Tag Archives: Classical System

Trihedron of Modern Episteme: Comte and Foucault

mohammad amin ansari asked:

“Modern man is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets, his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’: It compels him to face the task of producing himself.”


In this paper an attempt has been made to undertake Foucault’s criticism of the linear classification of branches of knowledge by Comte. The paper first begins with summarization of Foucault’s trihedron of the mathematical, empirical sciences and philosophy and then moves on to linear classification of Comte, with special reference to has positivism. In the final analysis the paper compares both the Comte and Foucault and the major criticism of Comte by Foucault, with reference to Foucault’s other major works.

Foucault’s projection of modern episteme:

Foucault account of the human sciences is centered on a polemical assertion that, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps is nearing its end’. Foucault says that man is simultaneously the subject and object of knowledge, as a transcendental doublet, is a construction of nineteenth century, with specific conditions of possibility. Man did not exist in the 17th and 18th century and his place in the structure was occupied by representation. Grammar, wealth and natural history had the representational structure. Foucault says,

…representation governs the mode of being of language, individuals, nature and need itself. The analysis of representation, therefore, has a determining value for all empirical domains. The whole classical system of order, the whole of great taxonomy that makes it possible to know things by means of system of their identities, is unfolded within this space that is opened up inside representation when represents itself, that area where being and the same reside. Language is simply the representation of beings; need is simply the representation of needs (1966:209).

The 19th century saw the knowledge of wealth, living beings and language freeing itself from representation. The knowledge in these areas no longer remained unified in taxonomic tables. Language, economic and living beings begun to be seen as an organic structure, consisting of function based. Biology no longer analyzed living beings through taxonomic tables based on surface structure, but explored the space between the superficial organs and the hidden ones, connecting both to the functions they perform. Similarly in the realm of philology purely grammar appears. The individuality of the language and its resemblance to other languages is determined by their means and interior grammatical mechanisms. Foucault says,

…language no longer consists only of representational and of sounds that in turn represent representations and are ordered among them as the links of through require; it consists of formal elements grouped into a system which imposes upon the sounds, syllables and roots an organisation which is not that of representation (1966: 235)

Foucault is not saying that the modern episteme eliminates representation as a function of thought, instead he says, representation still has crucial place in the modern conception of signs (as well as of language and of knowledge). His point in just that it is no more an unquestioned, self-justifying starting point; it is no longer simply accepted as a function identical to thought itself. The power of representation to connect must be instead be sought “outside representation, beyond its immediate visibility, in sort of behind-the –scenes world even deeper and more dense than representation.

Foucault sees Kant’s project of critique as a primary focus of this view of representation. Kant allows some forms of knowledge—those are empirical ones—are essentially representational. But he does not accept the classical assumption that all thought is by its very nature representational. His critique questions representation on the basis of its rightful limits. The entire system of representation which for the classical age is the necessary form of thought and reality as such appears, to Kant’s critical eye, as just a particular form of thought and reality needs to be grounded on the uncritical acceptance of representation are imply systems of dogmatic metaphysics. Kant works also open the questioning of all sources of representations, (Gutting: 1989: 243).

One of the single most important development in modern knowledge was the fragmentation of the field of knowing. For the classical age, knowing formed a homogeneous whole, with each domain (from mathematics to philosophy to empirical sciences) just a particular form of the general science of order. To know in any domain was to construct ordered tables and differences. Foucault says,

In the classical period, the field of knowledge from the project of analysis of representation to the theme of the mathesis universalis, were perfectly homogeneous: all knowledge, of whatever kind, proceeded to the ordering of its material by establishment of differences and defined those differences by establishing of an order; this was true of mathematics, true also for taxonomies (in the broad sense) and for the sciences of nature; but it was equally true for all those approximate, imperfect, and largely spontaneous kinds of knowledge which are brought into play in the construction of the latest fragment of discourse or in the daily processes of exchange; and it was true, finally for philosophical thought and for those long chains of order that the ideologues’, no less than Descartes or Spinoza, thought in different way, attempted to establish I order to create a path leading necessarily from the very simplest and most evident of ideas to the most composite truths. But from nineteenth century epistemological fields became fragmented, or rather exploded in different directions. It is difficult to escape the pre-eminence of linear classification and hierarchies in the manner of Comte; but to seek to align all the branches of modern knowledge on the basis of mathematics is to subject to the single point of view of objectivity in the knowledge the question of the positivity of each branch of knowledge….(1966: 346)

The epistemological field exploded in 19th century in different directions (346), and could no longer be understood as a linear series of inquiries employing the same basic method in different domains. The modern episteme is not ordered in accordance with the ideal of perfect mathematization, nor does it unfold, o the basis of a formal purity, a long, descending sequence of knowledge progressively more burdened with empiricity (1966:346). Rather their emerged three distinct dimensions of knowledge-

(1) Mathematical sciences, including pure mathematics and mathematic physics., which construct deductive systems, linking together evident or verified propositions

(2) Empirical sciences, such as biology, economics, and philology, ethic relate the discontinues but analogues elements of the experienced world so as to reveal causal relations and structural constraints between them.

(3) Philosophical reflection, which seeks a unified understanding of the grounds o knowledge and of the order of reality. That is common plane for linguistics biology and economics.

Foucault sees these divisions in the field of knowledge as due to the decline of representation. The splitting off of the philosophy as a methodologically distinct mode of enquiry is the direct result of the fact that representation is no longer the unquestionable form of thought and knowledge. The split between the mathematical and the empirical sciences as a consequence of a new distinction between analytic and synthetic knowledge, wh
ich itself flows from the questioning of representation.

Directly opposing linear progressive growth model of Comte, Foucault say that modern biology, economics and philology correspond to sharp breaks in the history of thought and are not merely extensions of previous ways of thinking-

The analysis of wealth in terms of labor move beyond the pure representational view of wealth by Adam Smith, but the major break with the classical episteme in the analysis of occurred only with Ricardo, who presented labor not only as the measure of value but also the sole source of value. Value had ceased to be a sign, it has become a project…value of things increases with the quantity of labour…but does not change with the increase or decrease of the wages for which labour, like all other commodities is exchanged (1966: 254). And with this conception of labor, new conception of man as an economic agent emerged, to which Foucault calls, homo oeconomics.

Foucault says, both Ricardo and Marx saw economic life as the linear history of finite man’s struggle to survive through his labor. Both see history as moving towards culminating point at which man will face the ultimate consequence of finitude. Ricardo sees this culmination point as a mere dead end that makes permanent the scarcity against which man has so long struggled, Marx on the other hand, sees it as the end of scarcity and the beginning of the new form of human existence. These two linear thought are two different ways of developing the basic picture of economic reality, are founded on the identical archaeological structure of modern economics.

Foucault lambasted Marxism and said that, at the deepest level Marxism in the western knowledge introduced no discontinuity it opposed to bourgeoisie economic views, but this opposition is just a mere surface effect. As Foucault says, Marxism introduced no real discontinuity; it found its place without difficulty, as a full, quite, comfortable and, goodness knows, satisfying from for a time (its own), within an epistemological arrangement that welcomed it gladly (since it was this arrangement that was in fact making room for it) and that it, in return, had no intention of distributing and, above all, no power to modify, even one jot, since it rested entirely upon it. Marxism existed in nineteenth century like a fish I water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else… and further he says that the Marxist-bourgeoisie controversy was like…a few waves and caused a few surface ripples; but they are no more than storms in a children’s addling pool (1966:262).

Thus Foucault says that Marxism was not as revolutionary as it is believed to be and nor does it brought any major rupture and break with the classical episteme, but was a mere surface effect, which continued the linear progression of history.

The move to modern biology begins according to Foucault, with the introduction of notion of organic structure, by Lamark, but the decisive break came only with Cuvier, who was the first to give organic structure a role independent of taxonomic classification. For Cuvier, the structure of an organ is to be understood in terms of the functions that the organ performs. In this way Cuvier, arrive at the definition of living thing as a functional system, where life becomes a category that defines the object of biological inquiry, and modern biology becomes, in contrast to classical natural history, the science of life. Life was than tied to temporality and historicity, which according to Foucault provided the basis for the introduction of the idea of evolution by Darwin, which was foreign to the classical thought.

I case of philology, the major break and rupture that separate philology from general grammar come with Bopp, who recognized the verbal roots of the relationships of the languages.

Thus we see here in the modern episteme, that with the fragmentation of knowledge and decline of representation, language lost the central place it had in the classical episteme, and language became just one object of knowledge among others. Foucault says that the formalization and interpretation of language are rooted in the new status of language as a historical reality and object of our knowledge. The formalization and interpretation are not opposed to each other, but have a common origin and purpose; they have a common ground of phenomenology and structuralism in the modern episteme. In modern literature, according to Foucault, language returns to something like its status during the renaissance. Where as the renaissance language was ultimately controlled and limited by text of the worlds and given as ‘god’ creative word, the language of modern literature is totally ungrounded with “no point of departure, no end, no promise”. Thus we see here that language is tracing back its roots to classical episteme, thus we can assume that it is the interplay of both renaissance and modern episteme that forms the modern language.

We have already discussed the the three axis of modern knowledge—the mathematical, the philosophical and the empirical, but we have not yet encountered the human sciences. The human sciences, which are of ultimate concern to Foucault are excluded as because, as he says, From the epidemiological trihedron the human sciences are excluded at least in the sense that they cannot be found along any of its dimensions or on the surface of any of the planes thus defined. But one can equally say that they are included in it, since it is in the interstices of these branches of knowledge, or, more exactly, in the volume defined by their dimensions, that human sciences have their place (1966:347).

Foucault viewed modern philosophy, that is the philosophy from Kant onwards has dealt with the ‘man’ that is also the object of human sciences. Foucault says that man is the product of modern episteme, and before the end of eighteen century man did not exist (338) and that he will disappear wit the collapse of the modern episteme. The idea of man here represents for those whom representations exist. The appearance of man within the modern episteme means that the subject of representational knowledge becomes, as such an object of knowledge. Foucault recognizes the empirical sciences as the locus of knowledge, but further says that man cannot merely be an object of knowledge, but a subject that constitutes the world and all that is in it as objects. Foucault maintains that the study of man precisely as a constituting subject is the central concern of modern philosophical reflection and in other way of the modern human sciences.

Kant gave the distinction between man as a transcendental subject and constituting object of his experience, but Foucault says Kant failed to five adequate relationship between man a transcendental and empirical, which led the post- Kantian philosophers to reduce the transcendental to the empirical and led to the emergence of two different ways-

(1) Empirical biological knowledge of the human body as the basis of a positivistic rendition of transcendental aesthetic. The result was the discovery that knowledge has anatomo-physiological conditions, that it is formed gradually within the structure of the body. This was taken to show tat human knowledge has empirical nature that determined its character and, at the same time made it an object of knowledge.

(2) This approach was based on historical rather than biological knowledge about the human condition. This led to the Marxist version of a transcendental dialectic, showing that knowledge had historical, social or economic conditions in short that there was a history of human knowledge which could both be given to empirical knowledge and prescribes its form (1966: 319).

The positivist, that is the alternative of basing philosophical, and eschatological, basing empirical truth on philosophical truth becomes important to understand the human sciences. Positivist says that our philosophical discourse about knowledge is itself true in virtue of truths about empirica
l objects. The eschatological says that our scientific and historical accounts of empirical objects are true in virtue of the truth of our philosophical discourse about knowledge. Foucault says, Comte and Marx both bear out the fact that eschatology and positivism are archaeologically indissociable: a discoure attempting to be both empirical and critical cannot but be both positivist and eschatological; man appears within it as a truth both reduced and promised (1966:320). Thus it becomes clear that the efforts (both Comte, Marx) to carry out the reductionist project typically fluctuated between positivism and eschatology.

Foucault says that modern philosophy quest for man has come to dead end, the unquestioned acceptance of man as the ineluctable focus of the philosophy is a new form of dogmatic slumber. Foucault says, in modern thought, what is revealed at the foundation of the history of things and of the historicity proper to man is the distance creating vacuum within the same (1966:340).

The central concern of the human sciences is man. These sciences deal with man as a living, producing and speaking but not in the manner of the empirical sciences of biology, economics and philology. The human sciences like philosophy are concerned with man as a subject, as a knower whose representations constitute his world and are not just products of it. The human sciences are not an analysis of what man is by nature, they are rather an analysis that moves from man’s nature as living, producing and speaking being in contrast to biology, human science is concerned with human life. the human sciences treat man’s life, labor, and language in the stratum of conduct, behavior, attitudes, gestures already made, sentences which already pronounced or written…(1966: 354)

The division of human sciences into three epistemological regions, all subdivided within themselves, and interlocking with one another, each corresponding to one of the empirical sciences of biology, economics and philology.

Foucault develops his methodology of the human sciences in terms of this threefold divisions and holds that each of the three divisions of the human sciences employs a model taken from empirical science to which it particularly linked. Although Foucault holds that each of models has a primary role and significance in one particular human science, he recognizes that all the models operate in all the human science. Foucault says, all the human sciences interlock and can always be used to interpret one another; their frontiers became blurred, intermediary and composite disciplines multiply endlessly, and in the end their proper object may even disappear altogether(1966: 358)

The human sciences are original because they seek the man’s active role as a subject, which has come to be called as unconscious, and it is through these unconscious functions, conflicts, and meanings, the human sciences are able to develop an account of how man represents the fundamental realities of life, labor and language, which appear in the empirical sciences as determinants of man a an object (Gutting: 1989).

Achievement of the human sciences belongs to the domain of knowledge, not science, because the human science is form of knowledge, just as physics and biology, they have legitimate position defined in modern episteme. They do not posses the formal criteria of a scientific form of knowledge. Thus difference between human sciences and empirical sciences lies in formalization and testing (Gutting: 1989).

History constitutes a favorable environment which is both privileged and dangerous for human sciences. To each of the sciences of man it offers a background, which establishes it and provides it with a fixed ground and, as it were, a homeland; it determines the cultural area—the chronological and geographical boundaries—in which that branch of knowledge can be recognized as having validity; but it also surrounds the sciences of man with frontier that limits them and destroys, from the outset, their claim to validity within the elements of universality (1966:371).Foucault holds that history has a special role because the object of human sciences—man—is a historical being. Man treated by any human science will in fact be man only through a particular range of his history. The validity of universal knowledge (as positivism) can also be tested in any chronological era. We will discuss the universality of knowledge later.

Foucault in the last chapter of order of things, talks about the counter sciences like psychoanalysis and ethnology. Both the counter sciences instead of developing a general concept of man, they question the very concept of man itself. Just as Kant’s raising of the question of the condition of the possibility of representation led to the decline of representation, so the raising of similar question about man is the sign of disappearance of man, what Lévi-Strauss said of ethnology: had they dissolve man.

The modern episteme seems to be failing and giving way to structuralism and poststructuralism. Thus we have again returned to language, thinking perhaps that, since modern thought arose with the dispersion of language, whatever is to replace it will require a rebirth of its unity. Thus the man emerged in the modern episteme, and is bound to disappear with the fall of modern episteme.

Comte’s linear classification of the branches of modern knowledge

In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte turned the Enlightenment idea of progress, into a three-stage/law linear evolutionary view toward positivism. He outlined three historical stages: (1) the theological (2) the metaphysical, (3) the positive. Comte’s three-stage evolutionary view was based on the belief that the positivistic pursuit of history, where the third stage to which he called positivism, would consist of observations leading to general laws governing human activity. Let us now discuss briefly some of the important components of the linear classification.

Let us first briefly look at the Three Stages linear progress of human civilization. In 1822, in his first sketch of the Positive Philosophy, he argued that “because of the very nature of the human mind” all human knowledge passes through “the theological or fictive stage; the metaphysical or abstract stage; and finally the scientific or positive stage.” In the theological stage “ideas of the supernatural” operate as explanatory concepts, and “the observed facts are explailzed, that is, are looked at a priori, in terms of invented facts. The metaphysical stage is an intermediate style of thinking which operates “in terms of ideas which are no longer altogether supernatural and are not yet altogether natural. Briefly, these ideas are personified abstractions in which the mind can decide to see, either the mystical name of some supernatural cause or the abstract statement of a simple series of phenomena, according as it is nearer to the theological or to the scientific stage. (Action: 1958)

Theological stage is reflected in such notions as the divine right of kings. The metaphysical stage involves such concepts as the social contract, the equality of persons, and popular sovereignty. The positivist stage entails a scientific or “sociological” (a term coined by Comte) approach to political organization. Quite critical of democratic procedures, Comte envisioned a stable society governed by scientific elite who would use the methods of science to solve human problems and improve social conditions.

Corresponding to the theological stage of human thought was the predatory-military stage of social organization, corresponding to the positive stage of thought is the positive industrial stage of social organization, while between the two is a stage of non-predatory or defensive military organization within which metaphysical ideas develop. There was also a corresponding development of the feelings, showing itself in the moral outlook of mankind. In the theologico-military society men’s feelings are organized about their conception
of a supernatural world with its rewards and punishments after death. In the intermediate revolutionary society, men’s feelings are organized about their worldly self-interest, so that liberalism is held to be at the same time a metaphysical and a selfish outlook. At the positive stage of human development the agreement in opinion to which scientific method leads will, Comte predicts, combine with the sociologist’s awareness of the dependence of each individual upon the whole of society to produce a regime with “love for its principle, order for its basis, and progress for its end.”‘ The morality of industrial-positive society will tend to be one of universal love. (Action: 1958).

Comte’s classification claims to represent the order from simple to complex, and from general to special, and the order of mental growth is the first as stated, and the second reversed. We should expect that the order of individual mental progress would fairly represent the order of the progress of the race in the sciences, but this is plainly not the case. Mathematics, for instance, the earliest of the sciences in developing, dealt with the simplest but with the most general and abstract of notions. Its rapid progress was due in great measure to progress according to the law of least mental resistance. It was easier for the mind to work out an ideal world of form, than to patiently make inductions among the complexities and perplexities of the actual world of things. All he means is that we are justified in regarding as knowledge of the world only what can stand the test of observation and experiment. Comte believed that natural science methods like observation, experiment, verification etc can be used to study and solve human problems.

Comte then proceeds to use the three-state law of scientific progress as a basis from which to argue for the existence of laws of progress governing other aspects of society. First, he appeals to the fact that changes in one aspect of society will bring about changes in other aspects in an attempt to establish the existence of laws of social static’s, the science of social equilibrium. Comte further says that in addition there must be laws of social dynamics which describe the development of aspects of society other than its scientific development. These other aspects of society must progress in order to keep pace with scientific developments, so as to avoid the entire decomposition of the system.

Comte believed that the aim of the positivist method is to find facts and truths, which is the ultimate aim of science. Comte believed that the progressive positive science will lead to betterment of society is doubtful, because the scientific advancement has produced colonized and what Foucault calls, disciplinary societies. Comte’s believed that scientific knowledge of social science will lead governments to recognize that there are definite limits to what they can hope to force or persuade their subjects to do, but it was Foucault who provided the knowledge-power nexus which Comte did not talked of. The application of the positive method had already resulted in greed and authoritative sciences of nature, and was leading to the construction of an agreed and equally authoritative science of society. Although, Comte rejected belief in a transcendent being, he recognized the value of religion in contributing to social stability. In System of Positive Polity he proposed his religion of humanity, aimed at encouraging socially beneficial behaviour.

Comte believes that because human nature is everywhere one and the same, society will always develop in accordance with the same laws. These laws can be discovered through a study of the most advanced human societies. Local factors such as race and climate cannot change the nature of this development. They merely affect the rate at which the society in question passes from one state to the next in the social series. For this reason, Comte believes non-Western societies merely to represent earlier states of social development through which Western Europe has already passed.

Thus, Comte believed in an evolutionary and liner stage of growth theory of human progress based on the laws of scientific positivism, where the laws of evolution can be generalised universally because of similar human nature. And the ultimate aim of the positivism was to find the truth, a universal truth governing society. Comte positivism was like the stages of growth theories propounded later on by psychologists, where human being evolves, same as the child grows-up to adult. Comtean positivism was later on taken up by Durkheim, who proposed evolutionary positivist ideas like mechanical and organic solidarity, and to some extent also Marx (historical and revolutionary evolution) in case of dialectical materialism.

The major points of contradiction between Comte and Foucault

As we have already discussed the both Comtean stages and Foucaudian episteme, and now let us move towards Foucault’s criticisms of linear stages of knowledge proposed by Comte. I have already slightly touched the main criticisms of Foucault; I will now try to discuss them briefly.

The first point of contradiction between Comte and Foucault is about, the linear classification of branches of knowledge. Comte proposed three stages of progress of knowledge and, said that the knowledge passed through theological to meta-physical and finally to scientific, to which he called positivism. Comte said that each stage of knowledge forms a hierarchy, where the progressive scientific or positivism occupies the highest place. Comte believed that the higher the hierarchy of knowledge, the more rationalistic and progressive it is. As Canguilheim puts, Progress means the rejection of the human race’s childishness and prejudices, and a recognition of its errors (1988:315).

The positive stage, according to Comte, “is the final mode to be assumed by any science; the two first being destined only to prepare the way gradually for it. In this stage facts are linked in terms of ideas or general laws of an entirely positive order suggested or confirmed by the facts themselves. The attempt is constantly made to reduce them to as small a number as possible, but without introducing any hypothesis which could not some day be verified by observation, and without regarding them as anything but a means of expressing phenomena in general terms.” the Law of the Three Stages is, in the first place, a formulation of a theory of knowledge. In this aspect, examination of it is a matter for philosophy. In the second place, it is used by Comte to interpret the history of science and of Western society. In this respect it is an alleged sociological law. (Action: 1958).

Comte refers to positive science as “the continuous work of the whole of humanity, without any special inventor,” and says that “quite apart from its point of departure, the public reason ought to establish the general aim of positive speculations, always ultimately directed towards predictions relating to universal needs.” The prime reason why the theological and metaphysical modes of thought are rejected is that they do not link with good sense and practice in the way that the positive mode does (Action: 1958).

Comte also pointed out that only verifiable and testable statements are meaningful. He regarded that any proposition which is not strictly reducible to simple enunciation of the fact—either particuar or general—can have no real or intelligible meaning for us… comte used the verifiability as a stick with which to beat the metaphysicians. This was particularly important for Comte, in the lit of his three stages of intellectual development. All of the sciences have themselves gone through periods of domination and by’ l’ espirit metaphysique’, (1971:39).

Foucault criticism of Comte is that, the knowledge cannot be arranged in linear progressive and hierarchical way; rather it has to be understood in its own episteme. That is knowledge has to be understood in its own time, context and its importanc
e or place in the said period, and we cannot simply say that renaissance knowledge was savage. Instead of looking at classification of knowledge in linear terms Foucault has tried to understand it in terms of epistemological break and rupture, and says that it is the task of historian to understand knowledge in terms of homogeneity and continuity. Thus, Canguilheim rightly said that living in the twentieth century, we can understand why the nineteenth century took a critical view of the eighteen, even though it thought it was following I its footsteps (1998:322). Levy Strauss argues that it is unacceptable to discredit cold societies on the ground that their means of production are archaic… (1998:224).

Foucault says that, the intrinsic “impurity” of what we call “reasonn-its embeddedness” in culture and society, its entanglement with power and interest, the historical variability of its categories and criteria, the embodied, sensuous, and practically engaged character of its bearers(McCarthy:1990). Foucault reject the Comtean picture of an autonomous rational subject set over against a world of objects which it seeks to represent and, through representing, to master. Foucault thinks reason, in its cognitive employment as well, is embedded in socio-cultural milieu.

Comte uses his positive ideas of science to human sciences like sociology and claims that it is the science of society. He says, that like empirical sciences sociology can be quantified and mathematized. But Foucault says that to seek to align modern knowledge on the basis of mathematics is to subject to the single point of view of objectivity in the knowledge the question of the positivity of each branch of knowledge. Foucault says that both empirical and human sciences have the common root and ground and traces its connection in pre-enlightenment era.

Comte like other natural scientists proposed that the ultimate aim of positivism is to seek ultimate truth and fact, which is a universal. The idea was more popularised by Durkheim in his Rules of Sociological Method where he discusses the right method of sociological research based on ultimate facts. Foucault main question is that, can there be any single universal truth? Foucault thinks the answer to be ‘no’, because truth is episteme bound, and what was true for one episteme may not be true for other. Foucault thinks that, like other practices, epistemic practices too have to be comprehended in their socio-cultural contexts. Thus it is in this sense; Foucault believes that the theory of knowledge is part of the theory of society, which is itself embedded in practical contexts, and in rather distinctive ways.

Furthermore, Foucault is critical of the role that the social sciences and social scientifically trained “experts” have played in the process of “rationalization.” Foucault saw the rationality that came to prevail in modern society as an instrumental potential for extending our mastery over the physical and social worlds, a rationality of technique and calculation, of regulation and administration, in search of ever more effective forms of domination. Inasmuch as the human sciences have assisted mightily in forging and maintaining the bars of this “iron cage,” to use Max Weber’s phrase, they are a prime target for genealogical and dialectical critique.(McCarthy:1990).

Since the Enlightenment, a history and idea of reasonhas always surfaced, and that is why Foucault says, “I think that the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope, remain the question: What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects?” Of course, in our own day, we have to add: “What are its limits and what are its dangers? How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to practicing a rationality that is unfortunately crisscrossed by intrinsic danger(McCarthy:1990) Foucault that the answer to this questions are in genealogical histories, which stress the local and contingent aspects of prevailing forms of rationality rather than their universality.

Each society, as Foucault puts it, “has its regime of truth,”‘ and genealogy is interested precisely in how we govern ourselves and others through its production. Focusing especially on the human sciences- the sciences of which “man” is the object -he examines the myriad ways in which power relations are both conditions and effects of the production of truth about human beings. In areas of inquiry ranging from psychiatry and medicine to penology and population studies, he uncovers the feedback relations that obtain between the power exercised over people to extract data from and about them (McCarthy: 1990).What separates this way from a universally oriented “analytic of truth” is an institutionalisation and rationalisation of knowledge such as psychiatry, criminology etc. thus Foucault basically points towards the knowledge-power nexus in the modern episteme.

Along with Foucault other thinkers who are equally or even more critical of the rational and progressive knowledge of Comte are as follows- Freud, Nietzsche, Canguilheim, Levi- Strauss etc.

Freud, we are living in a especially remarkable period. We find astonishment that progress has allied itself with barbarism. Nietzsche said, progress is merely a modern idea, that is to say a false idea (1998:326).Canguilheim says, It is however possible to reject evolutionism and the linear conception of progress without, hopefully, succumbing to the temptations of a retrograde naivety. We can that is, compare the history of different societies, or different states of the same society, I various ways and in accordance with several criteria. According to Levi-Strauss, so called primitive societies do not represent sates that have been transcended by the progress made by so-called civilized societies; they represent different solutions to analogous problems, and their value cannot be gauged by standards imported from outside (1998:324). Thus Levi Strauss has challenged the paradox of progressive ideology of civilized man, by pointing at the very moment when it was bringing destruction in the name of progress.

In conclusion it can be said that the linear and progressive classification of modern knowledge by Comte is being rightfully rejected by Foucault and also by other like Canguilheim, because society cannot be only understood in terms of quantification and rationalism does not always moves towards a higher stage of human conversation, instead it can be said in the words of Canguilheim that, the dark side of enlightenment rationalism was the 15 hour working day for childrens.


(1) Foucault, M (1966) The Order of Things: an archaeology of human sciences. London. Tavistock Publications.

(2) Gutting, G (1989) Michael Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge/New York. Cambridge University press.


(1) Canguilheim, H (1998) The Decline of the idea of progress’, Economy and Society (27, 2&3) pp 313-329.

(2) Ludden, L (1971) Towards a reassessment of Comte’s Methode Positive’, Philosophy of Science, vol. 38, NO. 1. pp 35-53.

(3) McCarthy, T (1990) The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School’, Political Theory, Vol. 18, No. 3. pp. 437-469

(4) Acton, H.B (1951) Comte’s Positivism and the Science of Society’, Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 99. pp. 291-310.