Notes on Kuhn and Foucault

Martin Irvine
Georgetown University

Two different philosophical traditions:
both concerned with the grounds for knowledge (epistemology)

and how it is formed in communities of practice

  • Kuhn: inheritor of a skeptical positivism and Anglo-American philosophy of science.
    Some major assumptions:
    • Knowledge in scientific communities is a system of professional institutions and consensus-models of knowledge.
    • The state of knowledge represented by a "paradigm" reflects a consensus with institutional buy-in.
    • "Paradigm shifts" require consensual and institutional change and occur when models for knowledge, explanation, and interpretation fail (e.g., the Copernican revolution).
  • Foucault: European and French post-structuralism, post-Freudian, post-Marxian philosophies of knowledge. Some major assumptions:
    • Knowledge is produced, that is, constructed, through disciplines, which are themselves institutionally grounded bodies of discourse that constitute what can become objects of knowledge and who has authority to speak about them.
    • Knowledge is what is representable in sanctioned discourses.
    • It makes no sense to talk about knowledge or the objects of knowledge outside discursive practices, since what can appear as "knowledge" to us is only knowable or made visible through the practices we inhabit, use, know with.
    • The discursive practices also constitute our identities as "knowing subjects" and the subjectivities of being the positions of insiders or outsiders of the knowledge and truth regimes.
    • Modern societies create ways of policing and controlling the disciplines, and creating authority structures for truth and knowledge.

Common issues for Kuhn and Foucault:

  • How models of knowledge are generated in social, historical, and intellectual contexts and take on authority and power in institutions.

Foucault merges the concerns of:

  • epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge)
  • history (how we represent the past)
  • language and semiotics (how the world is mediated and meaning is constructed)
  • and ideology (the bases and social structure of power, the distribution of and perpetuation of power in discourse and symbolic systems)
  • working at the intersections of Marxian, Freudian, structuralist, and European philosophical traditions

Intellectual and social history in Foucault's traditions: main theories

  • History of thought and disciplines as a history of models, prescriptions, and prohibitions: ways of conceiving things, representing in language, using discourse.
  • History of society as histories of control and the circulation of power.
  • History of sexuality: sex as continually (re)constructed in social discourse, not a stable "natural" reality.
    • The problem of sexuality in history and social representation is not repression, but finding and putting sex into discourse, since even repressive regimes presuppose what is repressed by strategies of exclusion.
  • Discourse and power work to create subjectivities--social and multiple identity positions in which people find themselves subject to authority/authorizations and power/control as well as subjects of kinds of discourse or identities in a social sphere.

The Legacy of Kant and Hegel: Foucault as "Post-Kantian"

Foucault considered himself to a be "post-Kantian" philosopher, inquiring into the grounds and preconditions for knowledge, truth, beliefs, institutions, practices, authority and power. Kant began with observing how the mind is not a passive receptor of sense data, but imposes its own form, that is, has a constitutive role in forming our objects of knowledge, a form that cannot be given or observed in things or as a property of things, but as a ground of possibility for anything to become knowledge per se (this argument, of course, in a larger context of long philosophical debates about reason and empirical knowledge).

Foucault was concerned with the constitutive and regulatory role of discourse, "discursive practices" (disciplines, professional institutions, sciences, ideologies) in the social and historical contexts where truth, knowledge, power and authority are used. For Foucault, our discourses form what can appear to us as knowledge and truth. Objects of knowledge and truths aren't just simply "out there" waiting for the right descriptive or representational language: our discourses systematically form the objects of which they speak.

what we can know according to the the way the mind imposes its own form on things noumena (what is presented in thought, what can be known) discursive formations, statements that constitute object of knowledge
"things in themselves" phenomena (what appears to us in the world) the representable world outside discourse, largely unknowable in itself


Foucault: Main Concepts and Arguments

Foucault, The Discourse on Language

  • Main issues: the laws of discourse, rules of inclusion/exclusion, power.
  • A generative model of disciplines (compare Kuhn's paradigm and Chomsky's generative grammar or syntax):
    • " In a discipline… what is supposed at the point of departure… is that which is required for the construction of new statements. For a discipline to exist, there must be the possibility of formulating--and of doing so ad infinitum--fresh propositions."
  • Hits upon the idea of general rules of formation for disciplinary/scientific statements, statements that are rule-governed, learned, collective, and encode power/authority for those using the statements within a disciplinary system.
  • But discourses have their power only as embedded in institutions:
    • "But this will to truth, like others systems of exclusion, relies on institutional support: it is both reinforced and accompanied by whole strata of practices such as pedagogy--naturally--the book-system, publishing, libraries, such as the learned societies in the past, and laboratories today."

Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge

  • Provides a model for looking at the uses and effects of discourse in its social contexts.
  • A model for the history of ideas and theory itself.
  • Discourse and objects: Compare metalanguage and object language
  • Discourse is constitutive of knowledge, not simply the neutral expression or representation of something outside language or representation, not the reference to things that preexist statements about them.
  • Foucault says discourse systematically forms the objects of which it speaks, constitutes objects of knowledge per se. (Examples)
  • Compare two-tiered language structures:
Langue (language rules) competence rules of formation
Parole (speech, expression) performance discourses, statements

Key Arguments and Concepts
From The Archaeology of Knowledge, Chapter 1, "Unities of Discourse"

But the unities that must be suspended above all are those that emerge in the most immediate way: those of the book and the œuvre. At first sight, it would seem that one could not abandon these unities without extreme artificiality. Are they not given in the most definite way? There is the material individualization of the book, which occupies a determined space which has an economic value, and which itself indicates, by a number of signs, the limits of its beginning and its end; and there is the establishment of an oeuvre, which we recognize and delimit by attributing a certain number of texts to an author. And yet as soon as one looks at the matter a little more closely the difficulties begin. The material unity of the book? ... But is this discursive unity itself homogeneous and uniformly applicable? A novel by Stendhal and a novel by Dostoyevsky do not have the same relation of individuality as that between two novels belonging to Balzac's cycle La Comédie humaine; and the relation between Balzac's novels is not the same as that existing between Joyce's Ulysses and the Odyssey.

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. And this network of references is not the same in the case of a mathematical treatise, a textual commentary, a historical account, and an episode in a novel cycle; the unity of the book, even in the sense of a group of relations, cannot be regarded as identical in each case. The book is not simply the object that one holds in one's hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it lows its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse.

From Chapter 3, "The Formation of Objects"

[F]rom the kind of analysis that I have undertaken, words are as deliberately absent as things themselves; any description of a vocabulary is as lacking as any reference to the living plenitude of experience. We shall not return to the state anterior to discourse - in which nothing has yet been said, and in which things are only just beginning to emerge out of the grey light; and we shall not pass beyond discourse in order to rediscover the forms that it has created and left behind it; we shall remain, or try to remain, at the level of discourse itself. Since it is sometimes necessary to dot the 'i's of even the most obvious absences, I will say that in all these searches, in which I have still progressed so little, I would like to show that 'discourses', in the form in which they can be heard or read, are not, as one might expect, a mere intersection of things and words: an obscure web of things, and a manifest, visible, colored chain of words; I would like to show that discourse is not a slender surface of contact, or confrontation, between a reality and a language (langue), the intrication of a lexicon and an experience; I would like to show with precise examples that in analyzing discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace, apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice. These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. 'Words and things' is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of not - of no longer treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. It is this 'more' that we must reveal and describe.

Discourse and Ideology

  • Institutional sites of discourse
    • Institutions regulate, control, authorize discourse, not individuals
    • Discourse tied to sites of power and authority (e.g., classroom)
  • Discourse: who speaks (identity, position) from what institutional base? about what? (discursive system and its objects)
  • Discourse also constitutes "subjects" (individual persons who find their identities, their voices, the social positions as speakers or hearer, writers or readers, of certain kinds of discourse)
  • Discourse tells us who we are, who can speak and who can't
  • Ideology is therefore a function of discourse

Truth and Power

  • Excerpt from an interview in Power/Knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (NY: Pantheon, 1980), Foucault's statement of the social and political operation of the "regime of truth" in disciplines and sciences.

  • "Truth" is a function of disciplinary regimes, institutionally authoritative bodies of discourse (compare Kuhn):
  • At this level it's not so much a matter of knowing what external power imposes itself on science, as of what effects of power circulate among scientific statements, what constitutes, as it were, their internal regime of power, and how and why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification.

  • Echoing Nietzsche and Marx, Foucault sees scientific battles and competition among disciplines for defining knowledge and truth as conflicts of power, not intellectual debate:

    Here I believe one's point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.

  • Modern societies create regimes of truth that are enforced by power structures or the truth-generating apparatuses of society (schools, disciplines, professions, laws):

    The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn't outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn't the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.

    'Truth' is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.

    'Truth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A 'regime' of truth. (133)