Form and Content

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...

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