"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."
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.
October 12, 1997
Michel Foucault: background material