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Michel Foucault's Political Economy in Les mots et les choses: A Critique of the Linguistic Turn in the Historiography of Ideas


A dearth of critical research on Michel Foucault’s reconstruction in Les mots et les choses (1966) of the history of economic thought from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries has overlooked his most sustained engagement with economics. This dissertation seeks to fill that gap. Also, Foucault and Karl Marx drew from the same archive of economics texts, thus their intellectual histories present a fertile and crucial test of their respective accounts—sometimes congruent, yet other times sharply different—of Europe’s transition to Modernity.

The dissertation’s methodology and organization turn on two axes: archival historical research and immanent critique.

Its historical method engages the same archive of major and minor economists that Foucault and Marx both read: early and late scholastic writers, Copernicus, Gresham, Bodin, Malestroit, Thomas Smith, Davanzati, mercantilist pamphleteers, Colbert, Petty, Cantillon, Boisguillebert, Hutcheson, Hume, Quesnay, Adam Smith, and Ricardo. Scholarly literature on the history of economic thought proved a useful aid, as well.

The dissertation is also conceived and executed as an immanent critique of Les mots et les choses. It adduces a rational reconstruction of Foucault’s theoretical argument and historical narrative in order to identify its rational content, while also demonstrating where and why its analysis is inadequate. To this end, Foucault’s interest in linguistics is relevant insofar as his narrative attenuates the category of labor to that of language.

Overall, Foucault’s archaeological method fails to comprehend the inter-related epistemic and socio-material nature of the category problem of political economy. Foucault’s commitment to radical discontinuities actually eviscerates, rather than captures, historical and conceptual nuances of continuity and discontinuity that Marx’s historiography makes possible. A question is raised whether Foucault and Marx perceived the extent to which economists made use of abstraction as an epistemic action to explain momentous changes in social relations and the mode of production as Europe evolved from commercial society to early manufacturing to capitalism.

The findings lay the groundwork for further research into Marx and Foucault’s intellectual communication as well as Foucault’s frequent recollection of his economic history from Les mots et les choses during his 1970s lectures at Collège de France.

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