The Order of Things

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

The central question of Michel Foucault’s work The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966) is whether we can consider the world that we perceive as the expression of the essence of things or rather as the result of actions of particular mechanisms that order our perceptions. Foucault abstracts these levels of perception, calling them epistemes. An episteme is a historically changing structure which defines conditions of possibility of beliefs, theories, or sciences in each given historical period. It is a structure of thought expressing the mode of thinking that is proper to a given historical epoch.

Related to the concept of episteme as an organizing principle is the idea of resemblance. Says Foucault,

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.

According to Foucault, there are four types of resemblances, or similitudes, in the world.

The first type of resemblance is convenientia:

A resemblance connected with space in the form of a graduated scale of proximity. It is of the same order as conjunction and adjustment. This is why it pertains less to the things themselves than to the world in which they exist. The world is simply the universal "convenience" of things.

The second type is aemulatio. Through emulation, everything in the world interacts with itself.

The human face, from afar, emulates the sky, and just as man’s intellect is an imperfect reflection of God’s wisdom, so his two eyes, with their limited brightness, are a reflection of the vast illumination spread across the sky by sun and moon . . . The relation of emulation enables things to imitate one another from one end of the universe to the other without connection or proximity.

The third is analogy. This type of similitude is comprised of both convenientia and aemulatio.

In this analogy, convenientia and aemulatio are superimposed. Like the latter, it makes possible the marvellous confrontation of resemblances across space; but it also speaks, like the former, of adjacencies, of bonds and joints.

The fourth is sympathy. This type of similitude draws various things existing in the world to each other. Sympathy is balanced with antipathy. The latter preserves things in isolation from each other and prevents them from identifying with one another. Owing to antipathy, everything in the world remains what it is.

Foucault explores a change in man's form of thinking, or in the so-called epistemological field. An episteme is a level of knowledge proper to a historical period. Knowledge, according to Foucault, is a system of ordering things and of their correlation with words. He singles out three epistemes.

The first is the episteme of the Renaissance (sixteenth century). Words and things are identical. Language is not an independent sign system but rather is dispersed among natural things. Words and things constitute аn integrated text.

The second is that of the Classical age (seventeenth through eighteenth centuries). Words and things interact through the medium of thought. Language becomes an autonomous sign system, which leads to “mathematicization” of knowledge and the birth of such self-contained disciplines as general grammar and natural history.

The third is the modern episteme (since the end of the eighteenth century). Words and things are mediated through language. Language becomes an object of study. It turns into a system of formal elements and displays...

(This entire section contains 832 words.)

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its own independent existence.

Man is a recent invention of Western culture. It is an image created by modern knowledge. The image of man is determined by "the 'quasitranscendentals' of Life, Labour, and Language." So, man is limited by the biology of his body, the economical mechanisms of labor, and the language mechanisms of communication.

The main objective of The Order of Things is a consideration of the shift in the history of Western knowledge which gave rise to the modern form of thinking. The development of culture, according to Foucault, consists in the change of epistemes, which are essentially unperceived structures of knowledge. They are separated from one another and have no inner relation to each other. History is an interweaving of these structures. Foucault predicts the end of the third episteme and the death of man as we know him today. Building upon Nietzsche's idea of the death of God, he emphasizes that it is man, who killed God, who must eventually die.

Thus, the last man is at the same time older and yet younger than the death of God; since he has killed God, it is he himself who must answer for his own finitude; but since it is in the death of God that he speaks, thinks, and exists, his murder itself is doomed to die; new gods, the same gods, are already swelling the future Ocean; man will disappear.