Paul Knutsen: Michel Foucault As Author of Half-Documentary Fiction

The renowned postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault has had considerable influence in many fields, including the social sciences and, to a certain extent, also in history. In this article, the author discusses two ideal-typical modes of reading Foucault, based primarily on the book which made Foucault famous: Les mots et les choses (1966), translated into English under the title The Order of Things (1970).

On the one hand, there is a widespread tendency to read Foucault’s work as a postmodernist tour de force, with its radical analysis of how the human sciences are prisoners of language, rendering the ambition of historical reconstruction illusory. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, Foucault has been hailed for his epoch-making reinterpretation of modern European history, with special focus on discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture.

On the other hand, there is a reading of Foucault which is fundamentally critical to the way in which he selects his source material, and to how he treats the sources thus selected. One additional dimension in this reading draws attention to the exotic language often used by Foucault, sometimes bordering on inaccessibility or even incomprehensibility.

The author finds the reasons given for this latter reading convincing, and concludes that Foucault’s treatment of historical sources makes him unreliable as a historian. However, he can also be seen as an interesting example of a peculiar type of author, a composer of fiction seemingly supported by footnotes.

Keywords: Historical method, source criticism, postmodernism, episteme, discourse, archaeological method