The Craft Beneath the Discourse

In my last post, I invoked Heidegger’s distinction between the logical and the existential conceptions of science. Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time, where he distinguishes between science as “an interconnection of true propositions” and science as a “mode of Being-in-the-world” that discovers truths (H. 357). He is interested in the ontological conditions of “the theoretical attitude”, we might say.

But he emphasizes that it is not merely the opposite of a “practical” attitude. Science (“theoretical exploration”) is not a matter of “hold[ing] back from any kind of manipulation”. On the contrary, Heidegger says, science requires a great deal of practical activity: setting up experiments in physics, preparing slides for observation through the microscope, digging up artifacts for archaeological research. Here, already in 1927, Heidegger is heralding the emergence of what we today call “science studies”, i.e., the interdisciplinary study of science as variety of social and material practices. These practices are of great interest to me as an “inframethodologist”.

Writing plays an important role in them. “Even the ‘most abstract’ way of working out problems and establishing what has been obtained, one manipulates equipment for writing, for example” (H. 358, my emphasis). In fact, Heidegger defined human existence by rereading Aristotle’s characterization of human beings as “rational animals” as “that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse” (H. 25). In this sense, then, Foucault’s early work on “discursive formations” can also be considered an “existential” analysis of science. as well an important part of the transition from the philosophy of science to science studies.

While writing is not the only practical aspect of modern research, it may be the most straightforwardly “existential”, as the slogan “publish or perish” reminds us. Indeed, Heidegger was sometimes uncannily prescient. In “The Age of the World Picture”, he describes what might be called (to play on the title Lyotard’s famous book) “the modern condition”, in which he sees a shift away from “scholarship” and towards “research”:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (QT, p. 125)

I think that, today, we all recognize ourselves at least partly in this description.

At the heart of Foucault’s theory of discourse — his “archaeology” of the human sciences — is something he called the Archive, which resonates nicely with the passage I just quoted from Heidegger above:

[The archive situates] a practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its freedom: between traditions and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.(AK, p. 130)

This is why I read Foucault’s Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge as detailed empirical and theoretical elaborations of Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture”. Both thinkers were trying to show how “modern” or “classical” representation was contingent on historical processes, and that history appeared to be moving on. The “postmodern condition” is, perhaps, precisely expressed in this image of an archive, operating somewhere between Bolzano’s book of “the totality of all human knowledge” and Borges’s famous “Library of Babel”. It is the craft of making “statements” to be collected in this archive that I’m interested in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *