Postmodern Positivism

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

To describe a group of statements not as the closed, plethoric totality of a meaning, but as an incomplete, fragmented figure; to describe a group of statements not with reference to the interiority of an intention, a thought, or a subject, but in accordance with the dispersion of an exteriority; to describe a group of statements, in order to rediscover not the moment or the trace of their origin, but the specific forms of an accumulation, is certainly not to uncover an interpretation, to discover a foundation, or to free constituent acts; nor is it to decide on a rationality, or to embrace a teleology. It is to establish what I am quite willing to call a positivity. To analyse a discursive formation therefore is to deal with a group of verbal performances at the level of the statements and of the form of positivity that characterizes them; or, more briefly, it is to define the type of positivity of a discourse. If, by substituting the analysis of rarity for the search for totalities, the description of relations of exteriority for the theme of the transcendental foundation, the analysis of accumulations for the quest of the origin, one is a positivist, then I am quite happy to be one.

Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge [1969]. New York, 1972, p.125.

It was originally criticism published against his work that moved Michel Foucault into the sphere of rather classical than modern positivism. Simone de Beauvoir’s secretary and assistant Sylvie Le Bon reviewed his The Order of Things in Jean Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes in 1967. The headline read "Un positiviste desespere: Michel Foucault". Georges Canguilhem adopted this criticism in his own 1967 review of Foucault’s book in the journal Critique. Both, obviously, thought Foucault would read the attribute as insult leveled against his brand of structuralism.

Rather than rejecting the term Foucault, however, embraced it with the today famous statement, and this embrace might be seen to have its own right (apart from the subversive potential it had). One can easily see Foucault immensely interested in reconstructions of the past and in revisions of views other historians would prefer to propagate. As other modern positivists he is in his books far from assuming a hidden essence, an essence that can pervade all objects which we would like to see together in a category of our choice. He is interested in things and their "outer appearance" more than in a deeper metaphysical truth they might hold. And he was ready to go into archives and work with scattered masses of materials.

Poststructuralism and Postmodernity eventually realized that they were both rooted in the linguistic turn. The postmodern notions of pluralism referred – so Jean-François Lyotard in his Postmodern Condition in 1979, back to Wittgenstein’s theory of language games establishing their own validities.

Positivism became last but not least fashionable among postmodernists thanks to its wealth of intellectual if not downright grotesque utopian constructs. It could and it still can rank among the best institutions conspiracy theorists can hope to fear.

Positivists have strangely welcomed this pluralism. They construct views and they created entirely new sciences. “Sociology” is today the most prominent of them. Already in the 19th century they pleaded for an acceptance of homosexuality as nothing abnormal. As writers and photographers they supported the modern welfare state in its attempts to control capitalism and to create positive environments for their citizens. In an age of nationalism, they pleaded both for more regional pluralism and new global institutions to solve global conflicts.