Maurice Cranston

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

Michel Foucault has for some years been the most prominent French practitioner of the history of ideas….

Foucault, who is in his forties, has always wanted to make a break with the preceding generation of fashionable French intellectuals, led by men like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, with their Germanic love of...

(The entire section contains 553 words.)

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Michel Foucault has for some years been the most prominent French practitioner of the history of ideas….

Foucault, who is in his forties, has always wanted to make a break with the preceding generation of fashionable French intellectuals, led by men like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, with their Germanic love of total metaphysics, and their austere rebarbative styles. Foucault has restored pleasure to French philosophy: what he has failed to restore is clarity. One thing, indeed, which he has never hitherto made clear is the nature of his own activity as a theorist. He does not like to be called a historian: and his own word for what he does is "archaeology." His latest book [The Archaeology of Knowledge], ably translated into English by Alan Sheridan Smith, is an attempt to explain what this peculiar kind of archaeology is.

It is a less interesting and attractive book than Foucault's earlier ones, if only because its subject matter, the methodology of history (or archaeology) is much more dry and technical than history (or archaeology) itself: and Foucault's virtuosity and panache is not much help to him in working over ground which has already been cultivated by such scholarly philosophers of history as Croce, Collingwood, Lovejoy and Oakeshott. Those philosophers have challenged the popular conception of history as a true record of the past, and each has offered an alternative interpretation of what historical understanding might be.

Foucault, on the other hand, takes the more extreme course of repudiating history altogether, and claiming to be doing something else: namely his archaeology….

The only kind of history which he regards as philosophically respectable is a history conscious of itself as indistinguishable from the study of silent monuments and objects, indistinguishable, in effect, from archaeology.

However, the particular branch of history in which Foucault has specialized, cultural history or intellectual history, is the furthest removed from conventional archaeology, insofar as its raw materials are seldom silent monuments, but documents, books, works of art. It is perhaps the most difficult kind of history to write. What often passes for the history of ideas is highly suspect, and Foucault's own indictment of conventional history of ideas is a telling one.

Foucault does not care to be called a structuralist any more than he cares to be called a historian: but what has always been most effective in his analysis of the past has been his method of explaining cultural phenomena in the light of the dominant intellectual systems in terms of which past epochs conceived the world. As he puts it in his present book, the subject matter of his kind of archaeology is discourse—discourse not treated as a sign of something else, but discourse as a practice obeying certain rules, not a "document" but a "monument." What Foucault seems still determined to deny is that this whole enterprise has more in common with structuralist anthropology than it has with anything that is ordinarily known as archaeology. The reader is tempted to persist in considering him, nevertheless, as an outstanding exponent of an explanatory method which the ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss put on the map in France; together they have made the word structuralist almost as modish as the word existentialist 20 years ago.

Maurice Cranston, "Digging in the Junkyards of Our Past," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 29, 1972, p. 3.

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