Epistemic metaphors

I have been grappling (or beginning to grapple) with Foucault’s Order of Things and William Sewell’s Logic of History. I am currently intrigued by how both (not that this is their forte alone) unearth epistemic metaphors.  For instance,  Foucault engages with the “appearance of man”  that underpins modern writing.  Within the epistemic paradigm that such a metaphor brings forth, there is a return to origins, as exemplified by Darwin’s Origin of Species, Heidegger’s Origin of a Work of Art, and so on. Even where not explicit, modern writing tends to gravitate to the origins in its episteme, as seen with Freud’s work on psychoanalysis.

Sewell points to the epistemic metaphor of “social structure” that gets deployed in the social sciences as an architectural metaphor, as  the structure of a building, as a foundational building block. Another epistemic metaphor is language, which brings with it semantics (a system of meaningful symbols) and syntax (a set of rules for combining them). This builds on Saussure’s langue (set of rules grasped synchronically) and parole (flow of practice grasped diachronically)

This is intriguing because what do these epistemic metaphors  exclude. How does thinking within the bounds of these metaphors exclude other lines of inquiry? How do such epistemic metaphors gain traction within a field? How do they get “seen” or archaeologically excavated? And if at all, displaced?

While I search for the answers, here is an excerpt from Foucault’s Speech begins after Death (so can we call this Foucault’s Origin of Speech?) that may point to how Foucault surgically examines his own writing

“….I’m wondering if it wasn’t the system of values of my childhood that was being expressed in this depreciation of writing. I come from a medical family, one of those provincial medical families that provides, when compared to the somewhat placid life of a small town, a relatively accommodating or, as they say, progressive milieu….. The physician—and especially the surgeon, I’m the son of a surgeon—isn’t someone who speaks, he’s someone who listens. He listens to other people’s words, not because he takes them seriously, not to understand what they say, but to track down through them the signs of a serious disease, which is to say, a physical disease, an organic disease. The physician listens, but does so to cut through the speech of the other and reach the silent truth of the body. The physician doesn’t speak, he acts, that is, he feels, he intervenes. The surgeon discovers the lesion in the sleeping body, opens the body and sews it back up again, he operates; all this is done in silence, the absolute reduction of words. The only words he utters are those few words of diagnosis and therapy. The physician speaks only to utter the truth, briefly, and prescribe medicine. He names and he orders, that’s all. In that sense, it’s extraordinarily rare for the physician to speak. No doubt it’s this profound functional devaluation of speech in the old practice of clinical medicine that has weighed on me for so long and has meant that up until ten or twelve years ago, speech, for me, remained just so much hot air.”


P.S: I do recognize that Foucault’s treatment of an episteme and his archaeological method is a different level of analysis compared to Sewell. This post remains, with all disclaimers, a novice’s engagement with the idea of an epistemic metaphor.