What is Foucault theory of discontinuity in history?

Jun 2019
67
Chicago Suburbs
#2
Can any respected member kindly explain in simple terms as to what the Discontinuity theory in history in according to Michel Foucault?
It's pretty simple - people do not perceive historical events in the same way from one period to the next, making history discontinuous. An example: in 1863 no one looked upon the battle of Gettysburg as the "turning point" of the US Civil War and today, almost everybody does.
 
Jun 2017
2,885
Connecticut
#3
It's pretty simple - people do not perceive historical events in the same way from one period to the next, making history discontinuous. An example: in 1863 no one looked upon the battle of Gettysburg as the "turning point" of the US Civil War and today, almost everybody does.
I mean that is correct but I can this as a way of justifying the editing of history as we've seen promoted by the whole "where's there's power there's resistance" school of Foucalt. That's my main issue with Foucalt everything is ambigious and see it as a threat to the consistancy of the historical narrative. Also this mentality makes things vulnerable to agendas not just modern ones but future ones and am less bothered by the agendas individually than them over time twisting the narrative beyond recognition from what occurred.

There are times when more time provides clarity on passed events. For example in 1865 we know how the Civil War ends and we can better appreciate Gettysburg's importance than in 1862. My fear is going beyond that and using this sort of logic as pretext to edit general understandings for questionable reasoning.
 
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Nov 2016
783
Germany
#5
Discontinuity theory in history in according to Michel Foucault
The above mentioned example with the battle of Gettysburg is not really suitable to illustrate what Foucault understands by discontinuity (of forms of knowledge). This concept goes much deeper. It refers to the basic principles of thinking (= epistemes) according to which things of the world are ordered in thinking. Foucault, for example, distinguishes the episteme of the Renaissance (until 1650) from the episteme of the so-called Classical Period (1650-1800).

In the Renaissance thinking arranged things according to the principle of similarity with the four subcategories convenientia (neighbourhood), aemulatio (imitation in distance), analogia (correspondence of ratios) and sympathia (mixing in distance).

An example for analogy: The stars are in the same relationship to heaven as the grass is to earth., they grow out of the sky, so to speak. It was typical for the similarity thinking of the Renaissance that certain plants, if they have similar characteristics to parts of the human body, are suitable as remedies to cure diseases of these parts of the body. Such botanical similarities have been called ┬┤signatures┬┤ since ancient times. Example: The flower Eyebright was used to treat eye disease because it resembles the human eye. Of course, it often happened that plants were used as remedies, which in reality were very harmful to the human organism, often leading to deaths.

From the middle of the 17th century a new scientific way of thinking (= episteme) emerged which, according to Foucault, no longer operated with the principle of similarity but with the principle of representation. Things were now taxonomized according to precise categories and classified according to identity and difference instead of similarity. The method now became empirical, and things were critically investigated and tested instead of relying on the magic criteria of the previous Renaissance epistem. So thinking became more rational.
 
Last edited:
Jul 2012
757
Australia
#6
Here's my attempt - my only direct experience of Foucault's work was through studying Madness and Civilisation, his first work, at university a few decades ago. Foucault keeps coming up so have gradually understood something of his work.

The idea of Discontinuity recognises that historical shifts from one era to another cannot be understood as a natural growth from the original era. In this aspect he shares common ground with the work of T S Kuhn and his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he concludes that science does not advance the way scientists claim - by rigorous testing, presenting of arguments and discussions with the scientific community and accepting these rational results, but rather by revolution as the supporters of the prevailing scientific outlook maintain their support for the outlook in spite of evidence and arguments to the contrary, are gradually overtaken by supporters of another scientific outlook that offers a resolution to the unsolved puzzles of the former outlook and offers better guidance to the community to solving problems and undertaking future work. In most cases this new outlook has co-existed with the accepted outlook for some time; but for Foucault, it did not attract the support that other outlooks, like the prevailing one did, while Kuhn would argue such alternative views were banished to the periphery of the community where they were denied access to resources and other benefits of community, and only taken seriously once its outlook provided solutions to puzzles the prevailing outlook could not answer, and then only attracted new and young members to the field looking for guidance to constructive investigations.

Central to the argument is Foucault's episteme, which has a correlation to Kuhn's paradigm, a structured knowledge set (a world view) that provides the basic elements of understanding knowledge, the right ways to go about expanding that knowledge and the basis of accepting new ideas as knowledge. It can even define what the truth is in the historical era. A number of epistemes can co-exist but usually one will prevail over the others.

More so, Foucault's work is embodied in the field of The Sociology of Knowledge that highlights the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects that prevailing ideas have on societies and human action. In essence there is little "original thought" as whatever new thoughts arise have only been possible by the structure of knowledge at the time. The new thought may or may not be accepted depending on the social context of the time - this leads to the possibility of new insights being developed that are not accepted at the time and are "forgotten", requiring them to be rediscovered later.

This relationship between what social actors do and the structure of knowledge institutions of the time smells a bit like the "dialectic" that Marx spoke of. Individuals carry out actions that are structured by the social norms of the day, and the specific actions undertaken by the individual will, in most cases, reinforce the norm, and in some cases where the action deviates from the expected, may modify the social norm. In this way, social norms influence actions, and actions in turn can influence and change social norms, even though in the thoughts of individuals, social norms remain objective and unchanging.

Foucault's Discontinuity theory tries to explain that for the most part actions in society will follow a rational, delineated path which leads to an accumulation of knowledge and experience. But in time situations will develop that call for a change in the body of knowledge that define, guide and constrict social action and the accumulation of knowledge, and the path from that form of knowledge to the new one does not follow a continuous. or rational, path. As Kuhn will say, the process will go through a revolution that will see a new set of knowledge institutions emerge to replace the old.
 

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