Foucault on historical causality

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

We have to rid ourselves of the prejudice that a history without causality is no longer history.

[Michel Foucault. (1994) [1967]. Qui êtes-vous Professeur Foucault? In Dits et écrits: 1954-1988. Vol I. D. Defert, F. Ewald & J. Lagrange (Eds.). Paris: Gallimard, p. 607. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Michel Foucault. (1999) [1967]. Who are you, Professor Foucault? In Religion and Culture. J. R. Carrette (Ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 92.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault also remarks that if the linear succession of events is usually considered to be the matter of history, the analysis of how it is possible that two events can be contemporary with each other is less frequently regarded as history proper.

He made these comments in 1967 a year after the publication of The Order of Things. In this book Foucault looks at a number of simultaneous events or structures of knowledge and describes the similarity in structure between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge. The Order of Things was widely attacked by both Marxists and conservative critics for its unconventional views of history. Marxists saw Foucault’s non-linear approach to history as a conservative rejection of the inevitable historical process leading to revolution and the overthrow of capitalism.

Sartre who had become an enthusiastic Marxist fellow traveller after World War II claimed that in The Order of Things Foucault had replaced ‘cinema by the magic lantern, movement by a succession of immobilities’ adding that this rejection of history was ‘of course’ an attack on Marxism. What Foucault was really trying to do according to Sartre was erect a ‘new ideology, the last rampart that the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx.’ [1]

In relation to causality, Foucault notes that in the natural sciences it has long been perceived that true causality is impossible to establish and that ‘basically causality doesn’t exist in logic’ (p. 607)

1. Jean-Paul Sartre. (1966, 15 October). Sartre répond, La Quinzaine Littéraire, p. 4.

10 thoughts on “Foucault on historical causality

  1. could it rather not be that causality need not be considered as linear, unidirectional or one-dimensional? history exists in its concatenation. a today can hardly be thought of whithout a yesterday just as tomorrow’s making starts within (but is not limited to) today.

    I would appreciate further insights on your view regarding my musing above, so to speak.

    Warm regards,
    BA

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  2. I would certainly agree that causality need not be considered as linear. But causality itself is a problem. It is often very difficult to determine whether one event ’causes’ (in the strict sense of the word) another even in a very simple scientific experiment.

    There is generally a very complex array of factors which produce an event – ’causes’ that we don’t even know about may come into play. In addition, things that we think are obvious ’causes’ might not even be a factor in the occurrence of the event.

    One could say that time does indeed proceed from yesterday to today but the analysis of why things happen today can prove extremely difficult. Cause is a mechanism of explanation which is far too limited and makes too many assumpitons in Foucault’s view.

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  3. Thanx for the prompt response! I do very much appreciate that.
    Now to the discourse -permit my seemingly light use of the word when I actually seek more to know really. I would wonder, does our not knowing or being able to establish causality (based on the limitations of our knowledge and the multivariant reality of reality itself) in any way negate the presence of causality? Can something emerge from nothing? Can there be effect without cause(es)? Can what is free itself of its being because there had been before it and interactions within these gave birth to it? In a matter of analogy (with all the inadequacies of analogies well noted) while artificial insermination for example is devoid of sex as a cause of procreation does not what is actually the ’cause’ ie the fertilization of the egg by the spermatozoa a necessity for conception?

    I will await your response though right now I have to get to the streets even if just for a short while. It’s Carnaval time here in Brasil (my first here, really) and I do not intend to miss what experience there is for me to garner of it.

    Sincere respect and my regards,
    BA

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  4. Getting out onto the streets during Carnaval is a total priority!! I’d be there myself if I was in Brazil!

    I absolutely agree with you that difficulty in establishing causation does not mean that causality does not exist. One can also think of the whole stream in theology which defines God as ‘the first cause’ or the ‘uncaused cause’. Nothing else besides God fits into this category according to this view – everything else in the universe has a cause.

    Perhaps one could argue that using cause was simply one way of writing or structuring history and that it was possible to structure history using other mechanisms. So the existence of cause in itself and using it as a way of structuring the writing history can be separated into two different issues. Foucault’s argument is that using cause as an explanatory mechanism in the writing of history had become weighed down with a whole series of political and metaphysical agendas.

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  5. thnax for understanding the priority position of Carnaval on the streets at this time and in this place! I also had a further cause to cheer. The Labour Party in my country (Nigeria, and which I am an elected principal national officer of) had its first ever Governor sworn in yesterday after the courts ruled that yes our victory was stolen (‘rigging’) during the 1pril 2007 elections!

    Now to our discourse. If we are to assume that there are other mechanisms how do we distill them? I do not find either the archaelogical nor the geneological approach as overcoming cause-as-explanation of discontinuities not to talk of the developments within specific epochs….or is there something I am missing which you could point me towards?

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  6. Sorry I’m a bit rushed with the beginning of the teaching year. Foucault uses the notion of ‘conditions of possibility’ to get around the problems associated with the concept of cause.

    Foucault also notes that some discontinuities are very difficult to explain and we may never know the ’cause’ of them – but we can certain describe what led up to them.

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  7. I’m quite sorry that I’ve not replied till now as well. I’ve been tied up with tidying assignments from my earlier semester at Kassel and commencing the one here.

    I do agree with the impossibility of knowing ‘the’ cause or causes (and if ’causes’ the exact proportion of each’s significance) of histories discontinuities with the certainty of 2 molecules of hydrogen combined with 1 of oxygen being the ’cause’ of water. But life with the mosaic of its richness can hardly be grasped without some abstraction

    Anyway sir, being the student…I won’t want to hold us back here. I’ll check out for your March quote.

    I will also send to you my presentation in January (ppt). If you could find time within your busy schedule to comment on it, I would feel highly honoured (I’ll get your email on the Foucault mailing list)

    My regards,
    Baba Aye

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  8. It is perhaps necessary to refer to page 181 of The Archaeology of Knowledge (Routledge), where Foucault acknowledges the existence of causal relations with his method (archaeology) but how context specific they are, as opposed to metaphysical. In other words, a non-transcendental “causality” exists as part of the archaeological method.

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  9. Nietzsche has some interesting but rather generalized injunctions against causality in his Nachlass (The Will to Power notebooks) and I think in The Gay Science too. They don’t specifically concern history per say but they can very easily apply to the method of history, given their wording and context.
    Foucault refers to these in this interview of course.

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