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Last Updated on July 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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Michel Foucault’s analysis is of the relationship between knowledge and classification. He departs from the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of knowledge: confidence in truth, he argues, is as much a matter of faith as religion is. Our current phase of faith in science is an artifact of its historical, material production. Perception is always clouded by social conditioning so that comprehension cannot be direct but is always mediated by language. The concept of “episteme,” or level of perception, organizes his subsequent analyses of philology, biology, and economics as representative “human sciences.”

Foucault takes the reader back to the Renaissance to show the fundamental divergence in approaches to this epistemic vision. The philosophical quality of representation, as he examines the earlier classical ideas, starts with correspondence between object and idea. He contrasts this correlation with the Renaissance notion of relationships between things: the “order” of the title. The adequacy of representation inheres in some fundamental congruence, but it need not be apparent in the material realm. Language is the maximal example of that incongruence, as the arbitrary quality of the sign is key to its malleability.

Moving into post-Renaissance ordering, Foucault shows a fundamental shift in the ideas of relational interaction. He isolates Immanuel Kant and his attention to the dissociation of ideas from objects. Representation might now be taken to originate in something other than that which was represented. The mind itself as an abstraction (distinct from medieval humors or the materiality of the brain) is key to its malleability.

Moving into post-Renaissance ordering, Foucault shows a fundamental shift in the ideas of relational interaction. He isolates Immanuel Kant and his attention to the dissociation of ideas from objects. Representation might now be taken to originate in something other than that which was represented. The mind itself as an abstraction (distinct from medieval humors or the materiality of the brain) is key to this shift.

Regardless of Kant’s intention, Foucault shows that this line of argumentation opened the possibilities for idealistic metaphysics. Language was henceforth seen as the primary vehicle of knowledge. Language thus engages the role of possibility of representation in and of itself: language is freed to function as an autonomous reality precisely because a system of resemblances does not bind it to the world. From language, Foucault moves to all dimensions of human consciousness included in the abstraction of “man.” Foucault insists on exploring this historically, rather than accommodating to an absolute rooted in conscious thought (cogito) as Kant would have it.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439

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 practitioners took special interest in inscriptions and in other evidence of what people said in the past. Like an archeologist, Foucault treats the several epistemes of Western Europe since the Middle Ages as so many strata in a single archeological dig.

Existing before the modern age that gave rise to the human sciences were the Classical period, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Renaissance, concentrated in the sixteenth century. Foucault treats representative books from these eras as the equivalents of an archeologist’s core samples. In each sample, he studies the relations of the words on the page to the things being described. Hence the title of the French original, Les Mots et les choses (“words and things”). He looks for the breaking points or ruptures that occur when the relations of words and things somehow change, relations that arise as a result of changes in the way people agree to represent the world on paper. Foucault tends to find rupture and discontinuity where other historians have found gradual change.

The Order of Things comprises two parts of roughly equal length. The first part discusses the Renaissance and the Classical period. The Renaissance is associated with a process of endless elaboration or “commentary” on the world as God’s creation; the Classical period is associated with attempts at a more rational “criticism” of the world, criticism of the sort that draws distinctions. The second part of the book treats the modern age and, more briefly, what follows the modern. Foucault does not have a name for this age that follows the modern, though his readers have been quick to call it the postmodern.

The modern age, known for its careful systems of classification, seems to be characterized by a passage that opens the book. Foucault quotes an absurd system of classification discussed in a 1942 essay by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins” (“The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” 1964). In his preface to The Order of Things, Foucault tells his readers that the work grew out of his amusement at such a system, which pretends to be scientific but is clearly not. Foucault’s Renaissance, with its system of occult correspondences, is not quite as absurd as the system in Borges’s fable, but none of the epistemes seem quite so rational or systematic as its representative writers may have thought.

Some critics of Foucault’s work have complained that he overlooks the obvious representatives of a period or discipline—such as Wilhem Grimm, creator of the great German dictionary, and Charles Darwin and Marx in the modern age—and instead chooses more eccentric figures. Foucault responded by saying that his own choices—philologist Franz Bopp, biologist Georges Cuvier, and economist David Ricardo, for example—are more representative of their “discourse communities.”

Foucault’s prose is challenging because it engages the content of the books under discussion, incorporating and playing with terms used in those works. At its best, his prose is highly stimulating, as in his discussion of the Renaissance practice of describing the world as though it were written in the language of God. Sometimes, however, as in his long discussion of perspective lines in a painting by Goya, his prose is tedious and seems to say little to advance the book’s argument. Beyond question, though, the range of examples not only is impressive but also is refreshing. In addition to the parable from Borges, later examples from novelist Miguel de Cervantes and poet Stéphane Mallarmé add life to the book’s often abstract language.

The final chapter, on the human sciences, begins with a startling suggestion: The modern age created the human sciences by interjecting the modern notion of “man” into disciplines that were once more concerned with God or nature or abstract reason. The demise of nineteenth century positivism means, then, the death of humanity as it had been enshrined in the human sciences. Furthermore, with this death came the demise of many academic disciplines. The old triad of economics, biology, and philology has been replaced by a new alliance of sociology, psychology, and literary study. It was only a short step further to the proposition that “the author,” too, was dead, replaced by a “classifying principle,” as Foucault suggested in his 1969 lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” (“What Is an Author?”), which was translated into English in 1977.

The Order of Things received a chilly reception in France. Thinkers of the previous generation saw it as fundamentally nihilistic and as a challenge to the integrity of their own work. Other reviewers, especially in England and North America, recognized that Foucault was a clever reader of texts, well-schooled in the poetry and prose of, for example, Surrealists such as Raymond Roussel, about whom he had written a full-length study.

Foucault’s methodology has been applied to other academic discourses, such as those concerned with race, class, gender, and disability. Whether these applications expose true epistemes, in the sense of different ways of scientific knowing, or rather doxies, in the sense of heterodox opinions, remains a matter of debate, as do the aims and values of postmodernism per se. For his part, Foucault had welcomed the opportunity to distance himself from his contemporaries, and he does so in his introduction to the English translation of The Order of Things.