Episteme in Rhetoric

Statue of the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428 B.C.-348 B.C.) in front of the Academy of Athens
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In philosophy and classical rhetoric, episteme is the domain of true knowledge--in contrast to doxa, the domain of opinion, belief, or probable knowledge. The Greek word episteme is sometimes translated as "science" or "scientific knowledge." The word epistemology (the study of the nature and scope of knowledge) is derived from episteme. Adjective: epistemic.

French philosopher and philologist Michel Foucault (1926-1984) used the term episteme to indicate the total set of relations that unite a given period.


"[Plato] defends the solitary, silent nature of the search for episteme--truth: a search that leads one away from the crowd and the multitude. Plato's aim is to take away from the 'majority' the right to judge, choose, and decide."

(Renato Barilli, Rhetoric. University of Minnesota Press, 1989)

Knowledge and Skill

"[In Greek usage] episteme could mean both knowledge and skill, both knowing that and knowing how. . . . Each of the artisans, a smith, a shoemaker, a sculptor, even a poet exhibited episteme in practicing his trade. The word episteme, 'knowledge,' was thus very close in meaning to the word tekhne, 'skill.'"

(Jaakko Hintikka, Knowledge and the Known: Historical Perspectives in Epistemology. Kluwer, 1991)

Episteme vs. Doxa

- "Beginning with Plato, the idea of episteme was juxtaposed to the idea of doxa. This contrast was one of the key means by which Plato fashioned his powerful critique of rhetoric (Ijsseling, 1976; Hariman, 1986).

For Plato, episteme was an expression, or a statement that conveys, absolute certainty (Havelock, 1963, p. 34; see also Scott, 1967) or a means for producing such expressions or statements. Doxa, on the other hand, was a decidedly inferior expression of opinion or probability...

"A world committed to the ideal of episteme is a world of clear and fixed truth, absolute certainty, and stable knowledge.

The only possibility for rhetoric in such a world would be to 'make truth effective'... A radical gulf is presumed to exist between discovering truth (the province of philosophy or science) and the lesser task of disseminating it (the province of rhetoric)."

(James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage, 2001)

- "Since it is not in human nature to acquire knowledge (episteme) that would make us certain what to do or say, I consider one wise who has the ability through conjecture (doxai) to attain the best choice: I call philosophers those that engage themselves with that from which this sort of practical wisdom (phronesis) is speedily grasped."

(Isocrates, Antidosis, 353 BC)

Episteme and Techne

"I have no criticism to make of episteme as a system of knowledge. On the contrary, one can argue that we would not be human without our command of episteme. The problem is rather the claim made on behalf of episteme that it is all of the knowledge, from which stems its proclivity to crowd out other, equally important, systems of knowledge. While episteme is essential to our humanness, so is techne. Indeed, it is our ability to combine techne and episteme that sets us apart both from other animals and from computers: animals have techne and machines have episteme, but only we humans have both.

(Oliver Sacks's clinical histories (1985) are at once moving as well as entertaining evidence for the grotesque, bizarre, and even tragic distortions of human beings that result from a loss of either techne or episteme.)"

(Stephen A. Marglin, "Farmers, Seedsmen, and Scientists: Systems of Agriculture and Systems of Knowledge." Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue, ed. by Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin. Oxford University Press, 2004)

Foucault's Concept of Episteme

"[In Michel Foucault's The Order of Things] the archaeological method attempts to uncover a positive unconscious of knowledge. This term denotes a set of 'rules of formation' which are constitutive of the diverse and heterogeneous discourses of a given period and which elude the consciousness of the practitioners of these different discourses.

 This positive unconscious of knowledge is also captured in the term episteme. The episteme is the condition of possibility of discourse in a given period; it is an a priori set of rules of formation that allow discourses to function, that allow different objects and different themes to be spoken at one time but not at another."

Source:  (Lois McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction. Polity Press, 1994)