Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature IV

Both Heidegger and Nietzsche influenced the work in France of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) on the history of discourses of knowledge. In one of his earlier books, The Order of Things,  Foucault includes discussion of knowledge of nature, though this features less in later writing. He focuses on how the ‘facts’ are organised according to different assumptions in different periods.

A set of assumptions is something Foucault refers to as an ‘episteme’ (from the Greek for knowledge) and there are different ‘epistemes’ at different points at time which arrange observations (positivities), theories and connections between theories in different ways. In the seventeenth century, Foucault argues that the ‘episteme’ is oriented towards representations of what can be seen, which is the basis of ideas of ‘living beings’ in the seventeenth century.

Observations are tabulated and subject to ideas about how they should be connected, which rely on what can be observed at one time and does not incorporate change or time (Francis Bacon who was referred to by Vico as model could be an example). The eighteenth century develops an ‘episteme’ which includes ‘natural history’ in which time and change enters the science of living beings, allowing evolutionary theory to emerge later, when natural science in general  moved on from idea of ‘natural philosophy’ to science as we understand it now.

Foucault, The Order of Things

Part I

3. Representing

Chapter V. The imagination of resemblance

VI. Mathesis and ‘Taxinomia’

The project of a general science of order; a theory of signs analysing representation; the arrangement of identities and differences into ordered tables: these constituted an area of empiricity in the Classical age that had not existed until the end of the Renaissance and that was destined to disappear early in the nineteenth century. It is so difficult for us to reinstate  now, and so thickly overlaid by the system of positivities to which our own knowledge belongs, that it has for long passed unperceived. It is distorted and masked by the use of categories and patterns that are our own. An attempt is apparently being made to reconstitute what the ‘sciences of life’, or ‘nature’ or ‘man’, were, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while it is quite simply forgotten that man and life and nature are none of them domains that present themselves to the curiosity of knowledge spontaneously and passively.

What makes the totality of the classical episteme possible is primarily the relation to a knowledge of order. When dealing with the ordering of simple natures, one has recourse to a mathesis of which the universal method of algebra. When dealing with the ordering of complex natures (representations in general as they are given in experience), one has to constitute a taxanomia, and to do that one has to establish a system of signs. The signs are to the order of composite natures what algebra is to the order of simple natures.

Above Foucault indicates how the classical epistime develops what looks at the time like an exhaustive tabulation of facts and ways of organising relations between facts, before indicating below how this method now seems to us to separate nature between what is classified and is therefore very knowable and what cannot be so knowable because analysis and reflection are necessary to classification.

V. Classifying

II. Natural history

How was the Classical age [the Seventeenth century] able to define this realm of ‘natural history’, the proofs and even the unity of which now appears to us so distant, and as though already blurred? What is the field in which nature appeared sufficiently close to itself for the individual beings it contained to be classified and yet so far removed from itself that they had to be so by the medium of analysis and reflection?

From this point Foucault develops an account of how desire, political economy, and natural history enter knowledge as ways of dealing with production, time and change. The role of desire is examined in relation to de Sade in something of a departure from what is most often taken as knowledge. What Foucault suggests is that de Sade is building up a way of thinking in his stories and essays dealing with the ‘naturalness’ and endlessness of desire which will be taken up in psychoanalysis most obviously, and maybe even in Darwinian interests in reproduction and sex.

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