Few 20th century thinkers have provided as much food for thought on the humanities and the social sciences (that is, the “human sciences”) as Michel Foucault. And the way he does it rescues the human sciences from those uninformed people who contrast them with the so-called “hard (natural) sciences”, the object-field of which – as even the father of sociology and of “positivism”, Auguste Comte, knew – is not nearly as complex as that of the human sciences. For Comte sociology was the human science that had to confront the human social condition in all its complexity, and Foucault’s work regarding the epistemic status of the human sciences confirms the unmitigated complexity of their field of subjects and “objects”.

To mention but one thing, when modern (as opposed to Aristotelian-Ptolemaic) natural scientists investigated the phenomenon of the relation between energy (E), velocity (v) and mass (m), they used to end up expressing it mathematically, as a constant, universally valid relation – before Einstein this assumed the form of E = mv(squared). Einstein’s genius was to replace velocity (v) with light (c, for celeritas), so that it read E = mc (squared), but the claim to universal validity was exactly the same as before, in other words, it is assumed to be true regardless of time and place.

One of the things that Foucault achieved, in contrast to a host of thinkers who tried to bring the human sciences closer to the natural sciences by emulating their methods (implicitly accepting a physicalistic methodology), was to show that the human sciences face a much more difficult task. They have to come up with knowledge of human beings (in all their complex relations with one another as well as with the natural world) which is valid, and yet respects the fact that human beings are not as utterly predictable as natural phenomena (like mass, velocity, etc).

Putting it slightly differently, Foucault faced the daunting task of showing that human-scientific knowledge negotiated universality and particularity in such a manner that such knowledge has a “quasi-universalistic” epistemic status – with “universal” and “particular” validity limiting each other. How is this possible?

A little historical detour is called for here. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant effected his “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy by shifting the epistemic gravitas from the (“external”) world – regarded by the 17th century empiricists as the sole source of all knowledge; a view that leads unavoidably to scepticism – to the human subject itself (but not the way the rationalists did, by making the subject out to be the one-sided source of all knowledge).

Kant deftly steered a course between the Scylla and the Charybdis of empiricism and rationalism by arguing that the human subject (or reason, in his terms) provides the rational structures for knowledge (of things in the world), while the “manifold of experience” supplies the content, which is structured by the faculties of reason (space and time, and the categories of the understanding, such as causality and substance). In other words, reason, for Kant, is the “condition of the possibility” of knowledge; in fact, of there being an intelligible world at all. And, most importantly, what made such knowledge universally valid (for example Newton’s mechanics), is that this structure is supplied by human reason itself.

Today we know better than to assume that all knowledge is universally valid, thanks to what is known as the “linguistic turn”, starting at the end of the 19th century, because – to put it simply – instead of the categories of reason being “purely” accessible to human beings (and especially “between” human beings), they are “refracted” through the prism of language, and the “colours” into which reason’s categories are refracted (eg causality) in different languages, differ from language to language, for the simple reason that a culture’s values and (sometimes unconscious) beliefs are embedded in language. Hence Foucault’s genius in accounting for differences as well as similarities – differences from epoch to distinctive epoch, and similarities within the “same” epoch.

In the course of the so-called methodologically “archaeological” phase of his thinking Foucault tweaked Kant’s “transcendental” thought (reason is the “a priori” condition of the possibility of knowledge) in the direction of what one may call “quasi-universalistic” thinking: not human reason, but the “epistemé” (implicit rules for thinking) underpinning all the knowledge of an age, constitutes the “historical a priori” (an eloquent oxymoron) enabling the distinctive knowledge of a certain age. And different eras or epochs are characterised by different underlying epistemés, on which the knowledge of that era is dependent.

In his archaeologies Foucault followed the clues provided in the writings and art of a certain epoch to reconstruct a specific epistemé – because an epistemé is, as the term archaeology suggests, that which underlies or underpins, and importantly, which constrains knowledge of the “surface” phenomena of the time. One might say that it is what makes certain things “thinkable” during this time, and rules out other things as “unthinkable”.

For example, the contemporary idea of “mental illness”, as opposed to “madness”, would have been unthinkable in the middle ages, simply because “mental illness” is only conceivable within and on the basis of the modern epistemé of disciplinary techniques and bio-power (through medical and psychiatric discourses, among others), which reduce individuals to “docile bodies”. During the middle ages “madness” (far from being seen as an illness of sorts) was regarded as something endowed with a certain power of its own, and moreover, the mad were allowed to wander freely in villages and towns. It was as if, Foucault suggests in his book on the history of madness, ordinary, “rational” people experienced in mad people the “unreason” which they needed as a measure of their own rationality. (And the greatest madness, he further intimates, may be to deny that in every person there is a smidgen of madness — something most people today would probably find unthinkable.) In fact, as recently as the 17th and 18th century, people like Descartes – the “father” of modern thought – thought of lunacy in terms that are irreconcilable with the idea of mental illness.

Foucault’s archaeological method and methodology therefore do not seek timelessly universal knowledge in the human sciences; implicitly he accepts the human condition as being through and through historical, and therefore posits the task of the human sciences as that of formulating knowledge that is (quasi-universally) valid for a specific time and place. This is not relativism, but what one might dub “historical relationalism”. Knowledge of human affairs, individual and collective, is only possible in historically-related terms, but no less valid within these constraints than any scientific knowledge of humanity is capable of.

The implications of Foucault’s “philosophical histories” (among others his books on madness, on the clinic, on the human sciences, on modes of punishment, and on sexuality) for the practice of the human sciences today are far-reaching (too encompassing a task to even adumbrate here). Suffice it to say that today, too, the human sciences face a historically informed task, which they neglect at their peril.

In the broadest of terms this task has two aspects. The first is to retrieve the idea of what it means to be human from its being virtually smothered by a pervasive technophilia, of which people’s infatuation with technical devices, at the cost of human relationships, is symptomatic (see Sherry Turkle’s, as well as Paul Virilio’s work in this regard; isn’t it uncannily accurate that one talks of “cell” phones – many people are imprisoned by them). The second is to address the psychological, anthropological and sociological grounds of what John Fowles (in The Aristos) called the current “obsession with money”, or with consumerist wealth (as if that is what true “wealth” means in human terms!), at the cost of valuing the inalienable being of fellow humans and of the natural environment.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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