— philosopher, historian and critic often identified as a post-structuralist interested in destabilizing meaning, undermining theoretical systems of universality, and studying ways in which knowledge is produced in particular cultural and historical moments.
In the The Order of Things, Foucault employs his method of archaeology to demonstrate how scientific knowledge is dependent on the prevailing epistemes of a culture in particular moments of time and thus scientific knowledge shifts and changes as the dominant epistemes shift and change throughout time and space. To illustrate this point, Foucault reveals what he calls the positive unconscious of knowledge that was part of scientific discourse in three particular moments of European culture: the Renaissance, the Classical period and the modern era. According to Foucault, in its most originary form, language was thought of as a certain and transparent sign of nature due to immediate resemblance with the designated things (36). In the Renaissance, the episteme of similitudes still prevailed to a certain extent and thus interpretation had the power to reveal the true nature of things represented in language.
During the Classical period, the episteme of representation underlied the knowledge common to natural history, economics, and grammar. As Foucault explains, knowledge of the natural world was based on identity and difference. Through naming things, the being of things was defined and a universal science of order was developed. In terms of language, during the Classical period, language was thought to represent thought and thus language ordered thought. General grammar erupted during the Classical period as the new episteme, which studied the verbal order of signs, ie. Discourse. With the development of General Grammar, a system of identities and differences that each language was thought to employ and constitute was developed. In other words, like in natural history, a taxonomy of language was identified which made discourse possible. Proposition became the virtue of language; the verb to be distinguished the difference between signs and language. Discourse took on a new perceived main purpose: nomination, ie. Verbal representation. “To speak or write is not to say things or to express oneself, it is not a matter of playing with language, it is to make one’s way toward the sovereign act of nomination, to move, through language, towards the place where things and words are conjoined in their common essence, and which makes it possible to give them a name.” Nomination was key because in the Classical period language was a main form of knowing; “it was only by the medium of language that the things of the world could be known” (296). Language revealed truth. Therefore, in natural history, classification made possible through language became the dominant methodology, which created taxonomies that defined and ordered the natural world. People understood the natural world only through language which represented it and revealed its true nature.
However, in the 19th century which designates the modern era, language is demoted as it become divorced from representation; language was no longer thought to bring someone closer to knowledge/truth. Instead, language became an object of science itself and what was revealed was that knowledge is both governed and paralyzed by language (298). Language came to be studied in different ways: by philologists who asserted language was formed and deposited by history; by formalists who identified universal forms of discourse; by those interested in interpretation who revealed hidden meaning and brought it to the surface; and by literary writers who viewed language as arising for its own sake (304). With this demotion of language, Classical episteme virtually disappeared. The nature of language also became fragmented and as Foucault explains, Discourse as ordered and linear disappears. Simultaneaously, the advent of man, both as object of knowledge and subject of knowing, appears on the epistemological scene.
He then attempts to demonstrate shifts in episteme that led to the development of biology, political economy, and philology that appear at the beginning of the 19th century.