Michel Foucault

Start Free Trial

George Steiner

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2358

[Foucault's] name carried a deepening, though esoteric, resonance throughout the early sixties. But it was with "Les Mots et les Choses," published in Paris in 1966 and now published here as "The Order of Things," that Foucault assumed his current eminence.

[An] honest first reading produces an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance and obscure platitude. Page after page could be the rhetoric of a somewhat weary sybil indulging in free association. Recourse to the French text shows that this is not a matter of awkward translation. The following is a crucial but also entirely representative example:

"Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist, in the space they left blank, in the deep gaps that separated their broad theoretical segments and that were filled with the murmur of the ontological continuum. The object of knowledge in the nineteenth century is formed in the very place where the Classical plenitude of being has fallen silent. Inversely, a new philosophical space was to emerge in the place where the objects of Classical knowledge dissolved. The moment of attribution (as a form of judgment) and that of articulation (as a general patterning of beings) separated, and thus created the problem of the relations between a formal apophantics and a formal ontology…."

Faced with almost four hundred pages in a similar vein, one must ask oneself, "Why bother?" Is this kind of thing to be taken seriously, or does it belong, with a good deal else that has come out of recent French "post-structuralism" and German "hermeneutics," to "the murmur of the ontological continuum"? Is anything being said here, which can be grasped and verified in any rational way?…

One asks these questions because Foucault's claims are sweeping, and because, one supposes, he would wish to be read seriously or not at all. His appeal, moreover, to contemporaries of exceptional intelligence both at home and in England … is undeniable. This is no confidence-trick. Something of originality and, perhaps, of very real importance, is being argued in these often rebarbative pages. Can it be hammered out, though necessarily in a simplified, abbreviated from?…

"Les Mots et les Choses"—the original title ("Words and Things") is much preferable—sets out to provide "an archaeology of the human sciences," or more simply, an account of how the organizing models of human perception and knowledge have altered between the Renaissance and the end of the 19th century. The particular models chosen by Foucault, who regards them as central and interrelated, are those of biology, linguistics and economics. In that they formulate and comprehend such vital notions as meaning, exchange and the critical discriminations between the organic and the man-made, these three disciplines are the "human sciences" par excellence. Understand their idiom and altering presuppositions, and you will obtain systematic insights into the ways in which Western culture has structured both its image of the personal self and of reality.

But why "archaeology"? The word has its aura of depth and genesis, outside its normal field, since Freud. Foucault uses it to establish the differences between his enterprise and that of intellectual history and phenomenology in the usual sense.

What concerns him, as he seeks to demonstrate in a long opening chapter on Velasquez's painting "Las Meninas," is the spatial mapping within which knowledge becomes knowledge rather than accidental array of facts and objects. We only perceive that which the conventions of significance lead us to see. A science, a philosophic doctrine, a linguistic and grammatical code can be regarded as "spaces of ordered and exploratory experience." The conventions of perspective and the stylizations of three-dimensionality in the graphic or plastic arts offer a rough analogy to what Foucault is after.

It is not, he argues, any autonomous logic inherent in a given body of knowledge, it is not the accident of individual genius in the thinker or scientist, which account for the true substance and history of "knowing" and, inferentially, of feeling. It is the available terrain and network of relations, some highly arbitrary, within which the sensibility of a given epoch and society will recognize a rational order.

The aggregate of significant spaces, the underlying stratigraphy of intellectual life, the whole set of the presuppositions of thought, is what Foucault calls an episteme. (p. 8)

Having formulated his methodological image—and one wonders whether "topology" would not have been more apt than "archaeology"—Foucault sets out to analyze the principal changes in the episteme, in the "knowing of knowledge," in Western thought since the Renaissance. At each stage of the argument, an all-inclusive philosophic and psychological framework is tested and made explicit by reference to the study of living forms, of speech and of economic relations. These are the three cardinal classifiers in the total set.

The thesis goes something like this. The episteme of the 16th century was founded on similitude. All phenomena and designative modes were based on a manifold mirroring and interplay of analogies and affinities. The Renaissance world was a kind of weave, folding upon itself, forming a chain of vital resemblances through which alone individual facts or objects could find a meaningful location. This principle of analogy made of the eye both a receptor and source of light, almost tangibly threaded to the object contemplated. It was thought that language works first because it is a system of autonomous signs and second because it is a kind of "organic mirror" in which every named or inferred thing has its exact counterpart. (pp. 8, 28)

The episteme of the 17th-18th century Classical period is radically different. It involved "an immense reorganization of culture," a literal re-orientation of the space in which Western consciousness perceived subject and object, reality and dream. The old kinships between knowledge and divination, the mirroring reciprocities of language and fact, break off. Now, instead of similitude, the crucial instrumentality is representation. Foucault seems to mean by this that words are now entirely transparent and arbitrary counters. Thus, to say things, to name them, is to put them in a kind of necessary order. The "necessity" seems to derive from the fact that Classical man now sees objects in a logical space or framework.

"The language of the Classical age is caught in the grid of thought, woven into the very fabric of its unrolling. It is not an exterior effect of thought, but thought itself." In other terms, knowing and speaking are interwoven. Every speech act, every mental proposition "down to the least of its molecules" becomes an exact way of naming. Grammar is a kind of tracing-paper laid across the ordered contours of the world. Hence the primary impulse of Classical thought and science toward taxonomy. The classificatory genius of the great botanist Linnaeus represents the true spirit of the age….

The Classical episteme breaks down in turn. Henceforth, the central pulse of language and thought resides "outside representation … in a sort of behind-the-scenes world even deeper and more dense than representation itself." Pure knowledge becomes isolated and divorced from particular, empirical disciplines; these, however, become fatally enmeshed with problems of subjectivity, with the uncertainties that personal consciousness insinuates into every act of perception. Words cease to intersect with representation or to provide an immediate grid for the knowledge of things. They acquire an autonomous, enigmatic being of their own, interposing themselves, as it were, between self and object. (p. 28)

Dialectics, historicity and energy are the key terms of the new phase. They characterize the emergence of modern science after Cuvier, of modern economic theory after Ricardo, of the new linguistics first discernible in Bopp's celebrated studies of Sanskrit. "We speak because we act, and not because recognition is a means of cognition. Like action, language expresses a profound will to something." Foucault's choice of terms here is deliberate: it reflects Nietzsche, in whom he sees one of the two principal witnesses of the new episteme. The other is Mallarmé, supreme experiencer of the opacity of words.

As to the future: "As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end." The mode of individuation and "outside reality" which has dominated the past centuries of our civilization, especially in the West, may yield soon to new spaces of perception. If I understand Foucault, he is saying that "man" himself is a symbolic product of the ways in which certain men have, over a very short period of history, thought about themselves and human knowledge.

In a grossly abbreviated form (the style of this book is intensely repetitive), this is, I think, a fair outline of Foucault's "archaeology." What does it amount to?

The first point worth making is that similar ideas have been put forward as long ago as Lovejoy and Whitehead. In its gloss on the reciprocities and symbolic codes of the Renaissance, Foucault's account agrees largely with that given in the brilliant, pioneering works of Frances Yates. But Miss Yates's investigations of the 16th-century intellectual world are far more incisive and animate with a sense of magic. The notion of the episteme strikingly recalls Thomas Kuhn's well-known definition of "paradigms."… The close bracketing of linguistic communication and economic exchanges is, of course, the hallmark of Levi-Strauss. The choice of Nietzsche and Mallarmé as archetypal of the modernity of consciousness is, in current intellectual history, almost routine.

This is as it should be. A serious work of scholarship and intellectual analysis must draw, at many points, on the work of predecessors and contemporaries. The trouble is that Foucault speaks as if he were a solitary explorer, opening up silent seas. Where allusion is made to fellow-scholars or thinkers, it is usually anonymous and abusive. The unwary reader of "The Order of Things" will hardly realize how often Foucault's theses have been anticipated or been prepared for by detailed scholarly investigations elsewhere. In this lofty indifference, Foucault is, unfortunately, representative of the current French vein. Parisian intellectual movements have, over this past decade, "discovered" the legacies of Freud, of Roman Jakobson, of Malinowski, of Saussure, as if these epochal contributions had passed unnoticed in the rest of the world. The consequence is, at moments, a kind of breathless parochial grandeur.

As to the substance of Foucault's case, only detailed examination by scholars in the relevant fields will finally establish its strengths and defects. At decisive junctures, the choice of material looks very arbitrary. A glance at a standard work, such as H. Aarsleff's "The Study of Language in England 1780–1860," suggests that Foucault's readings of Locke and of the background to modern linguistics are, to put it mildly, wilful. In the light of editorial and analytic work now in progress, his observations on Newton and Voltaire seem slapdash. One can but wonder how much at home he is in the very intricate matter of the vocabulary of the exact and descriptive sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries. (pp. 28-9)

But this is not to say that there are not brilliant strains in this book. Foucault seems at his best not when asserting grand designs, but when working close to a defined text or focus. His interpretation of "Don Quixote" as a document in which we see language breaking off its old kinship with things—"Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books"—is witty and penetrates deeply. Though, like much of the French intelligentsia, he greatly overrates the importance of de Sade, he has fresh observations to make on de Sade's role in the evolution of linguistic feeling. He is surely right when he sees in the insane loquacities of "Juliette" a desperate attempt by language to "name," and thus enact exhaustively, those finalities of desire and violence which always chide it.

The parallel discussions of the ways in which the dissolution of the classical notions of grammar and taxonomy can be traced in speech habits and the organic sciences, are richly stimulating. Though I am scarcely competent to judge, Foucault does seem to say acute and important things about Lamarck, a figure who plays a somewhat shadowy but fascinating part in modern biological thought. As not very many have before him, Foucault recognizes the sheer philosophic force and pivotal role of Ricardo's contribution to the theory of money. Indeed, time and again, a local observation in these pages will arrest one by its liveliness or suggestive paradox.

A thinner, more scrupulous book is struggling to emerge from this oracular corpus: a book that deals not with the allegedly dramatic metamorphoses of all Western consciousness from Francis Bacon to the surrealists, but with key moments in the history of language-studies and scientific logic during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Whether it be Spenglerian or "sociological," the whole idea of a visible "Consciousness" appearing on Monday mornings or at the start and end of centuries, is a fatal simplification. It is a part of the enormous but also indistinct task he has set for himself, that so many of Foucault's generalizations are too nebulous to be tested, while a good number of his particulars are too esoteric or devoid of context to be truly representative.

Foucault has better to offer. His previous work on the mythologies and practices of mental therapy is of undoubted stature. It shows a superb gift for intellectual mimesis. He is able to re-experience the idiom, the identifying reflexes of a past. He can master large masses of often recondite and technical documentation. He has a writer's eye for the incisive quote, for the nerve-center of a social attitude. He fixes on questions of intense interest.

"Les Mots et les Choses" opens with a discussion of one of the arcane, humorous fables of Borges. There is no finer craftsman of understatement and generous attribution. It is these one misses in Michel Foucault's enterprise. Yet even where its sybilline loftiness is damaging, one is left with a sense of real and original force. (pp. 30-1)

George Steiner, "The Mandarin of the Hour: Michel Foucault," in The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1971, pp. 8, 28-31.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

R. D. Laing


Richard Howard