Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Formalized Epistemes: Foucault’s Incomplete Order of History.By Alex Lee, Entropy January 9, 2015

Review of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault

To answer why do things make sense, in The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, Foucault starts by drawing historical periods of sense making. Because he cannot account for why change has happened to determine how our sense making operates, he instead presents a view that historically-speaking sense making comes in stages.

This trajectory is threefold: in the sixteenth century and before we had resemblance as the episteme of knowing. This past heuristic did not distinguish as strictly between valid and invalid modes as our current epoch of sense making might. For example, today astrology isn’t considered valid but modern scientific formulation is. For the previous the seventeenth century, Foucault writes:

The world is covered with signs that must be deciphered, and those signs, which reveal resemblances and affinities, are themselves no more than forms of similitude. To know must therefore be to interpret: to find a way from the visible mark to that which is being said by it and which, without that mark, would lie like unspoken speech, dormant within things.

This is another way of saying that before the Classical era, knowledge was the ability to name and relate signs to one another heuristically. Likewise, our knowledge about manipulating the material world was through access to those named marks. As Foucault adds “This is why the plants that represent the head, or the eyes, or the heart, or the liver, will possess an efficacity in regard to that organ; this is why the animals themselves will react to the marks that designate them.” This is an understanding of the world in terms of the names of things, or what we might dismiss as interacting with the world through wordplay. We can draw a parallel with how the secret Agent Sterling Archer in the animated TV show “Archer” resolves his conflicts through wordplay with other characters. The application of discursive meaning on the material world reflects the violent process of discourse alignment through his aggressive puns, and seemingly non-sequitur connections, which are always revealed to have an interior logic that is respectful to the reality of the Other (be this other a steak, or a wild ocelot, or a gigantic St. Bernard). Often, Archer’s wordplay slides between his fulfillment of his desires, and as a kind of justification to his mother or to mother figures (the men around him also all answer to mother figures, or at least other women in the office). Nonetheless, violence and disobedience coexist in his ability to get what he wants. In other words, minimally justifying his spy actions from his domineering mother is simultaneous with his hermeneutics. In pre-Classical applications of knowledge, this is akin to Archer being a sorcerer, to needing to say all the magic words to change material and social situations to hide his indiscretions.

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