When one defines "order" as a sorting of priorities, it becomes beautifully clear as to what Foucault is doing here. With virtuoso showmanship, he weaves an intensely complex history of thought. He dips into literature, art, economics and even biology in The Order of Things, possibly one of the most significant, yet most overlooked, works of the twentieth century. Eclipsed by his later work on power and discourse, nonetheless it was The Order of Things that established Foucault's reputation as an intellectual giant. Pirouetting around the outer edge of language, Foucault unsettles the surface of literary writing. In describing the limitations of our usual taxonomies, he opens the door onto a whole new system of thought, one ripe with what he calls "exotic charm". Intellectual pyrotechnics from the master of critical thinking, this book is crucial reading for those who wish to gain insight into that odd beast called Postmodernism, and a must for any fan of Foucault.
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."
- Foucault says (I think) that the study of language had to take something that really functions in terms of relationships and break it down into objects in order to make analysis possible: "it was a matter of dividing nature up by means of a constant table of identities and differences for which language provided a primary, approximative, and rectifiable grid" (296). That is to say, such an activity is artificial when it comes to complicated, living things, but necessary regardless if one is to analyze them.
- Related to this, he also argues that one has to fix everything in place and imagine its transformation... at the same time: "The solidity, without gaps, of a network of species and genera, and the series of events that have blurred that network, both belong, at the same level, to the epistemological foundation that made a body of knowledge like natural history possible [...]. They are not two ways of perceiving nature, radically opposed [...]; they are two simultaneous requirements in the archaeological network that defines the knowledge of nature [...]. [T]hese two requirements are complementary" (150). I think here that Foucault demonstrates are more nuanced understanding of the classificatory vision of science than many others who would study science (or demean/caricature it).
- One of Foucault's conclusions from all this is that the big change in science in the nineteenth century (my period of special study) is that way that fixed classifications were merged with evolution-based explanations: "the analysis of production, as the new project of the 'political economy', has as its essential role the analysis of the relation between value and prices; the concepts of organisms and organic structure, the methods of comparative anatomy – in short, all the themes of the 'biology' – explain how structures observable in individuals can have validity as general characters for genera, families, sub-kingdoms; and lastly, in order to unify the formal arrangements of a language (its ability to establish prepositions) and the meaning belonging to words, 'philology' would no longer study the representative functions of discourse, but a totality of morphological constants subject to a history. Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist" (207). Phew. Previously science looked at what things were like (classification), but the new sciences of the nineteenth century didn't replace the old ones, but supplemented them by looking at the same objects (words, life, money) from a new angle: by asking how things came to be arranged the way they were. So, weirdly, biology is more interested in history than natural history is.
- This leads to a further change in ways of thinking, in that classification itself is changed: "the link between one organic structure and another can no longer, in fact, be the identity of one or several elements (a relation in which visibility no longer plays a role) and of the functions they perform; moreover, if these organic structures happen to be adjacent to one another, on account of a particularly high density of analogies, it is not because they occcupy proximate places within an area of classification; it is because they have both been formed at the same time, and the one immediately after the other in the emergence of the successions" (218). Right, so I know the most about biology because my wife is a biologist, and I know that organisms get reclassified on the genetic tree all the time because DNA and such can reveal the evolutionary logic underlying the classification, and now we prioritize that over the visual understanding of resemblances that gave rise to the original tree of life to begin with. (Probably you could analogize this to the reclassification of planetary sciences that dislodged Pluto from its place in the pantheon, but someone else can pursue that if they want.)
- Foucault is (probably predictably) interested in those moments where consciousness must work to analyze itself, and this is reflected in his particular definition of the "human sciences": "a 'human science' exists, not wherever man is in question, but wherever there is analysis [...] of norms, rules, and signifying totalities which unveil to consciousness the conditions of its forms and contents. To speak of 'sciences of man' in any other case is simply an abuse of language" (364-65). Strongly worded, perhaps, but I take his point, which is that if you're not dealing with consciousness studying consciousness (or unconsciousness), what sets it apart from consciousness studying anything?