Date of Award

3-2014

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Social Sciences

Department

History

First Reader/Committee Chair

Timothy Pytell

Abstract

The following is a chronologically ordered internal intellectual history of Michel Foucault. The objective of this analysis is to determine whether or not Foucault provides a viable critical social theory of bourgeois society. In order to examine this topic, I trace the development of Foucault’s thought during his early, pre-archaeological stage, his archaeological stage, and his genealogical stage. I frame Foucault’s stages as attempts to overcome Kant’s subject/object division—or the paradox that man operates as both a meaning-giving subject and an empirical object—that one encounters in discourses pertaining to the social sciences. Foucault’s pre-archaeological stage is characterized by two humanistic modes of thought: hermeneutics and phenomenology. Hermeneutics involves the interpretation of historical events in pursuit of existential meaning. By contrast, phenomenology seeks to uncover meaning in subjective experience. After the publication of Mental Illness and Psychology, Foucault rejects hermeneutics and phenomenology on the grounds that the search for meaning through interpretation will inevitably obscure truth under endlessly multiplying interpretations. Neither method offers a coherent resolution to the subject/object division.

Foucault’s archaeological method attempts to overcome the subject/object division by studying the relationships—or patterns appearing in language—between empirical observations. Archaeology does not account for the truth-value associated with codified empirical observations (or statements). In other words, archaeology studies the language patterns comprising claims to objective truth. Archaeology consequently assumes a relativistic and objective position that escapes the subject/object division. However, this method suffers from internal instabilities; the rules governing language pertaining to empirical observation are objective, yet the analysts are themselves a product of these rules. This contradiction casts doubt up archaeology’s claim to objectivity.

Foucault’s genealogical method does not seek to resolve Kant’s subject/object division; rather, genealogy embraces the notion that the interaction between subject and object remains unknowable. Genealogy, therefore, retains archaeology’s relativistic stance regarding claims to truth while forgoing the former method’s pursuit of objective analysis. During his genealogical stage, Foucault directs his attention away from language patterns and toward the interaction between power and knowledge. Foucault conceptualizes power as a multidirectional, decentralized, and self-perpetuating force that manifests itself as the material result of interpersonal, institutional, and society-level conflicts. Knowledge complements power by defining normal and abnormal behavior. In doing so, knowledge establishes the cognitive field comprising the individual’s self-concept. Genealogy is an analytic of the power/knowledge interaction; the method provides a relativistic means of conceptualizing the reciprocal influence between force relations and discourses. While genealogy does not constitute an objective critical theory, the method has a concrete basis in the form of the positive manifestations of the power/knowledge interaction.

Based on my assessment of the above methods, I conclude that genealogy is a viable social theory. Moreover, Foucault consistently deconstructs narratives comprising bourgeois society. From this recurrence it is apparent that Foucault is a para-Marxist; he provides a critique of bourgeois society and attempts to test the limits of individual experience within that society. This conclusion supports the continued relevance of Foucauldian analysis in the social sciences.