In his 1966 book “The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences,” French philosopher Michel Foucault comes up with a notion of an episteme.

Michel Foucault brings forth concept of episteme

In his book “The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences,” French philosopher Michel Foucault brought forth the concept of “episteme.”

The 1966 book is about 55 years old, but his “episteme,” or the ways of regarding and thinking about the truth and discourse, appears to still hold good in understanding the world.

It is a priori knowledge that is shared by contemporary people in a specific epoch. It is about describing how knowledge is conditioned.

“In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice,” he noted.

One of his examples is Marxism, which “exists in 19th century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.”

Things are not the same now. We do not need Marxism to breathe. But we still need something else other than Marxism to condition our knowledge as a structure of thought.

Every historical time, and each culture, East or West, has its own episteme or epistemes necessary to answer the two questions of “what can we know?” and “what can we speak of?” according to Foucault.

As episteme is about covertly agreed-upon boundaries of thought, it is comparable to paradigm, which was coined by American physicist Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

Kuhn used the notion to explain a dominant theory in the world of science and how a paradigm shift takes place in the scientific model.

By comparison, Foucault’s episteme is not restricted to science. And he does not come up with any theory on how an episteme becomes dominant and eventually weakens to be replaced by a new one.

“And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge,” he concluded.

“As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.”