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Foucault and historians

Arne Muis
17.02.2014
Foucaults work has engendered radically opposed positions in a debate that was slow to start, but
has since remained a persistent feature of the humanities. There are those who do not consider
Foucault to be an historian at all, and claim him to have had little bearing on the actual practice of
history, and those who hail his insights as sparking fascinating new insights in the study of the past.
Some have gone so far as arguing that Foucault revolutionised history1, whereas others have
vigorously attacked him for his methods.2 This essay asks why many historians find it difficult to
accept Foucaults approach, and what his influence on the field of history has been in spite of their
objections.
Franchetti quite rightly asks whether Foucault should be considered an historian at all, a question
which in itself is bound to cause polarization.3 It need not, for Foucault was not an historian in any
academic sense. Historical scholars emphasizes the virtues of meticulousness, archival research and
a close contextual reading of the sources as the core values of a research methodology that
contribute to understanding the past. Any such approach implies the ability not only to describe and
understand the past, but to make it intelligible and recognizable to a contemporary readership.
Foucault fundamentally opposes these positions, proposing instead that history should be
substituted by an archaeology, and later, genealogy of knowledge. Besides frequently deriding the
field of historical inquiry, he exhibits and utter unconcern for the stable of conventional history of
ideas: continuities, traditions, influences, causes, comparisons, typologies and so on.4
Hence the fundamental divergence between Foucault and the generic historians is that he is an
historian, insofar his writings warrant the title, of discontinuity rather than continuity. Whereas
historians relish the traces of continuity that signify historical developments, and constitute the vital
ties that bind succeeding generations, Foucault abrasively denies the existence of such continuity. His
is a philosophy of isolated epistemes, and of harsh and fundamental discontinuity between these
through which no form of continuity or consistency can exist. Foucault and historians, while they
frequently cover the same ground, tread fundamentally different paths, and see radically dissimilar
horizons. Essentially they do not speak the same language, making a mutually rewarding
conversation difficult.
Poster has dubbed Foucault an anti-historical historian whom some have claimed as having
threatened every canon of the historical craft and dismisses the very intrinsic value of the discipline
of history.5 This position is understandable, as it frequently appears that in denouncing not only the
craft of the historian, but the very purpose of generic history, and applying historical methods to
poor effect in an attempt to purportedly establish the veracity of this denunciation, Foucault adds
1

Cody Franchetti, Did Foucault Revolutionize History? Open Journal of Philosophy 1, no. 2 (2011) 84
George Huppert, Divinatio et Erudition: thoughts on Foucault History and Theory 13, no. 3 (1974) 207
3
Cody Franchetti, Did Foucault Revolutionize History? Open Journal of Philosophy 1, no. 2 (2011) 84
4
Hayden White, Foucault Decoded; Notes from Underground History and Theory 12, no. 1 (1973) 27
5
Mark Poster, Foucault and History Social Research 49, no. 1 (1982) 116; refers to James Henretta, Social
History as Lived and Written American Historical Review 84 (1979) 1299
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insult to injury. It is in this that an answer can be found for the difficulties historians have initially had
with their reception of Foucaults work.
In fact, his early work was decisively ignored by both historians and the public at large, and it was
only with the publication of lets mots et les choses that intellectual fame was acquired and attention
was drawn to his earlier writings.6 Yet in spite of the Foucaults rapidly ascending status as an
intellectual, few if any historians bothered to adopt his philosophies.7 Part of the reason for this was
that Foucault was simply not an accredited member of the guild.8 But this alone does not explain
his delayed reception. Foucaults work was difficult to comprehend, and in its philosophical style
could hardly be regarded as historical. Braudel is representative of this antipathy when he, in spite of
having positively reviewed Histoire de la folie, qualified Foucault as a non-historian who perhaps
declaimed history too loudly.
Foucault arrived in the Anglo-Saxon academic world in the 1970s, when Huppert and White
dedicated articles to les mots et les choses in History and Theory. Huppert was severely critical of
Foucaults methods, and effectively argues that Foucault has only a deeply limited understanding of
the sixteenth century, and that the selection of texts on the basis of which he constructs the
episteme of the era is inadequate, unrepresentative and incomprehensibly deformed.9 White was
inherently more appreciative of Foucault, and agreed with the central thesis that the human
sciences are prisoners of the language in which they are articulated.10 While Whites decoded
version was hardly more lucid than the original, it did strongly convey Foucaults hostility to the
discipline of history, as one who writes history in order to destroy it.11 No element of this
philosophy was going to endear Foucault to historians. Concurrently though, Foucault was being
taken up by scholars of the Annales school, who did not necessarily agree with him, but did find him
sufficiently citeable. It was only with the publishing of surveiller et punir that Foucault came nearer to
writing history in a traditional sense, and that he became harder to ignore.
However this was not due to any particular historical quality of his writing, which remained patchy,
selective and sweepingly generalizing. Rather it was because of the questions he asked, and the
manner in which he posed and dissected them. Franchetti argues that Foucault definitively modified
how one might think of history12, which is perhaps the most poignant observation one can make of
Foucaults impact on the field. Historians do not have to like Foucault in order to appreciate his
thought. Many historians will not enjoy Foucault, or his derision of their craft, only to find themselves
asking similar questions. Though his writing may at times be utterly incomprehensible, his philosophy
intangible and inconsistent, his historical methods so fundamentally flawed that one hopes his
mistakes to be intended irony, it is the radical otherness of Foucaults ideas that make him a relevant

Allan Megill, The Reception of Foucault by Historians Journal of the History of Ideas 48, no. 1 (1987) 123
Ibid.126-7
8
Ibid. 127
9
George Huppert, Divinatio et Erudition: thoughts on Foucault History and Theory 13, no. 3 (1974); all 17
pages are devoted to this purpose.
10
Allan Megill, The Reception of Foucault by Historians Journal of the History of Ideas 48, no. 1 (1987) 128
11
Quoted in ibid. 129
12 Cody Franchetti, Did Foucault Revolutionize History? Open Journal of Philosophy 1, no. 2 (2011) 89
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thinker to historians, and it is through the very multiplicity and diversity of his work that a continued
application of them is possible.
Foucault envisioned structures and systems of thought that had either not been considered before,
or not uttered in such a persuasive manner. It is because of Foucault that historians find themselves
studying sources with an eye to power structures, or with resonating questions on discipline,
sexuality, and madness and reason, amongst others. His contribution to the field of history was not
direct, in the manner of an epochal historian standing at the foundation of a new school of thought,
but rather a trickling influence which contributed greatly to the sort of questions asked by historians,
for instance in such fields as social, postcolonial or gendered history. Foucaults uncomfortable
derision of history, in combination with the fascinating insights on the nature of knowledge and the
existence of power structures, makes for a captivating venture point of many historical debates.
Foucaults was bad historical writing, but tantalizing philosophy. It is in this that his resonating
influence must be sought.