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, however, not merely a concrete version of thought, an audible or visible translation. Language is considered a linear sequence, one which represents the totality of a mental image or thought in segmented form. The General Grammar can be read as the study of verbal order in its relation to the simultaneity that it sets out to represent.
In the Classical episteme, the modes of being of language, nature, and wealth were defined in terms of representation—language as the representation of words, nature as the representation of beings, and wealth as the representation of needs. Yet, the person for whom representation existed, the thinker who assembled the strands of representation into an ordered table, had no place in this table charted by him. All these matters were crucial to man, but within the Classical episteme there was no locus for man as an object of knowledge. Man was merely the clarifier of the order of the world. His was the important task of clarification but not creation; he was by no means a transcendental source of signification. He was considered a rational animal high in God’s hierarchy, but he was not the representor per se.
To illustrate the problem of representation and the subject, Foucault uses Diego Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas , showing how all the themes of the Classical view of representation are embodied in it: The painter is depicted pausing and thus appears...
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from behind the canvas. The spectator occupies the same position as the painter’s subject. The model and the spectator coincide here. The light, which can be interpreted as the light of the Enlightenment, illuminates only a mirror which seems to reveal what it represents, that is, the figures who are the models whom the painter is depicting. They can and do occupy that place for the painter, but the viewers of the painting occupy that place as well. Consequently the mirror should also reveal their image—but this it cannot do. Instead, an illuminated figure in the back serves as a representation of the spectator. The spectating function, which is not represented in the mirror, is placed next to it. These three observing functions come together in a point exterior to the picture. This point can only be an ideal one, for otherwise it would be impossibly overcrowded, but it is also a real one because it is the place occupied by the viewer.
Foucault interprets the subject matter of Las Meninas as representation. It lays out the idea of representation in an orderly fashion on a table, on the canvas. What is represented are the functions of representation. The painting, however, cannot represent a unified and unifying subject who posits these representations and who makes them objects for himself. The central paradox of the painting consists in the impossibility of representing the act of representing itself.
What was impossible to fathom in the Classical episteme—man as that being who grasps the totality of the picture and at the same time is part of the picture—became conceptualized in the modern episteme. With his usual reluctance to posit causal relationships, Foucault does not explain why these changes took place but merely describes them.
Man, Foucault concludes, who was once a being among others now is a subject among others. In this sense, man is now the figure which is both the object and the condition of his own knowledge. Man is a space of knowledge, a set of relations between knowledges. This is precisely the realm in which the determinations of biology, economics, and philology operate and intersect.