealogies are generally based on archaeological-type studies. That is, he examined a cross-section of artifacts (archaeology), and then asked questions like:

  1. What kind of people would live in such a way?
  2. Given those artifacts and epistemes, how did people think of themselves in the world?

There are three major features that distinguish Foucault’s historical work from mainstream approaches to history. First, Foucault’s historical work challenges both continuist and discontinuist historical accounts. Continuous histories emphasize how much things stay the same, and discontinuous histories emphasize how much things change.

In cases when mainstream histories assume continuity, Foucault’s history was likely to emphasize differences, and when mainstream histories assume discontinuity, Foucault’s history was likely to show similarities.  For example, mainstream histories usually portray modernity as a continuation of the Enlightenment. These mainstream histories emphasize the continuous developments in reason, science, and democracy around the world. In his critical spirit, Foucault’s history challenged that continuity. He emphasized how modern institutionalization and industrialization constituted a break from earlier Enlightenment debates between rationalism and empiricism.

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