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134 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ardent Renaissance Man turns history of science on its side
This is my favorite book by Foucault. The book reads well, as a series of connected stories.
You will need to bring an interest in the history of economic thought, the history of linguistic thought, the history of thinking about art, the history of biological thought, and other such histories, though you don't need a college level background in each to be able to get...
Published on January 13, 2001 by listen-in-the-wind

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Foucault's "Order:" An Oxymoron
The Order of Things (1966) contains many of Michel Foucault's favorite themes. First, western civilization had always taken for granted that human beings directed their own destiny as rational creatures who possessed free will and autonomy of thought. Foucault thought that this so-called free will was dangerous nonsense and no more than a shared illusion. He now urged...
Published on May 7, 2011 by Martin Asiner


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134 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ardent Renaissance Man turns history of science on its side, January 13, 2001
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This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
This is my favorite book by Foucault. The book reads well, as a series of connected stories.
You will need to bring an interest in the history of economic thought, the history of linguistic thought, the history of thinking about art, the history of biological thought, and other such histories, though you don't need a college level background in each to be able to get full value from reading the book. He ranges both deep and wide in all these histories, and presents them in a completely new way - you'll feel as if your feet have been yanked from underneath you.
Imagine the normal way a history of a single science is presented: you see the progression of ideas, there is the old idea, the growing realisation of a problem inherent in the old idea, a key person grows up and comes up with a new idea, and we see how the new idea came about and how it gained support and took hold and how the old idea lost out, quickly or after a protracted struggle. This is such a familiar framework that we completely take it for granted. Maybe we shouldn't, says Foucault.
He claims to have found something remarkable when looking at all these different histories of thought side by side. He says major changes in the very way that economics was conceived had a counterpart in major changes in the way linguistics was conceived and biology and so on, in a very narrow span of years. This leads him to distinguish three eras such that within each era the thinking in economics, biology, linguistics, etc was more similar to each other than e.g. the thinking in economics from one era to the next. Each of these eras, which he calls "epistemes", comes to a fairly sudden end all across Europe.
In each episteme, there are certain ways of looking at knowledge, but also ways of looking at what is worth knowing and what is worth asking and what is taken for granted, that are typical of that episteme and are shared across the various subjects of study. Once in a new episteme, the questions and concerns of the previous episteme become exasperatingly quaint (like "how could they waste their time arguing about the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin").
Foucault traces his three epistemes in great detail, doing a wonderful detective-novel job at bringing you along and keeping you interested in the essential weirdness of the previous epistemes, till he gets to the modern episteme, and then you slake a sigh of relief because everything suddenly sounds so eminently reasonable. But by now you can see the contingency of the modern way of thinking - why, for example, modern man would structure his history of sciences the way he does. In a sense, modern man, embedded like a tar baby in the current episteme could never have come up with Foucault's theory of epistemes. Fittingly, Foucault, at the end of the book, drops some tantalizing hints that the current episteme may be close to an end as well, and what might replace it.
Time to throw some of your favorite answers away and start asking some new questions!
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79 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, I like this book very much..., January 2, 2000
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
Perhaps this is the most significant (and consequently most overlooked) philosophical work of the twentieth century. While upon its initial release The Order of Things launched Foucault's international career, it has been largely ignored in favor of Foucault's analysis of power, discourse, and subjectivity. But, above all, Foucault was a philosopher of history and this book stands as the unacknowledged center of his oeuvre. It is a book of immense erudition, surprises, mystery, and wonderment. And contrary to Arendt's contention that philosophers do not laugh, this book begins with a laughter and sustains the mirth throughout. This is the proper sequel to Nietzsche's 'The Gay Science.' But this time, it really aims for science.
Confession: even in my young age, I have read this book 8 times. I hope to read it many more times. With each reading the book opens up new and unexplored territories. Riddles reveal themselves as words of a sage. The sheer beauty and economy of the writing moves me.
Perhaps in this book, that is, hidden in this book, the other Foucault emerges here and there. The other Foucault who is not reducible as the theoretician of power, pomo revelry, or the modern heretic but the bold thinker of history who always has one foot in tradition and the other foot reaching in the darkness for a new ground.
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160 of 194 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seminal work of French Structuralism, June 14, 2001
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This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
As much as Foucault would have hated the label, this book is one of the core texts that anchor the French Structuralist school of thought. So, what does that mean exactly? Well, it means that style is as important, if not more so, than substance. So let me begin with style.

The style of the book is what you're likely to notice most immediately. The Structuralists are famous for subordinating lucidity and logical rigor for what is sometimes called "vast erudition." Vast erudition is that set of decidedly French stylistic elements that include such frequently beautiful techniques as intentional obscurity of meaning; undisciplined, looping, rambling metaphors which go on for pages and pages; flowery, arcane rhetoric; and more neologisms than the French Academy could possibly record. In short, Foucault uses 100 words to say what he could have said in 10, but it is great fun to read despite its difficulty. Trust me, if you didn't get it, probably he didn't intend for you to. And what critics like to hail as erudition is sometimes nothing more than purposeful obscurity and literary name dropping. Daniel Boorstin is as erudite as any French Structuralist, but he is infinitely more lucid.

Now, there's the substance. Foucault's essential thesis is that science is a front for an unconscious network of order relating ALL branches of human knowledge. The thesis is, if anything, an epistemological statement. Typical of modern French scholarship in general, this book cuts a wide interdisciplinary swath through arts and sciences to show how seemingly unrelated fields of human knowledge--biology, economics and language, for example--are really empirical manifestations of the same human process. At the heart of the matter is the notion that all of human knowledge is socially constructed, ignorant of the submerged "order of things" that joins it under the surface. Hence, we must discover this order by means of digging, by means of "archaeology."

So, don't worry about deciphering every sentence. Once you get the essential ideas (they're in the Preface), sit back and enjoy Foucault's collage of words and thoughts. He was brilliant, and questioned the most sacrosanct concepts known to humanity. He pushed the frontiers of the humanities, which is a lesson all humanists should consider.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Foucault's "Order:" An Oxymoron, May 7, 2011
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
The Order of Things (1966) contains many of Michel Foucault's favorite themes. First, western civilization had always taken for granted that human beings directed their own destiny as rational creatures who possessed free will and autonomy of thought. Foucault thought that this so-called free will was dangerous nonsense and no more than a shared illusion. He now urged mankind to abandon such a fantasy of self-directed free will and to accept that the source of humanity's decision making lay in external forces that collectively pushed all beings into predetermined directions. Second, one of those shared illusions was the seemingly self-evident concept that an ongoing world external to human senses existed as things solidly grounded in reality. Things exist regardless of how or even whether we acknowledge them. Foucault claimed that since man's view of reality is contingent on how they see reality, it followed, then, that the manner in which language describes that reality led him to conclude that language does not reflect reality so much as language creates it. Third, since reality is no more than a nuanced and ephemeral reflection of language, then what we call historical reality has no more ongoing movement in time than cotton candy. It is an extended elaboration of this third shared illusion that constitutes the bulk of The Order of Things.

The "Order" of the title refers to how mankind attempts to ascertain what sense of continuity exists between one historical age and another. He uses the phrase "Archeology" (from the subtitle) to suggest metaphorically that Foucault, as the historical archeologist, uncovers the temporal structuring of historical eras. Previous to Foucault, most historians saw history as the grand playing out of a universal human drama in which people learn from the mistakes of their parents and use an advancing technology to better their lives ad infinitum. In this book, he determined that somewhere deep within human culture lay a "great, uniform text" which ordered that culture and gave ongoing meaning to it. However, in his very next book, The Archeology of Knowledge he changed his mind by asserting that no such deep truths could possibly exist. Such retractions, re-evaluations, and evolutions of thought are one of the dreary trademarks of a writer whose ideas often wriggle on a slippery slope of sloppy thinking.

This "great uniform text" was the distinguishing trait of the three major epochs of modern human history: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Modern Age. By text, Foucault does not refer to how one age differs in thought from another. He was not concerned with content. Rather, his focus was on the relations within each epoch to determine how they connect. Foucault uses the term "episteme" as a synonym for epoch. Episteme comes from epistemology which means a study of the nature of knowledge with reference to its limits or validity so it seemed natural for him to coin the term. He saw the Renaissance as a time when intellectuals, writers, and scientists equated an abstract concept like "man" with its verbal equivalent (the sound of the word). The Enlightenment was marked by a later generation of writers who took that verbalized concept and constructed various paradigms of classification so as to better reference them. What these writers took as a referencing tool Foucault took as a power tool as they unconsciously (or perhaps deliberately) attempted to foist their own ideas on others who would then "accept" these ideas as natural, just, and eminently universal. The Modern Age is a catch-all phrase for the totality of the union between philosophy and science that all men hoped would usher in a new and permanent era of peace, prosperity, and purpose.

Foucault envisioned these epistemes as discontinuous, which he defines as having no relation to each other. Whatever traits marked one episteme were born and died with it. Each succeeding episteme began fresh, almost as if it were a baby new universe eternally recreated in a cycle of Big Bangs. It would then be fruitless to seek links from one episteme to the next. What remained for historians to do was to take the discontinuous nature of each episteme and to examine only that one to deduce its underlying symmetry.

There are various problems underlying Foucault's premises, not the least of which is that he provides no convincing rationale as to how and why his epistemes originate and perish. Further, he ignores the contradiction that the reason why one episteme would be discontinuous from another ought to be the same reason why one episteme would be discontinuous with itself. Finally, his distracting habit of revising his ideology every other book ought to be a red flag before his legions of admirers would term him the greatest mind of the twentieth century.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Difficult but worth it, April 4, 2004
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
This book is one of the most important philosophy texts of the 20th century, if for no other reason than as an eye-opener. The text is a difficult read (although nowhere near as opaque as Derrida). The section on how our culture and, hence, our world-view has been "set" by accepted taxonomies is worth the read all by itself. I have come back to these comments again and again. Taxonomies are useful, but we need to understand the constraints on understanding imposed by such
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, awkward translation, August 13, 2011
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
I love this book, even when I hate it. Foucault's archaeological method really blows a hole in the die-hard myth of historical "progress" by focusing on the epistemological bases of change, steering (or rather veering) away from the teleological narrative that usually passes for history. Mind-bending, really.

But what an awful translation. I wish I was a more fluent reader of French; parts of this book read like something I might have translated on a low energy day: idiomatic French rendered literally in English. No wonder people have such a tough time getting through the book. It took me a while before I got the hang of the awkward sentence structures, and by then I felt I had to go back and start reading from the beginning.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea, August 31, 2000
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
After the review by 'tksc' (too bad there is no email address for
correspondence), there is not much for one to say and be
brief. Indeed, this book, along with 'Madness and Civilization',
creates its own space and time within which the reader may unfold
his/her thought. And, truly, this book presents a very lyrical
Foucault; very different from the historian (and militant) of
power/knowledge of his later works. The chapter on Velasquez's
painting Las Meninas is as lucid as the painting itself. The book as a
whole is very erudite. Above all, and regardless of one's orientation
amidst our post-Nietzschen times (heralded by Deleuze and Guattari),
the chapter on man and his doubles emanates a light of Homeric hue.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-have background reference for any thorough-going post-modernist criticism, February 1, 2010
By 
Timothy A. Musgrove "PhD" (Silicon Valley, California) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
I think most scholars and educators in the history of philosophy would put this in the top ten most important philosophical works of the latter half of the 20th Century, despite whether one largely agrees with Foucault's views or not.

This is because the work has had enormous influence not just in philosophy, but also in literary criticism, historiography, social psychology, theology, and a host of other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.

What I think is interesting is that if you are either a friend or foe of deconstructionism, you will find plenty to appreciate in this book. In fact, even if you can't stand (or can't understand) what deconstruction is all about, you can safely give Foucault a try. Though very heavy reading, he is far more structured and organized in his argumentation than, say, Derrida.

If post-modern meta-theory (i.e. discussion of how we might take a step back and judge whether the very principles of how we form theories may be called into question) is of interest to you, in any field, then you probably will be glad for having read this book.

About this edition: It's a shame they did not keep the print of the painting, Las Meninas, on the cover -- as an older paperback version had borne. Foucault talks about this painting at length in the book, and there is no replacement for seeing it. A black-and-white print on the inside is not nearly as nice as the larger, color one that was on previous covers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely profound, November 30, 2012
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I am not at all qualified to comment on this book. Many highly intelligent and educated people have written books on this book. So, I'll just say that as a humble consumer and reader that I'm very happy I spent my money on it, even though I only understand a small part of what is written. The edition is well made and the kindle version is highly readable without major flaws. The dictionary lookup function is extremely useful because the author uses many, many words I had never heard before.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy by Demonstration: Foucault's Investigation of Science and Language, May 12, 2012
This review is from: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Paperback)
I am not new to Foucault. I had previously read various books, essays, and lectures of his various historical and philosophical studies, and have gained a decent understanding of his thought over several years. However, I found "The Order of Things" to be somewhat confusing, at least at first. It's a work primarily concerned with the evolution of Western science since the end of the Middle Ages, and Foucault describes his project in those terms in the preface and frustratingly cryptic first chapter. Although this book is certainly a major contribution to the philosophy and history of science, it becomes clear that Foucault is using this historical subject matter as a means to demonstrate his philosophy of language, and to inquire into modern humanity's relationship to its own self-understanding as a subject of study. Foucault argues that our notion of "being" inevitably influences our perceived essences of "beings" that we encounter in our quests for knowledge. Our interpretation of the things we encounter in the world is inevitably characterized by our notion of what the world is in the first place. In turn, the history of Western philosophy and science has led us to a strange place where we are supposed to view ourselves as the subject of our inquiries, even though we ourselves are the speakers of language we seek to use to explain ourselves as speakers of language!

It is common in the Western epistemological tradition for both science and philosophy to ignore the way in which the interpretation of "being" impacts, on an intrinsic level, the nature of the "beings" we encounter. Philosophers like to think of themselves as the masters of argument, and it is common for philosophers to characterize the "truth" as something that is constructed out of information and arguments. Foucault, however, stands against this tradition. The point he attempts to make in "The Order of Things" requires demonstration.
Foucault explains to the reader that from the Renaissance through the modern era, science and its subfields have undergone a twisted evolution. However, these changes did not occur because of certain discoveries, or because a certain threshold of empirical knowledge had been reached. Rather, fundamental changes in the classification of life, the study of trade, and the analysis of language were tied into changes in the way in which scholarly thinkers interpreted the world itself, and that these changes often preceded the formation of modern scientific disciplines themselves. Social, cultural, and religious changes, if we accept Foucault's thesis, are co-determinant with the birth of modern science, and thus, science itself is a cultural institution which requires the a priori acceptance of a certain metaphysical worldview in order to operate. However, even metaphysics is subject to categories, distinctions, and relations which are created by language. So, in Foucault's philosophy, language and its creative power pervades all sectors of human knowledge, and in a way, constitutes the world itself. He uses history to show how sudden shifts in the use of language can reframe knowledge itself, and alter our very epistemic understanding at its foundation.

Foucault cites the examples of scholars of language, biology, economics, and subject-object metaphysics to explain the sudden philosophical breaks which occurred within multiple fields of knowledge in multiple ways, and argues that new ways of "conceiving" of the world were responsible for these changes. One example Foucault uses is the transition from the theological-philosophical study of language to the scientific-philosophical study of language. In the Middle Ages, it was naturally assumed that we lived in a world that was created by God. However, it was also believed that God spoke to man through nature, something which modern Christendom abandoned long ago. Similarities between animals or even landscapes were supposed to tell us something about God's plan. If an animal appeared to love its young, then kinship with the human experience of parental love was assumed. This language of nature brought us glimpses of an original, lost language that Adam had used to name the creatures of the world. This lost language was the language of divine truth, and Western scholars considered their studies of both language and nature as a means to reconnect with this lost language which unified all being.

Foucault attempts to present evidence that the loss of this paradigm had nothing to do with some big contradictory discovery, but a sudden change in the way in which those who studied language conceived of being itself. The truthfulness of resemblance was disposed of at the start of the classical age- it was no longer assumed that God spoke to use through resemblances found in nature. Resemblances were now considered deceptive, but it was still assumed that there was a truth behind all things. Now, scientists and proto-scientists searched for the eternal forms which operated behind language and biology. This is because "All language had value only as discourse" (43), or, all signs encountered in language and nature only had value insofar as they informed a subjective being about the truth. It was no longer assumed, in a sense, that true knowledge is gained from our senses. Now, knowledge could only be knowledge if filtered through a truncated version of ours senses and a mechanistic understanding of nature.

I may have repeated this specific argument in a somewhat confused manner, but Foucault provides plenty of strong evidence-based arguments, so I'd recommend hearing him out before judging his thesis based on what I've written. The rest of the first part of "The Order of Things" is generally along these lines. Foucault conducts similar analyses of economics and biology, mainly using them to cement his notion that historical changes are defined by sudden breaks with previous philosophical-cultural vocabularies, and that the transition from one era to another does not represent some kind of smooth, linear progress. The second half of "The Order of Things" continues to elaborate on these observations, but delves more into the 19th and 20th centuries. Foucault demonstrates that the epistemic break that occurred around the birth of the Classical era continued to have repercussions for the modern era, and that in a way, we still live in a cultural era defined by the Cartesian materialism that arose centuries ago. Towards the end of the second part, Foucault starts to focus in on what he clearly considers to be the most interesting reverberation of the epistemic break- the creation of "man" as a subject for inquiry. After the epistemic break, the human "subject," i.e., the individual cognitively functioning human beings who has the ability to gain and interpret knowledge, becomes a condition of study itself. Western sciences poised themselves towards greater and greater rigor, but the question of how to "resolve" the problem of man's subjectivity continued to plague Western society. Some thinkers, such as Hegel, attempted to ground human metaphysics in the idea of a progressive story of history. Others, such as Hume and Adam Smith, attempted to create a firm foundation for the sciences by forging a vocabulary of the human experience which was tightly-knit and supposedly transcended cultural context. Despite these various approaches, no one has yet to conclusively solve this problem, and Foucault suggests that the problem may lie in the supposition that "man" can be an objective subject of study itself. The desire to study the most fundamental aspects of thought and language often lead us to view our cultural vocabularies as just one possible vocabulary of human being, and attempts by Continental philosophers to get at the "source" of being have simply come to the conclusion that any attempt at creating an eternal order of the human subject inevitably rests on a cultural vocabulary. In other words, attempts to discover the original human subject tend to self-destruct, and come to the conclusion that their original purposes were folly to begin with.

Ultimately, I think the greatest strength in Foucault's method lies in his skepticism of hindsight. It's tempting to refer to the history he describes as the story of modern science, but as he consistently reminds the reader, there is a big problem with speaking of history in this way: The actors themselves did not conduct their work with our categories and customs in mind. In order to get under the skin of an era, you have to think like the people from that era. You need to pick out the metaphysics, divisions, relations, and unity in the way they thought. Substituting your own categories and narratives onto them is always, no matter how useful, somewhat untruthful. This is highlighted by his analysis of the history of the human being as a subject of knowledge. The cultural vocabulary we use to describe our own experience of being assumes that we are the subjects of our knowledge. We try to speak about how we are speaking things, we try to come to objective conclusions about what we are as subjects! This is so fundamental to the modern cultural experience, and yet it is something that must be shed in order to understand how people in past eras or other cultures conceived of the world, or even in order to create originary observations in modern philosophy itself.
I would highly recommend that this book be read alongside Thomas Khun's "The Copernican Revolution." Khun also investigates the fundamental shift in philosophical paradigm from the scholastic era to the Renaissance, and the way in which the way we conceive of "being" influences our encounters with individual beings. Unlike Foucault though, Khun argues that individual discoveries and scientific investigation have definitely played a causal role in creating such "paradigm shifts," even if a paradigm shift is ultimately constituted by a sharp break. Despite my appreciation for Foucault, I think Khun better supports his own conception of the language-epistemology relationship and the nature of the epistemic break in the Classical era. However, I could imagine someone else arguing otherwise, and thus recommend both books.
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The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault (Paperback - March 29, 1994)
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