Many centrists and conservatives are leery of Michel Foucault’s enduring popularity in higher education. Some think he’s the very essence of a great postmodern conspiracy to take down Western Civilization. Perhaps. But even if he’s part of a bigger problem, we ought not dismiss the entirety of his work. Not all his books merit attention, but several do. As a Cervantes scholar, I predictably find The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (1966) among his best.
Intriguing is Foucault’s deeply European emphasis on the subconscious limits foisted on us by history’s oscillations between paradigmatic “epistemes” of human thought. It’s also disquieting to ponder sociological determinism in the abstract. The book’s French title, Les mots et les choses (“words and things”), denotes an early modern sense of detachment as traditional wisdom was challenged by new facts and experiences. When social, technical, and global change remains imperceptible, it’s still easy to fall under the spell of a word. But when things speed up and knowledge is discarded at an alarming rate, words lose their effectiveness and are replaced or revised with nerve-wracking, exhausting frequency. Rapid change makes people ideologically dizzy, as they must come to terms with the idea that words mean nothing. As trust in language fades, so does trust in the very existence of meaning or truth. This is worrisome: nihilism will stalk us in that direction.
More useful than the disturbing concept of the episteme, though, is Foucault’s vision of how the early modern world’s turn toward materialism leads to hyper-specialized fields of scientific inquiry. The fields that drove and emerged from the collapse of the medieval worldview fostered a new mode of thinking. This is our new episteme, and it’s Foucault’s description of it that counts. Our fragmentary fields of knowledge seem to further fragment into subfields exponentially.
Those interested in the history of the novel form appreciate Foucault’s approach to words and things because he uses Cervantes as a frame for his book. In the early modern novel, we see the materialistic and rebellious turn of the Renaissance, the new era’s momentous interest in money, things, and bodies combined with its incessant reevaluations of the received wisdom of scripture and authority. This effectively shreds the more unified cosmos of the medieval period.
For Foucault, the modern shift begins in the Baroque period because it delights in representations of disjointed and contested worldviews. An author like Cervantes or a painter like Velázquez desperately spins out a multitude of asymmetrical, overextended filaments of fiendishly fading perspectives. Characters in novels often end up arguing about the meanings of words, or else inventing new ones that are integral to making sense of their already messy adventures. Different figures gesturing every which way in paintings imply so many lines of sight that there’s no way to conceive of a broader message. Thus, the decaying order spawns both harsh realism and comical futility. Realism is imposed by the explosive growth of specialized knowledge; futility arises at the loss of any way to make it globally coherent.
The great art historian Erwin Panofsky saw the elaborate, interconnected, and organic nature of medieval scholasticism as a grandiose style of thinking. This style echoed the delicate, harmonious construction of all those spires and buttresses flying off Gothic cathedrals. Over subsequent centuries those same cathedrals of thought got blown up into pointillist or cubist nightmares in which even our faintest desire for unity seemed absurd. For his part, Foucault’s archeological approach traces the final stage of the hyper-compartmentalization of knowledge. In the end, the modern era (dis)embodies that devastating verse by William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
Foucault should not be dismissed as pointless epistemological speculation because, beyond his crestfallen presentation of the shift toward modernity, there lurks the essence of a sociopolitical dilemma. As the remnants of theological consistency recede, an ordered and emanating universe disintegrates into an overabundance of fields. These are like so many rabbit holes, each requiring specific standards, methods, and training. This then creates radically distinct fields of knowledge that were previously subsumed by more unified categories. STEM sprouts infinitely more stems. This is beautiful but disorienting. There is now such a forest of flying buttresses that we can no longer find the cathedral. Conservative critics of education confront this structure.
Unity of thought only gets harder to perceive in the modern world. Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect (Simon & Schuster 2015) signals this same problem. Foucault’s reflections on Darwin are particularly lucid. Biology’s theory of evolution reflects a modern desire to dig deep for clues and to measure more detailed changes over longer periods of time. Think of those biologists who savor the painstaking work of assembling the tiny splinters of archaic nautiluses. Paradoxically, our silos spring from our own desire for more knowledge. The more each of us knows, the more isolated we become from each other.
This all has a social consequence. On the one hand, successful scientific specialists inevitably become overconfident in their own abilities; on the other hand, they become oblivious to the free, spontaneous order of human society around them. In his book The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), written a generation before Foucault and all the French Hegelians of postmodernism, Raymond Aron noted how specialization leads precisely to the ignorance that embraces political and economic planning. Paradoxically, as our specialization and knowledge grow, so does the complexity of society writ large, at national and global levels, which makes top-down solutions even more problematic, and yet also more tempting.
Specialization isn’t the sole cause of our political madness, but it contributes a lot. It’s also a good way to understand how so many super-smart people blindly trust political and economic interference. My uncle was a great man, a brilliant, world-class biologist. He also complained incessantly about government regulations on his use of mice in his research. And yet he supported the role of government everywhere else. This stood to reason. If you can figure out how a tiny bundle of cells marks the time of heartbeats, if you can get a specific protein past a cell wall and attach it to a mitochondrion, then how hard can it be to fix traffic, poverty, or crime? Such problems are easy enough to locate. Duh! There’s the traffic; there’s the poverty; there’s the crime! So have at it; equip specialists with fancy gizmos, give them legal authority, and put them to work!
Modern life has industrialized the creation of knowledge silos, which means that scientists, economists, and mathematicians—that is, people who are clearly capable of much higher orders of reasoning than others—tend to take the rest of us for granted. I have no problem admitting that these people are superior to myself. But this not only means that many of them unwittingly endorse centralizing social and economic policies; it also means that they allow their preferred institutions to crank out the very waves of shrieking activists who propel these centralizing policies.
I strongly suspect that the world would indeed improve if smart people could further dedicate themselves to their technical fields of study; but I also wish they would spend a little more time supporting those of us who want to sustain the basic dialogical, analytical, and ethical principles of a free society. This is not merely a matter of keeping this or that ideology from taking over institutions of higher education; it’s about making sure the public understands the delusional effects of hyper-specialized knowledge. It’s about understanding that we must manage scientific hubris. Ugh, manage. Yes, I said it. But there is a way to manage it by way of intellectual dialogue instead of governmental mandate.