As we shift from the Reformation to the Enlightenment as the overarching intellectual paradigm informing our reading, "episteme" is a term that will be useful to know and consider. I could not find a satisfactory compact definition of the term in its contemporary use, so I will take a stab at doing one myself.
For "episteme," the OED has "Scientific knowledge, a system of understanding; spec. Foucault's term for the body of ideas which shape the perception of knowledge at a particular period. Cf.EPISTEMOLOGY."
"Epistemology," says the OED, is "The theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge." This makes it sound less interesting than it really is, for what "method or grounds of knowledge" means is essentially how we know what we know, and more specifically, how we know what is true. Thus, we can consider an episteme as a structure, or "discursive formation" to use Foucault's phrase, that we understand as producing truth. The question of how we know what we know is important in a Calvinist context, but equally important as we move towards more secular texts that show a greater engagement with the physical world. To make a somewhat crude comparison, the figure of Mary Rowlandson we see in the text of Sovereignty and Goodness of God knows what she knows because of the Bible. Conversely, Josselyn knows what he knows because of a combination of observation and hearsay. In a more contemporary context, it's not hard to see evidence of battling epistemes on debates over how to teach the origin of human beings in public schools.
The usefulness of the idea of structures that produce knowledge within a particular culture, (as opposed to the more familiar idea of a world of facts discovered/awaiting discovery) is easy to see in the world of academia. If we pick up a journal of astronomy, say, our sense that what we read is true is underscored by the knowledge that the journal is peer-reviewed. An article with outlandish, unsupportable statements would be spotted by other experts in the field, and the article would be rejected. So we, in general terms, trust peer-reviewed research as having a measure of credibility.
But consider this journal, and this journal. If the criteria is "peer-reviewed scholarship," both journals have the same hallmarks of truth, but it would be hard to find a scholar who would be comfortable citing from both in the same article. If nothing else this crude example demonstrates that much of what we consider to be facts rests on the unstable ground of custom and social relations. Truth, rather than a fixed constellation of facts, has what Steven Shapin calls a "social history."
Outside of an academic context, the idea of the episteme helps to explain who can tell the truth about what. As Foucault details, knowledge and power are interlinked. As we saw with Anne Hutchinson, what came out of her womb was truer that what came out of her mouth -- more generally, male physicians can make authoritative statements about the diseases of women, while the reverse was unthinkable until recently. On a global scale, the discourse of Orientalism, for example, is a discursive structure, or episteme, that governs what Westerners (Europeans and North Americans) can say and know about the "Orient." To consider this globally imbalanced episteme, it may be useful to compare Indiana Jones (ca. Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Borat. Who produces truth, and why?
In the context of our class, this question of where truth comes from will be important when we read Josselyn and Ward this week. It may also explain how, when we gets to Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson can talk about black people in the way that he does.