Open Journal of Philosophy
2011. Vol.1, No.2, 84-89
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ojpp.2011.12014
Did Foucault Revolutionize History?
Cody Franchetti
Modern European Stu dies, Liberal Arts Mast er’s Program, Columbia University, New York, USA.
Received October 15th, 2011; revised November 14th, 2011; accepted November 20th, 2011.
With the pretext of analyzing Foucault’s contribution to history, the paper is an essay on the philosophy of his-
tory. It is shaped, fundamentally, as an answer to the historian Paul Veyne’s essay, “Foucault Revolutionizes
History” (1978) and his assertions on Foucault and historical methodology; Veyne claimed Foucault to have
revolutionized the discipline of history thanks to his singular gaze and his profound skepticism. The paper
counters Veyne’s assertions on both Foucault and Veyne’s historiography and seeks to provide a concept of his-
tory that is more nuanced and conscious of the human sciences’ ontology and duties. To do so, the paper en-
gages with a number of historical currents, thinkers, and concepts, which shape historical i nqu iry.
Keywords: Philosophy of History, Historical M ethodolo gy, Nominalism, Hermeneutics, Michel Foucault, Paul
Veyne, Marcel Gauchet
In 1978, Paul Veyne, historian, friend, admirer, and confi-
dant of Michel Foucault wrote a famous and controversial essay
entitled “Foucault Revolutionizes History”. In it, he claimed
Foucault to be a new kind of historian—one who by “stripping
away the veils”1, managed like none other to “peel away the
banalities and notice that there is more to explain”2 than what
was previously understood about a period. Though brilliant,
Veyne’s reading of Foucault offers only a partial view of him
whose thought is more heterogeneous than Veyne’s under-
standing; Foucault invariably wished to defy classification and
disparaged any attempt to apply it to him. Foucault was first
and foremost a thinker rather than a philosopher, I’d venture to
say, for his thought was not resolutely systematic and presented
a number of aporias, some of which I shall discuss. Yet his
thought and its implications for historical practice, as well as
Foucault’s own, valuable excursions into history itself, indeed
offer fertile cues for historical enquiry. On the other hand,
whether Foucault actually was a historian is a question that
ought to be considered; it is bound to polarize its enquirers; and
it is fated to be especially captious for those who see in Fou-
cault a messianic figure who turned history on its head with his
methodology, even though as we shall see, Foucault himself
was not necessarily mindful of the true nature of his methodol-
ogy. But answering the question of whether Foucault was, say,
a Febvre, a Bloch—the initiator of a new, veritable historical
school—is luckily not the task of this paper. Instead, by exam-
ining Veyne’s assertions, Foucault’s own works, and by finding
out whether his was truly an ex-novo historical practice, this
essay shall attempt to appraise whether Foucault ‘revolution-
ized’ history—and if so, how.
Veyne’s argument for Foucault’s originality rests chiefly
upon three points. The first is that Foucault was both an em-
piricist and a profoundly skeptical thinker “who believed only
in the truth of facts never in the truth of ideas.”3 This, according
to Veyne, allowed Foucault to avoid the pitfalls of relativism
and historicism—to pierce through the “banalities” of the
“vague and noble terms”4 often used by other historians to por-
tray an age, and to display “people’s practices as they really
are.”5 The evocation of Ranke’s famous dictum (“wie es ei-
gentlich gewesen”) by a modern historian like Veyne is sur-
prising: Ranke was the embodiment of the great German his-
torical school of the nineteenth century, which sought to recon-
struct the past empirically by working exclusively from original
documents and archives: “Ranke ended by holding that it is not
science to extract modern history from anything less than the
entire body of written evidence.”6 The limitation of writing
history solely on empiricist principles was archly described by
Jaques Barzun: “It had been a delusion to suppose with Ranke
and his school that history had become scientific: it had merely
become blindly exhaustive about past politics: it produced what
was wittily called ‘biennial history’—a lifetime of research to
furnish an account of two years in a bygone era, preferably
remote.”7 In fact, the conceit that the past can be scientifically
reconstituted ‘as it really was’ has long been abandoned by
historians; yet, Ranke represents a giant step in the history of
historiography and remains a paradigm for any historian. Be
that as it may, Veyne finds in Foucault’s skepticism—an em-
piricist stance—that fundamental quality, which according to
him enables Foucault to circumvent other historians’ incom-
plete ambiguities. Of course, we must establish whether Fou-
cault actually was an empiricist, or whether Veyne is projecting
his own vision of history onto his admired colleague.
The second attribute, which according to Veyne propels Fou-
cault’s historical capacity farther than other historians, is no-
minalism. Veyne’s argument is essentially that the belief in
universals hampers an historian’s understanding of a period in
its uniqueness.
“In short, in any given era the set of practices gives rise, on a
given material point, to a unique historical countenance in
which we think we recognize what is called, in vague terms,
historical science or religion; but what takes shape at that same
point in another era will have its own unique and very different
4Veyne, 1997: p. 15.
5Veyne, 1997: p. 156.
6Acton, 1886: p. 16.
7Barzun, 1974: p. 5.
1Veyne, 1997: p. 156.
2Veyne, 1997: p. 156.
3Veyne, 2010: p. 1.
countenance and, conversely, a countenance vaguely similar to
the earlier one will take shape at a some other point. This is
what denying the existence of natural objects means: across the
ages we do not encounter the evolution or modification of a
single object that always appears in the same place.”8
A few pages later, Veyne drives the point to its paroxistic
locus: “there is no concrete trans-historical truth”9. We shall
have to examine closely the value of sober nominalism as op-
posed to its deceitfulness when relied upon excessively.
Lastly, Veyne considers Foucault’s concepts of “practice”
and “discourse” as completely new domains for historical in-
vest tigation: “The Foucault-style genealogy-history completely
fulfills the project of traditional history; it does not ignore soci-
ety, the economy, and so on, but it structures this material dif-
ferently—not by centuries, peoples, civilizations, but by prac-
tices.”10 This statement shall also need to be examined to de-
termine whether these concepts were new or whether they were
already intrinsically part of other historians’ understand-
ingalbeit under a different name. These are in synthesis
Veyne’s arguments for Foucault’s revolutionizing history.
Let us first look at whether Foucault was in fact an empiricist;
Veyne’s impassioned reading of him is certainly slanted in that
direction. Foucault displayed positivist leanings when he wrote
that understanding historical change, “is a question of what
governs statements, and the way in which they govern each
other to constitute a set of propositions that are scientifically
capable of being verified or falsified by scientific procedures.”11
This extract comes from an interview in June 1974, when Fou-
cault, under the spell of Nietzsche, especially his philosophy
concerning genealogy and power, had turned his interests to
relations of power on the broadest terms. During this period, he
looked to forge a historical method that incorporated these
concepts and seemed intent upon systematizing his view of
history. “Good historical method requires us to counterpose the
meticulous and unavowable meanness of these fabrications and
inventions [ideals, poetry, religion, etc.], to the solemnity of
origins.”12 Here Foucault’s move was to adopt Nietzsche’s con-
ceit that ideals did not have an originthey were not born out
of a volcanobut were rather manufactured in the great ‘fac-
tory of the human mind’ at some point or another (as pro-
pounded in Genealogy of Morals). Foucault found Nietzsche’s
distinction between Ursprung (origin) and Erfindung (invention)
extremely valuable: that religion and poetry, for example, did
not have an origin but were invented allows, in Foucault’s view,
to examine these domains with a certain degree of empiricism,
because the advent of, say, poetry, with its “curious idea of
using a certain number of rhythmic or musical properties of
language”13, can be situated at a certain point in time (with the
collective evidence we have) thus allowing for a scien-
tificand possibly reassuringview when penetrating the
historicity of these domains. However, I’m afraid that this is the
extent of Foucault’s authentic and legitimate empiricist enter-
But Foucault claimed an empirical stance as early as 1966, in
The Order of Things: “History from the nineteenth century,
defines the birthplace of the empirical, that from which, prior to
all established chronology, it derives its own being. History
becomes an empirical science of events and that radical mode
of being that prescribes their destiny to all empirical beings, to
those particular beings that we are.”14 This creedan empirical
Weltanschauung, where we ourselves are “empirical beings”
is not to be taken at face value, at least not in The Order of
Things, for two fundamental reasons. The first is that if this
book is empirical in its outlook, too many empirical inaccura-
cies litter its “scientific” postulations. I shall provide but two
examples. The Order of Things, fundamentally, deals with the
gradual but inexorable disappearance of the law of similitude
that governed language during the Renaissance. Foucault charts
the substitution of representation in place of similitude (in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), which in turn was sub-
verted in the nineteenth century: general grammar; the realist,
naturalistic vision of lifelife and work; a bourgeois life
whose imperatives are a realistic perception of existence, which
is encumbered by the weight of finitude; all contribute to rep-
resentation’s demise. And so, Foucault states that,
“What came into being with Adam Smith with the first phi-
lologists is a minuscule but absolutely essential displacement,
which toppled the whole Western thought: representation has
lost the power to provide a foundation No composition, no
decomposition, no analysis into identities and differences can
now justify the connection of representation.”15
The appearance of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and
Representation in 1818 and its increasing success during the
second edition of 1844 and its resounding triumph of its third,
in 185916 discredits Foucault’s argument that representation
‘lost the power to provide a foundation’ or that there was a
disconnect between representation and thought in the nine-
teenth century altogether. A second example I wish to give of
an ‘empirical’ falsity in the book, which is ‘scientifically veri-
fiable’ is Foucault’s statement that “until the nineteenth century,
analyses of language show little change. Words are still inves-
tigated on the basis of their representative values, as virtual
values that prescribes one and the same mode of being for them
all.” In Germany, Herder, whom Foucault never even mentions
in the book, profoundly changed the study of language, annihi-
lating the hegemony of the French language by declaring lan-
guage’s adjacency to national culture, and, therefore, intimating
all languages to be equal, by studying language in its own ac-
cord; in England, William Ward, in 1765 and 1777, published
what is considered the first modern book of grammar (‘natural
grammar’ as Foucault would call it) whose influence can be
traced to modern linguistics17, and, Adam Smith himself wrote
in 1761 an important treatise on the origin and development of
language. Clearly, the investigation of language in its own
principles and rules, divested from its ‘representational value’,
had started well before the nineteenth century and quite sig-
nificantly so.
The second and most flagrant evidence that The Order of
Things, as well as Foucault’s thought in general, cannot be
considered empirical, is its underlying hermeneutical stance. It
is my contention that Foucault was in reality a hermeneutic
thinker: an unequivocal, magnificent example of a hermeneutic
approach may be found in the following passage, again from
The Order of Things, “Literature becomes progressively more
differentiated from the discourse of ideas, and encloses itself
14Foucault, 1 994: p. 219.
15Foucault, 2000b: p. 238-239.
16A connection with Schopenhauer’s late success may be found in the dra-
matic wea kening of Hegel’s influence a fter the revolutions of 1848.
17See unpublished dissertation by Pankhurst, J. (1966) William Ward’s
ssay on Grammar: a Critical Account and an Assessment of its Relevance
to Eighteenth and Twentieth Century Linguistics. London University.
8Veyne, 1997: p. 171.
9Veyne, 1997: p. 171.
10Veyne, 1997: p. 171.
11Foucault, 2000b: p. 114.
12Foucault, 2000b: p.7.
13Foucault, 2000b: p.7.
within a radical intransitivity; it becomes detached from all the
values that were able to keep it in general circulation during the
Classical age (taste, pleasure, naturalness, truth), and creates
within its own space everything that will ensure a ludic denial
of them (the scandalous, the ugly, the impossible); it breaks
with the whole definition of genres as forms adapted to an order
of representations, and becomes merely a manifestation of lan-
guage which has no other law than that of affirming—in oppo-
sition to all other forms of discourse—its own precipitous exis-
tence; and so there is nothing for it to do but to curve back in a
perpetual return upon itself, as if its discourse could have no
other content than the expression of its own form; it addresses
itself to itself as a writing subjectivity, or seeks to re-apprehend
the essence of all the literature in the movement that brought it
into being.”18
This extraordinary passage, which describes the scission be-
tween language and literature in the nineteenth century, when
the literary works of writers became testament to literature’s
independence from language—to which it was hitherto
fused—and were thus irrevocably engaged in a discourse,
which literature started undertaking about itself, is a modern
hermeneutics tour de force. Modern hermeneutics, which is
based on Schleiermacher’s idea of the ‘circle of understanding’
(Zirkel in Verstehen) is employed with great élan by Foucault:
to understand and interpret—the hermeneutic act, in fact—crea-
tion of literature as an independent domain, Foucault uses the
‘circle of understanding’ by mediating between the part and the
whole, and, the whole and the part, in a constant gyrating mo-
tion, which produces understanding, and, ultimately, as Hans
Georg Gadamer would say, truth. And there is indeed a great
deal of truth in Foucault’s observation about the newfound,
autonomous position of literature in the nineteenth century.
So the empiricist viewpoint does not encapsulate Foucault’s
thought after all despite his stating the contrary. In fact, in the
same year that The Order of Things was first published, a
seemingly different Foucault said that the human sciences “are
caught, as it were, in a double obligation, a simultaneous pos-
tulation: that of hermeneutics, interpretation, exegesis.”19 This
statement, if confronted with that from 1974 where Foucault
insisted on the need that scientific procedures be employed to
detect historical change, as well as the affirmation of empiricist
methods, are countered endlessly by the performance of her-
meneutics throughout The Order of Things. This gives rise to a
crucial aporia: a choice must be made between hermeneutic and
scientific knowledge, for a hermeneut cannot be an empiricist.
This was demonstrated most powerfully by Gadamer in Truth
and Method; Gadamer revealed hermeneutics to be an ulterior
form of knowledge bearing truth outside Method—the indefea-
sible foundation of natural science. It is obvious that we ought
to recognize that Paul Veyne’s fancy that “[Foucault] this sup-
posed sixty-eightist, was an empiricist”20 is untenable on this
contradiction alone. It seems to me that Foucault’s putative
strict empiricism may be put to rest.
Foucault’s inaccurate appraisal of his own epistemology
should not detract from The Order of Things’ stature; after all,
Walter Benjamin spoke of the often occurring author’s delusion:
“as if the creator were, just because he created it, also the best
interpreter of his work—this has been called ‘empathy’, in an
attempt to provide a disguise under which this fatal, pathologi-
cal suggestibility masquerades as method.”21 The Order of
Things remains an enormously fascinating book, one of the
cardinal books of the second half of the twentieth century, and a
book whose insights and cues easily assign Foucault into the
Pantheon of the great cultural figures of his period. We should
therefore not unduly worry whether Foucault’s estimation of his
own work was faulty; nothing is diminished by it.
Next, we come to Veyne’s nominalism and his belief that
this perspective invigorated Foucault’s historical capabilities
substantially. Marcel Gauchet fulminated Veyne for his ex-
treme nominalist position; in an article called Le nominalisme
historien. A propos de Foucault révolutionne l’histoire de
Paul Veyne, Gauchet noticed a radicalization of Veyne’s nomi-
nalism in describing Foucault’s merits. Gauchet did not concern
himself at all to assess whether Veyne’s labeling Foucault as a
nominalist was legitimate, and ignored Foucault all together
(quite tellingly, as we shall see later). He did concede, however,
that nominalism has its own, rightful place in the process of
writing history: “history [is] the emergence, the advent of forms
than cannot be explained, except by missing what matters in
them, that is, what these forms have that is incomparable. From
this comes the necessity of the historian’s nominalism, the only
position that can adequately open him to the inexplicable sin-
gularities of a process of permanent innovation.”22
But he finds Veyne’s nominalism “in flagrant contradiction
with the demands of his pretended nominalism”23, because
“Veyne does refrain from abolishing things that do not exist”24.
Gauchet thus sees in Veyne an exaggerated nominalism, blind-
ed to real historical understanding: “The nominalist shall al-
ways be deceived by the illusion of realism, which is always
more nominalist than he.”25
Gauchet’s criticism of Veyne is significant for our purpose,
because Foucault was a nominalist, but not as extreme as
Veyne. Gauchet expounded brilliantly on the value that the
disbelief in universals may have in historical enquiry. But the
fruits of sound nominalism are not new: Herder had already
“set a universal historical worldview against the Enlighten-
ment’s teleological view of history to acknowledge that each
period has its own right to exist, in its own perfection.”26 But
more importantly, Gauchet’s warning that an exclusively
nominalist outlook has serious drawbacks for the historian is
sensible, I think. It is a fact, as Fustel de Coulanges said, that
“History is not the accumulation of facts and events of every
sort that have been produced in the past: it is the science of
human societies”27 and as such, one must be aware that, con-
trary to the nominalist position, there are constants in human
nature—vanity, rapacity, the wish for a better position in soci-
ety, lust, love: some human traits are without a doubt
trans-historical. And the historian who disregards human es-
sences shall not set them against the period that he is study-
ing—which is of course exemplary and unrepeatable—thus
22[“l’histoire qui est le surgissement, l’avénement de formes qui ne saurien
s’expliquer , sauf à manquer ce qui compte en elles, à savoir ce que’elles
comportent d’incomparable. D’où le nécessaire nominalisme de l’historien,
seul à meme de l’ouvrir adéquatement aux singularités inexplicablesd’un
processus d’innovation permanente.”] Gauchet, 1986: p. 403.
23[“en contradition flagrante avec les requisitions de son prétendu nominal-
isme.”] Gauchet, 1986: p. 414.
24[“Veyne ne se contente pas d’abolir des choses qui n’existent pas.”]
Gauchet, 1986: p. 414.
25[“Le nominaliste sera toujours pris en défaut d’illusion réaliste par plus
nominaliste que lui.”] Ibid, p. 411.
26Gadamer, 2004: p. 198.
27[“La storia non è l’accumulazione degli avvenimenti d’ogni tipo che si
sono prodotti nel passato: essa è la scienza delle societá umane.”] Bloc,
2005: p. 71. Marc Bloc cited this formula in his last, scattered papers on
history, written just before being sh ot in 1944 by the Ge stapo.
18Foucault, 1994: p. 300.
19Foucault, 2000a: p. 263.
20Veyne, 2010: p. 2.
21Benjamin, 1977: p. 53.
finding his compass of vision considerably diminished by such
The third and last point which Veyne envisions as a com-
pletely novel mode that Foucault pointed us to for a superior
understanding of history (or in Veyne’s own words ‘structuring
history’), is “practices”: “I tried to do a historian’s work by
showing the simultaneous practices and the transformations that
accounted for their visible changes.”28 But, as it turns out, a
number of great historians who preceded Foucault had had the
very same concept in mind. Marc Bloch’s The Royal Touch
(1924) was one of the first history books not to be confined to a
single period, since, as one of the founders of the Annales
School, he developed the famous concept of ‘la longue durée’.
Bloch’s approach, like Foucault’s, was highly interdisciplinary
and the book was concerned with the practices spanning for
centuries of those who believed in the thaumaturgic properties
of kingship. He frequently spoke of “collective representations”,
a concept which clearly abuts with Foucault’s “practices”. Thus,
Foucault’s concept of practices was not new. And yet, his ap-
plication of it in one of the greatest themes in European his-
tory—the rise of the modern state is of striking consequence:
“the state effectively entered into the reflected practice of peo-
ple at a given moment, the way which, at a given moment, the
state became for those who governed, for those who advised
governors, for those who reflected on governments and the
action of government as they saw it, was without a doubt not
the absolutely determinant factor in the development of the
state apparatuses, which in truth existed well before—the army,
taxation, justice—but was absolutely essential, I think, for the
entry of all these elements into the field of an active, concerted,
and reflected practice that was, precisely, the state. We cannot
speak of the state-thing as if it was a being developing on the
basis of itself and imposing itself on the individuals as if by
spontaneous, automatic mechanism. The state is a practice. The
state is inseparable from the set of practices by which the state
actually became a way of governing, a way of doing things, and
a way too of relating to government.”29
At the end of the book, Foucault further advocates that “it
must be possible to do the history of the state on the basis of
men’s actual practices, on the basis of what they do and how
they think.”30 So although Foucault’s idea of ‘practices’ applied
to historical understanding may not be original, it is used here
with driving force.
Foucault’s latter quote displays a startlingly close resem-
blance to “mentalité”, a concept which also had a distinguished
antecedent: Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture
and Scholasticism first introduced a broader, hermeneutic view
of iconography, which until his book, was an approach that
attempted to uncover a world-view of a culture by studying the
symbols and images of the art of a period. In the book, Panof-
sky saw a parallel between Thomas Aquinas’s scholastic phi-
losophy and the appearance of Gothic architecture: they both
arose at the same time and around the same place (Paris). As
Peter Burke aptly described, “the connection he discussed [was]
not in terms of the ‘spirit of the age’ but, more precisely, in
terms of the spread from philosophy to architecture of what he
calls a “mental habit”, or habitus, a cluster of assumptions
about the need for transparent organization and the reconcilia-
tion of contradictions.”31 In short, Panofsky was focusing on
the mentality of a period (or mentalité). This concept shall
bridge us to other aspects of Foucault that Veyne did not dis-
cuss but which are considered fundamentally Foucaultian quali-
ties and thus ought to be examined.
So far we have seen that some of the traits, such as “prac-
tices” which Veyne thought Foucault possessed, were not new
and thus not “revolutionary”, and, that Veyne assigned to Fou-
cault a strict empiricist’s point of view erroneously. That Fou-
cault was a nominalist may be certainly granted to Veyne, but
we have also seen, I hope, that a sagacious historian will follow
the nominalist view without excess. Foucault’s epistemology,
therefore, was different from what Veyne claims. We shall now
look at a few other concepts that are unquestionably—and in-
dissolubly—associated with Foucault’s thought: “episteme”
and “discontinuity”. I ended the section of Veyne’s list of Fou-
cault’s purported revolutions in history with Panofsky’s con-
cept of mentalité as somewhat similar to “practices”, because I
think that the concept of mentalité may have been the germ-
idea which gradually swelled to “episteme”; Foucault was
surely acquainted with mentalité through the Annales School,
which absorbed it in its own vocabulary and epistemology.32
Clearly, episteme is a far richer concept than mentalité, for it is
“the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the dis-
cursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sci-
ences, and possibly formalized systems ”33 and is thus consid-
erably more wide ranging, allowing for a deeper understanding
of all the interrelations of a period. For example, Foucault’s
tracing in The Order of Things of the gradual loss of represen-
tation’s significance through the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries until it spoke no more to the modern man, is an in-
stance of this greater and deeper perspective when compared to
Tim Blanning’s roughly similar explanation for the baroque’s
impenetrability to our modern eyes, “the dominant culture was
representational That is perhaps why later ages, more attuned to
secular literalism and humanist understatement, have often
found the confident resplendence of the baroque unconge-
nial.”34 In this instance, we can confidently agree with Veyne
that in contrast to Blanning, Foucault “peeled away the banali-
ties and noticed that there was more to explain” instead of re-
ferring to historical awareness “in vague and noble terms”;
“secular literalism” and “humanist understatement” sound as
adorned but hollow statements next to Foucault’s pertinent,
audacious yet precise metaphoric language throughout The
Order of Things.
If, as I see it, Panofsky represents an important station in the
development of episteme, then we ought to consider that he, too,
was not the sole historian who tried to look through the eyes of
a period’s knowable possibilities. Ortega y Gasset had written
in 1935 that “The diagnosis of any human existence, whether of
an individual, a people, or an age, must begin by establishing
the repertory of its convictions. It is man’s beliefs that truly
constitute his state.”35 The epistemological landscape is a fa-
miliar one—and it is not far from Foucault’s own.
There was however an earlier, eminent historian whom I
consider Foucault’s antecedent in many respects, although their
similarity may not be at all evident. Johann Huizinga was a
historian who was part of the revolt against rationality in the
human sciences, the nineteenth century revolt that was com-
menced by Helmholtz and Bergson, which sought a non-em-
32For a brief but indicative description of the ambiguous relationship be-
tween Foucault and the Annales School, see Burke, P. (1990). The French
istorical Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (especially p.
33Foucault, 2010: p. 191.
34Blanning, 2007: p. 458.
35Ortega y Gasset, 1936: p. 283.
36Weintraub, 1966: p. 228.
28Michel Foucault, 2000a: p. 292.
29Foucault, 2 007: p. 276-277.
30Foucault, 2007: p. 358.
31Burke, 2008: p. 13.
pirical approach to history, in the belief that history is an essen-
tially humanistic pursuit. Huizinga believed that “history is a
cultural form and fulfills a function in culture.”36 He was an
exponent of what is now referred to as “classic cultural history”,
37 and envisioned “the ultimate object of the historian [to be]
culture as a whole, the broadest historical object. His know-
ledge consists of cultural forms and functions. The historian’s
basic question should always be concerned with the place and
function of the separate subject in the broader cultural con-
text.”38 And he often repeated that “culture exists only as a
whole”39. He even had the idea, which was quite unheard of at
the turn of the century—and well before anthropology and so-
ciology had been lain in the toolbox for successful historical
enquiry—to write a history of the seven deadly sins. Huizinga
was astonishingly ‘modern’ in his view about the kind of his-
tory that ought to be written: “If someone could write the his-
tory of vanity, he would command over half of cultural his-
tory.”40 Forty years later Foucault wrote The History of Mad-
ness, focusing on how the concept of madness was envisioned
from the Reanaissance to modernity, or, in “function of the
separate subject in the broader cultural context”—just as Huiz-
inga envisioned such kind of history to be written.
But what seems to me to be the extent of Huizinga’s affinity
to Foucault, is not merely a kind of history-making that he
pointed at but did not do:
“The great divide in the perception of the beauty of life
comes much more between the Renaissance and the modern
period than between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The
turnabout occurs at the point where art and life begin to diverge.
It is the point where art begins to be no longer in the midst of
life, as a noble part of the joy of life itself, but outside of life as
something to be highly venerated, as something to turn to in
moments of edification or rest. The old dualism separating God
and the world has thus returned in another form, that of the
separation of art and life. The Renaissance had managed to free
itself from the rejection of all the joy of life as something sinful,
but had not yet found a new way of separating the higher and
lower enjoyments of life; the Renaissance wanted an unen-
cumbered enjoyment of all of life. The new distinction is a
compromise between the Renaissance and Puritanism that is at
the base of modern spiritual attitudes. It amounted to a mutual
capitulation in which the one side insisted on saving beauty
while the other insisted on the condemnation of sin. Only after
the Puritan worldview lost its intensity did the Renaissance
perceptiveness to all the joys of life gain ground again; perhaps
even more ground than before, because beginning with the
eighteenth century there is a tendency to regard the natural per
se as an element of the basically good.”41
Minds, views, practices, theories are all encompassed into an
overarching gaze that is not confined to a period but is rather
focused upon an idea through the various ages—that of the
fracture between beauty and its negation—which in turn illu-
minates historical periods with a new perspective: such a pas-
sage easily might have been from The Order of Things.
Finally, I should like to examine briefly Foucault’s concept
of “discontinuity”. How novel was it really and did its em-
ployment change historical thinking? As to its originality, dis-
continuity cannot be ascribed to Foucault, since it was Georges
Canguilhem, who introduced the concept of discontinuity to
Foucault. Nevertheless, Canguilhem profited little from it, since
he did not much avail himself of it in his work. Foucault’s his-
torical thought on the other hand, is inextricably tied to the
notion of discontinuity; and many epigones have exaggerated
Foucault’s own attachment to it, hence the abutment of Fou-
cault to Structuralism, which Foucault insistently rejected. “My
problem was not at all to say ‘Voilá long live discontinuity, we
are in the discontinuous and a good thing too,’ but to pose the
question ‘How is it that at certain moments and in certain or-
ders of knowledge, there are these sudden take-offs, these has-
tenings of evolution, these transformations which fail to corre-
spond to the calm, continuist image that is normally accred-
ited?’ It was these different regimes that I tried to identify and
describe in The Order of Things.”42 Foucault’s elucidation is
significant, because too much has been made in the name of
Foucault of the concepts of continuity and discontinuity. It is
for this reason perhaps that Marcel Gauchet didn’t concern
himself with Foucault in Veyne’s essay on him; he may have
found that Foucault’s historical lens were too heavily clouded
with these concepts, which according to him were misleading:
“Two perspectives have normally been regarded as incom-
patible: the uniformity of human development and the existence
of radical discontinuities within it. The word ‘uniformity’ does
not mean continuity and does not mean that the same impera-
tives and ends have always prevailed everywhere. Conversely,
discontinuity does not necessarily involve an irreducible plural-
ity of instances and configurations, each one uniquely and im-
penetrably closed in on itself and the result of the world’s un-
predictable vagaries.”43
For Structuralists, and other obdurate defenders of disconti-
nuity, Gauchet’s point is hard to shake off. I am inclined to
agree with Gauchet about the relative meaninglessness of dis-
continuity per se because of Huizinga’s memorable words
about the same issue, “The image of the transition of a period to
another is that of a long succession of waves rolling onto a
beach, each of them breaking at a different point and a different
moment. Everywhere the lines between the old and the new are
different Anyone seeking in a transition a total unity of spirit
capable of being stated in a simple formula will never under-
stand it in all its expressions.”44 These words capture beauti-
fully the pitfalls of seeking both a single, encompassing discon-
tinuous aspect in history. However, it must be stressed that
Foucault used the concept of discontinuity with much more
parsimony, care, and nuance than some commentators have
attributed to him; and to the extent that he did so, he is to be
heeded, for in the hands of Foucault the analysis of intellectual
discontinuity produced fertile results, from The Order of Things
to History of Madness.
I have tried to investigate if and to what extent Foucault
revolutionized history; and a few key points seem to have
emerged. Let us start with Paul Veyne, who first proclaimed
Foucault to be a revolutionary historian; we have seen that his
essay is heavily slanted and offers a reading that is not com-
pletely faithful to Foucault’s thinking. Firstly, Foucault was not
the originator of the qualities that Veyne perceived to be unique
in Foucault, for Ortega y Gasset, Johan Huizinga, Fustel de
Coulanges, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and others, were
37As opposed to the “New Cultural History” (NCH). Th e name ap
eared in
the late 1980’s, but Foucault was a foundational figure of NCH. (See Burke,
2008: pp. 51-76).
38Cited in Wint raub, 1996: p. 231.
39Cited in Weintraub, 1996: p. 231.
40Cited in Weintraub, 1996: p. 233.
41Huizinga, 1 996: pp. 40-41.
42Foucault, 2000b: p. 114.
43Gauchet, 1999: p. 15.
44Huizinga, 1959: pp. 282-286.
precursors to Foucault’s broad, interdisciplinary outlook, born
out of a classical cultural preparation and an idiosyncratic vi-
sion of the human sciences. Secondly, Veyne did not always
describe Foucault’s thought accurately nor did he truly isolate
its greatest merits; Foucault, as we have seen, despite his own
declarations to the contrary, was not a strict empiricist. I would
define his historical approach as a rare admixture of skepticism
and hermeneutics. Such a combination allowed him to write
books which from a strictly historiographical point of view are
hybrids. The Order of Things, for example, recalls Max We-
ber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: they
both trace an idea in history, while illuminating the period(s)
they examine, without giving emphasis to individuals as agents
in history, yet accentuating the deepest recesses of human cog-
nizance in an epoch.
Whether there was ever a man who has revolutionized his-
tory by himself is questionable; yet Foucault has left an indeli-
ble mark on the historian’s craft: he has provided alternate ways
of looking at it. We may certainly speak of and refer to ‘Fou-
cault’s gaze’—a highly original slant on the issues he concen-
trated on, and, an example of sincerity. The seeds of his thought,
thus, even that that is not devoted to historical issues, can be
sown to fructify a kind of historian, who is “able to experience
a violent, direct interest in things for their own sake.”45
From a strictly historical perspective, Foucault has his merits
and his faults. His books contain cues for rich historical enquiry
that must be carried on; a book like the first volume of the His-
tory of Sexuality—his most “historical” work—is an exemplary
study of the bourgeois ethos of the nineteenth century that few
have penetrated as deeply. On the other hand, in the few pages
about medieval law, in his lecture “Truth and Juridical Forms”,
the paucity of Foucault’s knowledge of feudal law is flagrantly
evident if we confront his observations with the equally suc-
cinct, yet magisterial and enlightening pages of Maitland’s
essay “History of English Law”,46 Foucault’s concepts of epis-
teme and discontinuity seem at times mere instruments of his
ambition for all-encompassing historical statements.
And so, Foucault did not revolutionize history. He did, how-
ever, modify our assumptions on how one might think about
history. And yet, Clio wears a dress whose pattern is so varied,
that, without a doubt, Foucault is permanently emblazoned on
her serried vest.
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45Huizinga, 1959: p. 287.
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