A “discourse” is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, “reason” served a similar function, albeit at a more abstract and, indeed, “transcendental” level. Reason constitutes “the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects” and discourse, we might say, determines the particular difficulty of making a statement. This difficulty is of course positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort. Interestingly, Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon can just as well mean “discursive animal” as the classic “rational animal”. Building on this insight, Foucault presented the “historical a priori” of “discursive formations” as a re-interpretation of Kant’s a priori of “pure reason” such that the difficulty (as I’ve put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions.
Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses “are very different from epistemological or ‘architectonic’ descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory” (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call “theorizing”.
Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that “mastery” does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. The presentation of research results within a theory is not a merely “epistemological” matter, as Foucault pointed out. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair. Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with others. They come to understand that viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most “scientific” of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Finally, they will learn the meaning of “respectful” engagement with their peers.
(This post was previously published on my old blog.)