The Breakup Of A Universe Of Purpose And Order


Classical Episteme Compared To Foucault’s Modern Episteme

If Foucault’s reconstituted historical evaluation sounds pessimistic or even nihilistic, I have succeeded in accurately describing his thought, for he is commonly criticized for his nihilistic views. At this point, however, I would like to be a bit adventurous and interpret Foucault’s power/knowledge relationship in such a way that it reflects Foucault in a positive light, as it becomes, in my reading of its most elemental form, the answer to the questions, “Who participates?” and “Wherein does this participation take place?”

Foucault’s analysis of the classical and modern episteme, it seems to me, is a reshaping of the holism/elementarism debate. By recognizing that culture generates from power/knowledge relationships, Foucault has given this debate its ontological legs, so to speak. According to Foucault, it is power/knowledge relationships (the subjugating and the subjugated) that lies behind both the classical episteme and the modern episteme.

Foucault’s description of the classical episteme is consistent with the way I have described the medieval culture. For Foucault the classical episteme is characterized by representation and resemblance. Life, language and labor, through a discourse with the “other,” participate within a universe of order, unity and purpose. Difference occurring within sameness, I believe, is how Foucault describes medieval culture. Difference, divergence, disjunction, are all affirmed as integrals of the whole. According to Alan Sheridan, “classical representation was a universal, neutral, conscious, ‘objective’ mode of thought in which, though it was operated by and for men, ‘man’ as a concept was absent.” [Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault, The Will To Truth, 1980, p. 82] In the classical episteme everything that “is” is intelligible because of its very capacity for existence, and, reason, through its ability to represent essences, is the tool that is used to recognize the universal essence of all individuating matter.

During the Renaissance, according to Foucault, the classical episteme began to change into the modern episteme. Knowledge of the world became an interpretation of signs, and difference and sameness became organized around interpretation. In the classical episteme, whereas “the complex doctrine of ‘resemblances’ defined the way in which things were linked to each other,” in the more modern episteme, “the doctrine of ‘signatures’ became concerned with how these marks of resemblance were recognized.”[Mark Cousins, 1984, p. 31] The real break with the classical episteme, however, occurred with the philosophy of Descartes. Foucault describes this break:

“…(W)e must not forget that Descartes wrote “meditations”–and meditations are a practice of the self. But the extraordinary thing in Descartes’s texts is that he succeeded in substituting a subject as founder of practices of knowledge, for a subject constituted through practices of the self.

“….In European culture up to the sixteenth century, the problem remains: What is the work which I must effect upon myself so as to be capable and worthy of acceding to the truth? To put it another way: truth always has a price; no access to truth without ascesis. In Western culture up to the sixteenth century, asceticism and access to truth are always more or less obscurely linked.

“Descartes, I think, broke with this when he said, ‘To accede to truth, it suffices that I be any subject which can see what is evident.’ Evidence is substituted for ascesis at the point where the relationship to the self intersects the relationship to others and the world.” [Paul Rabinow, 1984, p. 371]

Man Becomes The Being In Whose Being Being Comes Into Question

From The Perspective Of The Human Spirit’s Pursuit Of Liberation Things Look Different

In the modern episteme difference asserts its right against sameness in truth. In so far as everything is seen to be carrying within itself some “hidden truth,” the search for truth characterizes this episteme. Since everything can be reduced to its constituent parts an elementaristic attitude prevails in this episteme. Formalization takes the place of representation and man becomes the being in whose being being comes into question. The being of man becomes the “shared being” of questioners. For Foucault, at the crossroads of the classic and modern episteme stands Descartes, but the truly modern break with the classic episteme came with the Kantian perspective on man and nature. In Kant’s philosophy the classical episteme becomes reduced to a mere metaphysic. In The Order of Things Foucault writes:

“The Kantian critique…questions representation, not in accordance with the endless movement that proceeds from the simple element to all its possible combinations, but on the basis of its rightful limits. Thus it sanctions for the first time that event in European culture which coincides with the end of the eighteenth century: the withdrawal of knowledge and thought outside the space of representation. That space is brought into question in its foundation, its origin and its limits: and by this very fact, the unlimited field of representation, which Classical thought had established, which Ideology had attempted to scan in accordance with a step-by-step, discursive, scientific method, now appears as a metaphysics. [Alan Sheridan, The Will To Truth, 1980, p. 68]

As is readily apparent, on Foucault’s reading, the classical episteme provided no place for man to engage in his “search for man.” In the classical episteme truth was an already determined relationship. It was, in its multivariate diversity, one’s relationship to God: “In the classical age the truth of a thing was defined by its position in the table of representations, which was constructed to mirror God’s Order–itself an order of the visible.” [Romand Coles, 1992, p. 67] This order was not one of a Godless world in which man is the sovereign subject for all possible knowledge, nor was it a signification of the emptiness, the circumference of which, varying in the inverse relation to the depths plummeted by man in his search for meaning. In an organic, holistic universe there was no need for a differentiated locus of knowledge, there was simply “knowledge of the order of things.”

This “knowledge of the order of things,” however, became integrated in people who had economic needs to satisfy and as conditions changed e.g., centralized monarchy, urban expansion, birth of guilds, etc., people created for themselves less restrictive lifestyles. In this process the scientific revolution played a significant role. Eventually, the holistic, God-centered universe of the Middle Ages gave ground to the matter-centered, self-centered universe of today. If we are to understand this event as something more than the latest development of Foucault’s power/knowledge driven modern episteme we must turn our attention to a description of what Ernst Cassirer called the “human spirit’s pursuit of self-liberation.” From this perspective Foucault’s power/knowledge relationships, when considered as part of the human spirit’s pursuit of self-liberation, become no more than the cultural manifestations of the “synchronic movement” that defines structure.


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