I am reading Michel Foucault's works and often meet his references to the Classical Period.

So far I have find following definition in the internet:

The Classical Period - The time period from 1660 to the end of the 19th century. <...> For Foucault, the classical period sees as the birth of many of the characteristic institutions and structures of the modern world.


  1. What institutions where born from 1660 - to the end of 19th century?
  2. Why 1660? Why the end of 19th century?
  3. Does the term The Classical Period applicable to literature, music and art?
  4. Is the term wide used? Can I be understood when I use it out of the Foucault's context?
  • 1
    The question in the header is okay but it is overloaded with the four questions in the text box. Not all these questions relate to philosophy and answering them all would in any case need a pretty long response. Can you reformulate the text box to make the initial question more manageable?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 1, 2020 at 15:41
  • Most of the questions in the post are not really related to Foucault, and would be better answered on History SE. Foucault's terminology is unconventional.
    – Conifold
    Mar 2, 2020 at 9:31

2 Answers 2


Basically, the term "Classical age" means for Foucault Early Modern: the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age of Descartes and Enlightenment.

See The Order of Things, Preface, page xxiv:

two great discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture: the first inaugurates the Classical age (roughly half-way through the seventeenth century) and the second, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, marks the beginning of the modern age.

Be aware that, outside the context of Foucault's work, the term "Classical age" means Classical antiquity: the Greco-Roman world.

  • 1
    At least in Germany, we have the (Weimar) Classic (literature) and the (Vienna) Classic (music). Generally, I suspect that Foucault meant what in Germany is correctly called Classicism or simply "Classic" in common language. That's what corresponds to the more precise "Neoclassicism" in English (and French!). He studied in Germany at the time IIRC, where "classical period" is generally understood as exactly what he writes. Apart from that, it is materially fitting since the time formed many modern thought patterns, even if it indeed was a revival of antique thought in many senses.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 1, 2020 at 21:12

Foucault refers to the classical age or period in The Order of Things (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1970) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972). Daniel Stempel provides the setting:

Foucault insists that he is developing a method, not a model of the classification of periods. His method produces models, but these are derived from analyses of praxis, the language of institutions and disciplines; they are not paradigms or hypothetical structures imposed on unorganized data. The gap between method and model is bridged by the "episteme," which he defines as

the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems; the way in which, in each of these discursive formations, the transitions to epistemologization, scientificity, and formalization are situated and operate; the distribution of these thresholds, which may coincide, be subordinated to one another, or be separated by shifts in time; the lateral relations that may exist between epistemological figures or sciences in so far as they belong to neighbouring, but distinct, discursive practices. The episteme is not a form of knowledge (connaissance) or type of rationality which, crossing the boundaries of the most varied sciences, manifests the sovereign unity of a subject, a spirit, or a period; it is the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities. (M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972): 191.)

The classical age, or the Enlightenment, occupies a central position in Foucault's triad of periods: it follows the Renaissance and precedes the modern. (...) Renaissance discourse is structured by resemblance, which links a hierarchy of correspondences developed from a canonical Ur-text; its model is the palimpsest that can be deciphered through the similitude of each level of discourse to the text on which that level is superimposed. The warp of typology that links all interpretations of both the Bible and the book of nature is ex- tended in time, not in space. The task of interpretation strives either to establish the continuity of successive readings (the Church) or to restore the Ur-text (the Reformation). The relation be- tween the Ur-text and all later commentaries is, in the strict sense of the word, figurative, an analogy whose sign is a figura; the link between words and things is the natural sign, the emblem that resembles the thing it represents. In contrast to Renaissance practice, the classical episteme is derived from the priority of representative perception; the similitude between words and things is an accident or a contingency, not a necessity. The given becomes significant only through its participation in the order of representation. The order of the given, its simple association in space and time, is constantly refined by the analysis of experience; the real order of things is the telos toward which experience moves in its self-analysis. Representation is reflexive: the cogito examines the contents of consciousness and arranges them in an order that parallels the order of things; conversely, the order of things must parallel the order of consciousness - God is not a deceiver. If ordinary experience contradicts the order of the mind, which is determined by rational analysis, that experience must surrender all claims to primacy. For the classical physicist experiment does not confirm ordinary experience; it confirms the order of mathematics, not the order of perception.


For Foucault the name, which represents the qualitative unit in discourse, is at the center of the classical episteme:

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 toward 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. (M. Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1970: 117.)

General grammar, the classical science of language, lists four ways in which discourse is organized by and around the name: designation, derivation, articulation, and attribution. Designation, the naming of things, is the primordial act of nomination, the source of all language; as languages diverge from their common source, the simple roots cling to their original meanings despite the phonetic deformations of new sounds and scripts. Derivation is the process of semantic displacement that parallels the movement of language away from its roots. Articulation, the analysis of language into its grammatical elements, makes it possible to arrange words, as representations of representation, to duplicate experi- ence. But beneath the surface articulation of syntax lies the deep structure of language - the proposition. If designation is the basic act of language that links the name and the thing, attribution is the basic act of discourse that locates the name in language by affirming its identity and specifying its differences. The name, then, is the point about which the strategies of classical discourse are deployed. Designation links the name and its origin; derivation shifts the meaning of the name through the play of rhetorical movement; articulation holds names together in an inflectional matrix; and attribution transforms the name into a subject to which other names and qualities are attached in judgments. These strategies operate as an inner dynamic for the taxonomy of language; they place, replace, and displace words in the table of order in an effort to name things exactly and ex- haustively, clearly and distinctly. Attribution provides a nontemporal logical subject of possible predicates; articulation places the name of the subject in the infinite chain of words that mirrors the infinite gradations of things; derivation and designation act as opposed semantic vectors: derivation moves away from the root meaning and designation attempts to conserve it. Nomenclature and taxonomy bridge the opposition of mathesis and order:

The fundamental task of Classical "discourse" is to ascribe a name to things, and in that name to name their being. For two centuries, Western discourse was the locus of ontology. When it named the being of all representation in general, it was philosophy: theory of knowledge and analysis of ideas. When it ascribed to each thing represented the name that was fitted to it, and laid out the grid of a well-made language across the whole field of representation, then it was science - nomenclature and taxonomy. (M. Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1970: 120.)

(Daniel Stempel, 'Blake, Foucault, and the Classical Episteme', PMLA, Vol. 96, No. 3 (May, 1981), pp. 388-407: 389-90.)

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