He begins in the Renaissance with words and things. In the 16th century the whole world of knowledge is a ternary system of things that can be signs, the linking resemblances which tie the signs to to other things, and the things to which the signs refer. Vibrating in and through all beings, linked through and through by resemblances, suffusing and encircling the microcosm and the macrocosm is the Word itself, God. Consequently there is no logical divide between magic and science, the thing being written and about and the writing. Renaissance thinking allows for Borge's parody. The seventeenth century collapses the system of signs into a binary system in which signs refer uncomplicatedly to their signifier only. (Don Quixote is the work marking the end of Renaissance thought; Sade's Justine marks the end of the next period.) Measurement and order are the axes of thinking; all material items can be placed on a table of continuous relations which stretches off into infinity. Here Foucault separates three strands: general grammar, the exchange of wealth (analyzed through land and units of labor) and the classification of nature. A second rift at the end of the eighteenth century buries the horizontal table in favor, generally speaking, of a vertical structure. Land and labor give way to a system of production; visible characters (Linnaeus's classification) give way to analysis of organic systems, such as the nervous system; and general grammar becomes philology, the comparative study of languages. Modern thinking, spurred by Nietsche, creates the possibility of life and of man, a being able to think about being, but unable to find in any system of thinking a place to ground the problem of being an "empirico-transcendental doublet ."1 The human sciences, psychology and sociology, are separated from the labor, biology and philology, becoming the "basis on which man is able to present himself to a possible knowledge." (362). But it seems that Foucault fears the restraining power of that late construct, man, hoping fervently that "man" will be dispersed when language regains its unity.
Foucault offers a rich framework of theory, and keeping his major divisions in mind may suggest what innovations in material culture are possible for an age bound in a certain episteme. He does not offer a way to determine the direction of cause-effect relationships between change material culture and change in thinking. Pointing out that he has not truly explained why one episteme is replaced by another, Foucault focuses rather on the consequences of changes -- although he does suggest those whom he believes to be the first thinkers to appear in the interstices opened by the subterranean shifts. The lives of these thinkers may form useful sites for exploration.
The work raises two kinds of problems for a reader such as myself: both are likely to be remedied by time and experience. Being unfamiliar with most of the primary works he quotes, and with the systems of thought to which he refers, I cannot judge the degree to which he has "got it right:" Has he correctly attributed described the changes in thinking? Do his models cover the primary works? Finally, because the entire work rests on the metaphor of space and of archaeology, it will be interesting to see how a writer lines up the same set of problems using another dominant metaphor, and compare the results.
Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.
New York: Random House, Inc. , 1970. 322. All quotations in the text are
to this edition.