Explication of the shift in épistémè around 1800 (2002 Essay, UvA)

Essay on the suggested topic of;

Explication of the shift in épistémè around 1800

On page 201 of The Order of Things, Foucault summarizes the shift in épistémè that occurred around 1800 with a table. Give a clear and comprehensive explication of this table.


In this essay I will try to explicate the ‘General Table’ Michael Foucault presents us in his controversial book ‘The Order of Things’ page 201. The peculiarity of the book is due to Foucault’s structure of archaeological analysis which operates on “different historical levels” (G. Gutting p. 175). In the following I will firstly try to set the stage for how OT operates then give an account of the discontinuities that give rise to the general table in the first place and finally with such dynamics in place, explicate the shift in episteme around 1800.

 In Kant to know is an individual act and a given where as in Foucault it is a practice. The focus of OT is discursive practices which are not derived from but related to non-discursive practices(institutions). Discourse here refers to a set of statements which are not free from contradiction. The discursive formations are the foundations which makes contradictions possible in the first place. Thus the ideas and the subject are secondary to the discursive formations and the text.  The episteme of a period is distinguished from world view or a general outlook. It defines and constitutes what counts as knowledge in that period. Proceeding from the tradition of Kant who with epistemology considered the Transcendental a-priori’s for a subject that can know and an object that can be known, Foucault investigates the temporal and spatial conditions for the possibility of different kinds of knowledge. Unlike the transcendentalism of Kant which aims to a universal a-priori, the concept historical a-priori refers to the ‘reality’ of statements configurations of which may be discontinuous through time hence ‘historical. Historical a-priori’s pre-configure and condition what is accepted as valid statements at a certain point in time. Thus the text in its temporal and spatial particularity, the text as a monument, contains the conditions for its own possibility and calls for further investigation. Gutting refers to this as the level of specific history where t! he particular texts are read in their own terms(p..175). He further defines the other levels of history OT operates at as constructive history with different levels of generality, critical history and speculative history. Through these levels of inquiry OT reveals how conceptions of what knowledge is change , how such conceptions are grounded in different experiences of order , how the nature of knowledge in a period depends on the nature of signs and conception of language in that period (Gutting p. 139-140). Therefore to explicate a shift in an episteme of a period demands the background of former epistemes, the frontiers of which provide for future projects of knowledge.

 The upper part of the General Table refers to the configuration of the Classical episteme in Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries. Classical episteme itself appeared as a discontinuous configuration after the collapse of the Renaissance episteme. Unlike the classical foundation of representation through which the relations of strict identity and difference was observed, the ordering of orders, connection of all relations within the Renaissance episteme was founded upon resemblance. On the frontiers of the kingdom of similitude Foucault recognizes two figures Bacon and Descartes as the inhabitants of those frontiers projecting its finitude. Bacon presents the uneasiness of Renaissance with itself when in OT(p. 52) he is quoted to pursue similitude to the point where perfect circles of motion no longer corresponds to nature but to fiction and idols of the human intellect. Similarly in Descartes the analysis of resemblance’s is modified as to not connect but to discriminate as an instrument of knowledge. Also the exhaustive demands of an infinite analysis is altered to make room for character changes where the elements can be thoroughly understood.

 With Don Quixote by Cervantes the Classical conception of sings and language emerge into being and from them a new order. From a time when writing itself had no boundaries, no distancing from the world Don Quixote “is the hero of the Same”(OT p. 46). He takes a journey as writing itself to confirm the world through similitudes. Alas he is to suffer for the dissolved alliance of resemblances and sings causing visionary madness. In the second part of the book Don Quixote is to achieve his reality as a literary character in literature that is now distinguished from the world. Sings in Renaissance were objects given to knowledge whereas now they are a part of knowledge. Degrees of certainty is internalized as a characteristic of the sing through the umbrella of language. Signs have also become a part of analysis as results and instruments. Hence they no longer draw things together in an arbitrary way. The natural signs that allowed to identify and combine elements of a system ! can no longer be clearly accounted for by representation. In this new space, conventional signs emerge through the powers of representation and present us the same/ exact structure of the world. The relation of the sign to what it signifies is no longer a relation of resemblance but is direct representation. So the sign not only has no intrinsic content like in renaissance it appears to have gained a certain quality of transparency in relation to what it represents. This duplicated representation as Foucault calls it, is representation referring to its own representative function, thus precluding a theory of signification and excluding any theory of representation. In the Classical episteme consciousness/thought is necessarily representative and transparent to itself. The closest the Classical age gets to a theory of representation for itself is with the painting “Las Meninas”, by Velasquez. As the Classical age was unable to represent(theorize) the act of representing without theamatizing and because there is no intermediary element between the sign and its content, maybe by the immediacy of his medium (the painting) for our senses, Velasquez attends a position to communicate the act of representing in Classical age.

 The commentary of Renaissance perished when language became a tool which expressed truths independent of itself. The relative values of linguistic devices of representation are now analyzed by criticism. Using linguistic representations scholars are now able to place things in series according to the identities and differences of their properties. Such a representation is expressed in a table by mathesis which qualitatively orders simple natures with algebra and by taxonomia which qualitatively orders complex representations with methods employed by empirical sciences(G.G. p. 155). Knowledge has become an overall project of a general science of order which presupposes a preliminary ordering of the impressions. This presupposition is in a way related to the displacement of similitude to outside of knowledge as mere unrefined empiricism. Yet it is an indispensable border of knowledge (OT, p. 67) for comparison, observation, naming abstract notions all of which depend on the power of the mind to recall or imagination. Hence “the double requisite is patent”, “there must be, in the thing represented the insistent murmur of resemblance; There must be in representation, the perpetual possibility of imaginative recall” (OT, p. 69), connecting at the root of knowledge resemblance to imagination and clarifying the two directions of analysis in the Classical age; analytic of imagination (mechanics of imagination that “transforms the linear time of representations into a simultaneous space containing virtual elements”(OT p. 70)) and the analysis of nature (resemblances between things before being reduced order) . The process by which imagination patterns the flux impressions into an ordered series is investigated from Locke to The ideologues of the modern episteme, by means of a genetic analysis which unites the analytic of imagination with the analysis of nature in the idea of a genesis(G.G. p. 156). A general science of calculable order, forming by itself a totality of mathesis, and genetic analysis, forming its own genesis, are the two extremities of the Classical episteme between which the region of signs extend. Thus the area of the table is hedged in by calculation of equalities and genesis of representations(OT p. 73). It is on this table we encounter general grammar, natural history and analysis of wealth which are the subdomains of taxonomy.

 Nomenclature Taxonomia defines the law of being as well as the conditions for it to be known. A Nomenclature that would be a Taxonomy is also a system of signs transparent to the continuity of being (OT, p.208). This is purely due to the representational power of language. Thus the four functions that define the verbal sign in GG and distinguish it from all other signs representation can provide for itself , prescribe the essential grid which accounts for theoretical signalization of NH and practical utilization of monetary signs in AW. (OT p. 203) Attribution connects representation to its sing as a totality(as one and the same thing) through the affirmation of the verb. Theory of the verb is the threshold of language where Articulation can provide this connection with specific content by names, hence differentiating it. Appreciative value can now become estimate value gaining individuality, importance and recognition. Noun and verb posses value in their articulatory role. Attribution and Articulation define/qualify language as a system of Classical representation, Designation and Derivation relate it to objects. Origin of language is a language of action where the primitive cries, direct human responses to the world, are detached by an association of the cries with the same objects by different members of the community , becoming primitive names. Therefore roots tie language to a reality outside itself in an arbitrary and a very close way. But this tight, one to one representational character of the root is subject to tropes and shifts of meaning in time. As Derivation accounts for development of languages and primitive roots, the Articulative capacities of language depend on how far on the line of derivation it extends. Capacity for properly naming things is necessary for formulating true propositions and arriving at true judgements. Thus the possibility of an Universal language is always present. For GG Between Attribution and Articulation the errors of reflection proliferate and between Designation and Derivation shifts of imagination multiply . Ars Combinatoria is the ever postponed project of Classical language where the representative value of words are fixed and errors of reflection is controlled, creating a distinct language that can make clear/transparent discourse. The practice of the currently imperfect real language is reinforced and compensated on the opposite side of the table “by an Encyclopedia which defines the progress of words, prescribes the most natural routes for them to take, traces the legitimate shifts of knowledge, and codifies the relationships of adjacency and resemblance” (OT p. 204). Thus the derivation of words is projected to be controlled on the basis of primary designation by means of a dictionary.

 Although AW and NH have the same conditions of possibility as language there are two differences that prevent classification from becoming a spontaneous language of nature and prices from becoming a natural discourse of wealth. Firstly, although order in wealth and natural beings have same mode of being as language they are not the same being, hence the domain of verbal signs are distinguished from wealth and natural beings. Secondly, the theory of natural history is distinguished from the theory of value or prices.

 Classical conception of history emerges from the Attribution of a new field of visibility to beings; as what is visible no longer contains signs like in the Renaissance period, NH is the nomination of the visible in an attempt to bring language as close to the observing gaze as possible. Visibility of beings (Attribution) provide the general form of representation and descriptions (Articulation) specify the particular content of representation. Therefore unlike real languages in GG, there is no room for error between what is seen and its description. Structure unites the two moments of Attribution and Articulation in one operation . Structure focuses on the aspects of form, magnitude, number and arrangement for the elements of a natural object, providing a grid for the transcription of the data gathered with the examination of the eye into language as well as connecting these elements. With structure natural beings appear as visible patterns of surfaces and lines laid out! on a table and as the internal relationships of subordination or organization lay beyond the visible, NH focuses on botany rather than anatomy. But structure by itself only defines the individual plant or animal. The essential nature of objects and their identifying features which place them in a table are revealed with their generic characters. Designation of the particular species the individual structure belongs to, unlike the ‘pointing’ of a primitive root in GG, “also functions like derivation, placing the species in a developed system, which complexly relates it to other species.”(Gutting p. 173) The adjacency of being is in a sense founded upon the general representability of natural beings through the primary grid of structure. Foucault presents method and system as the two ways generic characters are determined. Although they are different, method and system are not in opposition to one another, as they both define identities by a means of a general grid of differences. The task of NH is to reconstitute the ideal order by connecting the two sides of the General table together. Attribution and Articulation pair is connected through the immediate visibility of structure to Designation, Derivation pair which, by the coherence of the system or the exactness of the method, establish Generic Characters. This is a connection of judgement to meaning and the theoretical closing of what remains open in real languages, giving rise to projects of uncompleted arts- human sciences.

 In Renaissance money functioned as a sign (mark) for other things (wealth), when with the dawn of the Classical age money only attains its value as a function of pure representation. Value emerges as the attributive function of AW defined by the objects of need. Theory of value proceeds to articulate how through the primitive process of barter, relations of equality and analogy are established allowing the introduction of objects of need to a system of exchanges. Money designates value as a monetary pledge to operate as a medium of exchange. Theory of money and trade explain respectively how objects can take on such a signifying function and how this relation of representation can be modified through circulation and trade. Theory of monetary prices which correspond to an analysis of roots and of the language of action in GG, accounts for how the Price of Merchandise is established between the Designation of commodities to values and the Derivation of value through exchange! s. Value connects and combines wealth with wealth and money permits their exchange. Like the theory of the verb in GG and structure in NH, value of value resides/ is established in its articulatory role where the appreciative value becomes estimate value. Money on the other hand functions in relation to wealth the same way character functions in relation to natural beings, they both impose a mark and indicate a place for that which they mark. As an evident manifestation of the order of things, if well regulated AW can account for the fluctuations of prices and value. Hence AW becomes the virtual closing of what remains open in real languages.

 Language, natural history and uninterrupted flow of wealth presuppose that representations resemble one another suggest one another in imagination, that natural beings are in relations of adjacency and resemblance and that mans needs, which can be satisfied, correspond to one another. This underlying ontology in which an absence of nothingness, a general representability of being, and a being expressed in representation is persistent, constitutes the metaphysical space upon which the Modern episteme establishes its scientific movement. Between Attribution and Derivation being is offered representation without interruption; representation in turn releases the continuity of being between Articulation and Designation. “… whereas the relations between articulation and attribution, designation and derivation(that which provides a foundation for judgement on the one hand and for meaning on the other, structure and character, value and prices) define the scientifically strong moment of that thought…”(OT p. 206). Thus the Modern episteme is to establish a philosophical space where Classical age had a strong epistemological grip. GG deals with defective real languages in a prescriptive manner, whereas the value of NH wholly resides in the fact that between structure and character it is an infallible superimposition; a science. AW however is inevitably linked to human activity and hence further analysis of the relation of value and prices gives rise to new projects starting from the late 18th century onwards. The Modern episteme arises from the shift in the object of knowledge. Thus AW, NH, GG are not simply replaced with political economy, biology and philology. Just as Don Quixote freed himself from the kind representation whichs’ law is similitude and received his affirmation from a kind of representation that is transparent to itself where being and the Same reside, Sade is pounding desire to the limits of representation where the object of desire, Juliette, is also the origin of desire where I am inclined to say that mathesis and genesis in their full representative capacity manage very ‘thinly’ to hedge in ‘individuals’ whose desires may abruptly rise to the surface, putting a claim to the individual/table. Sade thus attains the end of Classical discourse and thought where violence of a people who talk, violent effort of life and hidden energy of needs are escaping representation.


 The Modern Episteme


 What constitutes the true reality of things is no longer relations of identity and difference but structural and functional similarities which lay beyond the capacities of a visual representation. As the coherence of representation with itself in its ability to investigate and connect in one and the same operation dissolves so does the unity of analytic and synthetic knowledge. Hence the synthetic knowledge of empirical sciences become separated from the analytic knowledge of the mathematical and logical sciences(Gutting p. 184). Here Foucault takes our attention to three positions of philosophical reflections on representation in the Modern episteme. Kant in his transcendental philosophy of the subject takes representation to begin on the side of the experiencing subject and goes on to seek the conditions for the possibility of objects of representation (Gutting p. 184). Philosophies which particularly focus on life, labor and language on the other hand aim to find the conditions of the possibility of the subjects representational experience in the object, aiming thus at a “transcendental objectivity”. Here Gutting takes our attention a third approach, positivism which he asks whether it may be regarded as “a mere revival of the empiricist philosophies of the Classical age “(Gutting, p. 185) For positivism simply restricts itself with experience without referring to a transcendental ground which grants its possibility. Although positivism is richer in alternatives and is supported by the Modern and not the Classical episteme , it risks falling into incoherence if thought is not to be identified with representation. Where the transcendental of the subject / criticism and transcendental of the object / metaphysics aim to find the essences of subject and object respectively, positivism emerges on the distance between rationality of the knowable and unknowable depths forming the criticism-positivism-metaphysics triangle of the object.

 The lower part of the general table explicates the shift in episteme in the 1800’s when between Attribution , Derivation and Articulation, Designation pairs the continuum of representation and being solidifies in the beings of labor, life and language constituting new objects of knowledge which provide non representational sources for representational systems. The metaphysical space of the Classical era thus provides the means to the construction of the epistemological field of the Modern age. One could say that all that can be positively grasped, all claims that are considered intelligible in the Modern age still have to cross/ to bridge/ to construct on, the distance hedged in the table by the plus signs of the so called Epistemological Field. It is with the appearance of these plus sings( emergence of positive beings of labor, life, language) that the minus (?) sings, only between Articulation-Designation and Attribution-Derivation pairs, become straight and immediately! (?) apparent lines like the Attribution-Articulation and Derivation-Designation pairs had been in Classical age. Further proof of this possible factor might be that the straight lines dissolves once it is outside the Epistemological field in the Modern episteme.

 Modern economics initially emerges from the reconception of economic value due to the productive power of labor rather than any change in the dynamics of representation. The initial step was taken by Adam Smith when he made a decisive break from measuring the value of a commodity in a system of exchanges by the money or equivalent amount of goods that would ‘represent’ the commodity in exchange and delivered labor as the irreducible measure of a commodity’s value. Although this is a move beyond a purely representational view of wealth, Smith nevertheless “still held that the commodity had value only because of its connection with the representational system of exchange”(Gutting p.187). Only with Ricardo labor is not only the measure of value but it is also the sole source of value. Therefore since “ value ceased to be a sign it has become a product “(OT p.254), theory of production precedes that of circulation. There are three consequences that follows from the introduction of a concept of labor with a causality peculiar to itself into economics. As the first consequence, a new conception of history or rather economic history emerges which considers the available forms of production that labor is to use for producing value as a linear accumulation extending indefinitely back in time. As the historical forces of production configure the effectiveness of labor in creating value at any point in time, the second consequence arises from the conceptualization of man as an economic agent in these forces. This man no longer actively seeks and depends on value and manages to represents his needs as well as his objects of satisfaction to himself, but he is a ! finite being “who spends, wears out, and wastes his life evading the imminence of death.”(OT p. 257)One could say that the role that AW played for the virtual closing of real languages, becomes due to the aspect of a finite history a practical closing with political economy and registers on to the two ends of the Epistemological field of the Modern episteme table as Analysis of Production (Articulation -Designation) in relation to the historicity of economics and Analysis of Distribution (Attribution-Derivation) in relation to the finitude of human existence( OT, p.262). The relation of this newly conceived History and Man constitutes the third consequence that this relation is directed towards some conclusion. Ricardo with a negative perception, declares this finality to be the “stabilization of mankind in a permanent state of scarcity”(Gutting p.189) Foucault argues that although Marx confronts this point in a positive manner by deeming the History itself to be pessimistic, alienating, and something to be overcome and reversed, he nevertheless operates within the same premises, presuppositions as Ricardo; History and the finitude of man. Thus Marxism introduces no real discontinuity at the deeper level of Modern episteme where “ the great dream of an end to History is the utopia of casual systems of thought, just as the dream of the world’s beginnings was the utopia of the classifying systems of thought.” (OT, p.263)

 In the Classical age life only appears as one possible character of the objects that can be known by NH. Foucault argues that even within the debate of fixism versus evolutionism time is considered as an external element for beings which are not by necessity living. That is to say life did not exist for the Classical episteme. Like the AW the domain of NH received a primary modification period between 1775 and 1795 when it still retained its Classical grid of representation. During this period Lamarck (also Jussieu and Vicq d’ Azyr) articulated how structures could pass for character based on a principle of organic structure. Although this principle subordinated characters to one another, linked characters to functions, emphasized the importance of life to the ordering of natural beings , dissolved the parallelism between Nomenclature and taxonomy\classification, and was in general alien to the domain of visible representations, it was with Cuvier that organic structure gained its own independent conditions of possibility rather than modifying the methods and the techniques of a taxonomia (OT, p.231). From the analysis of organisms and organic structures, comparative anatomy, resembling the times of the renaissance regained importance between the Articulation and Designation pair. A consequence that arises when life is understood as a functional system is that it has discontinuous forms which makes it impossible to place it in a continuous series. Continuum of Classical order is dissolved for a discontinuous proliferation of species of life (Gutting p.191). As external factors are not mere occurrences of disruption on a prepackaged table, the nature of a species is now understood to be casually dependent on the world. Cuvier however was a ‘fixist’ who rejected the idea of evolution and saw a permanent state of biological stability. And in a way just as Ricardo foretold of a future permanent state of economic stability and founded the ever distant origin of his field, Cuiver, by pursuing the historicity of life in its immediacy, cultivates the conception of life and thus biology in the Modern era. Marx and Darwin appear on the other side of the spectrum with a different evaluation, but not outside or discontinuous from the Modern episteme which forms the spectrum.

 The constitution of modern philology was completed at a later time than both economics and biology due to the central role of language in the Classical episteme. The confrontation of languages with each other at the end of eighteenth century brought ‘inflection’ forward as an intermediary between the articulation of contents and the value of roots in GG. Although inflection is tightly bound to the search for representative powers of language in a Classical grid, the dimension of the purely grammatical is appearing, which is not organized around direct representation or reducible to the language analysis itself(OT, p.134-5). Nevertheless the break from general grammar decisively came with Bopp who no longer defined words as representative totalities but as elements of grammatical systems. Of course words still held representative powers for Bopp but these powers are derived from their roles in grammatical systems defined by the rules governing their use (Gutting, p.193). No! w with a different conception of words the four main features of modern philology appear. Firstly languages are no longer distinguished on the basis of differences in analyzing the representation of thoughts like in the Classical age, but by the differences in the formal features of their grammars. Secondly, these formal features of autonomous grammatical elements provide the primary object of study for philology. Hence language comprehended as a totality of phonetic elements has “acquired a vibratory nature which has separated it from the visible sign and made it more proximate to the note in music”(OT, p.286). Phonetics is now indispensable to grasping the nature of languages. Thirdly, the theory of the root is no longer employed with working back to a primitive language to find the initial connection with objects, but instead roots can be determined solely with the study of the formal properties of a given language system. As there are purely linguistic means of establishing the derivation of the elements of a language, Etymology (syntax -?- on the general table) “becomes a definite, limited method of analysis, the aim of which is to discover within any given word the radical from which it has been formed” (OT, p.288). The theory of the verb which defined the threshold of language in the Classical age, is no longer adequate as verbs are now considered to have their own roots independent of the copula and representative functions of adjectives. What is more as nouns are derived from verbs the fundamental connection of language to reality as a whole is altered to provide a coherent basis for verbal roots that do not represent objects but express the active and willing subject. Hence the development of languages is no longer tied to what the elites have learned about them (to knowledge) but to the desire of people as a whole (to freedom). Fourthly, the method for defining kinship between languages is now in purely formal terms without a reference to their representative characters. The mutations of languages over time is understood in terms of philology’s account of their intrinsic functions. Like the discontinuous forms of organic structure established the historicity of living beings, once languages broke free from chronological continuity that tried to tie them back to an origin, they became historical realities.

 It is an important aim of OT to understand the cognitive status of the human sciences (Gutting, p.139). Foucault starts by explicating the conception of mans representations in human sciences where the conditions of the possibility of the subjects representational experience is sought in the object. Thus aiming at a ‘transcendental objectivity’ derived from of life, labor and language, the empirico-transcendental doublet is the reduction of the originally Kantian man as transcendental to man as empirical. As the beings of labor, life and language are the non representational sources of representational systems, they appear as independently functioning, unconscious structures which claim to enclose the whole of mans representations. Constituting himself as historical, man inevitably constitutes the world as historical. Thus his finitude which is not of his making is in constant retreat. It is as if his final face is his ultimate justification for ever having existed and hence his origin. Foucault argues that here man is incoherently conceived to be both a constituted object and constituting subject. Through such a conflicting conception of retreating origin it is made possible that in the epistemological field linked with economy there is a sociological region, linked with biology there is a psychological region, linked with philology there is a region for the study of literature and myths. The human sciences are dominated with the role of norms as organizing principles, such as the rational irrational division in sociology, normal pathological division in psychology, meaningful meaningless division in philology.

 Far from normativity claims of human sciences, the philosophical field of the modern episteme treats mans representations as they appear in his interior consciousness. The new status of language as a historical reality and object of our knowledge accounts for the two opposite approaches in the philosophical field of the Modern episteme; those of formalization which aims at developing a symbolic logic capable of expressing thought independent of any language and interpretation which seeks to understand the meanings implicit in historical language by revealing the paralyzing myths. On the side of formalization which is the mathesis, the moments of judgement (Attribution) and patterning (Articulation) are separated giving rise to formal apophantics (logic) and formal ontology. Likewise the Classical consideration of primitive designation and derivation through time also separated in the Modern episteme to provide the space for original meaning and history. Interpretation undertakes an unveiling of the relations of signification and time, on a never ending journey. Foucault attributes the highest importance to the relation between formalization and interpretation. He argues that just as Classical thought sought to discover a nomenclature that would be a taxonomy, the Modern episteme seeks its unity in a place where the formal would meet the signicative as illuminated representation (OT, p.207-8). It is beyond the threshold of Nietzsche and with the counter-sciences of psychoanalysis, ethnology and (a possible) linguistics that such a connection is deemed possible in the OT. If it is the project of modern philosophy to support a coherent account of human finitudes self foundation, Nietzsche at the end of nineteenth century confronted each finitude the modern episteme presented him with an infinity, with hope. “He took the end of time and transformed it into the death of God and the odyssey of the last man; he took up anthropological finitude once again, but in order to use it as a basis for the prodigious leap of the superman; he took up once again the great continuous chain of History, but in order to bend it round into the infinity of the eternal return. … It was Nietzsche … who burned for us…” (OT, p.263)

Final paper for

Philosophy of the Social and Cultural Science – Foucault

Module WB3314

Prof. Gerard de VRIES and Dr. Michiel LEEZENBERG



  • Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books


  • Gutting, G. (1989) . Michael Foucault’s Archeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


–     Lecture notes