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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 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.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

The Order of Things is linked in form and content to the intellectual climate in postwar France, which was dominated by existentialism, phenomenology, and Marxism. The philosophies of the subject (existentialism and phenomenology) emphasized the concepts of individual consciousness and freedom of choice and eventually undermined the foundations of Marxist thought. By the end of the 1960’s, a deep disillusionment with both Marxism and phenomenology was evident among French intellectuals. At the same time, new forms of analysis utilizing models derived from structural linguistics were gaining currency. Claude Levi-Strauss’ anthropological analyses of kinship systems and myths and Roland Barthes’s semiological studies of literature and everyday life were particularly influential in promoting such linguistic models. Transcendental phenomenology was largely replaced by hermeneutics, a discipline influenced by the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology conceptualized man as a meaning-giving subject, and accordingly, phenomenologists considered the origin of meaning to be subjectivity. In contrast, hermeneutics located meaning in sociohistorical and cultural practices and texts.

Foucault’s works, while influenced by all of these currents of thought, differ substantially from them as well. Unlike phenomenologists, Foucault does not take the meaning-giving activity of an autonomous subject into consideration. Unlike hermeneuticists, he does not believe in an ultimate truth which merely needs to be discovered. He also rejects the label “structuralist,” because he avoids constructing a fixed model of human behavior. His distrust in formulating rules to govern a methodology also differentiates his approach from pure structuralism. Foucault does not construct a formal theory of social relations or of the relations between forms of knowledge and social practices. Although the forms of knowledge are at the core of his investigations, he does not postulate a general concept of knowledge.

The objects of Foucault’s analysis are the systems of knowledge themselves. His investigations result neither in a definitive critique nor in a delineation of alternative modes of knowledge. Instead, he begins each analysis with the formulation of a problem which he investigates with the aid of case studies. His lack of attention to national differences, for example (for which he has often been criticized), is related to this programmatic avoidance of any pretension to scientific exhaustiveness. Instead, he attempts to determine the possibilities and limitations of formalization. The Order of Things is thus an exploration of the conceptual organization of the human sciences themselves. Foucault seeks to discover the laws, regularities, and rules of formation of systems of thought in the human sciences.

Foucault concentrates on three areas of knowledge: “the knowledge of living beings, the knowledge of the laws of language, and the knowledge of economic facts,” relating these bodies of knowledge “to the philosophical discourse that was contemporary with them during a period extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.” Although Foucault largely confines his attention to that time span, the last two chapters, “Man and His Doubles” and “The Human Sciences,” move into the modern era, concluding with the prospects for the human sciences in the late twentieth century.

The Order of Things is a densely written, difficult book. For the English translation (387 pages in length), Foucault added a foreword to supplement his original preface. This foreword is useful not only for its outline of the scope and aim of the work—an outline which takes into account critical responses to the French edition—but also for its indication of Foucault’s idiosyncratic tone: Although in some respects The Order of Things resembles a traditional work of historical scholarship, it is ultimately closer in spirit to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

Caws, Peter. “Language as the Human Reality,” in The New Republic. CLXIV (March 27, 1971), pp. 28-34.

Cousins, Mark, and Athar Hussain. Michel Foucault, 1984.

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