"We touch here on an apparently marginal problem that I think is nevertheless important, and this is the problem of theatrical practice in politics, or again the theatrical practice of raison d’état. The theater, theatrical practice, this dramatization, must be a mode of manifestation of the state and of the sovereign as the holder of state power."

Michel Foucault 1

"History will cause man’s anthropological truth to spring forth in its stony immobility; calendar time will be able to continue; but it will be, as it were, void, for historicity will have been superimposed exactly upon the human essence […] The great dream of an end to History is the Utopia of causal systems of thought, just as the dream of the world’s beginnings was the Utopia of the classifying systems of thought."

Michel Foucault 2

In The Order of Things, Foucault offers a broad picture of what he calls the “archaeological” underpinnings of modern thought, comparing this picture with the epistemological foundations of science in the Renaissance and in the Classical period. In the first three chapters, he argues that the production of scientific knowledge in the West experienced a fundamental change in the 17th and 18th centuries, as knowledge shifted from an issue of resemblance to a problem of representation. In chapters 4-6, Foucault studies these transformations in three particular bodies of knowledge: general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth. In chapters 7-8, Foucault argues that another epistemological shift occurred at the end of the 18th century, in which representation yielded to modern knowledge: and now, the problem of truth would be related to meaning, historicity, and the emergence of the subject. The present essay will sketch an archaeological analysis of a similar body of thought: the production of knowledge on sovereignty. Drawing on Foucault´s later work on governmentality, it will argue that the changes that occurred within the raison d' État paradigm can be understood as a response to the shift from resemblance to representation to historicity/subjectivity that occurred in the western epistémè. Thus, it will archaeologically trace the movement of the production of knowledge on sovereignty from its beginnings as a problem of the maintenance of status, to the field concerned with the expansion of the state, to the discipline that revolves around the history of the nation.

To begin, this paper will briefly restate Foucault´s argument in The Order of Things. According to him, during the Renaissance knowledge largely revolved around the association of things according to propinquity. The world was nothing else than a complex network of connections among things: acknowledging the degree of “sameness” among those things permitted men to understand the essence and the movement of these cosmos. In other words, there was no distance between those signs and the things themselves, rather, there is an unbroken surface that connects observation and language.3 Language merely made “everything speak.” Thus, knowledge was basically the study of signs, which enabled men to understand the hidden resemblance of matter.

This epistemological framework, however, was no longer possible after the Baroque, in a world in which sciences had slowly shifted from the study of resemblances to the study of order, comparison, and difference.4 Knowledge no longer revolved around deciphering of the inner signs of things, but rather the establishment of comprehensive systems of signs that permitted to table, dissect, and order things. The intimate link between things and language was forever broken; language no longer embodied the world, but now merely represented it.5

General grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth bear witness to how the classical epistémè attempted to create a relation between name and order.”6 Language no longer made “everything speak”, but rather spoke through everything. In his own words:

"The whole classical system of order […] is unfolded within the space that is opened inside representation when representation represents itself, the area where being and the Same reside. Language is simple the representation of words; nature is simple the representation of beings; need is simple the representation of needs."7

This essay argues that a similar movement occurred in the field that dealt with the production of knowledge on sovereignty: the emerging raison d´État. As Foucault would later recall, at the end of the 16th century, a new theoretical -and practical- field emerged in western history.8 This new field was concerned with the knowledge and techniques related to the foundation, preservation, and expansion of the state, and its corresponding drive to dominate territories and control populations.9 This field initially emerged in the Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and eventually became the rationality of government for all of Europe (reaching its climax at the Peace of Westphalia) before it eventually yielded to “liberal governmentality.”10 This essay argues that the field of the raison d´État also experienced an epistemological shift following the pattern Foucault analyzed in other (neighboring) fields. Although the knowledge of sovereignty – just as the analysis of wealth – was not a pure science but rather a field related with certain institutional practices, it still relied on the epistemological foundations of its time.11

Initially, raison d´État initially emerged as the field of questions related to the conditions that enabled a sovereign to maintain his –and rarely, her- power. That is, of course, a question of Sameness: of propinquity between the ruler and his status.12 Quentin Skinner has shown that a contextual reading of Machiavelli enables us to understand that the initial steps of the raison d´État paradigm were concerned with the virtues a particular prince must have to maintain his princely-hood.13 In other words, the sovereign embodied sovereignty: and science must guide him to maintain his resemblance to sovereignty. There was no distance between the man and the crown: language did not mediate between the sovereign and sovereignty. During the renaissance, we are to take the Latin (and Italian) quite literally: this was the field that studied the ratio status (the reason of status, not of state): the propinquity between the sovereign ruler and his sovereign nature. Knowledge could be nothing more but the endless commentary on the virtues, practices, and objects that resembled sovereignty, and thus were useful for the conduct of the sovereign. As Foucault’s puts it:

"Far from thinking that Machiavelli opens up the field of political thought to modernity, I would say that he marks instead the end of an age, or anyway that he reaches the highest point of a moment in which the problem [of sovereignty] was actually that of the safety of the Prince and his territory."14

Thus, just as it occurred in the other fields of knowledge analyzed by Foucault, a fundamental epistemological break occurred with the emergence of the Baroque. In the flames of the European religious wars and the wreckage of the previous imperial order, sovereignty lost its intimate connection with the physical sovereign.15 Now, the ruler no longer embodied sovereignty, but rather, merely represented it. In his own words, “more than the problem of legitimacy of a sovereign´s rights over a territory, what now appears important is the knowledge and development of a state´s forces.”16 In the classical age, the state become the discursive instrument that enabled the representativy of the representation of the sovereign in a vast apparatus of territorial domination and population control. The state, in other words, had a theatrical function insofar as it permitted the ritual dramatization of sovereign power.17 Bearing this in mind, raison d´État became the field of knowledge related with the question of how to represent the sovereign, both within and outside of its jurisdiction.18 As it is well known, Foucault traced that this field answered with a two-fold response. The state would be represented by the military-diplomatic assemblage (abroad), and through the police (within its own borders).19 As Foucault put it, the logic of the classical raison d´État would be a “physics of states, and no longer a right of [individual] sovereigns.”20

In other words, the shift from the renaissance to the classical episteme in the field of raison d´État can be seen it the movement of this knowledge from a discipline concentrated with the sameness of sovereign and sovereignty (coagulated together in the status of the ruler) to a field preoccupied with the representation of sovereignty: from the resemblance of sovereignty and status to the representation of sovereignty through the state. The irony of Louis XIV´s statement (l'État, c'est moi) now becomes apparent: only in the renaissance can the ruler truly be the state. Afterwards - in the classical age that Louis XIV contributed to shape – the king can do nothing else but represent the state, while at the same time he is himself represented by it. His banners, armies, and ships are not Louis XVI, but just his representation, whereas in the previous epoch the ruler and his scepter were truly the same. Since the middle ages, it had been understood that the King had, in effect, two bodies: one natural and one political. It can be argued that the shift from the Renaissance to the classical age can be traced as the displacement of royal dignity from the personal to the “suprapersonal”; from the dignity of the ruler to the power of the state.21

But Louis´ world of representations would also, in turn, come to an end. Around the years 1775 to 182522another rupture in western epistémè would occur, and the new foundations would be the basis for a “positivity from which, even now, we have doubtless not entirely emerged.”23 The previous world of Order – of a system of signs that represented the world – would yield into a world of History (with capital H). Whereas before knowledge was mainly the tabulation, and classification of the identity and differences of things, now science will consist of the deployment of analogies (concerned mainly with time and function) to understand how discreet things are connected with organic structures.24 The shift from natural history to biology; analysis of wealth from economics; general grammar to linguistics are merely three examples of general trend in which “[r]epresentation [lost] its power to define the mode being common to things and to knowledge [as t]he very being of which is represented is now going to fall outside representation itself.”25

Therefore, sciences would now need to refer to an object which is outside of the realm of representation, and that serves as the cornerstone of the epistemic field. Often, this object would not be a new invention, but rather a concept that was coined in the classical moment that suddenly displaced itself and became independent of representation. In modern economics, for instance, this would be the role of labor in Adam Smith. Although labor already existed in classical political economy, this concept would become the new common denominator of time.26 Labor would no longer be a representation of wealth (or need), but rather the basis of a whole new system of production. This system, unsurprisingly, would be new organic structure – with its own History and functions.27 In the domain of natural history, a hierarchy of organic structures would play the same role as labor, and would permit the articulation of families of living beings according to the inner logic of their functions (and, if I may, History).28Finally, in the field of general grammar, the first “linguistic turn” would revolve the creation of a hierarchy of organic families of languages, according to their functions and History (and, in particular, of their structure of word inflection).29

All of these processes share a fundamental common characteristic, they all bear witness to “the withdrawal of knowledge and thought outside the space of representation.”30This, in turn, makes Kant´s transcendental subjectivity possible, as: 31

"Knowledge can no longer be deployed against the background of a unified and unifying mathesis [but rather around] the problem of the relations between the formal field and transcendental field [and] between the domain of empiricity and the transcendental foundation of knowledge."32

In other words, the emergence of the modern epistémè must be understood as two-fold fracturing of the mathematical world of order. On the one hand, the object of knowledge became independent of the endless logic of representations, endowing itself with an internal - historical and functional - logic of its own. On the other, the knowing subject finally emerges, aware of his own limitations (and those of representation) to achieve scientific understanding.33 Knowledge will now revolve around interpreting (that is, of course, a problem of ascribing meaning) the distance between the hidden and obscure historical forces that animate objects and the subjects that superficially study them.34 In this own words, “[w]hat modern thought [does] is to throw fundamentally into question is the relation of meaning with the form of truth and the form of being.”35

In what remains of chapter eight, Foucault argues how the modern epistémè implied a fundamental discontinuity in western thought, closing the age of natural history, wealth analysis, and general grammar to give way for the emergence of biology, political economy, and linguistics. By analyzing certain paradigmatic authors - such as Smith and Ricardo,36 This analogy works so well precisely because it is not an analogy: they are organisationally the same. Cuvier and Lamarck,37 and Bopp38 - Foucault analyzes how these disciplines were suddenly infused with historicity.39 The present essay will attempt to sketch a similar movement in the field concerned with the production of knowledge on sovereignty. We shall return, thus, to Louis XVI and the classical world of representation through the state.

If the emergence of the modern epistémè in the human sciences occurred around 1775 to 1825, the rupture of modern vis-à-vis classical knowledge on sovereignty must also started around 1775 (with the American Revolution), incrementing its speed with the drums of 1789 until its climax in the liberal-national upheaval of the 19th century. Historicity, of course, was introduced by the swift cut of the guillotine: the King neither embodied nor represented sovereignty, only the people were truly sovereign. His formerly sacrosanct political body would be dissolved amongst the general population: dignity, once a property unique to the Ruler would slowly permeate all human beings. Only after the Bastille had been burnt to the ground could modern political theory emerge, rupturing classical political thought on two levels. On the one hand, the object of study reclaimed its independence: sovereignty was no longer a given. Rather, it was a disputed power that could be taken, shaped, and twisted. On the other, the knowing subject of sovereignty also appeared, conscious of its own historical possibilities and limits.

If labor became the cornerstone of modern political economy, this essay argues that the notion of nation would be the new axis for the analysis of sovereignty. Knowledge had now to uncover the hidden layers of meaning that separated the people from their own sovereignty. As Santer puts it, “[p]ostmonarchical societies are then faced with the problem of securing the flesh of the new bearer of the principle of sovereignty, the People.”40 Thus, the problem of sovereignty would shift from the resemblance of status (Renaissance) passing through representation of the state to become a field concerned with the meaning of the nation. Forging one of the most distinctive alliances of the 19th century, nationalism would pair itself with liberalism, transforming the governmentality of the raison d´État.41 The marriage between the language of liberalism and that of nationhood –stated in Article 3 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen - would govern relations between states, citizens, and “civil society” up to our days. The British case, to give just one early example, clearly shows how the Parliament came to mean the living body of the polity.42 L'état, c'est moi means something completely different now: literally, each member of the nation; each citizen; each human being has an interpretative relationship with the state.

Foucault famously claimed that:

"[i]n political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king. Hence the importance that the theory of power gives to the problem of right and violence, law and illegality, freedom and will, and especially the state and sovereignty (even if the latter is questioned insofar as it is personified in a collective being and no longer a sovereign individual)."43

By applying the archaeological insights provided by Foucault in The Order of Things to his substantive history of governmentality, this essay has broadly traced a sketch of the shifts that have occurred in the -up to now, failed- attempts of western epistémè to “cut the king´s head.” It has argued that the field related to the production of knowledge on sovereignty has followed similar epistemological ruptures vis-à-vis the other “human sciences” studied by The Order of Things. Thus, it has analyzed the political theory of the Renaissance as the art concerned with the maintenance of status, by proving the ruler with the tools and virtues that resembled sovereignty. Later, this paper has understood the political theory of the classical as the field that studied how to enhance and expand the representativity of the ruler by using the apparatus of the state. Finally, it has argued that modern political theory emerged with the rupture of sovereignty as a given, and explores the meaning, limits, and possibilities of the nation, as a historical (and perhaps, more precisely, a history-making) political body. Again, the irony Louis´ statement becomes apparent. If Das Kapital was nothing but and exegesis of the word “value”, it appears western political thought has been merely an excursus of the question: l´État, c'est moi?44


  1. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, trans. Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 347. Hereinafter cited as Populations.
  2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciencesem> (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 262-263. Hereinafter cited as Order of Things.
  3. Order of Things, 39.
  4. Ibid, 51.
  5. Ibid, 56.
  6. Ibid, 208.
  7. Ibid, 209.
  8. Populations, 316.
  9. Ibid, 314.
  10. Ibid, 316.
  11. Order of Things, 205.
  12. See further, Ben Golder and Peter Fitzpatrick, Foucault’s Law (London: Routledge, 2009), 31.
  13. Quentin Skinner, From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). See chapter “Machiavelli on Misunderstanding Princely Virtù” (45-62) in particular.
  14. Populations, 93.
  15. Ibid, 318.
  16. Ibid, 472.
  17. Ibid, 347.
  18. Ibid, 139.
  19. Ibid, 384.
  20. Ibid, 389.
  21. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 446.
  22. Order of Things, 221.
  23. Ibid, 220.
  24. Ibid, 218.
  25. Ibid, 240. Avaliable here.
  26. Ibid, 225.
  27. Ibid, 226.
  28. Ibid, 230.
  29. Ibid, 234.
  30. Ibid, 242.
  31. See further, Charlotte Baumann, “Kant, Neo-Kantians, and Transcendental Subjectivity: Kant, Neo-Kantians, and Transcendental Subjectivity,” European Journal of Philosophy 25, no. 3 (September 2017): 595–616.
  32. Order of Things, 247.
  33. Ibid, 252.
  34. Ibid, 251.
  35. Ibid, 208.
  36. Ibid, 253-263.
  37. Ibid, 263-280.
  38. Ibid, 280-294.
  39. Ibid. In the case of political economy, see 259. For biology, cfr., 276. For linguistics, see 292-293.
  40. Eric L. Santner, The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xv.
  41. E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality , 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 14-45.
  42. Op. cit., Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 447.
  43. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 88-89.
  44. Order of Things , 298.