Context: What is it Good for?


While reading Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, I soon realized that the entire book would be about making new rules and dismantling old rules. One of the main ideas that Foucault rejects is “context.” He sees this term as an artificial foundation for knowledge and discourse. Throughout the book, Foucault attempts to redefine other terms and the way society categorizes and defines history. As Foucault notes, however, his book is not solely about structure, but “that field in which the questions of the human being, consciousness, origin, and the subject emerge, intersect, mingle, and separate off” ( Foucault 16). Although I do not fully understand each of Foucault’s arguments, I will outline them for you below.

Key Arguments


Foucault is very concerned with discourse in relation to history. In the past, archaeologists felt they were describing the flow of history with discourse. Foucault changes this view, instead believing that archaeology describes the history of discourse itself. Discourse then becomes a multifaceted concept, describing both how society communicates and how the communication has changed or stayed the same throughout history (see Continuities & Discontinuities below).

Continuities & Discontinuities

These two concepts are central to Foucault’s main argument. Foucault uses Continuity and Discontinuity to describe how things (very descriptive term, I know. But Foucault leaves this area vague in my opinion) stay the same or change as time moves on. I believe Foucault is more concerned with how knowledge is defined as history changes as opposed to other things, something he refers to as the “history of ideas” (see definition below).

Subject Position

This describes (at least I think it does) the role one plays within a particular discourse. For example, my subject position is “graduate student” within the discourse of education at Old Dominion University. This position is different from past subject positions, even others that I held within the overall “Discourse of Education.”

Key Terms


This is a collection of texts that are all written by the same author. Foucault complicates this term by suggesting that an oeuvre can also be aligned by an author’s subject position at the time.  In other words, this “set” changes based on view and subject position. Because this collection can change so frequently, Foucault considers this term unreliable.


This term is used to describe the relationships that emerge during discourse, such as the relationship between science and knowledge. Foucault uses this term to further push out context, since the term cannot be used to describe a type of knowledge or a common thought pattern.


This term usually refers to a static collection of texts. Foucault changes this definition by suggesting that an archive depends on how it is constructed. An archive then becomes an active collection of relationships instead of texts.

But wait, I’m still confused!

That is perfectly okay, because I am still a bit confused as well. I have a feeling that The Archaeology of Knowledge is not a text one simply understands. I will probably have to encounter the texts in multiple contexts (sorry Foucault) before I fully understand his arguments. Here are some questions I will try to answer in the future:

  • Foucault alludes to “relationships” a lot throughout the book. How do these relationships differ from the ones historians have already defined? Or do these relationships just constantly change?
  • Why can’t we have context? Foucault seems to really despise this word, but it seems like a lot of his arguments are centered around context.
  • I took a little French in high school and undergraduate, and I wonder if the similarity between the roots for “oeuvre” are the same as the roots for “oeuf,”which means egg, are the same. Was “oeuvre” formed as a way refer to the “eggs” (creations?)  of the authors?

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage, 2010. Print.


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