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Philosophical Thought

The problem of historical-philosophical classification and methodological questions of studying the French post-structuralism

Gashkov Sergei Aleksandrovich

PhD in Philosophy

Docent, the department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Baltic State Technical University named after D.F.Ustinov (“Voenmeh”)

196105, Russia, Leningradskaya oblast', g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Sevast'yanova, 4

Other publications by this author








Abstract: The subject of this research is conditions for the creation of nontrivial classifications for the historical-philosophical analysis of the phenomenon of French “post-structuralism”. The author believes that the term “post-structuralism” is a historical-philosophical abstraction insofar that the researchers do not take into consideration a specificity of the thought of French philosophers in the space between modernism and classicism. The article also examines the instances when the “post-structuralists” (Foucault, Castoriadis) address the problem of classification and systematization of philosophical knowledge based on the attempt to classify sciences that has been carried out in French rationalism by Goblot and Meyerson. The research employs the historical-philosophical methods for rationalizing the project of “nontrivial” philosophical classification as a uniform intellectual process, although it is yet to be discerned and finalized. The novelty of this work consists in the fact that the author not only applied the methods of nontrivial classification developed in cognitive linguistics (Lakoff) and theoretical biology (Meien) to the historical-philosophical process, but made an attempt to demonstrate that the development of such heuristic methods is possible within the framework of the history of philosophy as a discipline. The author examined the “archaeological” analytics of biology of Foucault and the concept of social time in of Castoriadis.


classification, poststructuralism, history of philosophy, Foucault, Castoriadis, Meyerson, episteme, social-historical time, French philosophy, methodology of research


Our interest into the philosophy of classification has its strict limits. We do not mean to put in the question the classification as such. The paper does not aim to put question about the fundaments of biological or linguistic classification, no more. There is a question about possibility or impossibility of philosophical classifying of philosophical thought. Studying and comparing the philosophical texts of French poststructuralists Michel Foucault and Cornelius Castoriadis, we are wondering if a classifying approach to their thought can be possible?

We strongly support the scholars saying that “classical categorization towards classification of philosophical conceptions is inflexible [7]”. We completely agree that there are situations in the philosophy of classification that can be, indeed, resolved by the means of cognitive linguistics, using theories of metaphor (Lakoff) or prototype (Roche). Nevertheless, we do not agree that the problem of the philosophical classification could be resolved by sociological, elitist approaches [10]. From our point of view, the most interesting conception of classifying was presented by S. Meyen and Ju. Shreyder, that opposed two levels of classification: the meronomy, i.e. the natural classification of real objects, and taxonomy, i.e. meta-classification of abstract notions [8].

1) Classification and the history of philosophy

The classification is defined as a system of knowledge, whose notions mean groups of objects organized on the principle of their similarity in properties [11, p. 9]. There are two kinds of classification: artificial and natural. The discussion about the relationship of these two types of classification in the philosophy of science is one of the most popular.

Normally, the classification is the object of the philosophy and history of science. M. Serres pointed that the problem of history of sciences consists in accepting the classification as a fact and thus we must make a critical history of different classifications. In this paper we aimed to change this perspective in other sense. We tried to understand how the classification can help us to understand the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy is often represented as a linear and monolith process of the accumulation of theoretical knowledge and the continuity of this process is explicated by the fact that philosophers were personally influenced by each other. This kind of classification does not take into consideration a specificity of philosophical work: not only differences, but the otherness of a philosophical thought. The traditional classification is just chronological. But the fact that the philosophical thought can have not only one place in the time – we continue to read and comment Plato and Aristotle, the “post-modern” philosophers interpret classical works – is strange to this kind of the classifying.

The chronological classification is contradictory. Must we understand after Foucault the history of philosophy as a succession of closed epistemes? The traditional classification has already assigned to Foucault his place in time. But if we are not “foucaldians”, the chronologisation of the thought makes his analyses just useless. So, for avoid a contradiction, we must introduce the pluralism in the thought of the time of classification. But how and on which principles this pluralism can be organized? So, our question is not about different classifications, but about condition of possibility of different classifications and we will study this question through some figures of philosophers.

2) Classification and the philosophy of sciences

Before speaking about poststructuralism, we can make insight into the history and philosophy of sciences. The idea of hierarchy of sciences was advanced already by Descartes, but it was August Comte’s positivism that really developed this question. “Classifying the sciences – wrote Edmond Goblot, means to distinguish their elementary notions, to show that they are irreducible ones to others, and what every one of them is sufficient for a science, whose object is this notion” [4, p. 298]. The first and the most general science is mathematics, the second is geometry, the third order belongs to mechanics. The hierarchy of other sciences is more difficult to find. If one postulates the vital mechanism, it necessarily leads to the dualism of spirit and matter, Goblot said. There is a continuity between biology, psychology, and sociology. The passages from one to other are insensible. For that reason, Goblot represent bio-psycho-sociology in one general table.

So, for Goblot the laws of deduction are a kind of ideal future. The classification must be accomplished not only in facto, but in jure. “Such a conception, - remarks Emile Meyerson, is obviously altogether foreign to true positivism” [6, p. 67]. For Goblot, as for Meyerson all deductions make a part of a great chain, they are just only fragments of this chain. “Thus deduction no longer takes place with an eye to action, it also aims at explanation [6, p. 67].” Meyerson himself classified the modern thought into four classes: 1) mechanistic or atomistic theory; 2) energetic theory; 3) philosophic realism (for example, philosophy of N. Hartmann); 4) mathematical idealism [6, p. 399]. Critical toward Comte, he was a partisan of continuity of the scientific thought.

Gaston Bachelard criticized the Meyerson’s idea of continuity and introduced the idea of discontinuity. In Bachelard’s work we find interesting observations about classification. One of the greatest scientific conquests of the century was the classification of chemical elements by Dmitry Mendeleyev, aimed to show a harmony in the nature. “What Bachelard is showing, - Lecourt wrote, is that in fact the atomic weights contribute a superfluous characteristic to the harmonic classification, since the atomic weights only intervene by their order”. [5, p. 67] Bachelard shows that the classification depends less of a harmony in the nature, than of well-organized experiences. So, interpreting this thought, the truth is to be considered rather as coherence and harmony in classifying pluralities in the goal of making experiences.

The French structuralists as Levy-Strauss and Lacan often used scientific schemas and notions. For example, Lacan served of several mathematical notions in his version of psychanalysis. In this sense, the poststructuralists were concentrated only on the methodological problems of human and social sciences.

3) Classification and episteme: Foucault

Foucault wrote about the classification in his “Order of things”. He found a remarkable epistemological rupture between the classical and modern ways of classifying. He begins by criticizing historians of science which impose the notion of life to the natural history of classical episteme. Natural history was not alike the histories proper to Renaissance’s episteme, argued philosopher. In the Renaissance’s histories there was not the question about classifying, they were histories about real or imaginary things, linked one to another only by the principle of similitude. The classical classifications were only those of visible things or creatures. But the classical episteme did not know this invisible principle of power of the life, the modern biology is built upon. “Historians want to write histories of biology in the eighteenth century; but they did not realize that biology did not exist then, and that the pattern of knowledge that has been familiar to us for a hundred and fifty years is not valid for a previous period [3, p. 139]”.

Also, comparing natural history by John Jonston (1603-1675) with that of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), Foucault showed that the classical taxonomy differs from the semantic approach of Renaissance. The field of classified is that of visible that we are “able to say”. The order of classifying: “name – theory – kind – species – attributes – use” remains unchanged till Linnaeus. So, the classical classification is an unchangeable order of describing of living beings, in the perfect harmony with the claims of Universal Grammar and mathesis universalis. The confrontation of words and things must exclude all uncertainty. The order of explanation of ideas must be the same that the order of visible parts of things. “By virtue of structure, the great proliferation of beings occupying the surface of the globe is able to enter both into the sequence of a descriptive language and into […] a general science of order [3, p. 149].”

Further, Foucault tries to explain why the modern evolutionist biology is excluded by the system itself of a classical thinking. The system of classification is based upon the real differences of individuals. Why the language itself differs from the nature when it could represent a perfect taxonomy and so the natural history could be useless? Because the nature is a continuity, this continuity is not given in the immediate experience, the “tables” of existing creatures are nothing but a part of “solidity, without gasps, of a network of species and genera”[3, p. 163]. “The great mixture” of the nature is not produced by chronological transformations, as think the modernity, the species do not transform one into another. The time is not a condition of possibility of the variety of forms, though certain forms and parts of a living being can be developed and improved with the time. So, the classification in the classical age is a kind of table representing the continuity of the characters of the nature.

The quasi-transcendental condition of possibility of the modern biology by Foucault is the notion of life. In contrast to philosophers, saying the modernity begins with the transcendental subjectivity, Foucault argues that it begins with the idea that the truth is invisible and covered apriori in the “empiricities”: Life, Labor and Language. The classical taxonomy did not have to do with invisible principles of functioning like “organic structure”, there was not question of life as such. “In his project for establishing a classification, […] Jussieu had discovered the rule of the subordination of characters […] Cuvier freed the subordination of characters from its taxonomic function in order to introduce it, prior to any classification, into the various structure plans of living beings” [3, p. 287]. Before Cuvier, the life was considered just as a limit of classification, with Cuvier, the life became the condition of possibility of classification, because he introduced organic functions (breathing, digestion etc.) and their hierarchy and put them over the visible organs themselves. This introduction will permit to create a history of organic life, because the historicity was introduced in the living being, said Foucault. The modernity is also the age of History. We can conclude that the modern classification by Foucault is not simply a meta-classification, it is a quasi-transcendental condition of possibility that Darwinian evolutionist biology is considered as true.

The knowledge is classified by Foucault in different epistemes. The succession of these epistemes in the history is led by some negative dialectical principles. Foucault was criticized for trying to restore transcendental philosophy and refused from the notion of episteme. In his “Archeology of knowledge”, he used other concepts, such as an “archive”. Foucault stresses that “in archeological analysis comparison is always limited and regional” [2, p. 175]. Another question, exterior to Foucault’s text, is that of the “archeology” and a classification of human sciences. Why biology is treated as a human science? One can always find historical reasons for that, but biology as only human science is just impossible. In the “Archeology of sciences” Foucault told us about triad General Grammar – Taxonomy – Analysis of wealth, it seems to be opposed to the triad of the modernity: Language - Life – Labor. In other words, Foucault just introduced the historicity in classification. This historicity is not the critical history of classifications (Serres), but a history of impossible classification through the ages of rationality. The result of the Foucault’s work is just obvious: every classification is subordinated to quasi-transcendental categories that make it impossible as such. So, the “archeology” is not a real alternative of the theory of classification.

4) Classification and time: Castoriadis

Henri Bergson criticized the time-space continuum, because he thought time has been mixed by the positive sciences with the space. His aim was to show the autonomy of mind in behalf of the nature. Edmund Husserl’s approach to the time was due to the critics of Franz Brentano’s conception of intentionality. For Husserl the mind is not beyond the time, but the mind itself is temporal. In his “Being and Time” Martin Heidegger showed the time is the horizon of the human presence. The man has different characteristics, which can be studied by different anthropological sciences. But the deepest of all is his being-to-death, Heidegger said. The time funds the ontological level of thinking the Being itself.

For his part, Castoriadis criticized all the tradition of thinking of time since Aristotle till Husserl and Heidegger. He rejects all traditional ontologies of time. In traditional ontologies: “Time is what is, what permits or realizes the return of the same: whether this return is conceived of as the unalterable cyclicity of becoming […] or simply as repetition in and through causal determination, changes nothing essential about it.[1]” Philosophers do not really know distinguish between the time and the space. They do not think the time as socially and historically instituted, but as a formal condition of repetition of the same. In one hand, Castoriadis seems to repeat the Bergson’s thought about difference between time-space and true time. In other hand, he seems to return to Emile Durkheim’s conception of social time as a collective representation. In fact, Castoriadis did not neither one thing, nor another. The traditional time for Castoriadis is always theological inheritance. “The inherited philosophical institution of time is, therefore, the institution of time as identitary; it is the institution of time as a supernumerary spatial dimension -- and, beyond this, a jungle of 'residual' aporias. [1]” Even the phenomenologists did not maintain the conception of time as a creation. Nevertheless, this idea was advanced by Heidegger in his work “Kant and the problem of metaphysics”. But the priority of Being was always too important to him and he did not develop further this idea, Castoriadis thought.

So, the time for Castoriadis is not a repetition, but otherness (altérité). The true time is what permits to create something radically new, which has not been existed in the history, for example the wheel or Greek democracy. Speaking about the social time, sociologists mean the time as a social idea, the measuring of time and the benchmarks adopted by different nations. But this kind of social time Castoriadis treats only as secondary social time. The primary social time is that of some creation instituted by collective social imagination. The philosopher calls this imagination as a magma of social significations, stressing its unpredictable and undetermined character. The institution of time is specific for every people and for every period of the History.

What this social-historical time, time as radical otherness servs for? Firstly, Castoriadis uses this concept for demonstrate the ontological unicity of the social and the historical, traditionally separated in the positive sciences. Marxism thought to overcome this contradiction in the dialectical way, by social-economical determination of the historical praxis of men. Criticizing the materialistic dialectics, Castoriadis came to the thought that the collective creation gives a comprehension, what the collective social-historical subject is. Every society is a specific historical creation that lives by the laws of his own specific way of the measuring of the time.

So, how this approach to the time permits us to think the classification? We think that this radical idea of the otherness is very important. It is condition of possibility of different levels of being or more exactly beings, for the Being for Castoriadis is always plural. The social-historical being is never the same thing as the biological being of the man. “Now, just as the social-being of the social is not manifested in the properties of human beings as sexual, living things but in the being thus of men and women and in the difference between the sexes as it is instituted, in the same way, what characterizes a society is not the obligatory recognition of the local irreversibility of time, which is trivial and the same everywhere, but the manner in which this local irreversibility is instituted and taken into consideration in the representation and the activity of society. [1]” There are social-historical beings radically different from each other in their being (Sosein) by their manner to think the time as being.

We have to do here with some tentative to summarize and systematize the modern knowledge from the point of view of the human praxis. In his youth, Castoriadis writing his thesis devoted to Kant, advanced the idea of three independent logics: formal, natural and historical. The relationship between them is to be described as otherness. Formal (apodictical) logic is present in mathematics, natural logic is in positive sciences, and the history, combining the subjectivity with objectivity, has its proper logic. No one of them determines another logic. After “The Imaginary institution of the society” (1975), Castoriadis wrote “Crossroads in the labyrinth I” (1978), where he gave his critical analysis of the stage of the modern rationality and science. Firstly, Castoriadis rejected the idea (paradoxically shared by positivists and Heidegger), that the philosophy is ended, and we have to do with rationality only in positive sciences. All rationality is always social-historical, said he. So, inasmuch as the science is connected with praxis, i.e. social-historical purposeful living and doing of socialized individuals, the rationality, i.e. the connection between philosophy and science continues to work. But we must cease to think the knowledge in the manner of eternal accumulation of information. We must adopt Einsteinian model of thinking in the history of knowledge. We must only take in account the presence of the inconscient, discovered by Freud, but obnubilated by Lacanian scientism. Castoriadis offers a more existential and socially oriented model of psychoanalysis. Theoretically, he thought the individual are initially a kind of egocentric monads. Their rupture with the in se being (en-soi) is a painful experience for them because they are all subjected to the socialization. So, we can conclude that the historical praxis is realized on different ontical levels: logics, knowledge, purposeful actions, unconscious mind, social and individual life.

Finally, we have a rather relativistic model of classification. The main acquisition for the theory of classification in this model consists in realizing the radical otherness in its connection with his social-historical praxis. Classifying is a kind of meaning and meaning is a kind of doing. Every society in every period of the history has its proper manner of meaning and classifying things, which is radically different of those adopted by another society. It is undoubtful that Castoriadis continues radical criticism of the Western rationality, existing since Left Hegelians till Frankfurt School or Heidegger. In the same time, his purpose is not only destructive. From our point of view, he tries to institute what Mamardashvili calls “non-classical ideal of rationality”, taking into consideration the experience of Freud’s (and partly Lacan’s) psychanalysis and scientific revolutions. The progress for Castoriadis is never that of only scientific knowledge itself, but the change of the human social emancipation and the functioning of social institutions.

How can we describe his classification of the knowledge-praxis? In the core of this classification the philosopher puts the human praxis and psyche. Psyche was introduced in the philosophy by Freud. The subjectivity was represented by Kant through psychological level of the being. The subject by Kant is also a transcendental principle of the rational organization of the world, that of the unity of logic and experience in condition of Newtonian time and space. It is well known that Kant distinguished between the transcendent and transcendental. In the opposition to this empirico-transcendental unity of the subject, Castoriadis used the idea of psyche. The structure of the subjectivity is not only rational, there is a big part of unconscious. In contrast to Lacan, which superposed the social level upon the unconscious, Castoriadis thought the social is included in the structure of subjectivity itself. The level of social-historical meanings is reached already by the socialization of individuals. So, the conception of plural collective subjectivity by Castoriadis can be compared with Michael Bakhtin’s conception of dialogical subjectivity. The psychanalysis is considered by Castoriadis as a praxis, its main goal is the emancipation of individuality of the patient and the psychoanalyst equally. Remember that phenomenologists, like Merleau-Ponty considered the other subject just as a part of the intersubjective perceptive field. Thanks to the social-historical level, Castoriadis showed that the intersubjective field is that of creativity of a multitude of socialized per se beings (pour-soi). Finally, he did not stop his conception on only conscious social creativity and, using Francisco Varela’s theories, tried to represent the world of living beings as physis or “interobjectivity”.


As a result of our analyses is that we can say that the simple substitution of inflexible classifications by pluralist approaches seem to be insufficient, because there are different situations in the classical philosophy, in the modernity and in the poststructuralism.

Scholars often use historical and positive methods and represent the history of philosophy in a linear way. They lose the specific character of historic-philosophical process for the sake of causality. The methods of cognitive linguistics and biology can be applied to resolve some historic-philosophical problems, but we cannot take the results of a cognitive classification for granted. The central methods for the history of the philosophy stay hermeneutical methods of personal comprehension and dialogical interpretation. Nevertheless, we must not stop only on comprehension of the sense of philosophical texts, we must develop scientific analyses of the history of philosophy. “Unity and pluralism, - wrote academician Oizerman, is a relation of oppositions which determine each other.” [9, p. 55] In other words, speaking about poststructuralism as a philosophical movement, we must not omit but emphasize the differences and theoretical debates existed between his representatives. Poststructuralists as Foucault denied the possibility of scientific classification as such. But this criticism just permits us to accept pluralistic model of philosophical classification. Castoriadis is often considered as a critic of modern science, but he is not an “anti-scientist”. Moreover, he postulated principle of non-contradiction of the thought and the knowledge. From our point of view, the major difference between these philosophers consists in the relationship of knowledge and society. For Foucault’s “archaeology” the knowledge is unconditional, meanwhile by Castoriadis we can analyze the knowledge only through the social life.

Finally, we came to the idea that the history of philosophy on the actual stage needs cognitive multi-level and multi-chronological classification that takes into consideration the specificity of philosophical work and the results of the philosophical process in the XX century.

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