Foucault: "The Prose of the World" from The Order of Things

Foucault, Michel. "The Prose of the World." The order of things : an archaeology of the human sciences. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 17-45. Print.

I: The Four Similitudes


Up until the end of the 16thC, Western knowledge often constructed by resemblance. Foucault classifies as:


  • convenientia: things/concepts that are close to each other or in juxtaposition. Defines as "a resemblance connected with space in the form of a graduated scale of proximity (18). Links world "together like a chain" (19).
  • aemulatio: a sort of ''convenience'' (Foucault''s punctuation) that functions from a distance. Likens it to the emulation of the reflection and the mirror. Of course, the problem is which is the reflection and which the reality (10)? Foucault responds by stating that "emulation is a sort of natural kinship existing in things; it arises from a fold in being, two sides of which stand immediately opposite to one another" (19-20). Not a chain, but concentric circles.
  • analogy: superimposition of convenientia and aemulatio. Great in that it marks the resemblances but also speaks of adjacencies (paraphrase 21). Intriguing to think about: "An analogy may also be turned around upon itself without thereby rendering itself open to dispute" (21). Foucault claims that through it the whole universe can be drawn together... but it all hinges on man. "[Man] is the great fulcrum of proportions-- the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are again once reflected" (23). 
  • sympathies: the principle of mobility. "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" (23-24). Twin is antipathy, which keeps things isolated/prevents assimilation. Foucault claims that sympathy-antipathy give "rise to all the forms of resemblance" (25).


II. Signatures


The similitudes are how knowledge constructed, but not how knowledge is identified. "No resemblances without signatures. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs" (26). Just need to decipher the signs. "The signature and what it denotes are of exactly the same nature; it is merely that they obey a different law of distribution: the pattern from which they are cut is the same" (29).


Defining his terminology (quoted from 29):


  • hermeneutics: the totality of learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning
  • signs: the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs; to define what constitues that totality as signs
  • semiology: the knowledge of how and by what laws the signs are linked
  • grammar: the exegisis of these things
  • language simply tells us the syntax that binds them together


III. The Limits of the World


The consequences of this 16th C episteme:


  • limitless knowledge, but all dependent on each other; therefore, useless. Foucault argues "sixteenth-century knowledge condemned itself to never knowing anything but the same thing, and to knowing that thing only at the unattainable end of an endless journey" (30). Hyperbole or Zen koan?
  • the concept of the microcosm in relation to the macrocosm (31-32) as a tool for understanding actually limits/misguides.
  • knowledge is a form of interpretation, and Foucault points out that the interpretation is socially constructed (e.g., beliefs in magic and divination)
  • value of language is in it being a sign of things


IV: The Writing of Things


Conception of language in 16th C is that language is not arbitrary, but it has been "set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma-- like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered" (35). Seems to argue that language as God-given was not metaphor, but certainty-- is this because early writing often pictograph? Must be speaking of written word and not spoken language if so. Language may not resemble the world but it still is part of the world (36-37). Posits all languages together = image of truth (very Christian/Tower of Babel take on all of this). Cites Duret''s claims as to the flow of writing in different languages (r→l; l→r; top → bottom) replicate mystical orders of nature, the heavens, etc. (37). Notes that this is analogy, not signification. Don''t bother to seek the symbolic functions of language in the words themselves but rather in the existence of language.


17th C privileges writing. Language is to be written; the speech part is a "transitory and precarious translation" (38). Spoken word is female, passive. Writing is active intellect. This philosophy leads to two antagonistic foundations of era''s knowledge:  "a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read" and "the immediate dissociation of all knowledge" (39).


Uses situation with Buffon and Aldrovandi (the snake) to show how the systems of classification (what''s important) differ. Culturally constructed judgments.


Argues 17th C knowledge "consisted in relating one form of language to another...the function proper to knowledge is not seeing or demonstrating, it is interpreting" (40).


V: The Being of Language


From Stoics, Western system of signs contains the significant, the signified, and the ''conjuncture''.


17th C: signifier and signified.


In 16th C question of knowledge--how did one know relation of signifier to signified. In 17th C, question how a sign could be linked to signified. (Passive vs active?) Upheaval of a sort-- things and words became separated from one another (43)