Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 1966

excerpt, p. 60f

"All this was of the greatest consequence to Western thought. Resemblance,
which had for long been the fundamental category of knowledge
– both the form and the content of what we know – became
dissociated in an analysis based on terms of identity and difference;
moreover, whether indirectly by the intermediary of measurement, or
directly and, as it were, on the same footing, comparison became a
function of order; and, lastly, comparison ceased to fulfil the function
of revealing how the world is ordered, since it was now accomplished
according to the order laid down by thought, progressing naturally
from the simple to the complex. As a result, the entire episteme of Western
culture found its fundamental arrangements modified. And, in
particular, the empirical domain which sixteenth-century man saw as a
complex of kinships, resemblances, and affinities, and in which language
and things were endlessly interwoven – this whole vast field was
to take on a new configuration. This new configuration may, I suppose,
be called ‘rationalism’; one might say, if one’s mind is filled with
ready-made concepts, that the seventeenth century marks the disappearance
of the old superstitious or magical beliefs and the entry of
nature, at long last, into the scientific order. But what we must grasp
and attempt to reconstitute are the modifications that affected knowledge
itself, at that archaic level which makes possible both knowledge
itself and the mode of being of what is to be known.
These modifications may be summed up as follows. First, the substitution
of analysis for the hierarchy of analogies: in the sixteenth
century, the fundamental supposition was that of a total system of correspondence (earth and sky, planets and faces, microcosm and
macrocosm), and each particular similitude was then lodged within
this overall relation. From now on, every resemblance must be subjected
to proof by comparison, that is, it will not be accepted until its
identity and the series of its differences have been discovered by means
of measurement with a common unit, or, more radically, by its position
in an order. Furthermore, the interplay of similitudes was hitherto
infinite: it was always possible to discover new ones, and the only
limitation came from the fundamental ordering of things, from the
finitude of a world held firmly between the macrocosm and the microcosm.
A complete enumeration will now be possible: whether in the
form of an exhaustive census of all the elements constituting the envisaged
whole, or in the form of a categorical arrangement that will
articulate the field of study in its totality, or in the form of an analysis
of a certain number of points, in sufficient number, taken along the
whole length of a series. Comparison, then, can attain to perfect certainty:
the old system of similitudes, never complete and always open
to fresh possibilities, could, it is true, through successive confirmations,
achieve steadily increasing probability; but it was never certain.
Complete enumeration, and the possibility of assigning at each point
the necessary connection with the next, permit an absolutely certain
knowledge of identities and differences: ‘Enumeration alone, whatever
the question to which we are applying ourselves, will permit us always
to deliver a true and certain judgement upon it’.9 The activity of the
mind – and this is the fourth point – will therefore no longer consist in
drawing things together, in setting out on a quest for everything that might
reveal some sort of kinship, attraction, or secretly shared nature within
them, but, on the contrary, in discriminating, that is, in establishing their
identities, then the inevitability of the connections with all the successive
degrees of a series. In this sense, discrimination imposes upon
comparison the primary and fundamental investigation of difference:
providing oneself by intuition with a distinct representation of things,
and apprehending clearly the inevitable connection between one element
in a series and that which immediately follows it. Lastly, a final
consequence, since to know is to discriminate, history and science will
become separated from one another. On the one hand there will be
erudition, the perusal of written works, the interplay of their authors’ opinions; this interplay may well, in some cases, possess an indicative
value, not so much because of the agreement it produces as because of
the disagreement: ‘When the question at issue is a difficult one, it is
more probable that there were few rather than many to discover the
truth about it.’ Over against this history, and lacking any common unit
of measurement with it, are the confident judgements we are able to
make by means of intuitions and their serial connection. These and
these alone are what constitute science, and even if we had ‘read all the
arguments of Plato and Aristotle, . . . what we would have learned
would not be sciences, it appears, but history’.10 This being so, the
written word ceases to be included among the signs and forms of
truth; language is no longer one of the figurations of the world, or a
signature stamped upon things since the beginning of time. The manifestation
and sign of truth are to be found in evident and distinct
perception. It is the task of words to translate that truth if they can; but
they no longer have the right to be considered a mark of it. Language
has withdrawn from the midst of beings themselves and has entered a
period of transparency and neutrality."


"... but rather a link with the mathesis which, until the end of the
eighteenth century, remains constant and unaltered. This link has two
essential characteristics. The first is that relations between beings are
indeed to be conceived in the form of order and measurement, but
with this fundamental imbalance, that it is always possible to reduce
problems of measurement to problems of order. So that the relation of
all knowledge to the mathesis is posited as the possibility of establishing
an ordered succession between things, even non-measurable ones.
In this sense, analysis was very quickly to acquire the value of a universal
method; and the Leibnizian project of establishing a mathematics of
qualitative orders is situated at the very heart of Classical thought; its
gravitational centre. But, on the other hand, this relation to the mathesis
as a general science of order does not signify that knowledge is
absorbed into mathematics, or that the latter becomes the foundation
for all possible knowledge; on the contrary, in correlation with the
quest for a mathesis, we perceive the appearance of a certain number of
empirical fields now being formed and defined for the very first time.
In none of these fields, or almost none, is it possible to find any trace of
mechanism or mathematicization; and yet they all rely for their foundation
upon a possible science of order. Although they were all dependent
upon analysis in general, their particular instrument was not the
algebraic method but the system of signs. So there first appeared general
grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, all sciences of
order in the domain of words, beings, and needs; and none of these
empirical studies, new in the Classical period and co-extensive with it
in duration (their chronological frontiers are marked by Lancelot and
Bopp, Ray and Cuvier, Petty and Ricardo, the first group writing around
1660 and the second around 1800–10), could have been founded without the relation that the entire episteme of Western culture maintained
at that time with a universal science of order.
This relation to Order is as essential to the Classical age as the relation
to Interpretation was to the Renaissance. And just as interpretation in the
sixteenth century, with its superimposition of a semiology upon a
hermeneutics, was essentially a knowledge based upon similitude, so
the ordering of things by means of signs constitutes all empirical forms
of knowledge as knowledge based upon identity and difference. The
simultaneously endless and closed, full and tautological world of
resemblance now finds itself dissociated and, as it were, split down the
middle: on the one side, we shall find the signs that have become tools
of analysis, marks of identity and difference, principles whereby things
can be reduced to order, keys for a taxonomy; and, on the other, the
empirical and murmuring resemblance of things, that unreacting
similitude that lies beneath thought and furnishes the infinite raw
material for divisions and distributions. On the one hand, the general
theory of signs, divisions, and classifications; on the other, the problem
of immediate resemblances, of the spontaneous movement of the
imagination, of nature’s repetitions. And between the two, the new
forms of knowledge that occupy the area opened up by this new split."

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