The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (A translation of Les Mots et les choses)
by Michel Foucault
Pantheon, 411 pp., $10.00
Attempting to bring order into the chaos of psychiatric diagnosis in the nineteenth century, Henry Maudsley took as his aim “to clear the ground by endeavoring to think the subject into simplicity and to set forth the results in as plain language as possible.” To assume that this would be the aim of any writer would be to forget how foreign it is to some of the intellectual traditions of the continent. To Foucault, obviously, it would be flouting all the rules of the game, rather like arguing that because the matador intends to kill the bull in the end he should take a big-game rifle and use it at the earliest opportunity. Having worked hard for his erudition, his insights, his subtle deviations from more ordinary ways of thinking, Foucault sees no reason why his reader should reap the results without sharing the toil.
Besides, a reader attuned to this tradition would himself not appreciate straightforward ideas in plain language; he wants the balletic ritual, the feints, the promises and postponements of the intellectual bullfighter. He would be disappointed at missing what Maudsley shunned: “the use of the many learned names—of Greek, Latin and Graeco-Latin derivation—which have been invented in appalling numbers often to denote simple things and sometimes, it may be feared, with the effect of confounding apprehension of them.” He may perhaps get more of this than he wants. Bafflement may lead him to wonder whether in the end the bull has been slain, even whether there was a bull.
I think there was, but Foucault offers the honest inquirer the minimum of help. “In France,” he says, in a Foreword to the English translation, “certain half-witted ‘commentators’ persist in labelling me a ‘structuralist.’ I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structural analysis.” Since Jean Piaget in his Structuralism (Basic Books, 1970) spends some time dealing with Foucault as an unsatisfactory structuralist, those of us with minds no less tiny than Piaget’s have had fair warning that there are possibilities of misunderstanding. Foucault has the dreadful gift—which T. S. Eliot noted in Swinburne’s poetry—of diffusing his meaning very thinly throughout an immense verbal spate, no part of which is quite empty of meaning, redundant, or merely repetitive. But behind all the abstract jargon and intimidating erudition there is undoubtedly an alert and sensitive mind which can ignore the familiar surfaces of established intellectual codes and ask new questions.
Foucault believes that our own current intellectual life and systems of scientific thought are built on assumptions profoundly taken for granted and normally not exposed to conscious inspection, and yet likely in time, perhaps quite soon, to be discarded. To support this view he goes back to earlier periods of Western thought, starting with the sixteenth century, and discusses the similar unexamined assumptions that formed the substratum of their knowledge. He gives a full and …