“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

In this article, White elucidates Foucault’s purpose and rationale for “transcribing” the evolution of the human sciences. As White makes clear, Foucault thinks the human sciences aimed at studying man, society, and culture are trapped by figurative modes of discourse. Their theories, then, are simply “formalizations” of the syntactical strategies they use to name the “relationships” presumed to exist among their objects of study. And their “laws” are nothing but projections of the semantic ground presupposed by the modes of discourse in which they have “named” the objects inhabiting their respective domains of analysis” (232).


Rather than being a rationalist and believer in narrative accounts of history, Foucault thinks “histories” ought to be exercises in unmasking, demystification, and dismemberment as well as disordering, destructuration, and unnaming (233). Rather than deeming history as a method, Foucault deems history to be a symptom of a nineteenth century discomfort with the “temporality of all things” or what Foucault calls “temporal agoraphobia”—an obsession to fill in intellectual gaps of history due to a discomfort with disorder and uncertainty (233 and 234). Perceiving history as nothing but a myth, Foucault attempts to “write ‘history’ in order to destroy it” (234). Foucault, an anti-historian of sorts, embraces “archaeology” instead of history. An archeology emphasizes “ruptures,” “discontinuities,” “disjunctions” and “differences” rather than continuities, comparisons, similarities, and progression. Foucault does not believe in the continuity of science nor in consciousness (235). Therefore, in Les Mots et les choses, Foucault attempts to demonstrate that the human sciences have not evolved from a linear “revolution” in thought or consciousness, but rather throughout the history of human sciences, epistemes (epistemic domains) have embraced distinct modes of discourse in attempt to study its own objects using their own distinct strategies. Rather than proceed forward, these epistemes form alongside each other in attempt to fill gaps in knowledge left by the “discourse” of earlier sciences (234). In each episteme, in other words, human scientists attempt to grasp the “secret of life in language” (235)

Foucault identifies four “epochs” in the history of human science, each epoch of which employs different strategies or modes of representation for comprehending different objects of study. Rather than show the continuity from one epoch to another, Foucault focuses ob the ruptures in Western consciousness and discontinuities that separate epochs from one another (235). Rather than try to translate and analyze, which he considers a reductive exercise, Foucault tries to transcribe how each epoch “talked” about their objects of study (237). In doing so, he does not deem it necessary to connect a body of work to its social, economic, and political contexts nor to the life of its author (237). The “formalized consciousness” of any age is apparent in the modes of representation employed by each human science [an excellent point, I think, and an interesting one to discuss in class] (237). Therefore, in transcribing texts from specific epochs, Foucault tries to identify the syndrome or growth of disease “which consists of the impulse to use language to ‘represent’ the order of things in the order of words,” i.e. to explain the human condition (238).


Foucault’s purpose in transcribing is to “find the ‘threshold’ of historical, consciousness itself”—to reveal the “discontents” of every epoch that attempts to explain the human condition through objective language. Language cannot possibly “represent” the human condition in Foucault’s eyes. We can identify various modes of discourse the human sciences employ by how they fail to represent in language, or how they more or less commit linguistic violence. One like himself who studies the archaeology of ideas in a given epoch of intellectual history is actually studying the “structures of linguistic wages and epistemological commitments which originally constituted it” (240). Once one identifies the “prevailing ‘formalizations” about life, society, and culture in any given epoch—the meaning of which changes from epoch to epoch—one then investigates the “lexical and syntactical strategies by which the objects of study are identified and the relationships among them are explicated. This analysis then yields insights into the ‘modes of discourse’ prevailing at a given time, which in turn permits derivation of the ‘epistemological ground’ and the ‘wording’ activity underlying and sanctioning a given mode of discourse” (240).


Studying the modes of discourse are important because each epoch is locked within specific modes of discourse, which has significant repercussions because “reality” is accessed through these modes of discourse at the same time the “horizon of what can possibly appear as real” is delimited (241).

To show how powerful it can be to study the modes of discourse, Foucault shows the 18th century failure to develop a continuous, timeless “web of relationships” among objects due to their obsession with classification evident in their discourse of Measurement and Order (244). Foucault also shows how the 19th century adopted a discourse of Analogy and Succession in a failed effort to demonstrate how things were related to each other as members of specific families of species, modes of production, and language uses in order to place them in a “temporal series” and construct a true science of man (244). In the 20th century, he shows how discourse around Finitude and Infinity reflects recognition in psychoanalysis and ethnology of languages inadequacy to characterize the human condition.


Foucault also transcribes modes of discourse surrounding theories and treatments of insanity in his history of ideas to reveal the rationality of each epoch. Through this transcription, a “consistent tendency to project very general social preconceptions and anxieties into theoretical systems which justified the confinement of whatever social group or personality type appeared to threaten society during a particular period” is revealed (246).

Again Foucault identifies four epochs. In Middle Ages, insanity was blessedness and insane treated with respect and honor—models Christians could aspire to. At end of 16the century, insane became thought of as illness, disease. Insane turned from subjects to objects. During enlightenment—the age of reason—no sympathy showed to unreason or madness. In the vaunted “age of reason,” insane locked away with the poor and criminals. At end of 18th and beginning of 19th, shift in attitude toward insane again. Insane became regarded as mentally ill and were separated from the poor and criminals but not because of advancement in theoretically knowledge about mental illness. Rather shift in attitude derived from transformations in society—industrialization demanded larger labor force, which depended on the poor, (thus the poor taken out of hospitals) and the bourgeoisie fear of revolutionary, subversive behavior of criminals, which was a political concern, sent them to jails (((????))). Medicine at this time was a political discipline, full of prejudices, brutality, incomprehension, and lack of scientific knowledge (248). Then came Freud and his psychotherapy, which reflects an interpretive approach to studying man rather than a systematic or scientific one (248). The resulting mode of discourse surrounding the insane in human sciences during these periods was a history of silence. No dialogue. No effort to decode the madness. What Foucault reveals then is the unscientific nature of the human sciences (249).

In modern times, Foucault says, we know no more about life, society, and culture, but we talk as if we do. Language is treated like madness in Age of Reason—it is simultaneously “affirmed as a presence to consciousness and denied as a problem of consciousness” (250). In other words, it is employed as an analytical tool with capability to discover meaning of human nature and as instrument of representation that offers up humanity for analysis. This move from silence to strategy of representation opens up new problems in human sciences (250). The human sciences are now Positivistic and Eschatological—they’ve pursued neutrality/objectivity and social redemption at same time. Formalization and Interpretation are principle systems of human science. Foucault believes once human sciences are freed from captivity of language, which has existed since the 16th – 20th century, the status of science will be dropped altogether. We will embrace “pre-religious imagination” once again or at least so Foucault says at end of Les Mots et les choses.


White claims there is a transformational system built into Foucault’s conception of the succeeding forms of human sciences, despite Foucault’s unawareness of it.

White claims all scientific disciplines reflect a commitment to style of representation in order to comprehend some identified cognitive problem. All systems of knowledge begin in a “metaphorical characterization of something presumed to be unknown in terms of something presumed to be known, or at least familiar” (252). White says Foucault 16th century sciences employed the mode of metaphor as method to encode human experience at that time (252). This mode identified similarities in different things in attempts to show their relation. In 18the century, mode of metonymy became central to human sciences. Orders of being, as in “cause-effect or agent-act relationships” were attempted through this mode. As metonymy is strategy by which objects are reduced to their functions (sail for ship), universal grammar for instance, attempts to seek essence of objects of study in a part of totality, just like tables used to reveal “web of relationships” which connected entities into an “order of things.” In 19th century, mode of synecdoche arose, in which parts were studies to reveal the whole. Thus, White says, whether Foucault knows it or not, he does have “both a system of explanation and a theory of the transformation of reason, or science, or consciousness,” which ultimately reveals the “projective or generational aspect of language, the extent to which it not only ‘represents’ the world of things but also constitutes the modality of the relationships among things by the very act of assuming a posture before them”—an aspect of language that was lost when science disengaged from rhetoric in 17th century (254).

Vico identified back then four tropes and their corresponding ages in life cycle of civilization: age of gods—metaphor, age of heroes-metonymy, age of men—synecdoche, and age of decadence and dissolutions—irony. The postmodern age, it could be shown, is the age of irony.


What Foucault attempts to do in three works Folie et deraison, Mots et les choses, and L’Archeologie du saviour, is to reconceputalize European intellectual history and raise questions about inner logic in the evolution of human sciences. As such, he is member of scholarly community that belongs to the eschatological wing of structuralism, as opposed to the positivistic wing, who focus their attention on the ways in which “structures of consciousness actually conceal the reality of the world and, by that concealment, effectively isolate men within different, not to say mutually exclusive, universes of discourse, thought, and action” (259). They view human nature as irreducible and consider positivism a myth and science a poesis. All of life is a text, “the meaning of which is nothing but what it is” (259). Interpretation of text is their aim, but not interpretation that leads to discovery of underlying structure of text or the universe of things that text refers to. Instead, they employ “transcription” to “reveal the inner dynamics of the thought processes by which a given presentation of the world in words is grounded in poesis” (259). All systems of thought in human sciences, according to White’s interpretation of Foucault, are simply “terminological formalizations of poetic closures with the world of words, rather than with the “things” they purport to represent and explain” (259).

All human sciences, in my interpretation, are rhetoric.



Filed under historiography exam

2 responses to ““Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

  1. wrasseler

    Do you speak of the rhetorical polka-dots on a solid background of all human sciences; or do you speak of the predictable holes within all human sciences, against a solid background of rhetoric?

  2. Why is it that the date published was not attached??

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