A Cognitivist Apology
Always historicize: Hernadi debates Jameson
Michel Foucault
On the Role of the Human Sciences
Revised October 12, 1997

"The human sciences are not, then, an analysis of what man is by nature; but rather an analysis that extends from what man is in his positivity (living, speaking, labouring being) to what enables this same being to know (or seek to know) what life is, in what the essence of labour and its laws consist, and in what way he is able to speak. The human sciences thus occupy the distance that separates (though not without connecting them) biology, economics, and philology from that which gives them possibility in the very being of man. It would therefore be wrong to see the human sciences as an extension, interiorized within the human species, within its complex organism, within its behaviour and consciousness, of biological mechanisms; and it would be no less wrong to place within the human sciences the science of economics or the science of language (whose irreducibility to the human sciences is expressed in the effort to constitute a pure economics and a pure linguistics). In fact, the human sciences are no more within these sciences than they give them interiority by deflecting them towards man's subjectivity; if they take them up again in the dimension of representation, it is rather by re-apprehending them upon their outer slope, by leaving them their opacity, by accepting as things the mechanisms and functions they isolate, by questioning those functions and mechanisms not in terms of what they are but in terms of what they cease to be when the space of representation of what they are can come into being and be deployed. Surreptitiously, they lead the sciences of life, labour, and language back to that analytic of finitude which shows how man, in his being, can be concerned with the things he knows, and know the things that, in positivity, determines his mode of being. But what the analytic requires in the interiority, or at least in the profound kinship, of a being who owes his finitude only to himself, the human sciences develop in the exteriority of knowledge. This is why what characterizes the human sciences is not that they are directed at a certain content (that singular object, the human being); it is much more a purely formal characteristic: the simple fact that, in relation to the sciences in which the human being is given as object (exclusive in the case of economics and philology, or partial in that of biology), they are in a position of duplication, and that this duplication can serve a fortiori for themselves."

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
(New York: Pantheon, 1970), 353-54
Discussion: Foucault clearly strikes a chord, one that resonates deeply. He carves out a place for the human sciences where they are not asked to make clear knowledge claims, but rather constitute a "body of discourse" (344). They are placed "to occupy the distance" (353) that separates the objective description and the subjective condition of possibility, a territory that is poorly defined:
Diagram of the space of the human sciences

It would be wrong, he claims, to see the human sciences as "an extension, interiorized within the human species, within its complex organism, within its behaviour and consciousness, of biological mechanisms" (353)--that is, the human sciences cannot be relocated within the study of the human as biological object.

This is an attractive position, and one that has been very influential in the humanities. However, it comes with a much larger responsibility than Foucault measures up to. His underlying assumption is that man is "a being who owes his finitude only to himself" (354)--that is, a being who is defined by his own creations and activities. The focus of the human sciences is thus to explain features of human life in terms of cultural history. If this assumption were to be found wanting, however, the focus of the human sciences would need to shift. If it turns out that the human is defined not only by cultural history, but also by the much longer biological history that predates it, makes it possible, and interweaves with it, it becomes incumbent upon the human sciences to engage with the full significance of this discovery.

The abandonment of the radical cultural constructivist conviction, in other words, does not entail relocating the humanities and social sciences within the ontology of objective processes. However, it does mean that these disciplines need to begin the task of negotiating the meaning and significance of the expanded explanatory framework. The negotiation can usefully begin by acknowledging that cultural forms should not automatically and exclusively be traced back to prior cultural forms (an inherently implausible turtles-all-the-way-down hypothesis), but that the contribution of evolved biological structures should be taken into consideration. This task alone constitutes a challenge of significant proportions for the humanities and the social sciences.

Further, and opening an issue that can only be barely touched on here, Foucault is tacitly assuming that a scientific approach must of necessity rely on an object-oriented ontology. While this has in fact tended to be the case in the past history of science, it is not clear that it constitutes an inherent necessity. Rather, science may be viewed as a methodology without a prior ontological commitments. If such an extended view of science is adopted, more fluid boundaries between the various disciplines may be found to be pragmatically useful, and the archaeology of knowledge will need to be rewritten.
Francis Steen
October 12, 1997

Michel Foucault: background material

A Cognitivist Apology
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© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles