Key term: problematization

What is Foucault’s notion of “problematization”?

This is a key term in Foucault (as indicated by the valuable discussion over it at the Biopower and the Contemporary blog). It is defined in the late interview with Francis Ewald (“The concern for truth” May 1984, DE350) and addressed in “Problematics” (OT-08 in the Lynch bibliography). Another important interview is “Polemics, politics and problematizations” (DE 342).

Problematization is an example of Foucault’s difference from regular historians:

The history of thought–that means not simply a history of ideas or of representations, but also the attempt to respond to this question: how is that thought, insofar as it has a relationship with the truth, can also have a history? (DE 350.4, p. 456).

So this is a history of how things have been problematized, that is “reflected upon and thought about”:

Problematization doesn’t mean the representation of a pre-existent object, nor the creation through discourse of an object that doesn’t exist. It’s the set of discursive or nondiscursive practices that makes something enter into the play of the true and false, and constitutes it as an object for thought (whether under the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis, etc.). (DE350.4, pp. 456-7).

A number of things to note: this is not an analysis of representations, nor is this purely discursive, nor does it mean that everything is socially constructed. There is material analysis of practices.

It is, therefore, a history of truth.

7 Responses

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I’ve always had a particular, perhaps peculiar, feeling about Foucault’s use of problematization as a description of his methodological practice. It seems to me that he’s taking a cue from phenomenology: looking at the ways in which problems are construed in texts enables Foucault to bracket out metaphysical irruptions. An analysis of representations would require some kind of hermeneutic (Marxism or humanism or whatever) to pre-determine how one understands/makes meaning from these representations. So rather than asking about the relationship between sexuality and capitalism (or sexuality and revolution), Foucault asks how different eras have problematized sexuality and thus made sexuality an object of thought. I’m not arguing that problematization is a pure science (though it is, as you point out, a materialist approach), but one can see from the sexuality example why Foucault would take up problematization as an antidote to discussions of sexuality (such as, say, Marcuse’s) that already assume particular relationships between representation and subjectivity, assumptions that Foucault didn’t want to make. The irony is that Foucault seems to be, in this light, upholding objectivity to some degree, a statement that would make many historians snort derisively.

    Best,

    John

  2. […] And even though we got a fair bit on Foucault in the last carnival, I’ll admit that I can’t get enough. The Valve keeps the Foucault conversation going with “The Warden Will See You Now, Mr. Foucault” and Jeremy at Foucault Blog discusses an important term for Foucault: “Problematization”. […]

  3. […] Key term: problematization […]

  4. Problematization is one of the very important terms employed by Foucault in his last academic works and interviews. But similar to his general strategy he does not come up with precise definition of the term. It could only be searched and discovered by negatively tracking his work. If we identify what is not included in the term we would be better placed to comprehend this term.

    There are two terms with which Foucault has compared this term one is polemics and the other is deconstrucrion. It is comparetively easy to define these terms. For example, polemics is understood as having particular stance and viewing everything from that perspective without any leniency or acceptability for any other view. So the first characteristic of the problematisation is that it does not involve in any debate polemically.

    On the other hand, deconstruction is known to be a way of reading a text and trying to identify the author`s basic assumption and then endeavouting to show that these assumptions are part of the text deconstructed. So it is the second characteristic of the problematisation that it does restrict itself to identifying assumptions and seraching the same in the author`s text thereafter. It goes beyond this exercise though it includes some deconstructive techniques as is apparent from Foucault`s book The Use of the Pleasure.
    Therefore my suggestion is that any effort to search for well defined meaning of the problematisation is not consistent with Foucault`s own approach toward definition of different entities and methods. We should try to read it through his different texts, because of his own propensity to define and rearticulate his themes again and again in different contexts and with innovative styles.

  5. sounds like trouble for anyone seeking to use problematization and explain it to others.

  6. […] It seems to me that he’s taking a cue from phenomenology: looking at the ways in which problems are construed in texts enables Foucault to bracket out metaphysical irruptions. An analysis of representations would require some kind of hermeneutic (Marxism or humanism or whatever) to pre-determine how one understands/makes meaning from these representations. So rather than asking about the relationship between sexuality and capitalism (or sexuality and revolution), Foucault asks how different eras have problematized sexuality and thus made sexuality an object of thought. (https://foucaultblog.wordpress.com/2007/04/26/key-term-problematization/) […]

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