The Order of Things

13 Jun

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (French: Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines) is a 1966 book by Michel Foucault. Foucault endeavours to excavate the origins of the human sciences, particularly but not exclusively psychology and sociology. The book opens with an extended discussion of Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas and its complex arrangement of sightlines, hiddenness, and appearance. Then it develops its central claim: that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, from one period’s episteme to another. Jean Piaget, in Structuralism, compared Foucault’s episteme to Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm. Foucault demonstrates the parallelisms in the development of three fields: linguistics, biology, and economics. Foucault’s critique has been influential in the field of cultural history. The various shifts in consciousness that he points out in the first chapters of the book have led several scholars, such as Theodore Porter, to scrutinize the bases for knowledge in our present day as well as to critique the projection of modern categories of knowledge onto subjects that remain intrinsically unintelligible, in spite of historical knowledge. The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. A review by Jean-Paul Sartre attacked Foucault as “the last barricade of the bourgeoisie”. Foucault responded, “Poor bourgeoisie; If they needed me as a ‘barricade’, then they had already lost power!”

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.

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