In his original and controversial book, The Order of Things, Michel Foucault asks a simple question: Where do books come from, especially those that seem definitive in one way or another? One obvious answer comes to mind: Books are the works of individual geniuses, and they reflect progress in the authors’ disciplines or in their larger intellectual climates. Foucault resists the obvious, however, in his search for the answer to his simple question. He suggests, to the contrary, that books—as well as authors, disciplines, and periods—are products of the way people agree to use language, and all reflect the possibilities and limits of particular verbal systems.
Foucault’s challenge to traditional notions of authorship and authority is not new. The early twentieth century had seen marked resistance to the belief that authors were heroes or “great men” who changed the world—a view championed by thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In France, structuralists challenged the subjectivity behind the cult of personal genius and explored the implications of the proposition that the words of a text are “signs”—even arbitrary signs. This idea of texts as signs can be traced to the time of Aristotle, but it had been reexamined by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who exerted a strong influence in French thought. Following Saussure’s distinction between the verbal sign and the signified object or idea, structuralist thinkers, particularly anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and child psychologist Jean Piaget, tried to identify distinctions in human behavior that were as clear as those within grammatical categories such as noun cases and verb tenses.
Foucault was attracted to structuralism and its verbal “games.” He attended the lectures of philosopher Louis Althusser, who had systematized Karl Marx’s thought, and he tried without success to understand the writings of Jacques Lacan, who had systematized the thinking of Sigmund Freud. However, Foucault began to think that structuralism was simply another ism and, hence, that it did not mark a genuine step forward in human thought. If anything, structuralism helped to show that all steps forward in the human sciences are largely illusory. For Foucault, the human sciences (sciences humaines) are, mainly, what Americans call the social sciences, coupled with the humanities. The French, however, do not always include the humanities as a human science.
In The Order of Things, Foucault is concerned primarily with three disciplines that emerged in the nineteenth century: philology, biology, and economics. He assumes that each discipline has structural principles of its own, if each is a true science, and he suspects that the human sciences themselves may have a single set of principles, or agreed-upon axioms, that no one has challenged. Lacking a French word for these axioms, he borrows the Greek word episteme. Foucault uses it as shorthand to describe the knowledge of an “epistemological space specific to a particular period.” Finally, he thinks of this “space” as a site to be excavated, much like a site for an archeologist.
The metaphor of the historian of ideas as an archeologist begins to make sense when one reflects on the root meaning of the word “archeology,” which is “ancient discourse.” Archeology as a term originally was used to describe any writing about the past. When the modern discipline of archeology was organized, its...
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