The Order of Things
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The full title of the book is: Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines. It was translated into English and published by Pantheon Books in 1970 under the full title The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Foucault had preferred L'Ordre des Choses for the original French title, but changed the title because it had been used by two structuralist works published immediately prior to Foucault's).
The book opens with an extended discussion of Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas and its complex arrangement of sight-lines, hiddenness and appearance. Then it develops its central claim: that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period's episteme to another. (Aside: Jean Piaget, in "Structuralism" (1968/1970, p.132), compares Foucault's épistème to Thomas Kuhn's notion of a paradigm.)
Foucault's critique in Les mots et les choses has been very influential to cultural history. The various consciousness shifts that he points out in the first chapters of the book have led several scholars to scrutinize the bases for knowledge in our present day as well as critiquing the projection of modern categories of knowledge onto subjects that remain intrinsically unintelligible, in spite of historical knowledge.
The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. A review by Jean-Paul Sartre attacked Foucault as 'the last rampart of the bourgeoisie'. Foucault responded, "Poor bourgeoisie; If they needed me as a 'barricade', then they had already lost power!"