“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.


The Advantages and Disadvantages of Audiobooks

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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Audiobooks

Listen here folks—off to a great start with the audio puns—we need to talk about audiobooks; my concerns can be summed up in one sentence.

Audiobooks are supplementary, not substitutional to reading   

Like any other medium we use to acquire information, audiobooks have some caveats that you best consider before pressing play.

But I don’t mean to sound like a book purist, there are numerous benefits to come from audiobooks when done right.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of audiobooks that I have found to be most the valuable. After reading this you’ll sure to be an expert on when to listen and when to read.

Advantage: Audiobooks reinforce or prepare you for reading

Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858) by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Audiobooks are great for strengthening your base knowledge on a given topic.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr pronounced, ideas are never the same when we encounter them again. So when you work with material multiple times over, you increase the chance of gaining value from the work just by having more exposure to the concepts.

For example, let’s say you listen to the audiobook before reading. This can prime you to better understand the text down the road. Personal I have used audiobooks as book prep work for reading books with more complex topics or vocabulary—especially the vocab.

When you are introduced to a book that seems ‘out of your league’, listen to a few chapters, write down words you don’t know, and the general ideas. Your hard work becomes clear when you finally pick up the book. Now you have a list of the words you struggled with ready, and some general themes prepared for if you get lost.

But perhaps you read the book before listening—there’s still huge value here.

Listening to a book can reinforce what you already read. This can be a very useful tool when you are seeking out more ways to engage with an author’s writing.

Before you start listening I recommend you grab a blank piece of paper and write down everything you remember about the book. Then as you listen frequently stop and check your knowledge. You can do this by using a tactic I call Projection Reading.

How Projection reading works is when you think the author is about to explain a concept or anecdote that you are familiar with, immediately stop the audio recording, and explain it to yourself. Resume playing to check how you did. Projection reading works by taking advantage of immediate feedback audiobooks provide—a type of trial and error. It is a simple way to give yourself a gauge on your understanding of a piece of information.

Advantage: Audiobooks tell a good story

You sit in a dark room, eyes closed, listening to the Lord of the Rings spoken by J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Your imagination paints the epic tale vividly, placing you in a state so scenery you begin to question why you aren’t an elf.

Audiobooks are an excellent storytelling device.

You can easily immerse yourself in the land of fiction by using them to paint the setting. By intentionally listening to the story, you can create the mental images to creatively explore your imaginary depiction of the scene.

The fictional simulations you construct are valuable tools for fostering creativity and empathy. Both of which can be used to address real-life circumstances.

I do not take advantage of this enough. 

Advantage: Audiobooks are a tool for skill acquisition

Audiobooks are excellent tools for cultivating mental capacities. Just like with projection reading, we can use audiobooks as an instrument for strengthening a specific desired skill set. Let’s take a look at a two.

Reading Speed

To explain the relationship between audiobooks and reading speed let’s think about rubber bands.

Like a rubber band, the pace that we read can be stretched. And depending on how you listen to audiobooks, you may be able to change the speed; this is where we start stretching.

By finding a pace that feels slightly uncomfortable, we can start to stretch our capacities to follow along with the reader. Doing so can move us more quickly through a text without sacrificing clarity—clarity is safeguarded because anytime we are unclear, we slow it down.

We can stretch our reading comprehension by reading as we listen— we will discuss this in depth later this month when we talk about speed reading tactics.


A new language is best supported through continual practice in every way you can. So when you are learning a new language it can be very helpful to listen to the pronunciations from a native speaker.

Becoming accustomed to the subtle ways an accent sounds can train the ear to notice the difference in tonality, allowing you to then surrogate what the native speaker does into your own linguistic pallet—in other words, you copy them.

A Study tiled Imitation Improves Language Comprehension published by Sage had this to say:

“Imitative behavior streamlines social interaction and aids in learning to replicate actions… Post-training measures showed that accent comprehension was most improved for participants who imitated the speaker’s accent.”

Improving your own language capabilities can become a little less stressful with the accessibility of audiobooks. At any free moment, you can immerse yourself in the language you’re studying, while accruing the benefits of potentially imitating the native speaker’s accent.

Disadvantages: (Most) nonfiction audiobooks are not efficient for growth

Not all books are read equally. So when you download Plato’s Republic, don’t expect to casually listen to it while you do the dishes—and if you do, don’t expect to become a professional philosopher from a few dishwashing session on 2x speed.

Certain books are just not transferable to the audio platform.  Some concepts need visuals, must be reviewed several times, and aren’t written for spoken words—even if they ought to be. This is why listening to complex titles is almost impossible through audiobooks.

Nonfiction tends to lack the immersive storytelling methods that make for a great fiction audiobook. That does not mean that Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis could not take us on a journey for intellectual pursuits. It’s simply in most cases, nonfiction is best read especially if you’re seeking to develop a deep understanding of the material.

Disadvantages: Audiobooks are less engaging

If reading is a long-term relationship, then audiobooks are speed dating.

One of the reasons people tend to listen to audiobooks over reading is due to convenience. But don’t forget: Audiobooks are supplementary but not substitutional to reading.

But why does a more engaging experience matter anyways?

Being more engaged means we are more likely to reach a state of disfluency. Disfluency occurs when we’re working hard. You put more effort into organizing all the questions, concepts, and examples that are flowing through your head to make sense of what you’re engaging with. And through that, the brain creates stronger connections to make sense of all the information. What was once an unorganized garble of information about the book now becomes a functional model for understanding the text.

When we read our eyes are committed to a cause. With Audiobooks you cannot highlight, take notes in the margins, and conveniently reread a page over and over. So when you plan to listen to a book keep in mind that you are shallowly engaging with the text.

Disadvantages: Audiobooks cognitively reduce reading competence

As the last point foreshadowed, since you engage shallowly with auditory content, you do not gain the same benefit you would if you read the book.

This may seem contrary to popular beliefs, but listening and reading do not provide the same experience to your brain cognitively and therefore, are not synonymous enough to be used interchangeably for intellectual pursuits. 

Research conducted by the University of Waterloo titled The way we encounter reading material influences how frequently we mind wander had this to say about the effects of listening to a passage v. reading it in silence.

“Listening to the passage was also associated with the poorest memory performance and the least interest in the material. Finally, within the silent reading and listening encounters we observed negative relations between mind wandering and both memory performance and interest in the material,”

If our minds are constantly wandering from audiobooks, it will be extremely challenging to reach states of disfluency while engaging with the material. As readers for self-improvement, we must be wary of tactics that aren’t as effective at consolidating information that we invest our free time in consuming.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring audiobooks to reading—perhaps it is simply more convenient and that is what matters to you.

But when you choose audiobooks, you must understand that you’re sacrificing your engagement with the material for convenience. Reading’s dominance over audiobooks is not any less significant because of your life situation.

We all have a choice when it comes to how deeply we would like to engage with information, it’s up to you to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both listening and reading given your circumstances.

If you are looking for ways to start reading more often check out my post on the various ways I use to read more.

Read More: How I Read 50+ Books Per Year

Why do you read? And are you reading enough?

If you’re looking for some great books to start reading more, go check out the titles I have reviewed in my 2017 journal. There are tons of books about psychology, philosophy, meditation, and so much more. Go check out the special page I created to share what I’ve learned about living intentionally with you.

Find the Book Summaries page here.


Read More: How I Read 50+ Books Per Year

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Read More: How I Read 50+ Books Per Year

Warren Buffet was once asked by a student how to get to his level of expertise in investing.

Buffet paused, and reached into his bag for a pile of reports, trade publications, and selected works stating he should “read 500 pages like this every day”

He continued, “That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Read more because it is the best investment in yourself.

As Warren Buffet said, it compounds, so as we read more, the patterns of thought commonly used to think about a subject become clear.

With a firm relationship with the conventional, new mental schema are born—this is how we can constantly grow. By using what we learn in one domain and combining with another, personal transformation is inevitable.

But you all know reading is important, the question is how we make reading urgent enough to read more.

Over the years I have collected tons of useful ways you can start to read more—check them out below. To live intentionally you must put effort toward yourself, and there’s no better investment than to read more.

Here’s how I read more, maybe they’ll work for you too.


Reading Mindset: It’s Not a Chore

Reading with the end in mind—finishing the book—is not the best place to start. When we are constantly thinking about the end, it is an easy route to making reading a nightmare.  

If you look at reading as a chore you can never get excited about it.

Reading is not a punishment or something you endure to ‘check the boxes’. We read for self-growth. And if you are daunting the idea of reading, it may be time to change how or what you are reading.

Try focusing more on what you’re reading and less on the how much. When we focus on the process—reading for 15 minutes—rather than the product—finishing the book—we become stronger readers.


Only Read What You Want

Reading is a lot easier when you stop reading reactively and start reading proactively.

You probably have had a time in your life where you were told to read something, and that was the extent of when you read. But to read more we have to start reading less for others, and more for yourself.

People will tell you that you MUST read this classic or that classic, but unless a book speaks to you, don’t bother.

I don’t mean close yourself off to new things—please explore—just explore your interests and not what others want you to be interested in.

When you find books that you really are excited to know more about, you set yourself up for success.


Set Intentional Reading Times

If you want to read more, reading needs to become a priority.

We only get 24 hours, and it is up to us to choose how we spend it. To read more you need to give reading a spot in your schedule. Choose a time, and declare that nothing but reading is done during that time. Start as small as 15 minutes—remember, small actions matter.

If you find yourself wanting more, gradually increase how long you spend reading by minute intervals. It sounds tedious, but from my experience, it decreases the likelihood you will become too intimidated to read, while also motivating you to grow another minute each time you do read. 

When you are intentional with the time you will read more.


Make Reading Part Of You

Social proof will always a strong motivator towards behavior change.

The Self does not stop at the skin. Part of who you perceive yourself to be is based on the relationships you form, and that means if you want to read more, you need to form relationships with readers.

Find people online or a person who loves to read and stick to them. If those whom you spend the most of your time with read, you will have no trouble reading more because it becomes part of your identity—a reader becomes who you are.

But say you can’t find a book club or a community of readers online. Influence isn’t limited to who you know, so why not just surround yourself with readers anyway.

I used this tactic when I first starting developing my reading habit. I created what Daniel Pink calls in his book To Sell Is Human, agitation. Agitation is challenging someone to do something they already want to do. I realized I could challenge myself to read as long as I had a constant reminder agitating me to do so.

So I would only read in the bookstore.

All around me people would silently browse titles or sip coffee as they sat around and, you guessed it, read.

I was agitated.

The bookstore was full of people reading, making it an optimal environment for convincing me to read. I knew what I wanted to be—a reader—and the bookstore help push me to become that.

For a community of online readers, check out the subreddit /r/books.


Give Up Reading Boring Books or Bad Books

If a book is not up to standards, stop reading.

We do not read to check the boxes, we read for genuine interest. So if you find yourself only reading on because ‘you have to finish’, recognize that why you started to read the book is not solely why you should finish.

It costs your time and attention to read. And the cost you pay for reading may be a poor investment if you are not fully engaged. I'm sure you'd rather read 2 pages of literary gold over 200 pages of a grudging experience.

You will read more books when you learn how to stop reading when a book is not up to code.

Stop causing the cost of reading to overrun its value because you narrow-mindedly want to ‘read a book’ for the purpose of finishing.


Read Only the Best Stuff

Go online and seek out the best books on the topic and read those.

A trick I like to use is reading the 3-star reviews on Amazon. Why? Because anyone who felt that ambivalent about a book has some insight on who said it better. By reading those reviews I guided myself to what another person found to be a better use of their time learning the subject.

You can also head over to the bookstores and ask the staff. Someone who spends most of their time around books is bound to have a title in mind for your interests, and if not, why not take the opportunity to find out what books they consider to be amazing.


Do Not Compare

Some read fast, some read slow. But you read to understand.

The number of books and the speed in which you read them matter little in the larger scheme of things. Reading is not a competition. How you read will not be the same as how I read. What matters is the value you accumulate from reading over time.

I would have never started if each time I read the advice of an avid reader I compared my reading discipline to theirs. Yes, take the avid reader's advice to see what works, but do not assess what is working by using another person’s reading stats as the sole metric.

 A lot goes into becoming a better reader, so do not get caught up in speed—we will talk about speed in due time—or quantity first; just read.  ‘Stop reading into it, and start reading some pages.’


Why do you read? And are you reading enough?

If you’re looking for some great books to start reading more, go check out the titles I have reviewed in my 2017 journal. There are tons of books about psychology, philosophy, meditation, and so much more. Go check out the special page I created to share what I’ve learned about living intentionally with you.

Find the Book Summaries page here.