“Structuralism of Michael Foucault”






“Structuralism of Michael Foucault”

Francois Wahl (FW) published a book in 1968 (Qu'est-ce que le Structuralisme? Seuil) in which four scholars described the repercussions of structuralist thought in their disciplines (linguistics,poetics,anthropology and psycho-analysis). Then in the final section of the book, FW searched through several thinkers for a structuralism in philosophy. FW had a difficult task. For whereas his collaborators only had to use structuralist considerations and test their helpfulness in limited fields, FW had somehow to define structuralism and adjudicated thinkers as structuralist or not in their philosophies. If an anthropologist makes an idea work in his study, he can smile at the philosopher’s perplexity. The anthropologist has done his work, whereupon the philosopher must interpret the implications of the successful work. For the philosopher, finally, has to explain what an advance in knowledge means and how it stacks up against the traditional organization of knowledge.

Both in the opening pages of the book as well as in the introduction to his section, FW shows that he neither misconstrues the difficulties of his task nor hesitates to address them clearly. Although the title of the book promises a forthright answer, FW points out that the varied use of the word prohibits a clear definition of structuralism and its application in various fields. By examining developments in their disciplines, FW and his collaborators show what structuralism means there. And so, before proceeding to his study of structuralism in philosophy, FW explains what precisely he is going to do.


I-The pages with which FW introduces his analyses (301-304)

have a special importance in the whole book. For they justify the philosophical, examination of everything which might bear the label “structuralism”. They justify the book, the book’s title is a philosophical question and requires an answer such as FW prepares himself to deliver in his introductory pages.

FW claims right of address and explain how he will use it. Structuralist like Levi-Strauss and Lacan state that they have finished off philosophy; given the way they arrive at knowledge, they have dissolved the very terrain on which philosophers did their work. Philosophers like Foucault and Althusser who have transformed them as they used them in a non-structuralist context. To the former FW answers that they have at best redefined the terrain on which a philosopher examinees the new knowledge. As for the later, he claims a right which his colleagues in the volume have enjoyed, he intends to see what is going on in his field, now that structuralist work has been around and discussed for a while. FW explains that philosophy has taken account of structuralism and returned to its perennial task. In sum, the philosopher quite rightly refuses to let non-philosophers rule on what he can and cannot do.

First, however, FW needs a criterion to alert him to structuralist research and reflection is semi logical. This allows FW to set up the court of principles before which the philosophers linked with structuralism will be judged. Some will not admit the sign into a determining role in all questions attached to it; they ell handle it, in the way of traditional philosophies, as an element in the field of consciousness. They have not given the sign the importance accorded it by structuralisms. Others will refuse the sign the role it has played in the traditional epistemology and therewith leave structuralism behind. FW invokes the former principle against Michel Foucault, whom he sees as basically phenomenological in his way of handling the sign. The present study examines the structures which FW addresses Foucault’s “structuralist” philosophy.


II- In Les Most et Les Chooses,

Michel Foucault “=MF” sets out to explain the dissolution of one order of knowledge (episteme) as a new,structuralist order replaces it. The unwritten rules whereby the Western mind has functioned since the Renaissance have faded away. MF raises and declares open the question about a set of structuralist suppositions now organizing knowledge. FQ delves into MF’s argument. As he begins, he points out how a sign functions; it establishes a relation between two terms. The relation must change for a new organization of knowledge (episteme) to prevail (309).


A- (309-321). Intentionality,

FW follows MF as he analyses the way the sign has functioned since the Renaissance and its new mode of operation in this century. MF save the Renaissance operated on the basis of similarity on this sence, the word had something of the designated object; it was an object. That association has come apart taking the language of contemporary literature as his test case, MF attempts to assign language an existence after it has done its work as a sign. It exists apart from rendering service between the two terms of the relation.

FW does not follow him. First of all, he says that MF proceeds phenomenologically, and so, second, he ends up with a void when he accords language a being beyond its function. FW nails MF on his phenomenological analysis of the sign, for such a method concentrates on the designation of the sign (the sign as designating) and consequently cannot accord it stature in itself. Now structuralism supposes the sign in itself makes a determining deference. If language is purely relational, as phenomenological intentionality supposes, once it is separated from its function, nothing remains. FW can recognize and appreciated the subtlety and forced of MF’s historical observations; he does not see that Foucault has taken the measure of structuralism’s concept of the sign.


B- (321-350). Representation.

MF highlights the disjunction between the sign and its object which arose in the early seventeenth century. The resemblance and the proximity of the sign to the object of its signification decreased. Descartes distinguished between the things which represents and the thing which is represented, therewith introducing a binary classification of knowledge. The sign of contemporary semiology has come into view (322). FW does not examine the historical accuracy of MF’s explanations. He immediately focuses on the role of representation in MF’s analyses. For MF retains representation or reinserts representation or talks about motivation when studying the sign. FW scores that as inherently incapable of respecting those new facts which structuralism has brought to light.

Foucault considers the link of representation problematical. This necessarily entails him in a study of the relationship between two ideas. He has to examine how the relationship arose and how firm the connection is. Take the sign as purely differential, as Saussure does, as part of a structural system whereby one is set off from the other, and the problems implicit in representation no longer exist. As part of a structure, the sign has neither an origin nor a degree (of signification) (324). After examining this aspect of Foucault’s thought (324-329), FW concludes (329). The sign system exists apart the field of consciousness; language has an order to it which works on our minds apart the way our minds work. “Thought has ceased as the proper field and model for the elaboration of semiology”.

FW develops his assessment of MF and of structuralism by excluding psychologist from any attempt to get at structuralist realities (329-334). In doing so, he refers to Chomsky’s work. He appreciates Chomsky’s demonstration of superficial and inner structures in language but backs off from Chomsky’s theses on “Linguistic competence” )334). For at that moment Chomsky slips into the questionable assumptions in which we reason about language. “Structuralism”, writes FW, supplying the word at least of a certain order of facts to formal treatment by reason” (334). (FW uses the word certain in a typically French way; he uses it demonstratively without being able to specify the object pointed out. It suggests more than it says).

FW moves on to a further step by recognizing an appearance to the reality about which structuralism speaks (335ff). Experientially, he describes the speaker’s recognition of a system which rules his speech while he expresses himself. FW says that MF attempts to locate the sciences of man in the space which such recognition opens up. FW draw a clear distinction which allows him to bring a weakness of Foucault into focus. We must keep clearly apart, he cautions, our growing knowledge anout the frole of the unconscious and semi-conscious in our lives, which we can raise to the surface, and the structural body of language, clear and logical, yet foreign to any operation of our interiority (336). Foucault reasons that one uses this structural body; human can function within it. FW argues that MF goes too far when he implies we profit from the system to get our meanings across; and underestimates our speech when he implies that we are held by its laws. In both instances, FW faults him on a theory of representation which does not need the structuralist reality. He does not hesitate to admit the tentativeness of such reasoning about the structuralist postulates. For as soon as we allude to the appearance of a system, however clearly we affirm the unconscious nature of that system, we have brought it into relation with our consciousness. How do we handle that? FW says we have not yet devised ways to do so (342).

FW concludes his examination of representation in MF’ thought by pointing to the presence of experience and motivation in Foucault’s attempt to clarify the structuralist reality. This for Wahl simply does not respect the binary nature of language with which structuralist disciplines have worked since Saussure.


C-(350-377). Knowledge’s Origins.

MF sees a new episteme arise in the nineteenth century. He argues that the details of science no longer range themselves symmetrically and so display the organization of information. Rather. Says Foucault, the details refer to an inner, deep organization, outside the reality of the details, from which they draw their explanation. For example, philology passes into the examination of the linguistic system. In pointing to an order of knowledge which arises out of larger and deeper reality than the scientific details, Foucault inevitably suggests a configuration nor far removed from structuralism.

FW immediately distinguishes between the two, between the appeal to mysterious depths whence knowledge arises and the structuralist system. One evokes the fons et origo in a romantic belief in deep mystery. A language, for example, arises out of a Volk’s long journey across time and expresses its spirit. Such a system reaches back into murky depths. The mode of thought is foreign to structuralism. The foundation of the semi logical system refers to surface and not a depth. The structure within which a sign has its place lacks interiority (355). Instead of the proximity of Foucault’s nineteenth century episteme to structuralism, FW points up their clear disparity. Structuralism and this pleases the Gallic heart-lacks Hegelian profundity.

MF brings Ricardo and Marx into his discussion as he comments the episteme of the nineteenth century. In spite of the differences between them, Foucault places their work within the same organization of knowledge. FW presents L.Althusser’s attempt of dissociate Marx from his predecessors and to demonstrate the structural quality of Marx’ thought. This brings FW to ask just what role depth has been playing in Foucault’s study: Wahl sees it functioning a it did in the nineteenth century, as the foundation (of knowledge) (362).

MF centers in on the problem of knowledge which we have faced since the early nineteenth century. Somehow the vastness of being at which bits of knowledge gesture arises out of a finite. Human being’s confrontation with this word. How does a finite being hang onto all of this and somehow give it order? Foucault offers his use of structuralism as an attempt to control the problem. For the systems of structuralism are both finite and basic; the system decrees the rules (367). FW runs through a series of considerations to show how MF is drawing structuralist realities into his phenomenological schema. For example, to simplify one of Wahl’s complex arguments (373-374). I can latch onto that in my thought which transcends my clarity about my thought only within an area accessible to my mind when, in this way, I try to hold onto my immediate experience and the vastness which it implies. All of this, however, is irrelevant for reasons which have to do with the very structure of structured speech (of those facts to which structuralist learning refers) (373).

FW concludes the section by summing up his case against MF: Foucault is using structuralist thought to justify his system of knowledge; he has not succeeded in explaining theoretically how the structuralist system can give rise itself to a sequence of effects (376 to 377), MF has remained within a field of traditional rationality and its new problems, without taking account of structuralist realities. Consequently he has not pointed out the new, structuralist episteme.


III- FW has examined Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Chose

as the negative moment in his examination of structuralism among the philosophers. With Derrida and Lacan, he deals with thinkers who have not hung back from the structrualist facts served philosophy by such as Lei0Stauss and the linguists. Lacan, for example, will jump out of the bind into which Foucault slipped by giving the structuralist theory of language a function in speech which conscious discourse needs and cannot itself supply. Wahl’s close reading of MF affords a First philosophical approach to structuralism, however, and we stop here with two comments by way of conclusion.

The first comment as to do with the way past thinkers function both in Foucault’s theses and in Wahl’s criticism. Past thinkers are used to argue an idea and its implications; they are not read for what they themselves were thinking. This comes to light most forcefully in the pages devoted to Marx. There exists a sharp contrast between the social functions of Marx’ writings and the needs and desires of a philosopher like Foucault or even of a Marxist philosopher like Allthusser. Marx spoke to other purposes. If one ignores that, one goes rapidly and surely astray. Such as Foucault and Althusser do not do good history and yet they intend to mark off ages of history. Bad history might at least illuminate an idea; at such a moment, the explanation matters and not he advance in historical understanding. However, bad history cannot explain satisfactorily the sharp discontinuities in orders of knowledge, and especially the new one of structuralism, for the accuracy of the history enters into the solidity, or weakness, of the argument. Such a consideration but adumbrates the difficulties which arise between structuralism and history. For, somehow, at the core of structuralist thought lies a determined attempt to be done with the past. De Saussure and Levi- Strauss are historical beings in the very moment of their structuralist conceptualizations.

The second comment picks up Wahl’s exclusion of psychologist. Given his understanding of structuralism, FW cannot allow any use of structuralist realities in explaining the unconscious ways of the human psyche. The two systems, one of language and on of mind, must be kept apart. Lacan might conjoin the operation of the two systems; at that moment he accords the structuralists system a human function which does not arise out of the individual inner life. FW admits Lacan’s parallelism; he ensures Foucault’s commingling of the two.

FW does not delve into Foucault’s study on madness (Histoire de La Folie a l’age calssique, 1961), when presenting psychologist, a deprecatory term, as a weakness of MF. FW turns to Chomsky’s “Linguistic competence” for substantiation of his criticism. In his study on madness, Foucault analysed an experience of language which goes beyond its rational services to human life. The study supplies a context to MF’s use of contemporary literature when attempting to get at a being of language beyond its mediatory function. Madness and literature have always traveled in tandem. “Sweet madness, language,” cried Nietzsche, and: “When man speaks, he dances above all things”. Artaud: “Words most surely cast me aside the ways of life”. A recent study on madness and modern writers (S. Leman, La Folie et la Chose litteraire, Seuil, 1978) probes the dual citizenship of great writers in two worlds. To what extent does this information invite and urge structuralist theories to follow directions explored already by Michel Foucault? Felman conducts his study under the very evident influence of Foucault and Lacan. The two are not as clearly distinct as FW defines them. Madness extends the definition of that which the subject brings to language. Perhaps FW hold Foucault to a too traditional concept of the human mind.

That can stand as the conclusion to this examination of FW on MF. FW’s critique contributes much to an assessment of Foucault’s analyses. His contribution, however, invites response and certainly does not close off the question about Foucault’s structuralism.


  Rev.Nguyễn Quốc Hải, Ph.D


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