(un)common ground

a commonplace book

What What They Do Does

People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.

Michel Foucault

Came across this quote via Partially Examined Life’s Twitter feed the other day.

The sentence (translated as it is from French) has a certain beauty in its climactic construction. Each clause stems from the last and grows in length and complexity. The turn of the last clause seems to illustrate its claim by virtue of the reader’s likely double-take. As if its very construction is saying, “You know what you’re reading; you probably know what’s coming next; but what you don’t know is what I even just said, fool.”


“Meta” just about sums up what this sentence is doing. It distinguishes between action in the first instance, knowledge about action in the second, and in the third, knowledge about effects of those actions. But that final clause seems to hint at even more than just secondary effects of actions. One gets the sense of the infinite in this sentence, like it’s the opening statement in an infinite series of such integers, actions feeding into signs feeding into actions feeding into signs, until I am reminded of Herbert’s often-used turn of phrase, “plans within plans within plans.”


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This entry was posted on December 27, 2015 by and tagged , .
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