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The Order of Things

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Michel FoucaultEdit

[October 1926 – 25 June 1984] Foucault was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought." Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Knowledge, power and discourse are primary topics of Foucault's analyses. In the 1960s Foucault was associated with structuralism, a movement from which he distanced himself. Foucault also rejected the poststructuralist and postmodernist labels later attributed to him, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. Foucault's project is particularly influenced by Nietzsche, his "genealogy of knowledge" being a direct allusion to Nietzsche's "genealogy of morality". In a late interview he definitively stated: "I am a Nietzschean." In 2007 Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by The Times Higher Education Guide. [text courtesy Wikipedia]

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences [1966/1970]Edit

In reading The Order of Things, one must keep in mind the intellectual climate of post-war France and Europe more generally. By the late 1960s, enthusiasm for Marxism had waned, and its philosophy of false consciousness and historical materialism was undercut by the rising popularity of existentialism and phenomenology, which both placed the human subject as a center of knowledge and choice in the world. Foucault's work can be seen as in contrast to these developments (indeed, he argues that phenomenology is the only categorization he outrightly rejects, as it "gives absolute priority to the observing subject" pg. xiv). Thus, part of Foucault's efforts are to prove man as a recent phenomenon, and perhaps ready to be dispensed with; it was not that Classical era humans "prowled for so long in the darkness" looking for "man" and then found him as part of the unfolding of knowledge in the modern period; rather, man was the construction of the Classical period and the very reason it fragmented: "[man] was constituted only when language, having been situated within representation and, as it were, dissolved in it, freed itself from that situation at the cost of its own fragmentation: man composed his own figure in the interstices of that fragmented language" (386).

More broadly, The Order of Things comprises Foucault's attempt to understand the systems of knowledge that a priori determine what forms of knowing can be conceived of at a particular historical moment. To use the analogy that Foucault draws from throughout the book, Foucault wants to excavate how order places certain objects on the table of inquiry. Foucault accomplishes this primarily through an analysis and cross-comparison (and archaeological exploration) of grammar, human science and economics in the Renaissance 15-16th centuries) vs. the Age of Englightenment/Reason/the Classical Era (17-early 19th centuries). In the forward to the English edition, Foucault summarizes this intention most succintly as "comparative": "What I wished to do was to present, side by side, a definite number of elements: the knowledge of living beings, the knowledge of the laws of language, and the knowledge of economic facts, and to relate them to the philosophical discourse that was contempoaray with them during a period extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century" (x). Rather than comparing within disciplines, Foucault compares across disciplines so that "frontiers are redrawn and things usually far apart are brought closer, and vice versa" (x). In this archaeological process, Foucault seeks the "positive unconscious of knowledge: a level that eludes the consciousness of the scientist and yet is part of scientific discourse, instead of disputing its validity and seeking to diminish its scientific nature" (xi). Foucault explores here the historical dimension of epistomology, and the contours that can construction what is even determined as knowledge to begin with; for Foucault, this is not a stable dimension of knowledge. Foucault believes he can define the rules that naturalists, grammarians and economists all used to form their concepts and theories, because these are ultimately the rules that govern knowledge building at a given time.

For Foucault, the most dynamic question is "what is impossible to think?" and here he employs the Borges description of the Chinese encyclopedia (we should neither overlook the famous "Las Meninas" reading). The formations that sculpt "knowledge" must have a base, as well as a validity, for placing objects on the "table" of thought according to a grid of intersecting identities. Order, the fundamentally Classical phenomenon is "that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront on another, and also what which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language" (xx). Order is the "a priori" that determines an object's inner law, its essential and essentialist character. In Foucault's analysis, the classical period is aligned with a logic and desire of representation (vs. resemblances that governed the prior period), and the order of things involves the 4 variables of description: articulation, attribution, derivation and designation (see chart, pg. 201). For Foucault, it is essential that none of the 3 disciplines of inquiry be understood apart from the other. The theory of natural history cannot be dissociated from the theory of languag, nor from the theory of exchange. The nature of Classical empiricity was such that all things were "describable and orderable" (158).

Foucault's analysis consistantly refutes the notion that a historical episteme can preconceive its future or be understood in its time as working toward a further goa. He explains this in his chapter "Exchanging": "...the concepts money, price, value, circulation, and market were not regarded, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in terms of a shadowy future, but as part of a rigorous and general epistemological arrangement" (167-8).Furthermore, "In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice" (168). thus, if we want to know about a period's episteme, we must not follow the temporal sequence that all too often creates obvious connections of believes our development is headed somewhere; rather, we must compare within a period, thus the archaeological move: "The history of knowledge can be written only on the basis of what was contemporaneous with it, and certainly not in terms of reciprocal influence, but in terms of conditions and a prioris established in time" (208). The only mode of being for the Classical period was that of representation.

Archaeological KnowledgeEdit

In Foucaldian terms, this project requires distinguishing between the epistemological level of knowledge (the consciousness of science) and the archaeological level of knowledge (the positive unconscious of knowledge, the a priori). The archaeological level is the basis that ties together economists, grammarians and naturalists--the bond of knowledge structure that determines the limits and scope of the epistemological level. What Foucault seeks is an explanation of how deterministic the archaeological level of knowledge can be: "I should like to know whether the subjects responsible for scientific duscourse are not determined in their situation, their function, their perceptive capacity, and their practical possibilities by conditions that dominate and even overwhelm them [...] the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse" (xiv).

The archaeological project pursues the history of configurations within a space of knowledge, the episteme in which knowledge grounds its positivity and manifests a history not of increasing perfection but "rather that of its conditions of possibility" (xxii).

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