“The Order of Things” Book Review: By Mitch Nickerson

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Here I’m going to give a brief overview of a rather puzzling book, The Order of Things, or as titled in French “Les Mots et Les Choses”. Michel Foucault left us this work in 1966 which established himself as one of the great French thinkers of the twentieth century and added to the many structuralist works of the era.

However, in order to dive in, it is necessary that we have an understanding of the term “episteme”. Foucault uses the term “episteme” as a way to describe the very structure of human thought which is present at any given time. He writes that “in any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.”

One example I came across to give you an idea of this would be to imagine that you are getting ready to go to work, class, or to run some errands and without even really thinking you put on your pants, shirt whatever else and head out on your way.

See that is the example right there, without even thinking about doing otherwise (at least in these normal everyday examples) you put on these articles of clothing, then you go out and to do these things.

For the majority of us, we would never think of foregoing clothes before heading out for the day and that there is the power of structures of human which are prevalent in our lives at any given time. This is a surface level example to put in light the idea he’s talking about. It goes much, much deeper than that though, as these distinct “epistemes” have always had a profound impact on human thought down to the very way our sciences have been structured to dictate what is acceptable and true.

Three Clear Epistemes

Foucault uses the studies of linguistics, biology, and economics and traces the progression of each from a few hundred years ago up to the present day in an attempt to argue that there have been three clear epistemes since the Renaissance.

Three clear epistemes, three clear eras of human thought.

He makes these arguments to build up to the idea that our concept of “man”, as we understand this conscious observer in the present day, is really a modern invention made possible by the progression of the way we interpret the world around us.

This book, for me at least, was extremely challenging and took awhile to finish because of how deep and dense every page is. This certainly is not a read for the faint-hearted but I will do my best to explain some of the concepts as I have understood them in the hopes that these words give you the inspiration to be curious with Foucault’s own.

Let’s see where it goes.

Resemblance As a Constructive Role

He starts off by talking about how “resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture” up to the sixteenth century. This resemblance is built upon four ideas: convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathies. It is too much to go too in depth into these terms but note that convenientia “denotes the adjacency of places more strongly than it does similitude. Those things are ‘convenient’ which come sufficiently close to one another to be in juxtaposition; their edges touch, their fringes intermingle, the extremity of the one also denotes the beginning of the other.” Think of it as the “resemblance connected with space in the form of a graduated scale of proximity.”

Which brings us to aemulatio and that concept can be described as “a sort of ‘convenience’ that has been freed from the law of place and is able to function, without motion, from a distance…for emulation is a sort of twinship existing in things; it arises from a fold in being, the two sides of which stand immediately opposite to one another.” Analogy, Foucault writes, is “convenientia and aumulatio superimposed… its power is immense, for the similitudes of which it treats are not the visible, substantial ones between things themselves; they need only be the more subtle resemblances of relations”.

The final piece of his resemblance pie is sympathies which are a bit different as “here, no path has been determined in advance, no distance laid down, no links prescribed. Sympathy plays through the depths of the universe in a free state… sympathy is an instance of the Same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to be merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear—and thus of rendering them foreign to what they were before.” Sympathy also has its alter ego here, antipathy, so if “sympathy” is the resemblance force bringing things together, “antipathy” is the opposite “…maintaining the isolation of things and preventing their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and its propensity to continue being what it is.”

Okay, whew, these concepts are a lot but I’d recommend you to dwell on each of them and how they might act in different situations of resemblance. These four similitudes “tell us what the paths of similitude are and the directions they take”. And see, this is only a few pages in to Foucault’s argument after an extensive analysis of Las Meninas, so, dense may even be an understatement as this man’s mind goes H.A.M.

However, after a lengthy analysis on signs and the way they work with things we had identified through resemblances (i.e. through the similitudes), he makes the point that “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.”

Without much more elaboration, this is a significant point he is making in his work that up to the sixteenth century (arguably from The Renaissance) that interpretation is a key component of this first episteme which Foucault makes his case for.

Comparison of Measurement and of Order

Moving into the seventeenth century, Foucault draws conclusions that this resemblance themed moved into comparison which he says only two forms exist, namely “the comparison of measurement and that of order.” We’re very familiar with that comparison of measurement because we utilize these forms of thought all the time and it has led to the mathematization of many domains of our curiosity.

Order isn’t as familiar, though we’re certainly aware of its presence but Foucault writes “one cannot know the order of things ‘in their isolated nature’, but by discovering that which is the simplest, then that which is next simplest, one can progress inevitably to the most complex things of all.” And so, we begin to see this next era of the ways humans structured knowledge, especially as scientific order and the scientific method really begin to develop.

See these structures are rather built-up upon another so as in this shift, mere ‘resemblance’ is not enough and now must be subjected to these new ‘comparisons’ which help to close the vastness of possibilities when considering, well anything. Foucault writes “this relation to Order is as essential to the Classical age as the relation to Interpretation was to the Renaissance.” The book continues on to follow the progression of linguistics, biology, and economics over time to articulate the way in which the various epistemes impacted their development.

Unfortunately, as these get tricky and this is just a general overview, I must keep brevity in mind and save those explorations for part two which I hope to have the opportunity to bring to you in the near future. For now, however, let’s wrap up this lengthy exploration with some of Foucault’s final ideas which I hope will paint a reasonable picture of the point he’s attempting to make.

Final Thoughts: Excerpts From the Book

After some time trying to find a way to summarize two excerpts, it appears the best way for me to present the final bit of this overview will be two (long-winded) quotes directly from the book so here we go:

“the functions of ‘nature’ and ‘human nature’ are in opposition to one another, term by term, in the Classical episteme: nature, through the action of real and disordered juxtaposition, causes difference to appear in the ordered continuity of beings; human nature causes the identical to appear in the disordered chain of representations, and does so by the action of a display of images. The one implies the fragmentation of a history in order to constitute actual landscapes; the other implies the comparison of non-actual elements which destroy the fabric of a chronological sequence…they act, in fact upon identical elements;  both reveal against the background of an uninterrupted fabric the possibility of a general analysis which makes possible the distribution of isolable identities and visible differences over a tabulated space and in an ordered sequence. But they cannot succeed in doing this without each other, and it is there that the communication between them occurs.”

Ahah, this leads to, in my opinion, a significant declaration for the argument Foucault wishes to make where he writes:

“this establishing of communication between nature and human nature on the basis of two opposite but complementary functions – since neither can take place without the other – carries with it broad theoretical consequences. For Classical thought, man does not occupy a place in nature through the intermediary of the regional, limited, specific ‘nature’ that is granted to him, as to all other beings, as a birthright. If human nature is interwoven with nature, it is by the mechanisms of knowledge and by their functioning; or rather, in the general arrangement of the Classical episteme, nature, human nature, and their relations, are definite and predictable functional moments. And man, as a primary reality with his own density, as the difficult object and sovereign subject of all possible knowledge, has no place in it. The modern themes of an individual who lives, speaks, and works in accordance with the laws of an economics, a philology, and a biology, but who also, by a sort of internal torsion and overlapping, has acquired the right, through the interplay of those very laws, to know them and to subject them to total clarification – all these themes so familiar to us today and linked to the existence of the ‘human sciences’ are excluded by Classical though: it was not possible at that time that there should arise, on the boundary of the world, the strange stature of a being whose nature (that which determines it, contains it, and has traversed it from the beginning of time) is to know nature, and itself, in consequence, as a natural being.”

This is a rather complex work and much of it is difficult to summarize concisely as you are now well aware, so it is my hope that I have at least sparked some interest in Foucault’s work The Order of Things or at the very least some other works on structuralism which are very interesting as well. As I mentioned, it is my intention to go more in-depth with these specific ideas and examples to paint a more detailed picture of this work but until that time, I thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at and I will do my best to answer any inquiries with book in hand. Live long and Prosper.