On Michel Foucault’s Distinction between the “History of Ideas” and the “History of Thought”

In a May 1984 interview with Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault characterized his general approach as follows:

For a long time, I have been trying to see if it would be possible to describe the history of thought as distinct both from the history of ideas (by which I mean the analysis of systems of representation) and from the history of mentalities (by which I mean the analysis of attitudes and types of action [schémas de comportement]. It seemed to me there was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought — this was what one could call the element of problems or, more exactly, problematizations. What distinguishes thought is that it is something quite different from the set of representations that underlies a certain behavior; it is also quite different from the domain of attitudes that can determine this behavior. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it its meaning; rather, it is what allows one to step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and to question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals. Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects on it as a problem.1

It is not entirely surprising that the phrase “history of thought” turns up quite a bit in Foucault’s writings: after all, he held a chair at the Collège de France on the “history of systems of thought.” But, unless I’m mistaken (and the point of this post is, in part, to see if I am) there have been few discussions in the secondary literature of the way Foucault attempted to distinguish his proposed “history of thought” from more familiar approaches in the area of intellectual or cultural history.

A cursory search led me to M. Lane Bruner’s 2006 article “Rationality, Reason and the History of Thought” in Argumentation, which begins by quoting another of Foucault’s late invocations of the term (188) and goes on to explore possible parallels between Foucault’s use of the concept, Hegel’s notion of the cunning of reason, and my colleague Neta Crawford’s work on the history of arguments about slavery and forced labor.2 I also came across Bregham Dalgliesh’s discussion in a recent issue of Parrhesia of the relationship of Foucault’s approach to that of Kant and Nietzsche.3 But while Bruner and Dalgliesh discuss the distinction that Foucault draws between his proposed “history of thought” and the approaches of the “history of ideas” and the “history of mentalities,” their concern tends to lie with Foucault’s relationship with his philosophical predecessors, rather than with the implicit contrast he was making between his own inquiries and the sort of work in which historians of ideas see themselves as engaged.

While there is much to be gained by examining Foucault’s debts to Nietzsche, Kant, and others, what interests me is the way in which Foucault sought to differentiate his work from that of his contemporaries in the fields of intellectual or cultural history. As a test case, I’d like to explore how his account of Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” differs from accounts of the essay that have been offered by those of us who, for better or worse, see ourselves as engaged in one or another of the various enterprises that cluster under the heading “intellectual history.” This post will take a closer look at the way in which Foucault distinguished the “history of thought” from “the history of ideas.” Its sequel will attempt to apply this distinction to discussions of Kant’s famous little essay.

Characterizing the “History of Thought”

The phrase “history of thought” turns up quite frequently in Foucault’s final writings, most notably in the context of a series of 1983 discussions of his work on the concept of parrēsia. While there are a few earlier uses of the phrase (one of which I’ll discuss next time), it appears that it was only in the end of his life that the term began to function as a way of characterizing his own particular approach.

He began his January 5, 1983 lecture at the Collège de France by attempting to summarize his work “over the last years, even over the ten or maybe twelve years I have been teaching here” as follows:

In this general project, which goes under the sign, if not the title, “the history of thought,” my problem has been to do something rather different from the quite legitimate activity of most historians of ideas. In any case, I wanted to differentiate myself from two entirely legitimate methods. I wanted to differentiate myself first of all from what we may call, and is called, the history of mentalities, which, to characterize it completely schematically be a history situated on an axis going from the analysis of actual forms of behavior to the possible accompanying expressions which may precede them, follow them, translate them, prescribe them, disguise them, or justify them, and so forth. On the other hand, I also wanted to differentiate myself from what could be called a history of representations or of representational systems, that is to say, a history which would have, could have, or may have two objectives. One would be the analysis of representational functions. By “the analysis of representational functions” I mean the analysis of the possible role played by representations either in relation to the object represented, or in relation to the subject who represents them to him or herself — let’s say an analysis of ideologies. And then I think the other pole of a possible analysis of representations is the analysis of the representational values of a system of representations, that is to say, the analysis of representations in terms of a knowledge (connaissance) — of a content of knowledge, or of a rule, or a form of knowledge — which is taken to be a criterion of truth, or at any rate a truth-reference point in relation to which one can determine the representational value of this or that system of thought understood as a system of representations of a given object.4

The phrase turns up again in an April 1983 discussion at the History department at Berkeley, where — in response to a question about the relationship between archaeology and genealogy that suggested that while the former emphasized discontinuities, the latter might be seen as stressing continuities — Foucault stated:

No: the general theme of my research is the history of thought. How could we make the history of thought? I think that thought cannot be disassociated from discourses and we can’t have any access to thought, either to our own present thought, or our contemporaries’ thought, or of course thought of people of previous periods, but through discourses. And that is the necessity of the archeological consideration. And that has nothing to do with continuity or discontinuity. You can find either continuity or discontinuity in those discourses.

Finally, he closed the second of the four lectures he gave at Berkley in the fall of 1983 on the notion of parrēsia by posing the distinction in this way:

I would like to distinguish between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought”. Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. I am trying to analyze the way institutions, practices, habits, and behavior become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways, who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. The history of ideas involves the analysis of a notion from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its context. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices which were accepted without question, which were familiar and out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions. The history of thought, understood in this way, is the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that – for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.5

There are, no doubt, any number of other places where he used the phrase (I trust that readers will point out others), but this may be enough to begin to give us a sense of how Foucault proposed to use the term.

The most obvious points would seem to be the following:

  1. The term “history of thought” functions principally as a way to contrast what he is doing to the approaches of something called “the history of ideas.”
  2. In the January Collège de France lecture the “history of ideas” is further subdivided into two different “entirely legitimate methods”: (a) the “history of mentalities” — which ranges from “the analysis of actual forms of behavior to the possible accompanying expressions which may precede them, follow them, translate them, prescribe them, disguise them, or justify them, and so forth” — and (b) the “history of representations or of representational systems” — which is concerned with either “the analysis of representational functions” or with “the representational values of a system of representations.”
  3. The Berkeley lecture offers a somewhat different characterization of the concerns of the history of ideas: “a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word.”
  4. The defining feature of the “history of thought” would appear to be that it is concerned with “the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices which were accepted without question, which were familiar and out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions.” In short, the focus of “the history of thought” falls on what Foucault calls the process of “problematization.”

The term “problematization” also turns up quite a bit in Foucault’s work from the 1980s, often in the context of his discussions of the concerns of his proposed “history of thought.” For example, the May 1984 interview with Paul Rabinow that I quoted at the start of this discussion continues

the work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has made them possible — even in their very opposition; or what has made possible the transformation of the difficulties and obstacles of a practice into a general problem for which one proposes diverse practical solutions. It is problematization that responds to these difficulties, but by doing something quite other than expressing them or manifesting them: in connection with them, it develops the conditions in which possible responses can be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what the different solutions attempt to respond to. This development of a given into a question, this transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems to which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response, this is what constitutes the point of problematization and the specific work of thought (118).

At this point, Foucault emphasizes that what he is proposing is quite different from “an analysis in terms of deconstruction (any confusion between the two methods would be unwise).”

Rather it is a question of a movement of critical analysis in which one tries to see how the different solutions to a problem have been constructed; but also how these different solutions result from a specific form of problematization. And it then appears that any new solution which might be added to the others would arise from current problematization, modifying only several of the postulates or principles on which one bases the responses that one gives. The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematization not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought (119).

As a result, it might make sense to add a fifth point to our list:

5.  The “history of thought” is concerned, not with the functioning of systems of representation but rather with the “work of thought,” which begins at the moment when prevailing systems of representations and practices become problematic.

While there is more to be said about how Foucault goes about defining the “history of thought” (I’ve found Dalgliesh’s discussion particularly helpful), this may suffice to give a general sense of the way in which he proposes to distinguish what he is doing from the so-called “history of ideas.” The question I’d like to explore here is whether this distinction actually holds up.

Foucault’s Two Accounts of the “History of Ideas”

Understandably, Foucault is more interested in clarifying what the “history of thought” involves than he is in laying out the various practices in which historians of ideas might be engaged. In all of his discussions of the “history of thought” the “history of ideas” functions chiefly as a way of designating what it is that Foucault sees himself as not doing.  But if we compare the characterization of the “history of ideas” that he offers in his Collège de France lecture with the characterization that we find in his Berkeley lecture on parrēsia, we find two somewhat different accounts.

The Collège de France discussion is by far the most complicated, distinguishing between two different branches (the history of mentalities and the history of representations) which are subject to further subdivisions. The following might suffice as a rough sketch of Foucault’s account:

Collège de France Discussion

In contrast, the Berkeley discussion gives us a much simpler presentation of the concerns of the history of ideas. The focus now falls exclusively on “notions” and the task of the historian of ideas is confined to determining when (and, I suppose, how) these notions emerge, how they develop, and how their emergence and development might be contextualized.

Berkeley Discussion

The difference between the two accounts may amount to nothing more than the particular contexts of the two presentations:  the discussion at the Collège de France occurs at the start of what will a semester of lectures, while the discussion at Berkeley is sandwiched into the end of the second of four lectures. Obviously, Foucault had a good deal more time to draw distinctions in the earlier discussion than he did in the latter.  But as the characterization of the tasks of the “history of ideas” became simpler, the contrast to what Foucault’s “history of thought” became sharper: the former confines itself to tracing the history of concepts, whereas the latter focuses on the ways in which a wide range of beliefs and practices become subject to reflection and revision. When the “history of ideas” has been reduced to an examination of the history of “notions” — as opposed to an account of cultural practices (i.e., “mentalities”) and systems of representation — it is easier to see it as different from the type of inquiry in which Foucault sees himself as engaged.

This distinction is more difficult to draw in the case of the initial characterization of the scope of the “history of ideas”, which could be seen as expansive enough scope to include at least some of Foucault’s own earlier work. For example, in what sense is Les Mots et les Choses not an attempt at writing a history of the rise and fall of the various systems of representation in the human sciences? Or, couldn’t Surveiller et Punir be read, among other things, as the history of the emergence of those disciplinary practices served as the rationale for the modern prison? Much of the force of Foucault’s initial discussion of the distinction between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought” stems from the way in which it suggests that these earlier works, which at one point might have been read as contributions to an enterprise (which, for want of a better term, could be called the “history of ideas”) that was expansive enough to cover the study of various cultural practices and representational systems were, in fact, pursuing a somewhat different research program. As his particular research program became clearer, it became possible to operate with a sharper contrast between it and a drastically simplified “history of ideas.”

The articulation of the concept of “problematization” would appear to play a leading role in sharpening this contrast. It provided Foucault with a way for him to stress that certain of his earlier works — especially those that were read as “structuralist” forays into the study of representational systems — were, in fact, doing something quite different. And (at last for some of us) one of the more attractive features of his later work was that it focused on the ways in which the history of certain concepts (e.g., parrēsia or the idea of self-governance) were transformed in the face of particular challenges or changing historical contexts. But a problem still remains.

Once the demarcation between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought” is defined by the latter’s concern with moments of “problematization,” it is hard to see why at least some of the work done by “historians of ideas” could not be characterized as contributions to the “history of thought” in Foucault’s particular sense of the term. For certainly one of the things that at least some historians of ideas have explored is the way in which concepts and practices become problematic and are subjected to rethinking and reinvention. To clarify this issue, it might be helpful to pick a particular case and see the ways in which Foucault’s discussion of it differs from accounts offered by “historians of ideas.” One case immediately comes to mind: his discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” I’ll look at it in the sequel to this post.

  1. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997) 117.
  2. M. Lane Bruner, “Rationality, Reason and the History of Thought,” Argumentation 20:2 (2006): 185–208.
  3. Bregham Dalgliesh, “Critical History:  Foucault After Kant and Nietzsche,” Parrhesia, no. 18 (2013): 68–84. See also his 2002 dissertation Enlightenment Contra Humanism: Michel Foucault’s Critical History of Thought (PhD Thesis, Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, 2002) (http://hdl.handle.net/1842/1725).
  4. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 2-3.
  5. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Semiotext(e), 2001) 74.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to On Michel Foucault’s Distinction between the “History of Ideas” and the “History of Thought”

  1. Steven Meyerson says:

    Notify me of new posts via email.

    • Thanks, but I’m afraid WordPress doesn’t let site owners sign up; those who wish to follow a blog need to do this themselves. You can subscribe to new posts via email by clicking on the “follow” button in the upper right hand portion of the page, under the words “Follow Blog by Email.”

  2. Pingback: Foucault, the “History of Thought,” and the Question of Enlightenment | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    I would like to thank John Russell for making me aware of this article by John Schmidt from Persistent Enlightenment. Schmidt’s article focuses on the “distinction between the ‘History of Ideas’ and the “History of Thought.'” Schmidt does a good job explaining this distinction. The article is definitely worth reading.

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