A Reading of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966)


In the Forward to the English edition of The Order of Things, Foucault proposes a question fuels the trajectory of this work, and that question is the following: “…what if empirical knowledge, at a given time and in a given culture, did possess a well-defined regularity?”

What ultimately undergirds this question is the notion that this “regularity” is predicated on what Foucault refers to as “the laws of a certain code of knowledge.” Not only does this offer the possibility of conceiving knowledge as being structured by a “certain code” that is governed by specific “laws,” but also grasping and explaining ways of knowing metahistorically. To do this, Foucault contends that such an approach to knowledge must employ a comparative study, rather than a symptomatological one –as he suggests, a comparative study is concerned with the assessing a definite number of elements “side by side,” which he outlines in this manner: “the knowledge of living beings, the knowledge of the laws of language, and the knowledge of economic facts.” These elements are, then, related to the “philosophical discourse that was contemporary with them during a period extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.” While the elements he respectively outlines are natural history, grammar, and the economy, the period that is chiefly focused upon extends across the Renaissance, Classicism, and Historicism. Associated with each of the aforementioned periods and elements are naturalists, grammarians, and economists, all of which are dedicated to “employ[ing] the same rules to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories.” What does this relatedness mean? For Foucault, it reveals what he calls a “positive unconscious of knowledge” –it is the notion that, despite the epistemological objective, there remains a system through which all epistemological “discovery” must operate. In this system of knowing, Foucaults concedes to three underlying problems: the problem of change (changes that occur on different levels proceeding at the same pace, obeying the same laws), the problem of causality (a problem that have been put to this side in this work), and the problem of the subject (conditions of existence). Despite the connotations that may be apparent in this system of knowing, Foucault is careful to assert that he is not embarking on a structural analysis that makes use of methods, concepts, or key terms, even if it is dependent on conditions and rules. To be clear, Foucault is not systematizing knowledge, but merely concentrating on revealing how “knowing” functions through comparative analysis.

In the subsequent Preface, Foucault is also careful to argue that he is not concerned with “describ[ing] the progress of knowledge towards objectivity.” Instead, he is attempting to analyze the “pure experience of order” and its “modes of being,” which are linked to the following lines of inquiry: “language as it has been spoken, natural creatures as they have been perceived and grouped together, and exchanges as they have been practi[c]ed.” Through these lines of epistemological inquiry, culture is a manifestation of the “existence of order” and the “modalities of that order” predicated on laws of economic exchanges, the constraints of living beings, and the sequence and representative value of words. Under an overarching “existence of order,” Foucault uses a rather detailed analysis of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” to suggest that the painting puts forth a “Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us.” This representation “opens up to us” epistemological assumptions that undergird what is epistemologically acceptable. Foucault utilizes “Las Meninas” as a “techne” to consider how “ways of knowing” are represented through speaking, classifying, and exchanging, which are respectively linked to natural history, grammar, and economics.

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