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  A term coined by the French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-84) in his book Les mots et les choses (1966). An episteme is a conceptual grid that delimits the possibility of all knowledge (savoirs) in a given period and within which a culture orders the world and construes truth and reality. Foucault argued that knowledge is not built on a universal foundation and that the history of thought should not be written as a \'checklist\' of innovations (Foucault, 1991; cf. foundationalism). Rather, he claimed, there are historically discontinuous \'systems of thought\', and at any given time there are limits to what can be said, rules that govern what statements are deemed true and what knowledges are legitimate, and sets of links between different discourses and practices. Epistemes are the unconscious \'conditions of existence\' of such limits, rules and links (Foucault, 1972).

On Foucault\'s account, an episteme is based on a culture\'s conception of order (how connections between words and things are made), signs (how knowledge is construed), and especially language (how truths are formulated from linguistic signs). Foucault identified three epistemes in western history: a Renaissance episteme (sixteenth-century), based on the resemblances between words and things, with one sign in the Book of Nature referring to others in a chain; a Classical episteme (mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth-century), founded on the representation of Identities and differences between things and the possibility of a \'general science of order\' which would locate all natural and human phenomena on an ideal classificatory table; and a Modern episteme (nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), in which the unity of representation and thought \'shattered\' and \'man\' was born as an object of knowledge and a knowing subject for whom representation exists. He also famously posited the imminent \'death of man\' as the fulcrum of our thought. Foucault was concerned with the history of western thought, and when he adopted the labels \'classical\' and \'modern\' (rather than, say, \'early modern\' or \'Enlightenment\') he had in mind the contrast between Ancien Régime and post-Revolutionary France.

Foucault saw great conceptual breaks in knowledge — especially in science and philosophy — where others had posited continuities, and he made deep — \'epistemic\' — connections between disciplines that others had not seen. He was particularly concerned with the historical specificity of \'man\' as the centrepiece of the modern episteme. He focused on the moment when, as Canguilhem (1994) aptly summarizes his thesis, \'life, work and language [three \'classical\' domains of knowledge] ceased to be attributes of a [homogeneous] nature and became natures themselves, rooted in their own specific history\' — natures and histories that could be studied by the empirical sciences (biology, economics and philology). Foucault also explored how modern philosophy, the human sciences (psychology, sociology and linguistics), and structuralist \'counter-sciences\' such as psychoanalysis were founded on the attempt to conceptualize \'man\' as a sovereign subject.

Les mots et les choses has caused considerable debate. Some have questioned whether the concept of \'man\' is as central to modern thought as Foucault claims, and others have argued that his account of epistemes cannot account for its own objectivity and rationality, for if individual authors cannot see the epistemic arrangements underpinning their thought and language, then on what grounds does Foucault intuit and reconstruct an episteme? (see Habermas, 1987). On the other hand, anthropologists and geographers have drawn on Foucault\'s tripartite schema to clarify and question the ways in which concepts of nature and culture, \'man\' and science, entered their disciplines and were implicated in the history of imperialism and colonialism (see, e.g., Claval, 1980; McGrane, 1989), and Foucault\'s work has alerted human scientists to the normative agendas embedded in their work — especially how they authorize specific models of the human subject (cf. humanism; post-structuralism). (DC)

References Canguilhem, G. 1994: The death of man, or exhaustion of the cogito? In Gutting, G., ed., The Cambridge companion to Foucault. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 47-70. Claval P. 1980: Epistemology and the history of geographical thought. Progress in Human Geography 4: 371-84. Foucault, M. 1970: The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Random House. Orig. pub. Fr. 1966: Les mots et les choses. Foucault, M. 1972: The archaeology of knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock Publications. Orig. pub. Fr. 1969: L\'Archéologie du savoir. Foucault, M.1991: Politics and the study of discourse. In G. Burchall, C. Gordon and P. Miller, eds, The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 53-72. Orig. pub. Fr. 1968. Habermas, J. 1987: The philosophical discourse of modernity, trans. F. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. lecture IX. Orig. pub. Ger. 1985: Der philosophische diskurs der moderne. McGrane, B. 1989: Beyond anthropology: society and the other. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Suggested Reading Gutting, G. 1989: Michel Foucault\'s archaeology of scientific reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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