At the core of Foucault’s analysis of the human sciences in his concept of the episteme. The episteme comprises the fundamental assumptions of a culture, both explicit and unspoken, that determine the “epistemological field” in which all knowledge must find its place. Foucault’s concept of the episteme is related to the anthropological study of classification systems, the means by which various cultures order their experience of the world. Foucault himself terms his project an “archaeology” of the human sciences rather than a history; it might also be said that he applies to Western thought the kind of analysis traditionally reserved for anthropological study of “primitive” cultures.

Foucault suggests that there have been “two great discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture.” The first, which he locates in the mid-seventeenth century, marked the shift from the Renaissance to what he calls “the Classical age”; the second, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, ushered in “the modern age.” In contrast to traditional historical thinking, Foucault does not view these shifts as necessarily progressive. His analysis does not center on the progress of reason but on the distinct ordering systems by means of which experience has been presented to the understanding.

As noted above, Foucault’s focus in The Order of Things is on the Classical age. Measurement, comparison, and an exhaustive ordering of the world lay at the heart of this episteme. In contrast, the Renaissance episteme was concerned with uncovering the hidden secrets of nature. In the Renaissance episteme, Foucault contends, “real language is not a totality of independent signs. . . . It is rather an opaque, mysterious thing, closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass. . . .”

Foucault centers his arguments on the Classical episteme’s conception of language around the Port-Royal grammar (1660). This general grammar focused on the three operations of the mind: conceiving, judging, and reasoning. Conceiving is the most basic turning of the mind to the object; it can be purely intellectual or connected to an image. Judging is the affirmation that a thing of which one conceives is such or such, and reasoning is the correct use of two judgments to make a third.

For the Classical age, language is,...

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