"The Discourse on Language" by Michel Foucault

A Summary

Outline prepared for his students by Professor John Lye, who apologizes for any errors or misrepresentations. The "Discourse" is a dense work, and I hope I've been able to give you the gist without too much confusion or obscurity.

Foucault's hypothesis: in every society the production of discourse is atonce controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is "to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality."

I: The control of discourse

A. Rules of Exclusion (external delimitations)

1. Prohibition.

We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, when we like or where we like.
There are three types of prohibition:

  1. covering objects
  2. ritual with its surrounding circumstances
  3. the privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject
These prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification. The areas most tightly woven today are politics & sexuality.
The prohibitions surrounding speech reveal its links with desire and power.

2. The opposition of reason and madness

This old division, which used to count mad speech either as wholly irrational, therefore devoid of truth, or revealing a hidden rationality, therefore almost preternaturally true, is still here, but proceeds along different lines -- institutions, psychiatrists, etc. The psychiatrist listens to speech invested with desire, crediting itself -- for its greater exaltation or its greater anguish -- with terrible powers.

3. The opposition between true and false

There is a will to truth; one can find in its development something like a system of exclusion (historical, modifiable, institutionally constraining); Foucault looks at the time in history when truth moved from the power of the sayer (truth as ritualized act) to the content of what was enunciated -- its meaning, its form, its object and its relation to that to which it referred.

The great mutations of science may be viewed not as flowing from discoveries but as new forms of the will to truth (Foucault also speaks of it as the will to knowledge.), e.g. the rise of empirical science)

The will to truth has had its own history, which is not at all that of the constraining truths: it is the history of a range of subjects to be learned, the history of the functions of the knowing subject, the his tory of material, technical and instrumental investment in knowledge.

This will to truth, like the other systems of exclusion, relies on institutional support: it is both reinforced and accompanied by whole strata of practices such as pedagogy (naturally), the book system, publishing, libraries, the learned societies in the past, and laboratories today. But it is probably even more profoundly accompanied by the manner in which knowledge is employed in society, the way in which it is exploited, divided and, in some ways, attributed.

This will to knowledge, thus reliant upon institutional support and distribution, tends to exercise a sort of pressure, a power of constraint upon other forms of discourse.

We do not recognize the will to truth as desire or power; this is a function of our discourse itself. Only one truth appears before us, and we are unaware of the prodigious machinery of the will to truth, with its vocation of exclusion.

B. Internal systems for the control & delimitation of discourse

Here, discourse exercises its own control, rules regarding principles of classification, ordering and distribution. It is as though we were now involved in the mastery of another dimension of discourse: that of events and chance.

1. Commentary

There is barely a society without its major narratives, told, retold, and varied; formulas, texts, ritualised texts to be spoken in well-defined circumstances and things said once, and conserved because people suspect some hidden secret or wealth lies buried within.

There is a gradation between different types of discourse: from discourse uttered in the course of the day and in casual meetings, discourse which disappears with the act that gave rise to it (ephemeral), to those forms of discourse that lie at the origins of a certain number of new speech acts, which are reiterated, transformed or discussed, discourse which is spoken remains spoken indefinitely, and which remains to be spoken -- in our system religious or juridical texts, literary texts, to a certain extent scientific texts. This gap is not stable, constant or absolute.

There are differences between primary and secondary texts in commentary. This difference has two roles:

  1. it permits us to create new discourses ad infinitum. The top-heaviness of the original text, its permanence, its status as discourse ever capable of being brought up to date, the multiple or hidden meanings with which it is credited, the reticence and wealth it is believed to contain, all create open possibility for discussion.
  2. on the other hand commentary's only role is to say finally, what has silently been articulated deep down. One says in commentary for the first time what has already been said in the text one is commenting on.

Thus Commentary averts the chance element of discourse by giving it its due: it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is the text itself which is uttered an d, in some ways, finalised.

2. The author, as the unifying principle in a particular group of writings or statements.

The principle does not deny the existence of individuals who write, however when they write, they put on the author-function, and texts are organized respectively around the function, not the individual.

Commentary limited the hazards of discourse through the action of an identity taking the form of repetition and sameness. The author principle limits this same chance element through the action of an identity whose form is that of individuality and the I.

3. Disciplines
This control system is opposed to both the commentary-principle and the author-principle

A discipline is not the sum total of truths that can be said about something, nor of all that may be accepted by virtue of some principle of coherence or systematization. It is what can be said as constrained by certain assumptions about a thing, that is, within a certain theoretical field (as medicine cannot talk now about the influence of the stars, etc).

A proposition must fulfill some complex conditions before it can be admitted to a discipline: it must be "in the true", that is, within what are recognized as the delimits of the area of knowledge. For example, Mendel's statements were not accepted because he was not "in the true." It is possible to speak the truth in a void, but one can only speak in the true through the rules a of a discursive policy.

Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse, fixing its limits through the action of an identity taking the form of a permanent reactivation of the rules.

It is likely impossible to see the enabling role of these forms of constraint without first seeing them as forms of constraint

C. Conditions under which discourse can be employed.

Who is qualified to enter into the discourse on a specific subject? Not all areas of discourse are equally open and penetrable. Moreover, exchange and communication probably cannot operate independently of complex but restrictive systems.

1. Ritual defines the qualifications and role of the speaker, lays down the gestures to be made, the behaviour, circumstances and a whole range of signs, and the supposed or imposed significance of the words, their effect on those addressed, the limitation of their constraining validity. Foucault sees religious, juridical and therapeutic, and in some ways political discourses, as barely dissociable from the functioning of ritual.

2. Fellowship of discourse , whose function is to preserve or to reproduce discourse, but in order that it should circulate within a closed community, according to strict regulations, without those in possession being dispossessed by this very distribution. It functions through various schema of exclusivity and disclosure.

3. Doctrine (religious, political, philosophical, etc)
Doctrine is opposed to fellowship of discourse, which limits class of speakers; doctrine tends toward diffusion:


4. Education: the social appropriation of discourse

Most of the time these four conditions are linked together, constituting great edifices that distribute speakers among the different types of discourse, and which appropriate those types of discourse to certain cat egories of subject...these are the main rules for the subjection of discourse.

D. Philosophical themes conforming to & reinforcing the activity of limitation and exclusion: i.e. eliding the reality of discourse

Western thought seems to have ensured that discourse should appear merely as a certain interjection between speaking and thinking; that it should constitute thought, clad in its signs and rendered visible by words or, conversely, that the structures of language themselves should be brought into play, producing a certain effect of meaning.

1. The theme of the founding subject.
The task of the founding subject is to animate the empty forms of language with his objectives; through the thickness and inertia of empty things, he grasps intuitively the meanings lying within them.

2. The theme of originating experience (the opposing theme to 1.)
This asserts, in the case of experience, that even before it could be grasped in the form of a cogito , prior significations, in some ways already spoken, were circulating in the world. i.e. there is meaning out there which we find .

3. The theme of universal mediation
The logos is already discourse, or things and events which insensibly become discourse in the unfolding of essential secrets.

The result of any of these is that discourse is seen only as an activity, or writing(1), reading(2) or exchange(3), involving only and exchange of signs. Discourse in placing itself as the signified of a signifier, disappears itself.

II: The elucidation of discourse

A. Logophobia

The apparent supremacy given discourse in our culture masks a fear; all our forms of discourse serve to control it, to relieve its richness of its most dangerous elements; to organize its disorder. This logophobia is a fear of the mass of spoken things, the possibility of errant, unrestrained discourse.

B. Decisions in order to erase logophobia

In order to analyze the conditions of this fear, we need to resolve ourselves to accept three conditions, which our current thinking rather tends to resist, and which belong to the three groups of function Foucault has just mentioned:
  1. to question our will to truth;
  2. to restore to discourse its character as an event;
  3. to abolish the sovereignty of the signifier.

C. Methodological demands of these decisions


1. The principle of reversal
Where, in our usual thinking, we think we recognize the source of discourse, its principles, the factors in its positive role, we need to recognize the negative activity of the cutting out and rarification of discourse. Then what would we find behind them? -- a world of uninterrupted discourse, virtually complete? We need the folowing methodologies.

2. The principle of discontinuity
The existence of systems of rarification of discourse does not imply that over against them lie vistas of limitless, repressed discourse, waiting to be liberated. Discourse is a discontinuous activity, its different manifestations sometimes coming together, but just as easily unaware of, or excluding, the other.

3. the principle of specificity
A particular discourse cannot be resolved by a prior system of significations; "the world does not provide us with a legible face, leaving us merely to decipher it; it does not work hand in glove with what we already know....We must conceive discourse as a violence that we do to things, or, at all events, as a practice we impose upon them; it is in this practice that the events of discourse find the principle of their regularity."

4. The principle of exteriority
We "are not to burrow to the hidden core of discourse, to the heart of the thought or meaning manifested in it; instead, taking the discourse itself, its appearance and regularity, we should look for its external conditions of existence, for that which gives rise to the chance series of these events and fixes its limits."

As the regulatory principles of analysis then we have four notions: event, series, regularity, and the possible conditions of existence. These are opposes, term for term, to th four notions which have dominated the traditional history of ideas: signification, originality, unity, creation -- one sought the point of creation; the unity of a work, period or theme; one looked for a mark of individual originality and the infinite wealth of hidden things.


D. Two remarks: on history and on the status of discursive events


1. History

There is a turn of history away from the privileged position of the individual event, and a revealing of more enduring structures, economic and social and so forth, which ground common life; contemporary history has stopped looking for cause and effect and a grand evolutionary processes. History does not (now) consider an event without defining the series to which it belongs, without specifying the method of analysis used, without seeking out the regularity of phenomena and the probable limits of their occurrence, without enquiring about variations, inflexions and the slope of the curve, without desiring to know the conditions on which these depend. Modern history seeks not to establish structures anterior to, alien or hostile to the event, but those diverse converging, and sometimes divergent, but never autonomous series that enable us to circumscribe the locus of an event, the limits to its fluidity and the conditions of its emergence. The notions no longer consciousness and continuity, or sign and structure, but rather of events and series.

2. The status of discursive events

"If discourses are to be treated first as discursive events, what status does this notion of event have? Of course, an event is neither substance, nor accident, nor quality nor process; events are not corporeal. And yet, an event is certainly not immaterial; it takes effect, becomes effect, on the level of materiality. Events consist in relation to, coexistence with, dispersion of, the cross-checking accumulation and the selection of material elements; it occurs as an effect of, and in, material disperion." -- call it (paradoxically) incorporeal materialism.

Now, as discursive events are not homogeneous but discontinuous series, how are we to understand this discontinuity? What is concerned here are those caesura breaking the instant, and the dispersion of the subject in a multiplicity of possible positions and functions. This conception of discontinuity as a priciple of history invalidates the traditional grounding of history in the (smallest and most difficult to contest) conceptions, those of the instant and the subject.

We need to establish a theory of discontinuous systemization, as these events are not in any order or any (or several) consciousnesses; they have their regularity, within limits, but it is no longer possible to sustain ideas of mechanical causal links or ideal necessity. We must accept the introduction of chance as a category.

We feel here the lack, Foucault writes, of a theory linking chance and thought; he wants to introduce into the very roots of thought the notions of chance, discontinuity and materiality. These notions ought to permit us to link the history of systems of thought to the practical work of historians.

E. The analyses Foucault intends to undertake: two groups

1. The critical group

This sets the reversal-principle to work : will attempt to distinguish the forms of exclusion, limitation and appropriation he was speaking of earlier.

2. The geneological group

This sets the other three principles to work (discontinuity, specificity, exteriority). It concerns the effective formation of discourse, within and outside the limits of control.


Criticism analyzes the processes of rarefaction, consolidation and unification in discourse; geneology studies their formation, at once scattered, discontinuous and regular. These two tasks are not always complementary. The difference between the critical and the geneological enterprise is not one of object or field, but of point of attack, perspective and delimitation.

The critical side of the analysis deals with the systems enveloping discourse; attempting to mark out and distinguish the principles of ordering, exclusion and rarity in discourse. We might, to play with our words, say it practises a kind of studied casualness. The geneological side of discourse, by way of contrast, deals with series of effective formation of discourse: it at tempts to grasp it in its power of affirmation, by which I do not mean a power opposed to that of negation, but the power of constituting domains of objects, in relation to which one can affirm or deny true or false propositions....the geneological mood is one of felicitous positivism.

"[T]he analysis of discourse thus understood, does not reveal the universality of meaning, but brings to light the action of imposed rarity, with a fundamental power of affirmation."