The Tarot Suits and Aristotle’s Five Epistemic States

“All men desire to know,” says Aristotle in the opening of his Metaphysics. From there, he proceeds to elaborate on the various reasons that men seek knowledge, and the kinds of knowledge they can attain. He writes:

By nature animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, though not in others … The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human lives also by art and reasonings. Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience.

This passage is a bit cryptic, but it outlines a basic model to understand human knowledge. In Aristotle’s view, there are five levels of understanding: sensation (aisthesis in the Greek), memory (mneme), experience (empeiria), art (techne), and science (episteme).

My contention here is that these five epistemic states can be charted roughly onto the five suits of the Tarot. Let’s dive in and see how it works:

That’s what I call the good life.

Aisthesis, or sensory perception, is the baseline. According to Aristotle, all creatures are capable of perception; it is a fact of being creatures of the material world. Aisthesis is a product of the physical body, and as such, I think it can be linked to the suit of Pentacles in Tarot. In a certain sense, aisthesis is the realest of the five epistemic states, because it’s the most concrete. Everyone, and everything, has aisthesis. It’s that feeling of cold air in your lungs, of snowflakes dissolving on your tongue, and so on, an assortment of individual sensory snapshots that are unavoidable for any living thing.

However, in Aristotle’s account, aisthesis is only the most elemental foundation of the psyche. All animals may have sensory perception, but he claims that many animals do not have the ability to connect one perception to another. If I step outside in the snow without a jacket, I perceive the cold. But if I don’t have the capacity for memory (mneme), then I may not realize that I’ve experienced the cold before. I won’t connect the sensation of being cold now with all the times I’ve been cold before. All I know is that I’m cold now, and if I go back inside and warm up again, I forget that I was ever cold to begin with. (Which, of course, means that I’ll be terribly surprised the next time I go outside without a jacket and am cold once again.)

The faculty of mneme, then, is the ability to connect current sensory perceptions to similar perceptions in the past. I think of mneme as essentially an emotional process, although arguments could be made otherwise, and as such, I connect mneme to the suit of Cups.

Look, the girl is wearing mittens. At least she knows how to dress properly for the cold.

There may be others who would think that mneme is more Swordsy than Cupsy. That’s fine. It really is a matter of personal judgment, and God knows Aristotle himself had no Tarot to draw connections to. But in my opinion, memory is, at its core, about feeling a connection to the past. When you step out into the cold and you feel frost pricking at your ears and your fingertips, you don’t think to yourself, “Huh, this is rather like that time I was ten and I went sledding in my pajamas.” You fee it. You’re transported back to the past, borne by a powerful sensory and emotional connection rather than a rational one. Or maybe that’s just me.

I think that the suit of Swords, on the other hand, is best attributed to Aristotle’s quality of empeiria: experience. While mneme is about connecting one sensory particular to another, empeiria is an even greater abstraction. It’s about taking assorted memories, bringing them together, and analyzing them to find the underlying similarities. So instead of just remembering, “I was also cold that one time I went sledding in my pajamas”, empeiria allows you to learn from your past experiences. With empeiria, you’re actually able to think, “I’m always cold when I go out in the snow without proper clothing”. And then, knowing that, you’re able to change your behavior, and put on a hat and coat before you go outside. Empeiria is the process of connecting disparate memories, rationally evaluating them, and then altering future behavior based on past experience. Super Swordsy.

Hmm… How did I get out of this last time?

The final two epistemic states are the trickiest, mostly because the original Greek words are very difficult to translate into English. First, let’s deal with techne, which is most commonly translated as “art” or “craftsmanship”. Techne is similar in many ways to empeiria, but it deals in universals. Rather than just knowing my experience, I have a certain comprehension of everyone’s experience–but only with this one specific thing. Thus, I know exactly how everyone feels when they go out in the cold, and why they feel that way; maybe I even start my own line of fashionable mittens to sell to other people and capitalize off my understanding of their experience. But my knowing about the experience of cold does nothing to tell me what people feel when they have a bad sunburn, or when they lose a limb. My techne is universal in one sense, but limited in another.

The idea of techne is generally attributed to the making of things, which is why “craftsmanship” is a relatively good translation. If we step away from our example of cold (which is starting to get rather artificial at this point), we can talk about a carpenter, who understands the fundamental essence of what makes a good chair. And consequently, he can make big chairs, little chairs, brown chairs, white chairs, and all manner of other chairs, because he has a universal knowledge (built from empeiria) of what a chair is. But his technical knowledge of chairs does nothing for him if someone comes to him and asks him to make a sword. And similarly, a blacksmith doesn’t know how to paint, and a painter doesn’t know how to make chairs. (Unless they’re especially talented and multifaceted carpenters, blacksmiths, and painters, of course.) Does that make sense?

To me (and probably unsurprisingly, if you’ve been paying attention to this post and you see the direction it’s heading), techne is connected to the suit of Wands. In part, because techne is closely linked with making things, and no suit is better for the creative process. But also because techne represents a level of higher insight that I think is found in the Wands more than in any other suit.

My knowledge of sticking poles into the ground is without equal.


And finally, we’re left with episteme, a tricky word that’s often translated as “science” or “understanding”. And here, we start to reach true universality, an understanding of the causes of things that extends not only beyond individual experience, but also beyond individual issues. A person possessed of episteme has the ability, for example, to understand the biological reasons that our body reacts to the cold the way it does. Or alternately, to understand the weather patterns that result in it being cold in the first place. Such a person might become a doctor, or a meteorologist (a fine and noble profession in its own right). The point is, episteme is the highest level of psychological abstraction. It’s an understanding of the forces that make the universe move. As such, of course, I would attribute it to the Major Arcana.

She really shouldn’t be going out into the cold.

To anyone reading in the US, I once again wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!


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