Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1439 words.)
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