Stratification of Knowledge

October 18, 2011

Foucault states in the Foreward to the English edition of The Order of Things that the book is an attempt to study a period of history (the seventeenth to the nineteenth century) across a range of knowledge bases seen normally to be seperate or dissimilar. Whilst not trying to represent a comprehensive world view of the period through his investigation, he states comparison between these differing knowledge bases begins to shift commonly held emphases. Foucault believes that a comparative investigation begins to make clear a “network of analogies that transcended the traditional proximities”, highlighting similarites of thought across the various disciplines. This begins to reveal a “postive unconscious” – a layer of knowledge which operates under or beyond an individuals thought but which influences the generation of ideas and theories. Rather than doing this to describe the basis of the modern sciences, Foucault states that he aimed to depict “an epistemological space specific to a particular period”.

Using a passage from one of Borges’ writings, Foucault asks the reader to question the categories and containers in which we order knowledge. Provocatively listing a series of contradictory and confusing categories in which to order animals, Borges highlights through the use of an alphabetical ordering system a disconnect between the stories sytem of categorisation and the readers. The seemingly logical ordering of the categories with letters blurs the boundaries of what we consider possible and highlights the importance of language as an ordering device. Foucault argues that whilst language allows us to order knowledge, juxtaposing and comparing ideas or objects, it is also a “non-place” – siteless.

Order is described as being the “inner law” of things whilst simultaneously being that which exists only once enounciated – “that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language”. In this way Foucault sets up a stratification of knowledge, whereby the solid base is made of an understanding that “order exists”, that things can be ordered, in accordance with an “inner law”. On top of this is the “middle region”, where order in its primary state is used as a basis in which “general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such ordering involves, will be constructed”. This is the area of most interest to Foucault and he sees this as the “pure experience of order”. On top of this is then layered the “reflexive knowledge”, which is an attempt to respond to the shifting expressions of the middle layer and give it “explicit form”. Foucault believes that it is only through the study of the pure order, through analysis of ways “our culture has made manifest the existence of order” that a period’s true epistemological space can be described.

-Tim Brooks

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