In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Humanism in and against The Order of Things
  • Mark Bevir (bio)

The study of politics owes much to a humanist historicism and legalism. 1 Early students of politics often focused primarily on formal institutions, which they took to be the historical expressions of human intentions. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, there developed a rival conception of political inquiry modeled on the modern natural sciences. Political scientists began to concentrate on impersonal forces and structures, in contrast to the humanist concern with intentions. In many ways, Foucault’s work continues this antihumanist tradition of enquiry. He wrote, at least in his early works, in the shadow of a French structuralism found in Émile Durkheim’s sociology and Louis Althusser’s Marxism. 2 In The Order of Things, he explicitly attacks humanist historicism and legalism while championing impersonal, structuralist alternatives. He argues that the human sciences, and the humanism on which they are based, derive from a particular episteme. 3 They [End Page 191] are products of an arational semiotic code governing all modern thought, and they will disappear with this code in an arational break sometime in the future.

Foucault develops his critique of humanism and the human sciences using an archaeological method that he contrasts with the historicism of the humanism he is criticizing. His method uncovers the epistemes or historical a prioris that underlie the thought of any given epoch. An episteme is an arbitrary set of concepts defined by their relations to one another. Foucault does not concern himself with the efforts of rational agents to make sense of the world—on the contrary, he doubts the possibility of language referring to the world, and so the possibility of our having objective knowledge. Thus, his epistemes are historical a prioris in that their concepts arbitrarily construct the world for us, rather than referring to objects in the world. In addition, Foucault doubts that the human subject is a rational and creative agent; thus, his epistemes are historical a prioris in that their concepts decide what individuals can and cannot think, rather than themselves being products of the rational deliberations of particular individuals.

In what follows, I want, first, to outline briefly the strengths and weaknesses of Foucault’s archaeological method from the perspective of a modest humanism; and second, to use this outline to develop an alternative account of the nature and problems of the human sciences. I hope thereby at least to raise the possibility of satisfactorily reformulating a humanist historicism and legalism.

History or Archaeology

Although humanists believe that the individual is an agent capable of making choices for reasons that make sense to him, they need not insist that the individual makes choices using a pure reason uninfluenced by society. A modest humanism can accept that both the subject and human reason exist only against the background of a particular social context that influences their nature. This modest humanism will find two main strengths in Foucault’s method, reflecting his emphasis on the influence of society on individual reasoning. The first strength is his rejection of pure facts and pure reason. All our facts are defined at least in part by our theories. Foucault is right to insist that our concepts play a role in constructing our understanding of the world. Historians should recognize that all our ideas are in part theoretical constructs. People, conceived as the subject of the human sciences, are not given to consciousness by pure experience or pure reason alone. Rather, they are at least in part a theoretical construct, and so something that changes through history [End Page 192] along with our understanding of the world. But this need not imply what Foucault concludes, that humans are the arbitrary product of an arational episteme.

The second strength of Foucault’s method is his rejection of individuals as wholly autonomous beings. Human subjects exercise their agency only against social structures, which influence their performances. Foucault is right to insist that something akin to an episteme provides a useful context for an explanation of the beliefs of individuals. Moreover, the intellectual background to an individual’s beliefs must consist of concepts that stand in certain relations to one another...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 191-209
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.