Epistémé (discursive formation)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Epistémé (discursive formation)

Epistémé (discursive formation): From the Greek for “knowledge,” a term used by twentieth-century French philosophical historian Michel Foucault to refer to: (1) a network of discursive practices — of thoughts, concepts, and cultural codes — dominant during a given historical period; and (2) the rules governing the transformation of those practices. In Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things) (1966), Foucault himself defined epistémé as a “historical a priori, [which] … in a given period, delimits in the totality of experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in that field, provides everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which one can sustain a discourse about things which is recognized to be true.” Foucault subsequently substituted the term discursive formation for epistémé in L’archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge) (1969).

An epistémé governs the way that people perceive and approach the world at any given time. It is analogous to paradigm, as used by twentieth-century American historian of science Thomas Kuhn, since both are conceptual frameworks that govern systems of knowledge until they shift, break down, and are replaced by new frameworks. An epistémé is thus an even more dominant and deterministic system than ideology, the set of beliefs underlying the customs, habits, and practices of a given social group. While texts may resist or critique an ideology, exposing its gaps and conflicts, there is no vantage point from which to do so for an epistémé, as it sets the boundaries within which people think.

According to Foucault, only one epistémé can exist at any given time, and each is unique. Eventually, a new epistémé develops that replaces the last one, ushering in a new era in which people think differently than they did before. For example, in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) (1975), Foucault discussed the shift in the understanding of the human “subject,” or self. He argued that in Europe, prior to the eighteenth century, a subject was a body subject to the power of a monarch — and subject to being physically punished by that power. Later, however, the subject became the internalized sense of individual self, a psychological entity punished through incarceration.

Foucault identified a number of successive epistémés in his body of work: the Renaissance epistémé of the sixteenth century, based on the concept of similitude between things and on uncovering such resemblances; the neoclassical epistémé of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, based on the opposite concept of differences and distinctions; the nineteenth-century concept of historical development and of history as a way to trace language; and the present epistémé, in which the human being is the center of knowledge. The next epistémé, Foucault predicted, will involve a diminution and decentering of the human being’s role.

Foucault’s concept of epistémé has been criticized on several grounds. First, critics contend that Foucault ignored relevant contradictory evidence in his quest to identify particular epistémés. Second, proponents of the concept cannot account for why discursive practices do change over time. Third, they cannot explain why the very concept of epistémé and all the commentary it has generated are not themselves products of the current epistémé and its all-governing, or “totalizing,” laws of transformation.