60 pages 2 hours read

Michel Foucault

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1966

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Chapter 8

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Part 2

Chapter 8 Summary: “Labour, Life, Language”

Chapter 8: “Labour, Life, Language” examines the three core elements of the 19th-century episteme. Foucault creates three case studies out of the work of early 19th-century thinkers. They are David Ricardo, the political economist; Georges Cuvier, the zoologist; and Franz Bopp, the linguist. Foucault uses these three case studies to construct the 19th-century episteme’s relationship to language. The chapter is divided into five parts.

In part one (“The New Empiricities”), Foucault examines the “quasi-transcendental” ideas of life, labor, and language that are core to the 19th-century episteme. The taxonomy, or grid, that structured these concepts in the past and made them easily knowable became “superficial glitter over an abyss” (273). These concepts needed their history to be explored and mapped out. This change in thinking created a fundamental shift in the knowledge production of European culture.

In part two (“Ricardo”), Foucault explores the work of David Ricardo, the British political economist. Ricardo established labor as the irreducible unit that must be used to examine economics. Ricardo conceptualized labor as something done “under the threat of death” (280) to produce subsistence; anything produced beyond this was surplus value. Economy then became a measurement between worker subsistence and maximized surplus value.