The Order of Things

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

The Order of Things (published in 1966) is one of the most famous works by philosopher –úichel Foucault. Several key themes are identified below.

Archaeology and Depth

Among Foucault's writings, this book belongs to the so-called "archaeologies," which is reflected in its subtitle, An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. The Archaeology here does not mean "ancient." Rather, it means "deep," something which is not visible on the surface but which can be seen through analysis. Archaeology is history in a special perspective. It is opposed to all types of concepts which most value progress of knowledge by means of accumulation of facts. History as archaeology in The Order of Things provides a picture of several sections of European cultural foundations of modernity. These sections are not determined by separate facts but rather by "conditions of possibility" in fields of knowledge like biology, linguistics, and political economy. Foucault attempts to analyze the "experience of order and of its modes of being."

The Concept of Episteme

The central theme of The Order of Things is the idea of episteme. The basis to abstract an episteme is a special type of a "sign of a relationship," the "original and inerasable relation between words and things." Foucault focuses on the three epistemes in European culture: that of the Renaissance (sixteenth century), of classical rationalism (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and of modernity (since the end of the eighteenth century). As the epochs change, the content of the word shifts. In the first case, the word is a symbol; in the second, it is an image; and in the third, it is a sign in a sign system.

Knowing Humankind

The main theme of The Order of Things (albeit not very much pronounced) is that of people and possibilities of knowing them. On the surface, this theme is formulated negatively: impersonal language edges out the image of man from modern culture. In epochs past, one could discuss the nature of man and talk of his body and soul. Today, however, man is not reducible to representations. His existence is significantly determined by "the three great positivities (life, need and labor, and language)." Man can be understood only if we study his biological being, the content and forms of his labor, and the language he speaks. This is what defines fundamental shifts in the philosophical knowledge of man and the world in the modern age.

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