The Order of Things Book Summary - The Order of Things Book explained in key points
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The Order of Things summary

Michel Foucault

An Archaeology of Human Sciences

4.2 (64 ratings)
17 mins

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The Order of Things by Michel Foucault is a thought-provoking exploration of the history and evolution of human thought. Foucault challenges our understanding of knowledge and discourse, revealing the underlying structures that shape our perceptions and beliefs.

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    The Order of Things
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    Resemblance

    Have you ever wondered how we categorize the world around us? Why do we group animals, plants, or objects together in the way we do? Do we actually know how they should be related to one another? Well, the short answer is no. As it turns out, the systems we use to structure knowledge aren’t as natural as they may seem.

    In order to uncover the origins of these meaning structures, Foucault travels back in time. He uses Diego Velázquez's famous seventeenth-century painting Las Meninas as an example of how systems of knowledge have historically functioned. The painting depicts figures from the royal court – some speaking, others looking at the viewer. In the background, Velázquez includes himself in the act of painting. This intricate interplay of people represented and representing leads Foucault to introduce the key concept of resemblance.

    In the sixteenth century, resemblance was the main organizing principle for systems of knowledge. Things were believed to naturally resemble, reflect, or attract one another through hidden connections. Foucault identifies four types of resemblance.

    Convenience was the idea that things which are spatially or temporally close together resemble each other in essence. For example, plants that grow near each other were thought to have sympathetic magical properties.

    Emulation was the idea that certain distant things influence one another through hidden connections because they share fundamental similarities. For instance, the motions of celestial bodies were once thought to cause events on Earth.

    Analogy was the idea that different realms of reality have corresponding patterns that can be decoded. For instance, the human body was seen as a microcosm of the structure of the cosmos.

    Sympathy was the idea that things attract or repel each other because of occult affinities between them. This explained phenomena like magnetic attraction or the alleged medicinal properties of plants that resembled the body parts they healed.

    So well into the Renaissance, likeness in various forms was viewed as an intrinsic signature connecting disparate elements of reality. It wasn’t just a superficial perception in the mind, but a key to unlocking how the world was ordered. Interpreting these secret resemblances was the route to knowledge. 

    In this worldview, words and things were naturally intertwined. According to the Bible, God originally created a vocabulary that perfectly mirrored nature. This perfect language was lost after the fall of Babel, but the idea that language could perfectly match reality still endured in the sixteenth century. Back then, studying texts and language was just as complete a way of examining the world as observation and experiment. 

    By exhibiting how sixteenth-century knowledge relied on resemblance, Foucault exposes the contingency underlying our modern conceptions of truth and objectivity. Today, we no longer explain the world through esoteric sympathies. We understand that language is an often imperfect form of capturing reality. At some point, the fundamentals of knowledge shifted dramatically to upend the highly elaborate system of resemblance. 

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    What is The Order of Things about?

    The Order of Things (1966) is a philosophical examination of our most basic beliefs about knowledge. With depth and skill, it exposes the shaky foundations holding up society’s perceived truths and argues that much of what we know actually just relies on chance.

    The Order of Things Review

    The Order of Things (1966) by Michel Foucault is an intriguing exploration into the history and development of human knowledge. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It challenges conventional notions of categorization and classification, offering perspectives that disrupt our understanding of the world and how we organize it.
    • The book provides a thought-provoking analysis of historical epistemology and the formation of disciplines, shedding light on the complex relationship between language, knowledge, and power.
    • Foucault's meticulous research and rich historical examples combine to present an intellectual feast that invigorates the mind and sparks new ideas.

    Who should read The Order of Things?

    • Philosophers interested in theories of language and knowledge
    • Students of history and science
    • Critical thinkers questioning modern scientific paradigms

    About the Author

    Michel Foucault was one of the most prominent French thinkers of the twentieth century, and his work influenced fields ranging from history to literary criticism. His most notable books include Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish.

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    The Order of Things FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Order of Things?

    The main message of The Order of Things is the critique of the way we categorize and classify knowledge.

    How long does it take to read The Order of Things?

    The reading time for The Order of Things varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Order of Things a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Order of Things is a thought-provoking read for those interested in philosophical critique and the history of knowledge.

    Who is the author of The Order of Things?

    The author of The Order of Things is Michel Foucault.

    What to read after The Order of Things?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Order of Things, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The End of Bias by Jessica Nordell
    • The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade
    • The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
    • Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey C. Daniels
    • The Intelligence Trap by David Robson
    • Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
    • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
    • Discipline & Punish by Michel Foucault
    • Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
    • The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch