Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Foucault's Episteme Reassessed

Ian Maclean, whose book  The Renaissance Notion of Woman, I admired wrote a paper in 1998 called Foucault's Renaissance Episteme Reassessed: An Aristotelian counterblast, Journal of the History of ideas 59.1, 1998, 149-166. I have always found the notion of episteme hard to understand. It seems to have constraining qualities like a Kuhnian paradigm, but to be much broader, constraining a culture, society or civilization. While Kuhn's paradigm concept offers a way to think about breaking free, Foucault's episteme has not seemed to offer any way out. An yet epistemes change. This seemed not only a very pessimistic view of history but also a view that doesn't offer any way to think about history. Maclean looks specifically at Foucault's use of the notion of Episteme in discussing the Renaissance. He criticizes Foucault for using a limited number of sources and for choosing mostly neo-platonic sources. He discusses differences between Plato and Aristotle's ideas about discovery and shows that using Platonic thinkers as the basis for the idea of episteme makes it easy for that idea to allow no escape. He goes on to show how the Aristotelian ideas in circulation had ways to reflect on ideas and allow for critique. This, if I understood him, offered Aristotelians the resources to change. Given this I feel encouraged to continue looking into how Aristotelian scholasticism evolved into the new science.

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