Not so bad, right? Foucault takes as a kind of epigraph the Chinese Encyclopedia thing from Borges where animals are divisible into "those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies." He starts by treating our own divisions as though they make just as little sense and saying why. This is cricket--good clean intellectual enquiry.
He gets Foucauldian, and even, like meta-Foucauldian, later on, but for once perhaps we'll just let that pass, yes? It's reflected in the rating and I don't have much to say about it except that there are large skippable swaths ("Man and His Doubles") near the end and it's Foucault and if you don't know what you're getting into try The History of Sexuality or Discipline and Punish or something a little more concrete/less rarefied.
So a Great Chain implies quantitative otherness, and a taxonomy implies qualitative Otherness--"heterocliticity"--and the dynamic or progressive approach squares the circle: think of the way labour conceived as a constant gives us a foundation for economics, as distinct from "the study of wealth". Think of the way William Jones's Indo-European hypothesis gives what had once been (and would be again, with the essentialist, nationalist 19th century) radically separate languages a place to meet: philology becoming linguistics. Fine, fine.
That's as far as you can really go with that intriguing argument, of course, unless you're prepared to engage with the structuralist aridity of most of the second half of the book. I would have preferred a much closer attention to sources, examples, and the 18th-century lifeworld as actually expressed in the 18th century--Foucault may have seen himself as an anti-humanist, but only a really old-timey conception of humanism can't take into account a historian that tries to see history from the outside.
So yeah, I guess I recommend reading carefully for a while, mulling the argument and deciding how you feel about it, and then skimming and extracting the gems: Don Quixote as the "hero of absolute signification" the character for whom there is no difference between words and reality; Descartes as introducing a naturalism that is not mimesis, a correspondence between language and the world rooted in the brain and not God--for me this was the basis for much closer engagement with the part of this that's about language, with reference to theorists like Condillac and mystics like Rousseau and Herder and Coleridge, but when I go over those notes now they seem unfruitful. Plenty to like here, and it was of course an important chapter in the history of the intellectual world the humanities now exist in (I fret so about the mode of expression and the sincerity of the ideas in this kind of book partially because I feel implicated, of course). But you wish someone had told him "Just the facts, man."read more
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