The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences

by Michel Foucault

Paper Book, 1970




New York, Vintage Books 1994, c1970.


Traces the evolution of man's study of himself from seventeenth-century human sciences

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
I've already said much of what I had to say about The Order of Things n reviews of several articles of Foucault's in which he chews the same fat, so perhaps I'll let myself learn from his example and keep this fairly succinct. This is the book that made F.'s name and inaugurated his "genealogy of knowledge"; the idea is to develop a theory of the changing episteme of the West--what kind of conceptions of knowledge are possible and impossible, and how they mutate, and why, with a particular descriptive focus on the 18th century. Why the 18th century? Because it is when our move from a framework of relations based on similarity--a Great Chain of Being--to a framework based on difference--a taxonomy--is complete. When we are Linnaeans in natural history and Adam Smithians in the study of wealth and budding philologers in language. And each of these fields of study is moving from a static descriptive mode to a dynamic science that concerns itself with origins and change over time. Marx is becoming possible, and Darwin, and the reconstruction of proto-Indo-European.

Not so bad, right? Foucault takes as a kind of epigraph the Chinese Encyclopedia thing from Borges where animals are divisible into "those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies." He starts by treating our own divisions as though they make just as little sense and saying why. This is cricket--good clean intellectual enquiry.

He gets Foucauldian, and even, like meta-Foucauldian, later on, but for once perhaps we'll just let that pass, yes? It's reflected in the rating and I don't have much to say about it except that there are large skippable swaths ("Man and His Doubles") near the end and it's Foucault and if you don't know what you're getting into try The History of Sexuality or Discipline and Punish or something a little more concrete/less rarefied.

So a Great Chain implies quantitative otherness, and a taxonomy implies qualitative Otherness--"heterocliticity"--and the dynamic or progressive approach squares the circle: think of the way labour conceived as a constant gives us a foundation for economics, as distinct from "the study of wealth". Think of the way William Jones's Indo-European hypothesis gives what had once been (and would be again, with the essentialist, nationalist 19th century) radically separate languages a place to meet: philology becoming linguistics. Fine, fine.

That's as far as you can really go with that intriguing argument, of course, unless you're prepared to engage with the structuralist aridity of most of the second half of the book. I would have preferred a much closer attention to sources, examples, and the 18th-century lifeworld as actually expressed in the 18th century--Foucault may have seen himself as an anti-humanist, but only a really old-timey conception of humanism can't take into account a historian that tries to see history from the outside.

So yeah, I guess I recommend reading carefully for a while, mulling the argument and deciding how you feel about it, and then skimming and extracting the gems: Don Quixote as the "hero of absolute signification" the character for whom there is no difference between words and reality; Descartes as introducing a naturalism that is not mimesis, a correspondence between language and the world rooted in the brain and not God--for me this was the basis for much closer engagement with the part of this that's about language, with reference to theorists like Condillac and mystics like Rousseau and Herder and Coleridge, but when I go over those notes now they seem unfruitful. Plenty to like here, and it was of course an important chapter in the history of the intellectual world the humanities now exist in (I fret so about the mode of expression and the sincerity of the ideas in this kind of book partially because I feel implicated, of course). But you wish someone had told him "Just the facts, man."
… (more)
LibraryThing member malithgow
Difficult unraveling of changing epistemes from 16th century to present - the ways in which order (how we in the West make order, recognize order, and express order in terms of meaning and knowledge) changes and with it the meanings we ascribe to experience.
LibraryThing member dcunning11235
First of all, this book is... opaque. The writing style is very verbose, even flowery in places, full of rhetorical questions and repetition, etc. There may be no accounting for taste, and, true, styles change, but the style of this book leaves a lot to be asked for.

LibraryThing member DavidCLDriedger
A bear of a read in terms of the historical data Foucault brings into play (my eyes glazed over a fair amount of it). I have to wonder how much more beneficial it was reading this than reading a good secondary account of Foucault's notion of the 'episteme', though then I would never know . . .
We are still trying to figure out our way forward from his conclusion about the elevation of language and the dissolution of 'man' as an object of study.… (more)


Original language



Page: 0.6442 seconds