Is there a philosophical term or theory that defines or describes the idea of 'epiphany'?



I am new to the philosophy stack exchange, so please let me know if I need to clarify this question further. I am curious if there is a distinction made in philosophical fields between a typical step-by-step accretion of knowledge and what might be called an epiphany or an epiphanic event.

For example, I feel that this relates to some of the talk of triviality vs. informativity of reference statements. In my roughly sketched view, Lois Lane would have an 'epiphany' upon hearing (and believing) the statement 'Clark Kent is Superman' as her separate knowledges of what she had thought to be two separate entities instantaneously (or at least remarkably quickly) begin to inform each other. However for someone who has not already learned separate information about Clark Kent (or Superman), to be told that "Clark Kent is Superman" is merely a simple accretion of knowledge (description) of who Clark Kent is. Similarly the classic "Hesperus is Phosphorus" statement is trivially informative for someone who is just learning separate (historical) names for the planet Venus, while for an ancient astronomer who has studied them as separate phenomena, this realization takes the form of an 'epiphany' whereby the scientific observations of each can be made to bear on the other.

In such cases, the idea of "epiphany" directly relies on information about the same object being confounded or "hidden" in another (non-existent?) identity -- I am at a loss for the proper philosophical description here -- but with the information still able to be reaccessed through an identity statement. This kind of informativity, though founded on ignorance, seems fundamentally different from the informativity of a statement such as "Paul is tall." Furthermore, it is also essentially a working description of dramatic irony (think of the king acting as the pauper), and has in this way a bearing on aesthetics. In his book, "The Rhetoric of Romanticism," in a different context of aesthetics, Paul de Man gives a close analog of this definition of epiphany as being a fundamental mechanism of aesthetic experience accessed by romantic poets:

"Strictly speaking, an epiphany cannot be a beginning, since it reveals and unveils what, by definition, could never have ceased to be there. Rather, it is the rediscovery of a permanent presence which has chosen to hide itself from us—unless it is we who have the power to hide from it." (De Man, "Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image," p.5)

My question is fairly broad: Is this sense of 'epiphanic' informativity of statements something that philosophical literature addresses? If so, what are the go-to works? Alternately, if this is a fundamentally uninteresting line of thought for some reason that I am obviously missing, please save me from myself.

A final note regarding my interest in this topic is that this idea of "epiphany" seems like a type of informativity that would be quantifiable in some idealized sense. The ability to measure uncertainty using the methods of information theory in mathematics, for example. Perhaps this is a mirage, but also, I admit, part of my curiosity in posing this topic, as having a measurable aspect to an aesthetic experience seems quite novel.

UPDATE 1/24/13

I love the range of answers and comments so far and have been reading into each of them. I suppose that my interest in posing the question, however, was not to better understand the psychology of the "epiphany" but to see if there was a philosophical context in which such an event or the potential for such an event is formalized, independent of an individual witness. This would rely, I think, on a general framework for measuring the "informativity" of statements individually as well as in part of a system/context of other statements. "Epiphany" in this case could perhaps just be a proxy term for something that is an extreme outlier of informativity. A rough sketch might be:

(1) A is A

On its own has an informativity measure of 0, i.e. it is trivial.

(2) A is B

On its own has an informativity measure of 1, i.e it tells us one new fact about A. Let's forget for the moment that it also gives us a new fact about B.

(3) B is C

Like with (2), on its own, this statement has an informativity of 1, i.e. it tells us one new fact about B.

Taken together, (2) and (3) provide a deductive conclusion:

(4) A is C

The informativity of the statements (2) and (3) in context of each other is greater than on their own.

Similarly, (4) on its own gives us one new fact about A, but taken with (2) and (3), it provides us with no new facts. In fact, any two of the three statements would account for the missing one.

I believe that the appropriate way to measure this "informativity" of an individual statement within the set is to see how many "facts" are lost when you remove it. Thus, in the context of all three statements — (2), (3), and (4) — the system of statements has an informativity of 3, but each statement has an informativity of 0, because each could be removed. However, when only using two — (2) and (3) for example — the system of statements would still have an informativity of 3 but each statement would have an informativity of 2, because you would lose the statement's immediate fact as well as the deductive conclusion.

If you formalized the knowledge about Superman and Clark Kent as such a system of statements, the single statement "Superman is Clark Kent" would have a very high measure of informativity, while a statement such as "Superman can fly" or "Clark Kent is a reporter" would likely have an informativity of 2 because they would also carry the deductive conclusions "Superman is a reporter" and "Clark Kent can fly." In a system without "Superman is Clark Kent", those statements would only have an informativity of 1, because the deductive conclusion is no longer possible. Hence the total informativity of the systems (one with the identity statement, one without) would be at a ratio of almost 2:1.

Therefore, there are two equivalent ways of thinking about an epiphany: (1) as a statement with high informativity within a system of statements (i.e. when removed, causes a great loss in the total informativity of the system) (2) as a statement that when added to a system of statements greatly increases the total informativity of the system

I don't think this model is anything more than basic information theory borrowed from mathematics. However, I am interested in finding out if there are any philosophical investigations that have bearing on or use such a model. As I said before, I think this has some strange kinship to aesthetic experience, which I am still very interested in, but I think another applications might be in terms of the ethics of "lying." One could, perhaps measure the negative impact on the integrity of the informativity of a system of statements incurred by a untruthful statement. For example, adding "Clark Kent has green eyes" has far less consequence on informativity than "Lois Lane is Superman" because the latter leads to untrue deductions. Lying is, in a way, a big part of dramatic irony as well.


Posted 2012-09-29T03:06:12.153

Reputation: 181

1Have you read William James? He has the most to say on the subject that I know of. – Ryder – 2012-12-26T03:54:39.620

Great question! – Sniper Clown – 2013-01-24T08:58:57.043

I'd second William James. The wikipedia entry on it is reasonably informative. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T17:34:41.510

@MoziburUllah I've updated the question to better reflect what I'm looking for. Is there a specific work by William James that you think is most relevant? – cheepychappy – 2013-01-24T19:06:43.100

2try 'the varieties of religous experience'. I really don't think that formalising this in the language of mathematics is helpful - it doesn't have any resonance. Mathematics is useful precisely when things are quantifiable. It has a complex tradition over two millenia and in none of it has the human spirit in its essence been formalisable in it. Its a product of the human spirit but is not bound in it. As a subject its entirely impersonal. That is its strength and its weakness. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T20:04:18.143

Wittgenstein said quite clearly that there are truths/ephiphanies that are not formalisable in language, and that one passes over them in silence. Although, on the face of it there appears to be many things that can be modelled mathematically beyond its traditional subject matter - as you're attempting to do, they tend to be shallow games of language. They're shallow because it doesn't engage with the mathematics tradition. One can, and I think one should, consider them as an 'abuse' of the mathematical spirit. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T20:10:04.713

Certainly the same formal games that one can play have been harmful in mathematics proper. Its usually attributed to the excesses of the Bourbakistes and their followers. This doesn't mean that I don't think that the question is bad but that the frame of reference for these types of question may lie more centred in literary criticism, as your quote from de Man illustrates. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T20:28:17.513

@MoziburUllah I understand the concern/problem with trying to formalize human experience. I was not intending, however, to do this. In the literature that I have read on naming and reference, for example, there seems to be an intuitive concept of informativity vs. triviality, but it is never formalized beyond intuition even though it is used as a rudimentary type of measurement or classification. In the example I brought up at the end of my update of "lying," it seems as though having a measure of impact rather than a category of "honest" vs. "dishonest" would be a useful tool. – cheepychappy – 2013-01-24T20:36:27.990

Fair enough. I don't want to imply that mathematics can't be usefully used in philosophical discourse. Badiou, a continental philosopher for example does. But I think one needs to be versed in continental philosophy and its history to judge exactly what he's upto. I'm certainly not. My feeling, and this purely speculative, is that he's fashioning a tool to be used against the 'mathematical' philosophy of the analytical anglo-american philosophy which is buttressing an economic/political philosophy to which he's diametrically opposed. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T21:23:26.897

I just want to add that the word 'epiphany' is already a measure and a description, and that literary criticism is a form of philosophy. One shouldn't be bound entirely by professional boundaries... – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T21:25:30.093

Badious work might be usefully interpreted in the kind of framework you're proposing. I suspect what you're calling an epiphany is a truth-procedure for him. He allows three domains of truth, love (which would cover religion), science and politics. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-24T21:37:47.913



Not from philosophy, but from education, there is the idea of "threshold concepts"

As elaborated, these share some properties of the epiphany (and are described similarity by students "crossing" the threshold) - particularly the experience of a sudden rush of connections between previously half-formed or suspended beliefs.


Posted 2012-09-29T03:06:12.153

Reputation: 543


Is there a philosophical term or theory that defines or describes the idea of 'epiphany'?

(The author of the question didn't give a formal definition then: dictionary - epiphany - a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.)

Yes, there is. But in psychology and not in philosophy.

The Eureka effect, also known as the aha! effect, refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. Some research describes the Aha! Effect, also known as insight or epiphany as a memory advantage, but conflicting results exist as to where exactly it occurs in the brain, and it is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can predict an Aha! Moment.

Insight can be conceptualized as a two phase process. The first phase of an Aha! experience requires the problem solver to come upon an impasse, where they become stuck and even though they may seemingly have explored all the possibilities, are still unable to retrieve or generate a solution. The second phase occurs suddenly and unexpectedly. After a break in mental fixation or re-evaluating the problem, the answer is retrieved. Some research suggest that insight problems are difficult to solve because of our mental fixation on the inappropriate aspects of the problem content. In order to solve insight problems, one must “think outside the box”. It is this elaborate rehearsal that may cause people to have better memory for Aha! moments. Insight is believed to occur with a break in mental fixation, allowing the solution to appear transparent and obvious.

Currently there are two theories for how people arrive at the solution for insight problems. The first is the progress monitoring theory. The person will analyze the distance from their current state to the goal state. Once a person realizes that they cannot solve the problem while on their current path, they will seek alternative solutions. In insight problems this usually occurs late in the puzzle. The second way that people attempt to solve these puzzles is the representational change theory. The problem solver initially has a low probability for success because they use inappropriate knowledge as they set unnecessary constraints on the problem. Once the person relaxes his or her constraints, they can bring previously unavailable knowledge into working memory to solve the problem. The person also utilizes chunk decomposition, where he or she will separate meaningful chunks into their component pieces. Both constraint relaxation and chunk decomposition allow for a change in representation, that is, a change in the distribution of activation across working memory, at which point they may exclaim "aha!". Currently both theories have support, with the progress monitoring theory being more suited to multiple step problems, and the representational change theory more suited to single step problems.


Posted 2012-09-29T03:06:12.153

Reputation: 3 058

Thanks for the interesting information, it is very fascinating. What I was looking for in this question is a little different, however, so I went back and added to the original question. – cheepychappy – 2013-01-24T19:07:55.470

@Ricardo, "Eureka effect" is common usage, it's not about Philosophy. – Pacerier – 2015-09-29T21:13:18.117

@Pacerier Initially who made the question did not define “eureka” or the kind of theory he wants. Later it tried the concept of “informativity”.However it seems that beauty as well as informativity “is in the eye or brain of the beholder”. – Annotations – 2015-10-01T12:17:09.873


The Greek original meaning was 'manifestation' and in Jewish biblical studies is the distinction between divine revelation directly from God himself (to Moses) as opposed to a rabbinic based interpretation of oral law.

Tony adler

Posted 2012-09-29T03:06:12.153

Reputation: 11

Although not necessarily philosophical in nature there is an acceptance in some cognitive psychology circles that an 'epiphany' can be attributed to the 'active subconscious'. It is no longer considered a mystery. Just think of a time when you were working on a problem and at a given time a bit later the answer 'popped' into your mind. Your question was the equivalent to an algorithm. The answer, while surprising, often harks back to the original query. CMS – None – 2020-02-09T17:29:25.270