Episteme

episteme_ephesusPersonification of Episteme in Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey.

I was drawn to the word “episteme” while I was reading Sohail Inayatullah’s “Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme Macrohistory and Transformative Knowledge.” Sohail Inayatullah has published extensively on macrohistory, futures studies and the politics of knowledge but this book is rather special. I consider “Understanding Sarkar” his masterpiece. I am taking notes as I read the book. I will share those notes in the future. The word “episteme” is mentioned very frequently in the book and it is also in the title. I felt that I had to understand the term “episteme” first.

In the SEP article titled “Episteme and Techne” the author Richard Parry examines what “episteme” meant for Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Alexander of of Aphrodisias and Plotinus. In Parry’s article the Plotinus’ definition of “episteme” attracted my attention.

“In the first place,epistêmê refers to the particular cognitive state of the first hypostasis from the One, Nous, in which there is an identity between knowledge and what is known. Our souls gain true knowledge by the presence of Nous, although Nous knows non-discursively while our souls characteristically know in a discursive way. Discursive knowledge is the sort of knowing that moves from, e.g., premise to conclusion; non-discursive thought, then, is a unitary grasp or understanding.”

I was curious about Plato’s definition too. Parry’s article is very dense but I found this: “Knowledge (epistêmê) is the ability to know the real as it is.”

It seems to me that the modern philosophers and authors use the term “episteme” to mean “discursive knowledge.” In other words, “episteme” in modern usage is very different from the Plotinus’ “episteme” which meant “non-discursive knowledge.”  The concept of non-discursive knowing is not very popular these days because the non-discursive knowledge cannot be communicated using the language.

When you search for the meaning of “episteme” the French philosopher Michel Foucault and this quote from his book The Order of Things come up often:

“However, if 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. “

Sohail Inayatullah discusses Foucault extensively. Short quotations will not do justice to his analysis of Foucault’s contributions. According to Inayatullah, Foucault “questions the ground of all categories and thus denaturalizes the authoritative.” Another quote on Foucault from Inayatullah’s book [1]:

“Foucault takes a marked historical view of European cosmology and develops a history of epistemes. Of interest is that Foucault’s description of the classical European episteme dominant in the 16th century shows a remarkable similarity to the ancient Indian episteme, which as just mentioned survives today, largely intact, notwithstanding the reformers, the liberals, the technologists, the Muslims and the British.”

Inayatullah discusses different epistemes such as the “Indian episteme,” “spiritual episteme” and many others. It is clear that by “episteme” he means “discursive knowledge” as Foucault does.

I will return to the book “Understanding Sarkar” in the coming weeks.

[1] Shohail Inayatullah, “Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme Macrohistory and Transformative Knowledge”, Brill, 2002, ISBN: 90-04-12193-5

Prof. Sohail Inayatullah’s web page at the Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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