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Michel Foucault’s analysis is of the relationship between knowledge and classification. He departs from the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of knowledge: confidence in truth, he argues, is as much a matter of faith as religion is. Our current phase of faith in science is an artifact of its historical, material production. Perception is always clouded by social conditioning so that comprehension cannot be direct but is always mediated by language. The concept of “episteme,” or level of perception, organizes his subsequent analyses of philology, biology, and economics as representative “human sciences.”

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Foucault takes the reader back to the Renaissance to show the fundamental divergence in approaches to this epistemic vision. The philosophical quality of representation, as he examines the earlier classical ideas, starts with correspondence between object and idea. He contrasts this correlation with the Renaissance notion of relationships between things: the “order” of the title. The adequacy of representation inheres in some fundamental congruence, but it need not be apparent in the material realm. Language is the maximal example of that incongruence, as the arbitrary quality of the sign is key to its malleability.

Moving into post-Renaissance ordering, Foucault shows a fundamental shift in the ideas of relational interaction. He isolates Immanuel Kant and his attention to the dissociation of ideas from objects. Representation might now be taken to originate in something other than that which was represented. The mind itself as an abstraction (distinct from medieval humors or the materiality of the brain) is key to its malleability.

Moving into post-Renaissance ordering, Foucault shows a fundamental shift in the ideas of relational interaction. He isolates Immanuel Kant and his attention to the dissociation of ideas from objects. Representation might now be taken to originate in something other than that which was represented. The mind itself as an abstraction (distinct from medieval humors or the materiality of the brain) is key to this shift.

Regardless of Kant’s intention, Foucault shows that this line of argumentation opened the possibilities for idealistic metaphysics. Language was henceforth seen as the primary vehicle of knowledge. Language thus engages the role of possibility of representation in and of itself: language is freed to function as an autonomous reality precisely because a system of resemblances does not bind it to the world. From language, Foucault moves to all dimensions of human consciousness included in the abstraction of “man.” Foucault insists on exploring this historically, rather than accommodating to an absolute rooted in conscious thought (cogito) as Kant would have it.

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In his original and controversial book, The Order of Things, Michel Foucault asks a simple question: Where do books come from, especially those that seem definitive in one way or another? One obvious answer comes to mind: Books are the works of individual geniuses, and they reflect progress in the authors’ disciplines or in their larger intellectual climates. Foucault resists the obvious, however, in his search for the answer to his simple question. He suggests, to the contrary, that books—as well as authors, disciplines, and periods—are products of the way people agree to use language, and all reflect the possibilities and limits of particular verbal systems.

Foucault’s challenge to traditional notions of authorship and authority is not new. The early twentieth century had seen marked resistance to the belief that authors were heroes or “great men” who changed the world—a view championed by thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In France, structuralists challenged the subjectivity behind the cult of personal genius and explored the...

(The entire section contains 1856 words.)

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