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November 29th, 2014

The Order of Things: At the Junction of History, Philosophy, Theology, and Culture

Let us consider the following introductory remarks to the work The Order of Things by the French philosopher Michel Foucault:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off” look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.[1]

Anyone who has had to suffer through Foucault as I did in graduate school will know that what is presented in this paragraph is not easily comprehended. In a way that is perhaps indicative of the correctness of what he seeks to present in this book. Foucault, as a Frenchman from the first half of the twentieth century, approaches things in a language and from a perspective quite different from our own. Not entirely different, but quite different.

And so when we first expose our consciousness to the paragraph above our first reaction will be something akin to bewilderment. I think this is why graduate students hate Foucault so much. He evokes in the modern reader a reaction that must be like the first glimpse of something entirely alien. We see it, and we don’t know what it is. What is it doing? Does it see me? Is it dangerous? Should I run? In time, and with effort, we may come to know it. And then it is no longer alien.

At the heart of what Foucault wants to communicate is this: the “breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things,” and “to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.” The illustration of the classifications in the (fictitious) Chinese encyclopedia serves to demonstrate the point. In China, one supposes, it is natural to think of animals in the classificatory terms offered, but in France, or in a culture akin to that of France, it is ridiculous. In the West there is a well-established system of classification of animals (and, in fact, almost everything else) based on science and reason. And that, we are sure, must be true, because science and reason were the gods of the age when these systems of classification were created – the so-called Enlightenment – and, in spite of the shift to postmodernity Foucault so ably pointed to in this very work, they remain so today in the West. And so it is obvious to us that the Chinese system is wrong, primitive, barbaric, and ridiculous.

But not to the Chinaman. The challenge that Foucault calls us to is to “collapse our age old distinction between the Same and the Other” by acknowledging that the Chinaman may be right, even while we are not wrong. This is not to say that there is no right and wrong, and it is not to say that it all comes in various shades of gray. It is not a call to abandon our own point of view and adopt that of the Other. It is an invitation to create a space in which we may seek an essence that binds us in spite of our separate world views. It is an invitation to respect each other as brothers and sisters. I am not convinced Foucault would have gone so far. But it is where Foucault has led me.

Foucault has not been alone in sending me along that trajectory. Foucault’s fundamental worldview resembles mine but little. He was a godless erstwhile communist, I am unabashedly Christian. He was very much a secularist; I have been trained in both the secular and the sacred. And yet it says much about the value of entertaining ideas foreign to us that my Christian devotion was made possible in part by the crack in reality I discovered reading Foucault.

And so I invite you, the reader, to consider things in a different order. I invite you to do so not to change your mind, but to open it; to help to create a civic space in which we may celebrate both our differences and our fundamental human unity.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge Classics (London: Routledge, 2002), xvi.

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