Là se noue toute l’expérience classique du langage : le caractère réversible de l’analyse grammaticale qui est, d’un seul tenant, science et prescription, étude des mots et règle pour les bâtir, les utiliser, les réformer dans leur fonction représentative ; le nominalisme fondamental de la philosophie depuis Hobbes jusqu’à l’Idéologie, nominalisme qui n’est pas séparable d’une critique du langage et de toute cette méfiance à l’égard des mots généraux et abstraits qu’on trouve chez Malebranche, chez Berkeley, chez Condillac et chez Hume ; la grande utopie d’un langage parfaitement transparent où les chose elles-mêmes seraient nommées sand brouillage, soit par un système totalement arbitraire, mais exactement réfléchi (langue artificielle), soit par un langage si naturel qu’il traduirait la pensée comme le visage quand il exprime une passion (c’est de ce langage fait de signes immédiats que Rousseau a rêvé au premier de ses Dialogues). On peut dire que c’est le Nom qui organise tout le discours classique ; parler ou écrire, ce n’est pas dire les chose ou s’exprimer, ce n’est pas jouer avec le langage, c’est s’acheminer vers l’acte souverain de nomination, aller, à travers le langage, jusque vers le lieu où les chose et les mots se nouent en leur essence commune, et qui permet de leur donner un nom. (Foucault, 1966)

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This is the nexus of the entire Classical experience of language: the reversible character of grammatical analysis, which is at one and the same time science and prescription, a study of words and a rule for constructing them, employing them, and remoulding them into their representative function; the fundamental nominalism of philosophy from Hobbes to Ideology, a nominalism that is inseparable from a critique of language and from all that mistrust with regard to general and abstract words that we find in Malebranche, Berkeley, Condillac, and Hume; the great utopia of a perfectly transparent language in which things themselves could be named without any penumbra of confusion, either by a totally arbitrary but precisely thought-out system (artificial language), or by a language so natural that it would translate thought like a face expressing a passion (it was this language of immediate sign that Rousseau dreamed of in the first of his Dialogues). One might say that it is the Name, that organizes all Classical discourse; to speak or to write is not to say things or to express oneself, it is not a matter of playing with language, it is to make one’s way towards the sovereign act of nomination, to move, through language, towards the place where things and words are conjoined in their common essence, and which makes it possible to give them a name. (Foucault, 1994)


After having read lots of later of Foucault (mostly his lectures that touch on governmentality) I’d never really taken the time to read the book that catapulted him to fame: The Order of Things, or the original title, Les Mots et les Choses. How different are these titles? I personally think they made a mistake not using a more literal translation: Words and Things.

Since I’m in no particular rush I’ve been trying to revive the little French I learned in high school, by reading in English, but taking a look at the original French when I run across a section I really like. Even for a novice like me, the French has a different luminous quality–maybe that’s true of the language in general though…

One thing that struck me here when reading the original French is the translation of noue as nexus in the first sentence. The verb nouer is to start or tie a knot, whereas se nouer is the point at which the strands of a plot come together. I guess nexus works alright. But the translation totally misses the mirroring that happens between se noue in the first sentence and se nouent in the last sentence:

… to move, through language, towards the place where things and words are conjoined in their common essence and which makes it possible to give them a name.

… aller, à travers le langage, jusque vers le lieu où les chose et les mots se nouent en leur essence commune et qui permet de leur donner un nom.

Also lost is in translation is the idea of their start together: words and things.


Foucault, M. (1966). Les mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Vintage Books.