Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (L'Archéologie du Savoir, 1969) presents an approach to the exploration of language and description of culture which differs from structuralist methods of inquiry. Instead of trying to integrate concepts of unity into a structural description of the history of ideas, Foucault explains that discontinuity is characteristic of every discursive statement.

Instead of trying to construct chains of inference in order to unify the history of ideas, as is done in the history of science and philosophy, and instead of trying to formulate tables of differences, as is done in linguistics, Foucault explains that systems of dispersion are the underlying reality of all discursive statements.1

Foucault explains that the unity of any discourse is actually a dispersion of elements which involves discontinuity. Thus, the task of any discursive analysis is to discover the rules according to which this disunity of objects, forms, concepts, and theoretical options is present.

The Archaeology of Knowledge consists of five parts: 1) “Introduction,” 2) “The Discursive Regularities,” 3) “The Statement and the Archive,” 4) “Archaeological Description,” and 5) “Conclusion.”

Foucault says that in order to properly describe the relations between various discursive statements we must not ignore any kind of discontinuity. We must not ignore any discursive break, threshold, or limit. Discursive statements cannot be properly analyzed if we have preexisting assumptions of continuity. The conditions for the unity of discursive statements (such as similarity of objects, modes of expression, concepts, or themes) may also be conditions for disunity. Discursive formations, according to Foucault, are groups of statements which may have any order, correlation, position, or function as determined by this disunity. A discursive formation is thus a system of dispersion.

External conditions are necessary for the appearance of any objects, forms, concepts, or themes of discourse. External conditions thus govern the 'rules of formation' of discourse. The 'rules of formation' are the objects, forms, concepts, and themes of discourse. The 'rules of formation' are also the ‘discursive regularities,’ and are conditions of existence for any discursive formation.2

A 'discourse' is defined by Foucault as any group of statements which belongs to a single system of formation. Discursive relations (i.e. relations between discursive statements) are not internal to a discursive formation. Instead, they explain its limits.

Foucault says that the concepts which are represented by discursive statements may be organized according to forms of succession, forms of coexistence, and procedures of intervention. Forms of succession include: the order of inferences, implications, and arguments in a discursive formation; the order of descriptions, generalizations, and deductions in a discursive formation; the order of definitions, hypotheses, and verifications; the order of statements which reflect a sequence in time; and all of the other structural characteristics of a discourse. Forms of coexistence include the field of presence of all of the statements in a discursive formation; the field of concomitance (i.e. the field of all valid statements which are not directly related to the statements in the discursive formation); and the field of memory (i.e. the field of statements which have lost their validity). Procedures of intervention for conceptual formation include techniques of rewriting, methods of transcribing, methods of translating, methods of approximating, modes of delimiting, modes of transferring, and methods of systematizing statements.

The relations between the forms of succession, forms of coexistence, and procedures of intervention of a mode of discourse may establish a system of conceptual formation. For example, the ordering of descriptions may be linked to the techniques of rewriting, and the order of implications may be related to the modes of approximation. According to Foucault, this method of analyzing the conceptual organization of a discourse may also enable us to describe how statements may be related by serial linking, by simultaneous grouping, or by reciprocal modification, and may enable us to discover how statements may reappear, may dissociate, may be extended, or may be reassembled into new logical structures.

The themes of a discourse are referred to by Foucault as its strategic 'choices' or 'options.' The themes of a discourse may be brought into being by the deployment of one or more 'strategic options' on the part of the discoursing subject. However, the discontinuity of a discourse may be revealed by its points of diffraction. These points of diffraction may include points of incompatibility (between different objects, modes of expression, concepts, themes), points of equivalence (between incompatible elements), and link points of systematization (by which incompatible objects, modes of expression, concepts, or themes may be linked to each other).

The relations between discursive formations may include analogy, opposition, or complementarity. Discursive formations may also determine each other's limits or boundaries.

According to Foucault, a 'discourse' is a group of statements which is different from other groups of statements. A 'statement' is a linguistic unit which is different from a sentence, proposition, or act of speech.3 A statement is any series of signs which may appear in an enunciative field. Language may be regarded as a system for constructing possible statements.

The context of a statement may include the background of formulations in which the statement appears. The context of a statement may also include all of the situational and linguistic elements which are related to the statement and which determine its meaning. The enunciative field of a statement may include the formulations within which the statement appears or forms an element. The enunciative field may also include all of the formulations to which a statement refers. The enunciative field may also include all of the formulations which are subsequently made possible by the statement.4

Every statement has an enunciative function which is independent of any subject who is making the statement. A statement is not merely a projection of signs onto a plane of language or an act of manipulating a set of linguistic elements.5 A statement must have an associated enunciative field. The rules of formation for a discursive statement are also domains in which the statement operates as an enunciative function.

Foucault explains that a statement may not necessarily have the grammatical structure of a sentence or the logical structure of a proposition, but that it must have a referent (something to which it refers), a subject (or producer), an associated field (or domain of coexistence for other statements), and a materiality (or means through which it can be expressed).

While a sentence may belong to a text and a proposition may belong to a logical argument, a statement may belong to a discursive formation. Thus, the analysis of a discursive statement does not belong to the same level of description as the analysis of a sentence or of a logical proposition. The enunciative level of a statement is different from the grammatical level of a sentence and from the logical level of a proposition.

A discourse, as described by Foucault, is a group of statements for which conditions of existence are definable. A discourse is also a historical event or an archive of historical statements. An archive is a system which governs the appearance of statements as historical events. The archive of a society, culture, or civilization is a system of formation or transformation of statements and is characterized by discontinuity in that it tells us what we can no longer say. Thus, the description of any discursive formation is an archaeology.

The archaeological description of a discursive formation is not necessarily an attempt to interpret its meaning but is concerned with discovering the rules which define its specificity. Archaeological description does not attempt to describe the process by which an individual formulates an idea and does not attempt to explain the motives or intentions of a discoursing subject. Archaeological description is concerned with the rules and principles which may be specific to discursive formations and which may be specific to discourse itself. According to Foucault, the enunciative modalities of discourse manifest the dispersion, instead of the unifying function, of the speaking subject. Thus, archaeological description has a diversifying, instead of a unifying, effect on our understanding of discursive statements.

The Archaeology of Knowledge is a complex and challenging work in the philosophy of language. Foucault explains that in trying to understand the formation and development of discourse we must abandon our preexisting notions of unity if we want to discover the rules which govern effective statements in their dispersion as discursive events. He also shows that an important task for philosophy is the development of a workable philosophy of language.


1Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 37.
2Ibid., p. 38.
3Ibid., p. 86.
4Ibid., p. 97-8.
5Ibid., p. 99.


Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Copyright© Alex Scott 2001

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