The death of man, or exhaustion of the cogito? | GEORGE CANGUILHEM

| quarta-feira, 14 de outubro de 2009
The philosophers who have considered Cervantes's Don Quixote to
be a major philosophical event can be counted on the fingers of one
hand. Indeed, to my knowledge only two have done so: Auguste
Comte and Michel Foucault. If Comte had written a history of
madness - and he could have - he would have made room for Cervantes,
for he referred to Don Quixote more than once in defining madness
as an excess of subjectivity and as a passion for countering the
contradictions of experience by endlessly complicating the interpretations
that experience can have.

The philosophers who have considered Cervantes's Don Quixote to
be a major philosophical event can be counted on the fingers of one
hand. Indeed, to my knowledge only two have done so: Auguste
Comte and Michel Foucault. If Comte had written a history of
madness - and he could have - he would have made room for Cervantes,
for he referred to Don Quixote more than once in defining madness
as an excess of subjectivity and as a passion for countering the
contradictions of experience by endlessly complicating the interpretations
that experience can have. Yet the author of L'Histoire dela folie
turned to Descartes, not Cervantes, for help in presenting the Classical
era's idea of madness.1 Conversely, in Les Mots et les choses,a
Cervantes and Don Quixote are honored with four brilliant pages, and
Descartes is mentioned just two or three times. The single Cartesian
text cited, a short passage from the Regulae, comes up only by virtue
of the manifest subordination of the notion of measure to the notion
of order in the idea of mathesis. And probably also by virtue of the
precocious use of the Regulae in La Logique de Port-Royal, Foucault
elevates that hitherto neglected account of the logic of signs and
grammar to the status of a seventeenth-century masterwork. By this
striking displacement of the sites where they might have been expected
to be invoked as witnesses, Descartes and Cervantes come to
be invested with adjudicative or critical power. Descartes is one of the
artisans who set out the standards that resulted in the relegation of
madness to the asylum space, where nineteenth-century pathologists
found it as an object of knowledge. Cervantes is one of the artisans
who wrenched words from the prose of the world and wove them
together in the warp of signs and the woof of representation.
Les Mots et les choses took a text by Borges as its starting point
(x~)a,n d it looked to Velasquez and Cervantes for the keys to a
reading of the Classical philosophers. The year it appeared, a printed
invitation to the Fourth World Congress of Psychiatry was adorned
with the effigy of Don Quixote, and a Picasso exhibit in Paris recalled
the still contemporary enigma of the message entrusted to Las
Meninas. Let us utilize Henri Brulard's term espagnolisme, then, to
characterize the philosophical cast of Foucault's mind. For Stendhal,
who detested Racine in his youth and trusted no one but Cervantes
and Ariosto, espagnolisme meant hatred for preachiness and platitudes.
To judge by the moralizing reproaches, the outrage, and the
indignation aroused in many quarters by Foucault's work, he seems
to take direct, if not always deliberate, aim at a type of mind that is
as flourishing today as it was during the Bourbon Restoration.
The time seems to have passed when a Kant could write that
nothing must escape criticism. In a century in which laws and religion
have long since ceased to stave off criticism with their majesty
and holiness, respectively, are we going to be forbidden, in the name
of philosophy, to challenge the grounding that certain philosophies
think they find in the essence or the existence of man? Because, in
the concluding pages of Foucault's book, the king's place becomes
the place of a dead - or at least a dying - humanity, humanity as
close to its end as to its beginning, or better yet to its "recent invention,"
because we are told that "man is neither the oldest nor the
most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge"
(386), must we lose all our composure, as some of those we had
counted among the best minds of the day seem to have done? Having
refused to live according to the routines of the academy, must one
behave like an academician embittered by the imminence of his
replacement in the position of mastery? Are we going to witness the
creation of a League of the Rights of Man to Be the Subject and
Object of Philosophy, under the motto "Humanists of All Parties,
Rather than anathematizing what in a cursory amalgamation is
termed "structuralism" or the "structural method," and rather than
interpreting the success of a work as proof of its lack of originality, it
would be more useful to reflect on the following. In 1943, in Servius
et la Fortune,3 Georges Dumkzil wrote that he had come across his
problem "at the intersection of four paths." We know today, after the
reception afforded La Religion romaine archai'que4 in 1967, that by
The death of man 7 3
virtue of their meeting at the Dumezil intersection, these four paths
have become roads. Along these roads the former detractors of the
intersection method, the champions of historical Roman history,
would be very happy to accompany Mr. Dumkzil today, if their age
had left them the time and the strength. Undertakings like those of
Dumkzil, Uvi-Strauss, and Martinet have determined, without premeditation
and by a virtual triangulation, the point where a philosopher
would need to situate himself in order to justlfy these undertakings
and their results - by comparing but not amalgamating them.
Foucault's success can be fairly taken as a reward for the lucidity
that allowed him to perceive this point, to which others were blind.
One fact is striking. Almost all the reviews and commentaries provoked
until now by Les Mots et les choses single out the term "archaeology"
in the subtitle for special - sometimes rather negative -
emphasis, and skirt the signifying bloc constituted by the phrase
"archaeology of the human sciences." Those who proceed in this way
do seem to lose sight of the thesis, in the strict sense of the term, that
the ninth and tenth chapters bring together. So far as this thesis is
concerned, everything is played out around language - more precisely,
around the situation of language today. In the nineteenth century,
the substitution of biology for natural history, or the substitution
of a theory of production for the analysis of wealth, resulted in
the constitution of a unified object of study: life or work. In contrast,
the unity of the old general grammar was shattered (303-304) without
being replaced by any sort of unique and unifying renewal. Language
became the business of philologists and linguists, of symbolic
logicians, exegetes and, finally, pure writers, poets. At the end of the
nineteenth century when Nietzsche was teaching that the meaning
of words has to refer back to whoever provides it (but just who does
provide it?), Mallarmk was effacing himself from his own poem:
Then the phrase came back again in virtual form; for it had freed
itself of that first touch of the wing or palm-branch; henceforth it
would be heard through the voice. Finally, it came to be uttered of
itself and lived through its own personality.5
To the traditional question "What does it mean to think?," Michel
Foucault substitutes the question "What does it mean to speak?" - or
at least deems that the substitution has been made. To that question,
he acknowledges (307) that he does not yet know how to respond,
whether to regard the question as an effect of our delay in recognizing
its loss of relevance or whether to assume that it anticipates future
concepts that will enable us to answer it. These days, when so many
"thinkers" make bold to offer answers to questions whose relevance
and formulation they have not bothered to justify, we do not often
have the opportunity to encounter a man who needs some three hundred
pages to set forth a question, while reflecting that "perhaps labour
begins again," and confessing: "It is true that I do not know what
to reply to such questions. . . . I cannot even guess whether I shall ever
be able to answer them, or whether the day will come when I shall
have reasons enough to make any such choice" (ibid.).
As for the concept of archaeology, most of Foucault's principal
critics have latched onto the term only to challenge it and replace it
with "geology." It is quite true that Foucault borrows words from the
vocabulary of geology and seismology, such as "erosion," (so),
"squares" (Fr. plages, beaches) and "expanse" (Fr. nappe, layer) (217)~
"shocks" (ibid), and "strata" (221). The end of the preface seems to
come from a new discourse on the revolutions of the globe: "I am
restoring to our silent and apparently immobile soil its rifts, its instability,
its flaws; and it is the same ground that is once more stirring
under our feet" (xxiv]. But it is no less true that what Foucault is
trying to bring back to light is not the analogue of a stratum of the
terrestrial shell that has been hidden from sight by a natural phenomenon
of rupture and collapse, but rather "the deepest strata of Western
culture," that is, a "threshold" (xxiv).N otwithstanding the use of the
term "habitat" by geography and ecology, man inhabits a culture, not
a planet. Geology deals with sediments, archaeology with monuments.
Thus we can readily understand why those who deprecate the
structural method (supposing that there is such a thing, properly
speaking] in order to defend the rights of history, dialectical or not, are
determined to try to substitute geology for archaeology. They do so to
shore up their claim to represent humanism. Depicting Foucault as a
kind of geologist amounts to saying that he naturalizes culture by
withdrawing it from history. The naive children of existentialism can
then charge him with positivism - the supreme insult.
Thinkers had installed themselves within dialectics. They had
gone beyond what had come before (of necessity, according to somej
by choice, according to others), but they remained convinced that
The death of man 7 5
they understood what they had left behind. Suddenly along came
someone who talked about an "essential rupture," who worried
about "no longer being able to think a certain thought," who wondered
"how [thought] contrives to escape from itself," and who invited
us simply to "accept these discontinuities in the simultaneously
manifest and obscure empirical order wherever they posit
themselves" (5 0-5 I). The archaeologist of knowledge discovered,
between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, as between
the sixteenth and the seventeenth, an "enigmatic discontinuity"
(217) that he can only describe, without pretending to explain it, as a
mutation, a "radical event" (ibid.), a "fundamental event" (229), "a
minuscule but absolutely essential displacement" (238). Of these
discontinuities, these radical events beneath the apparent continuity
of a discourse that upset human perception and practice, Michel
Foucault's earlier work gave two examples. L'Histoire de la folie
identified the break that occured between Montaigne and Descartes
in the representation of madness. La Naissmce de la clinique6 identified
the break that occurred between Pine1 and Bichat in the representation
of illness.
We can hardly avoid wondering what has led critics, most of
them no doubt in good faith, to denounce the danger that threatens
History here. In a sense, what more can be asked, with respect to
historicity, of someone who writes: "Since it is the mode of being
of all that is given us in experience, History has become the unavoidable
element in our thought" (219)? But because this emergence
of history, on the one hand as discourse and on the other
hand as the mode of being of empiricity, is tiken as the sign of a
rupture, one is led to conclude that some other rupture - perhaps
already under way - will render the historical mode of thlnlung
foreign to us, or even - who knows? - unthinkable. This is just
what Michel Foucault seems to conclude: "By revealing the law of
time as the external boundary of the human sciences, History
shows that everything that has been thought will be thought again
by a thought that does not yet exist" (372). In any event, why
refuse, in the interim, to apply the qualifier "historical" to a discourse
that reports the raw, undeducible, unpredictable succession
of the conceptual configurations of systems of thought? The reason
is that a sequential arrangement of this sort excludes the idea of
progress. And Foucault specifies: "I am not concerned, therefore, to
describe the progress of knowledge towards an objectivity in which
today's science can finally be recognized" (xxii). In other words,
nineteenth-century History is eighteenth-century Progress, which
replaced seventeenth-century Order, but this emergence of Progress
must not be considered, with respect to History, as an instance of
progress. And if the face of Man were to be obliterated from knowledge,
"like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea" (387),
nothing in Foucault's writing allows us to suppose that he would
view that possibility as a step backward. We are dealing with an
explorer here, not a missionary of modem culture.
It is difficult to be the first to give a name to a thing or, at the very
least, to list the distinctive features of the thing one is proposing to
name. That is why the concept of episteme, which Foucault devoted
his work to clardymg, is not immediately transparent. A culture is a
code that orders human experience in three respects - linguistic,
perceptual, practical; a science or a philosophy is a theory or an
interpretation of that ordering. But the theories and interpretations
in question do not apply directly to human experience. Science and
philosophy presuppose the existence of a network or configuration
of forms through which cultural productions are perceived. These
forms already constitute, with respect to that culture, knowledge
different from the knowledge constituted by sciences and philosophies.
This network is invariant and unique to a given epoch, and
thus identifiable through reference to it (168). Failing to recognize it
entails, in the history of ideas as in the history of the sciences,
misunderstandings that are as serious as they are persistent.
The history of ideas in the seventeenth century, as it is ritually
described, is a case in point: "one might say, if one's mind is filled
with ready-made concepts, that the seventeenth century marks the
disappearance of the old superstitious or magical beliefs and the
entry of nature, at long last, into the scientific order. But what we
must grasp and attempt to reconstitute are the modifications that
affected knowledge itself, at that archaic level which makes possible
both knowledge itself and the mode of being of what is to be known"
(54). These modifications are summed up in a retreat of language
with respect to the world. Language is no longer, as it was in the
Renaissance, the signature or mark of things. It becomes the instrument
for manipulating, mobilizing, juxtaposing, and comparing
The death of man 7 7
things; the organ allowing them to be composed in a universal tableau
of identities and differences; a means not for revealing oader,
but for dispensing it.
The history of ideas and sciences in the seventeenth century &us
cannot be confined to the history of the mechanization, or even the
mathematization, of the various empirical domains (56). Moreover,
in speaking of mathematization, one ordinarily thinks about measuring
things. Yet it is their ordering that ought to strike us as primordial.
Otherwise, how can we understand the appearance, during the
same period, of theories like that of general grammar, or the naturalists'
taxonomy, or the analysis of wealth? Everything becomes clear,
and the classical unity emerges, if we suppose that all these domains
"rely for their foundation upon a possible science of order" and that
"the orderhg of things by means of signs constitutes all empirical
forms of knowledge as knowledge based upon identity and difference"
This basis of a possible science is what Foucault calls an episteme.
As such, it is no longer the primary code of Westem culture, and it is
not yet a science like Huygens's optics nor a philosophy like
Malebranche's system. It is what is required for us even to imagine
the possibility of that optics in Huygens's day or that philosophy in
Malebranche's, rather than three-quarters of a century earlier. It is
what is required for us to comprehend the various attempts to construct
the sciences as kinds of analyses that are able to reach elements
of reality and kinds of calculations or combinations that
make it possible to match, through the ordered combination of elements,
the universality of nature. To know nature is no longer to
decipher it, but to represent it.
For Descartes, as for Leibniz, if the theory of physics is presented
as an attempt at decoding, the certainty to which it gives rise is only
moral, based on the probability that the true theory is the system of
signs that is most complete, most coherent, most open to the complements
to come. There is no getting around it: when all is said and
done, it is not Michel Foucault who wrote the concluding lines of
Principles of Philosophy, or Leibniz's letter to Conring of March 19,
1678. It seems to me quite difficult to challenge the contention that
bringing to light the "archaeological network that provides Classical
thought with its laws" (85) offers a productive renewal of the way
the chronological contours of the period and the intellectual kinships
or affinities within the field of that episteme have been conceptualized.
But I also think that such a stimulating indication of renewal,
if it succeeded in provoking numerous and rigorous studies
designed to take a fresh look at the doxology of the Classical era,
might lead to modifications in Foucault's thesis, according to which
the discontinuous and autonomous succession of networks of fundamental
utterances precludes any effort to reconstitute the past we
have left behind.
Let us read the following sentence attentively: "No doubt it is
because Classical thought about representation excludes any analysis
of signification that we today, who conceive of signs only upon
the basis of such an analysis, have so much trouble, despite the
evidence, in recognizing that Classical philosophy, from Malebranche
to Ideology, was through and through a philosophy of the
sign" (80). To whom does that evidence appear?
Certainly not to us, who have so much trouble in recognizing -
without, however, let us note, being totally incapable of recognizing.
The evidence certainly appears to Michel Foucault. But then, while
the episteme of a given era cannot be fully grasped via the intellectual
history of that era, which is subtended by the episteme of a
different era, the two are not entirely foreign to one another. If they
were, how should we understand the appearance today, w i t h an
epistemological field without precedent, of a work like Les Mots et
les chosesZ Perhaps this remark has already been made. It is inevitable
that it should be made. It is not certain, moreover, that the
paradox such a remark exposes is really a paradox. When Foucault,
taking up the question of Classical knowledge (303-41, resumes the
archaeological demonstration that he had undertaken earlier (56-
711, he goes on to invoke a "slow and laborious technique" that
would allow the reconstitution of a network; he recognizes that it is
"difficult today to rediscover how that structure was able to function";
he declares that Classical thought has ceased to be "directly
accessible to us" (303-4). What remains, then, is the fact that painstakingly,
slowly, laboriously, indirectly, we can dive deep down from
our own epistemic shores and reach a submerged episteme.
In the same way, the prohibition on lifting the seven seals that
close the book of the past, applied to a certain sort of history, perhaps
amounts to an invitation to proceed with elaborating a different sort
of history: "If the natural history of Tournefort, Linnaeus, and Buf-
The death of man 79
fon can be related to anything at all other than itself, it is not to
biology, to Cuvier's comparative anatomy, or to Darwin's theory of
evolution, but to Bauzke's general grammar, to the analysis of 1 money and wealth as found in the works of Law, or Venjn de
Fortbonnais, or Turgot" (xxiii). It would be no trivial achievement if ! Foucault's reading were to inject a generalized fear of anachronism
I into the heart of the history of science. The historian of science
unwittingly takes from the science whose historian he has made
himself the idea of a progressively constituted truth. An example of
a conscience at ease within anachronism is found in a text by Emile
Guyhot, Les Sciences de la vie aux XVIIe et XVIIIe si2cles: l'idhe
d 'bvolution.7
Despite what most of Foucault's critics have claimed, the term
"archaeology" says just what he wants it to say. It is the condition of
an other history, in which the concept of event is retained, but in
which events affect concepts and not men. Such a history must in its
turn recognize breaks, like any history, but breaks that are situated
differently. There are few historians of biology and still fewer historians
of ideas who do not describe a continuity of thought between
Buffon or Maupertuis and Darwin, and who do not claim a discontinuity
between Darwin and Cuvier - that Cuvier who is so often presented
as the evil genius of biology at the beginning of the nineteenth
century. Foucault, for his part, locates the discontinuity between Buffon
and Cuvier - more precisely, between Buffon and Antoine-
Laurent de Jussieu - and he makes Cuvier's work the condition of
historical possibility of Darwin's work. We can leave that question on
the table, open to argument. It is certainly worth arguing about. Even
if one does not think Foucault is right on this point-- and I personally
think he is right - is that reason enough for accusing him of tossing
History out the window? Buffon did not understand how Aldrovandi
could have written the history of snakes the way he did. Foucault
thinks he understands: "Aldrovandi was neither a better or a worse
observer than Buffon; he was neither more credulous than he, nor less
attached to the faithfulness of the observing eye or to the rationality
of things. His observation was simply not linked to things in accordance
with the same system or by the same arrangement of the
episteme" (40). Buffon, on the other hand, was linked to things by the
same arrangement of the episteme as Linnaeus: "Buffon and Linnaeus
employ the same grid" (135). Foucault thus proposes nothing less
than a systematic program for turning the working methods of most
historians of biology inside out (123-28).
Why then does he cause a scandal? Because history today is a kind
of magical field in which, for many philosophers, existence is identified
with discourse, and the actors of history are identified with the
authors of histories, even histories garnished with ideological presuppositions.
This is why a program for turning historical discourse
inside out is denounced as a manifesto calling for the subversion of
the course of history. The subversion of a progressivist discourse
cannot be anything but a conservative project. And that is why your
structure is neo-capitalist. The critics forget, or more precisely ignore,
the fact that Foucault - and he does not hide this - found substantial
encouragement for denying the preexistence of evolutionist
concepts in the eighteenth century in Henri Daudin's remarkable
theses, published in 1926, on the methods of classification developed
by Linnaeus, Lamarck, and Cuvier.
Henri Daudin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bordeaux,
gave those who knew him no reason to think that it is a
betrayal of humanity or the populace to affirm, in opposition to
those who amalgamate biological evolutionism and political and
social progressism, that Darwin the biologist owes more to Cuvier
than to Lamarck. Foucault is right to say that Lamarck is more a
contemporary of A.-L. de Jussieu than of Cuvier (2751, and his reading
of Cuvier's Lqons d'anatomie comparees warrants close attention,
especially for the thesis according to which "evolutionism is a
biological theory, of which the condition of possibility was a biology
without evolution - that of Cuvier" (294). In the eighteenth century
the theory of the continuous scale of life forms did more to prevent
the conception of a history of life than to encourage it. Transitional
forms and intermediate species were required for the composition of
an unbroken tableau; they did not contradict the simultaneity of
relationships. The history of living beings on the globe was the history
of the progressive clarification of a schema, not the history of its
sequential accomplishment. "Continuity is not the visible wake of a
fundamental history in which one same living principle struggles
with a variable environment. For continuity precedes time. It is its
condition. And history can play no more than a negative role in
relation to it: it either picks out an entity and allows it to survive, or
ignores it and allows it to disappear" (IS 5). It is thus not overstating
The death of man 8 I
the case to conclude that natural history cannot possibly conceive of
the history of nature (I 5 7).
I have restricted my attempt to understand what Foucault m-s
when he speaks of episteme to that aspect of his demonstration in
which, rightly or wrongly. I see myself as having a long-stank
interest if not a certain competence. We still have to wonder
whether the well-constructed sketches in the history of language,
life, and work that are based on this concept of episteme suffice to
assure us that we are dealing with something more than a simple
word here. Is the episteme, the reason for conceiving of a program for
overturning history, something more than an intellectual construct?
And, first, what kind of object is it, for what kind of discourse? A
science is an object for the history of science, for the philosophy of
science. It is a paradox that the episteme is not an object for epistemology.
For the time being, and for Michel Foucault, the episteme is
that for which a discursive status is sought throughout Les Mots et
les choses. For the time being, the object is what the person talking
about it says it is.
What sort of verification can be applied to such a discourse? It
cannot be a matter of referring, in the name of verification, to an
object given in advance to be constituted according to a rule. Cuvier's
comparative anatomy sustained a relationship with living or fossil
organisms, but those organisms were perceived or reconstructed according
to an idea of organisms and of organization that, through the \
principle of the correlation of forms, overturned eighteenth-century
continuist taxonomy. Darwin threw out the chart of the species and
traced the succession of living forms with no preordained plan.
Daudin wrote a nonconformist history of the dispute between Cuvier
and Lamarck. In that history, the archaeologist discovers the traces of
an epistemic network. Why? Because he has taken up a position both
inside and~utsidteh e history of biology. Because, having adopted the
tactic of reversible overturning, he has superimposed two sets of
readings - the ones offered by theories of language and the one provided
by economic theories - on the reading of living beings.
The verification of the discourse on the episteme depends upon
the variety of domains in which the invariant is discovered. In order
to perceive the episteme, it was necessary to exit from a given science
and from the history of a given science; it was necessary to defy
the specialization of specialists, and to try to become a specialist not
of generality, but of interregionality. To paraphrase one of Foucault's
critics, a man as intelligent as he is severe,9 it was necessary to rise
with the larks and go to bed with the owls. The archaeologist has to
have read a great number of things that the others have not read.
Here is one of the reasons for the astonishment that Foucault's text
has aroused in several of his sternest critics. Foucault cites none of
the historians in a given discipline; he refers only to original texts
that slumber in libraries. People have talked about "dust." Fair
enough. But just as a layer of dust on furniture is a measure of the
housekeeper's negligence, so a layer of dust on books is a measure of
the carelessness of their custodians.
The episteme is an object that has not been the object of any book
up to now, but that has encompassed - because at bottom it had
constituted them - all the books of a given period. Yet if those books
have finally been read, is it not through Foucault's "grid"? Would
not a different grid produce a different reading harvest? Let us examine
the objection. It is certain that Foucault does not read the eighteenth
century quite the way Ernst Cassirer does in La Philosophie
des Lumi&res,~aon d still less the way Paul Hazard does in his two
studies of European thought. It is revealing to compare the chapter
on the natural sciences in La Pensee europdenne au XVIIIe si&cle11
with the fifth chapter of Foucault's book. It is also revealing to
compare the bibliographic references. Foucault cites only original
texts. Which of the two scholars is reading by means of a grid?
Conversely, a reader like Cassirer who knows how to make his way
to the texts, and to little-read texts, proposes a reading of the eighteenth
century that is not unrelated to Foucault's, and he too discovers
a network of themes that constitute a ground on which Kant will
one day sprout, without our knowing how.
Undeniably it is Foucault himself who speaks of grids. And to the
extent that an allusion to cryptography is involved, readers believe
they are justified in trying to h d out who is the inventor of the grid.
But it may be that Foucault has no grid of his own, only his own
particular use of the grid. The idea that language is a grid for experience
is not new. But the idea that the grid itself calls for decoding
still had to be formulated. Foucault spotted the enigma of language
at the point where pure poetry, formal mathematics, psychoanalysis,
and linguistics converge. "What is language, how can we find a way
The death of man 8 3
round it in order to make it appear in itself, in all its plenitude?"
(306). It is in the shock of the return of language (303) as a thing
calling for a grid that we encounter the break with the period in
which language itself was the grid for things, after having been, even
earlier, their signature. In order for the episteme of the Classical era
to appear as an object, one had to situate oneself at the point where,
participating in the episteme of the nineteenth century, one was far
enough away from its birth to see the rupture with the eighteenth
century, and close enough to what was being announced as its end to
imagine that one was going to experience another rupture, the break
after which Man, like Order at an earlier moment, would appear as
an object. In order to discover that before calling for the application
of a grid itself, language, the grid of grids, founded the knowledge of
nature by constituting a representative schema of identities and differences
from which man, the master of theoretical discourse, is
absent, it sufficed, one would like to say, for Foucault to situate
himself at a crossroads of disciplines. But to do this he was obliged to
follow each discipline's separate path. There was nothing to invent
except the simultaneous use of the philosophical and philological
inventions of the nineteenth century. This is what could be called
objective originality. Still, to find the point where one encounters
this originality as the reward for one's work, one must have the
impetus of subjective originality that is not given to all.
This situation of objective originality explains why Michel Foucault
found himself constrained, as it were, to introduce within the
diachrony of a given culture a concept or function of intelligibility
that appears analogous at first glance to the one that American cultural
analysts have introduced into the synchronic tableau of cultures.
The concept of basic personality is what makes it possible,
when one is considering the coexistence of cultures, to discern the
invariant factor that anchors the integration of the individual into the
social whole proper to each particular culture. The basic episteme, for
a given culture, is in a way its universal system of reference to a given
period, the only relation that it maintains with the episteme that
follows being one of difference. In the case of the basic personality, the
function of intelligibility it assumes is thought to imply a refusal to
put the schema of cultures into perspective from the privileged vantage
point of one particular culture. And it is fairly common knowledge
that American cultural analysts have provided the policies of
their own government with conscience-soothing arguments necessary
for taking to task, in a way economically profitable to its authors,
the colonial powers of the old Continent. But Foucault holds that if
the colonizing situation is not indispensable to ethnology (377), the
latter discipline nevertheless "can assume its proper dimensions only
within the historical sovereignty - always restrained, but always
present - of European thought and the relation that can bring it face
to face with all other cultures as well as with itself" (ibid.). So that the
existence of a culturalist ethnology, having contributed, in its own
way, to the liquidation of European colonialism, appears, owing to its
inscription within the framework of Western ratio, as the symptom of
a naive American obliviousness to a cultural ethnocentrism that is
illusorily anticolonialist. This is because the concept of basic personality
and the concept of episteme differ radically in their uses. The
first concept is at once that of a given and of a norm that a social whole
imposes on its component parts in order to judge them, in order to
define normalcy and deviance. The concept of episteme is that of a
humus on which only certain forms of discursive organization can
grow, and for which the confrontation with other forms cannot arise
from a value judgment. No philosophy today is less normative than
Foucault's, none is more alien to the distinction between the normal
and the pathological. What characterizes modem thought, according
to him, is that it is neither willing nor able to propose a morality (328).
Here again humanists, invited to forego their sermonizing, respond
with indignation.
There is nevertheless a question, even more than an objection, that
it seems to me impossible to ignore. Where theoretical knowledge is
concerned, can that knowledge be elaborated in the specificity of its
concept without reference to some norm? Among the theoretical
discourses produced in conformity with the epistemic system of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, certain ones, such as that of
natural history, were rejected by the nineteenth-century episteme,
but others were integrated. Even though it served as a model for the
eighteenth-century physiologists of animal economy, Newton's physics
did not go down with them. Buffon is refuted by Darwin, if not by
Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. But Newton is no more refuted by
Einstein than by Maxwell. Darwin is not refuted by Mendel or Morgan.
The succession from Galileo to Newton to Einstein does not
present ruptures similar to those that can be identified in the succes-
The death of man
sion from Tournefort to Linnaeus to Engler in systematic botany. This
objection, which Foucault anticipates (xxii-xxiii), does not seem to
me to be answered by the decision not to take it into account on the
grounds that it belongs to a different sort of study. Foucault in fact did
not rule out all allusions to mathematics and physics in his exploration
of the episteme of the nineteenth century, but he considers them
only as models of formalization for the human sciences, that is, only
as a language. This is not a mistaken approach, at least for mathematics,
but it is questionable for physics, where theories, when they
succeed one another by generalization and integration, have the effect
of detaching and separating, on the one hand, the changing discourse
and the concepts it uses, and on the other hand, what has to be called,
and this time in a strict sense, the resistant mathematical structure.
To which Foucault can reply that he is not interested in the truth of
discourse, but rather in its positive reality. Still, should we overlook
the fact that certain discourses, like the discourse of mathematical
physics, have no positive reality beyond what is provided by their
norm and that that norm stubbornly conquers the purity of its rigor by
depositing in the epistemic succession discourses whose vocabulary
appears, from one episteme to another, devoid of meaning? At the end
of the nineteenth century people had ceased to understand what physicists
meant when they spoke about the ether, but they had nevertheless
not ceased to grasp the mathematic apodicticity of Fresnel's theories;
and no error of anachronism is committed if we seek in Huygens
not the origin of a melodic history, but the beginning of a progress.
After this discussion of inevitable questions having to do with the
episteme, it is time to recall that Michel Foucault sought to write
not the general theory (that will come later) of an archaeology of
knowledge, but its application to the human sciences, and that he
set out to show when and how man could have become an object for
science, as nature had been in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It is not possible to be more radical thhn he in the refusal to
recognize as meaningful any attempt to locate the origins or the
premises of our contemporary, so-called human sciences in the Classical
era (312). As long as people believed in the possibility of a
single, common discourse of representation and of things (3 11), it
was not possible to take man as an object of science, that is, as an
existence to be treated as a problem.
In the Classical era, man coincided with his own consciousness of
a power to contemplate or to produce the ideas of all beings, among
which man defined himself as living, speaking, and tool-making;
this power was experienced as deficient or defective in the eyes of an
infinite power that was thought to base the phenomenon of human
power on its concession or delegation of some part of that same
infinite power. The Cartesian cogito was for a long time viewed as
the canonical form of the relation of the thinker to thought -for as
long as people failed to understand that there was no alternative to
the Cartesian cogito, no cogito at all but the one that has as its
subject an I that can say "Myself." But at the end of the eighteenth & century and the beginning of the nineteenth, Kantian philosophy, on
the one hand, and the constitution of biology, economy, and linguistics,
on the other, raised the question What is man# From the moment
when life, work, and language ceased to be attributes of a
nature and became natures themselves, rooted in their own specific
history, natures at whose intersection man discovers himself natured,
that is, both supported and contained, then empirical sciences
of all natures are constituted as specific sciences of the product of
these natures, thus of man. One of the difficult points in Foucault's
demonstration is its exposure of the unpremeditated connivance
between Kantianism and the work of Cuvier, Ricardo, and Bopp in
the manifestation of the nineteenth-century episteme.
In a sense, Descartes's invention of the cogito is not what constituted,
for more than a century, the essential achievement of its
inventor's philosophy. Kant had to prosecute the cogito before the
critical tribunal of the I think and deny it all substantialist import
before modern philosophy could adopt the habit of referring to the
cogito as the philosophic event that inaugurated it. The Kantian I
think, a vehicle for the concepts of understanding, is a light that
opens experience to its intelligibility. But this light comes from behind
us, and we cannot turn around to face it. The transcendental
subject of thoughts, like the transcendental object of experience, is
an unknown. The originally synthetic unity of apperception constitutes,
in ante-representative fashion, a restricted representation in
the sense that it cannot have access to the ground in which it originates.
Thus, unlike the Cartesian cogito, the I think is posited as an
in-itself, without being able to grasp itself for itself. The I cannot
know itself as Myself.
The death of man 8 7
From this point on, in philosophy, the concept of the function of the
cogito without a functioning subject becomes possible. The Kantian I
think, since it always remains on the hither side of the consciousness
that is achieved of the effects of its power, does not prohibit efforts to
find out whether the founding function, the legitimation of the content
of our knowledge by the structure of their forms, could not be
assured by functions or structures that science itself would determine
to be at work in the elaboration of this knowledge. In his analysis of
the relations between the empirical and the transcendental (318)~
Foucault summarizes quite clearly the procedures by which the
nonreflexive philosophies of the nineteenth century attempted to
reduce "the proper dimension of criticism to the contents of an empirical
knowledge" without being able to avoid recourse to a certain
criticism, without being able to avoid bringing about a split not between
the true and the false, in this case, or between the legitimate
and the illusory, but between the normal and the abnormal as indicated,
it was believed, by man's nature or history.
Foucault cited Comte only once (320). It would have been worth
his while to deal with Comte's case in greater depth, however.
Comte often thought that he was the true Kant, through a substitution
of the scientific relation between organism and environment for
the metaphysical relation between subject and object. Gall and Condorcet
supplied Comte with the means for succeeding where Kant
had failed: Gall, through cerebral physiology, which gave Comte the
idea of a table of functions that would play the role of the Kantian
table of categories; Condorcet, through his theory of the progress of
the human spirit. The physiological a priori and the historical a
priori could be summed up by saying that humanity is what thinks
in man. But for Comte, the biological a priori is an a priori for the
historical a priori. History cannot denature nature. From the beginning,
and not only toward the end, Comte's thought, by proposing to
found a science of society, that is, of the collective and historical
subject of human activities, understood philosophy as a synthesis
"presided over by the human viewpoint," that is, as a subjective
synthesis. Comte's philosophy is the exemplary case of an empirical
treatment of the unrelinquished transcendental project. This empirical
treatment seeks its principal instrument in biology, remaining
dismissive or ignorant of economy and linguistics. Thus this philosophy
for which geneses are never anything but developments of living
structures does not recognize in the mathematics and the grammar
of its day the disciplines that will bring the concept of structure into
philosophy, where it will take over from the cogito, which positivism
abandons sarcastically to eclecticism.
Far be it from me to criticize Foucault for comparing phenomenology
and positivism (320-22) in a way many find paradoxical and some
find scandalous. The analysis of lived experience seems to him to be
an attempt, only a more demanding and thus a more rigorous one, to
"make the empirical . . . stand for the'transcendental" (321). When
Husserl tried to be more radical than Descartes and a better transcendentalist
than Kant, the times - by which we can understand the
episteme - had changed. The cogito had ceased to appear to be the
most venerable ancestor of the transcendental function, and the extension
of the transcendentalist enterprise had ceased to be confused
with the philosophical function itself. The Husserlian interrogation
was thus to concern science more than nature, and the question that
man poses for being more than the question of the foundation of
man's being in the cogito. "The phenomenological project continually
resolves itself, before our eyes, into a description - empirical
despite itself - of actual experience, and into an ontology of the
unthought that automatically short-circuits the primacy of the 'I
think' " (326).
Twenty years ago, the final pages and especially the closing lines of
the posthumous work of Jean Cavaillks, Sur la logique et la thdorie
de la science12 posited the necessity, for a theory of science, to substitute
concepts for consciousness. The philosopher-mathematician
who, in a letter to his mentor Uon Brunschvicg, had reproached
Husserl for his exorbitant utilization of the cogito, also took his
leave, philosophically speaking, of his mentor when he wrote: "It is
not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of concepts that
can provide a doctrine for science. The generative necessity is not
that of an activity but that of a dialectic." These words struck many
readers, at the time, as enigmatic. Today we can appreciate the predictive
value of the enigma. Cavaillks assigned the phenomenological
enterprise its limits even before that enterprise had exhibited its
unlimited ambitions - even in France itself, which is to say, with a
certain lag - and he assigned, twenty years in advance, the task that
philosophy is in the process of accepting today - the task of substituting
for the primacy of experienced or reflexive consciousness the
The death of man
primacy of concepts, systems, or structures. That is not all. Shot by
the Nazis for his Resistance activity, Cavaillks, who called himself a
Spinozist and did not believe in history in the existential sense,
refuted in advance - by the action he felt himself impelled to undertake,
by his participation in the history that he lived out tragically
until his death - the argument of those who seek to discredit what
they call structuralism by condemning it to generate, among other
misdeeds, passivity in the face of reality.
When he wrote the short section called "The 'Cogito' and the
Unthought" (322-28), Michel Foucault no doubt had the feeling that
he was not speaking for himself alone; that he was not only indicating
the obscure though hardly secret point on the basis of which the
rigorous and sometimes difficult discourse proffered in Les Mots et
les Choses was deployed; but also that he was pointing to the question
that, distinct from all traditional preoccupations, constitutes
the task of philosophy. The modem cogito is no longer the intuitive
grasp of the identity, in the activity of thinking, of thinking thought
with its being; it is "the constantly renewed interrogation as to how
thought can reside elsewhere than here, and yet so very close to
itself, how it can be in can be in the forms of non-thinking" (324). In
Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique,13 Gaston Bachelard had undertaken to
distinguish the norms of a non-Cartesian epistemology in the new
theories of physics, and he had wondered (on p. 168) what the subject
of knowledge becomes when one puts the cogito in the passive
(cogitatur ergo est). In La Philosophie du non,14 he had sketched out,
with regard to the new theories of chemistry, the tasks of a non-
Kantian analytics. Whether he is working in Bachelard's wake or
not, Michel ,Foucault extends the obligation of non-Cartesianism
and non-Kantianism to philosophical reflection itself (325). "The
whole of modem thought is imbued with the necessity of thinking 8'
the unthought" (327). But to think this unthought is not only, according
to Foucault, to think in the theoretical or speculative sense of
the term; it is to produce oneself while running the risk of astonishing
oneself and even taking fright at oneself. "Thought, at the level
/ of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action - a perilous
act" (328). It is hard to understand - unless we suppose that they
reacted before they had read him carefully - how certain of Fou- 4'
cault's critics could speak, with respect to his work, of Cartesianism
or positivism.
Designating under the general heading of anthropology the set of
sciences that was constituted in the nineteenth century not as a
legacy from the eighteenth century, but as "an event in the order of
knowledge" (345), Foucault uses the term "anthropological sleep"
for the tranquil assurance with which the contemporary promoters
of the human sciences take for granted, as a preordained object for
their progressive studies, what was initially only the project of constituting
that object. In this respect, Les Mots et les choses might
play for a future Kant, as yet unknown as such, the awakening role
that Kant attributed to Hume. In such a case we would have skipped
a step in the nonrepetitive reproduction of epistemic history by saying
of this work that it is to the sciences of man what the Critique of
Pure Reason was to the sciences of nature. Unless - as it is no longer
a question of nature and things, but of an adventure that creates its
own norms, an adventure for which the empirico-metaphysical concept
of man, if not the word itself, might one day cease to be
suitable - unless, then, there is no difference to be made between
the call to philosophical vigilance and the bringing to light - to a
light even more crude than it is cruel - of its practical conditions of
I Histoire de la folie 6 l'dge classique (Paris: Plon, 1961). In English, Madness
and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans.
Richard Howard, (New York: New American Library, 1967).
z Translated as The Order of Things (London: Tavistock, 1970; New York:
Pantheon, 197 I; reprinted New York: Vintage Books, 1973). All citations
are from the 1973 reprint edition.
3 Paris: Gallimard.
4 Paris: Payot, 1966. In English, Archaic Roman Religion trans. Philip
Krapp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
5 "The Demon of Analogy," in Mallarmd: Selected Prose Poems. Essays,
and Letters, trans. Bradford Cook (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press,
195 6)) p. 3. On Mallarme and language, see Philippe Sollers, "Litt6rature
et totalitk," in Tel Quelz6 (Summer 1966): 81-95.
6 Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963. In English, The Birth of the
Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan
Smith (London: Tavistock, 1973).
7 Paris: Albin Michel, 1941.
The death of man
8 Paris: Baudoin, 1800-1805; ~01s1. -2 in English, Lectures on Comparative
Anatomy, trans. William Ross (London: Longman and Ries, 1802).
9 Michel Amiot, "Le Relativisme culturaliste de Michel Foucault," ~ e s
Temps modernes (January 1967): 1271-98.
10 Die Philosophie der Aufklarung (Tiibingen: Mohr, 193%)I.n English, The
Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P.
Pettegrove (Boston: Beacon Press, 195 5).
11 Paris: Boivin, 1946. In English, European Thought in the Eighteenth
Century, from Montesquieu to Lessing, trans. J. Lewis May (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1959).
IZ Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947.
13 Paris: F6lix Alcan, 1934, 1937; Presses Universitaires de France, 1941. In
Engl~sh, The New Scientific Spirit, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1984).
14 Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1940. In English, The Philosophy
of No; A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, trans. G. C. Waterston
(New York: Orion Press, 1968).


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