The Archaeology of Knowledge

The Archaeology of Knowledge Study Guide

The Archaeology of Knowledge is Foucault’s historiographical treatise—his theory of how to study history—and it was first published in French in 1969. It lays out Foucault’s method for doing history, in particular how to assemble and interpret the “archive” or mass of documents available in the historical record. It was published after Foucault had already developed this method practically, in a series of historical studies written earlier in the 1960s, including histories of mental illness, psychiatry, and the natural sciences in Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things, respectively. The Archaeology of Knowledge would go on to inform Foucault’s later seminal histories, too, including the 1976 History of Sexuality (Volume I).

In this book, Foucault brings multiple disciplines to bear on how to do history. He draws from philosophy, sociology, phenomenology, and the history of ideas. But above all, he develops his own terminology to explain how he thinks history ought to be done, departing from then-contemporary trends. In Archaeology, he defines such important concepts as “discourse,” “archive,” and “episteme.” In doing so, he relies upon the three histories he had written in the 1960s to demonstrate his method in “practice.” Thus, the book is both a defense and systematization of his work in the 1960s and a manifesto for others to take up a similar approach.

Because of his incredible range and prolific output, Foucault has been one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century. In fact, according to many citation collections, he is perhaps the most referenced scholar in the humanities. As such, it is difficult to place Archaeology of Knowledge, in particular, within his wider legacy. It is perhaps less influential than the actual histories he wrote, especially Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality. But as the rare text in which Foucault presents, dissects, and analyzes his own method, The Archaeology of Knowledge is a singular text in his oeuvre. It continues to provide the important concepts and approaches that historians and critical theorists in his wake draw upon to understand how unspoken assumptions organize what actually appears in the historical record.