Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.36

Tom Angier, Technē in Aristotle’s Ethics: Crafting the Moral Life.   New York:  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.  Pp. viii, 176.  ISBN 9780826462718.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Julie Ponesse, The College at Brockport SUNY (


Technē,’ usually translated as craft, art, or skill, appears 377 times in Aristotle’s corpus. The characteristic language of craft analogy, for example, is ubiquitous in the biological texts, where Aristotle often speaks figuratively of nature as an agent ‘crafting’ (dēmiourgein) her products.1 In general, technē-models crucially shape many aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy—particularly his biology, physics, and metaphysics. But while Aristotle frequently draws analogies between virtue and craft, often mentioning them in the same breath, he adamantly and concertedly rejects the possibility of a strict virtue-technē (technē ethike, Nicomachean Ethics VI.5), insisting on the vital difference between craft and virtue (e.g. Eudemian Ethics 1216b2-10). Craft knowledge pertains to production (poiēsis), thereby distinguishing it from practical wisdom (phronēsis), which is concerned with action (praxis). And, whereas a craft capacity can be used to contrary effects, virtue is a stable state (hexis) or fixed disposition to use the capacity for just one sort of end (Metaphysics 1025a6-13). For these reasons, Aristotle said, “virtue is more exact [akribestera] and better than any technē,” (EN1106b14-15).

There is so much countervailing evidence for the existence of a strict virtue-technē in Aristotle’s practical philosophy that commentators have tended to downplay the significance of all references to the crafts. But this tendency is not obviously consistent with the wealth and force of technē language in the ethical and political texts. Tom Angier’s goal is to show that Aristotle employed the concept of technē at a much deeper level in his ethical thinking than is traditionally thought. In this rigorous and philosophically engaging book, Angier explores how the pre-Platonic conception of technē came to occupy a central role in Aristotle’s ethical and political thought, working its way into definitions, concepts and arguments that are integral to his ethical project. The result is a detailed analysis of a much overlooked aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy that, if correct, would require us to re-conceptualize how many of the arguments central to Aristotle’s ethics are developed and underpinned. Throughout the book, Angier writes persuasively, and in some places quite elegantly, about issues of central importance to the ethics (including practical wisdom, the function argument, habituation, emotion, and the nature of human happiness), asking crucially informative questions along the way. In some places (e.g. the discussion of the function argument in chapter 3), the argument is quite dense or Angier departs so significantly from the main craft argument that it is difficult to see whether it is in fact supported by the evidence supplied. None of these errors are so egregious, however, as to undermine the overall quality of the project. Angier begins by chronicling the rich pre-Platonic conception of technē that permeated Greek literature (especially the early Hippocratic Corpus) according to which each technē has: (1) a determinate, particular telos, (2) epistemic precision, and (3) beneficial telē. Angier has, however, overlooked a fourth mark of technē that is very clearly present in the Hippocratic texts, and was of special interest to Aristotle: a concern with explanation (Met. 981a28-30). The Hippocratics claimed to have proper control over their area of expertise, as an alternative to chance and mythico-religious explanations, because they could offer explanations for the reliable and general connections between, for example, a certain practice (e.g. excessive eating) and a specific result (e.g. stomach-ache) (De Vet. Med. 20). Despite this, Angier’s historical analysis is so deep, and historically contextualized analyses of Aristotelian concepts are sufficiently rare, that this section stands out as one of the project’s noteworthy contributions.

In chapter 1, Angier aims to show how the three marks of the pre-Platonic technē are salient in Plato’s dialogues. While Angier argues persuasively that neither the Protagoras’ metrētikē technē nor the Republic’s “second-order craft” of guardianship qualify, for Plato, as a virtue-technē, a discussion of the Meno (94e and 96c), which contains the foil to the Protagoras’ position about the teachability of virtue, is conspicuously unstressed. Even if marks of a virtue-technē appear elsewhere in the corpus, we would still have to explain how Plato could rectify the existence of a virtue-technē with his (supposedly) dominant epistemology on pain of contradicting himself. That aside, the chapter as a whole provides a rich picture of Plato’s interest in the possibility of a virtue-technē that, Angier argues, was eventually transmuted by Aristotle.

In chapter 2, Angier argues that Aristotle’s strongest argument against the existence of a virtue-technē in EN VI.5 (1140b1-7), which is based on the seemingly neat distinction between craft-activity and virtue-activity, collapses once we recognize that virtuous actions can have para (external) ends. It is not clear, however, that virtue’s teleological quality yields the sort of uncharacteristic instrumentalism that troubles Angier. Claims like “actions are for the sake of things other than themselves” (1112b33) may simply be the conclusion of the syllogism begun at 1112b12 that aims to demonstrate the teleological quality of prohairesis. If we “deliberate not about ends but about what contributes to ends,” and means are actions that require choice, then it is simply part of the nature of choice to act for the sake of something. At the end of the chapter, Angier explores the degree to which Aristotle’s views of deliberation and slavery are powerfully underpinned by metaphors borrowed from the technai, e.g. “the relation…of master and servant is that of a technē and its tools” (EE 1242a28-9).

Each of the three final chapters explores an aspect of Aristotle’s ethics that Angier believes is particularly informed by craft-models: the function argument, the doctrine of the mean, and Aristotle’s theory of habituation. Chapter 3 focuses on Aristotle’s argument for a proper human function (idion ergon), which Angier claims is theoria since it is the most ‘teleiotatēn’ (final) and ‘to autarkēs’ (self-sufficient) activity (EN 1097b22-a18). Angier thinks this dominantivist reading can only be understood in the context of technē-erga, since the reason man must have a specific function is because he is relevantly like the craftsmen who are devoted paradigmatically to a single, specialized activity. There is a worrisome circularity, here, since Angier can only appeal to the craft analogy once he has established that man has a single discrete function, the conclusion he thinks is suggested by the craft analogy. Furthermore, while Angier argues that we should privilege the craft analogy over the bodily organ analogy (at 1097b30-31) because crafts, unlike organs, have only one function, he needs the craft analogy to establish the plausibility of monotelism in the first place. Without independent reasons for favouring a monotelic interpretation of the human function, it is not clear why the analogy suggested by the question, “Have the carpenter and the cobbler certain functions and actions but man none?” (1097b28-29), is between the particular function of each craftsman and the particular function of man. If we accept that any individual man can have a multiplicity of functions—carpenter, cobbler, father, citizen—why not take the fact that so far from there being a single, distinctive human function, man has a simple conjunctive ergon, which could include both intellectual and practical activity2?

Chapter 4 explores how the concept of the limited unlimited (Philebus 25e1), which is echoed in various medical analogies throughout the Platonic corpus, resonates in Aristotle’s understanding of virtue as a mean state between excess and defect (EN II.6). Citing truthfulness as a worrisome counterexample, Angier is concerned that the idea of a medial pathē cannot live up to the goal set by the EE’s claim that “all the moral virtues and vices have to do with excesses and defects of pleasures and pains” (1222b9-11). But it seems that pathos is more essential to virtue than Angier acknowledges. Aristotle tells us that virtues, as states, are “the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions (pathē)” (EN 1105b26). Furthermore, since prohairesis is a deliberate desire, and pathos is a kind of desire, pathos is necessary to motivate virtuous actions. A sign of this is the fact that the man who has been ruined by pleasure or pain is unable even to see the rational principle for action (1140b17-19).

In chapter 5, Angier turns his focus to an explanatory gap he perceives in Aristotle’s account of the virtuous person’s transition from habituation (ethismos) to practical wisdom (phronēsis), which he thinks rests on an “over-assimilation of moral habituation to training in the technai” (p. 106). Angier is puzzled by why Aristotle would think there is a seamless transition from the “mere repetition” of virtuous-type actions to becoming virtuous (1103a34-b1) in the way that the craftsman comes to appreciate his craft once he has mastered it. But it is not unclear why Angier did not appeal to the sort of medical analogy on which he frequently relies here, where it seems especially apt, to explain the supposed gap between ethismos and phronēsis. For Aristotle, virtue is inherently pleasant because it is natural (in that it is the ultimate fulfillment of our nature), and what is natural is pleasant (Rhetoric 1371b12). Just as bodily strength and health are destroyed by excess and deficiency—imbalance, in Hippocratic terms—once a person develops the mean states, his feelings will have the appropriate balance (1105b25-26; Generation of Animals 767a15-35, Physics 246b3-20). The question, then, becomes not “Why should the practice of virtuous-type acts yield satisfaction?” but “Why should ethismos create changes in the soul on which satisfaction supervenes?” and it is not clear what in the craft analogy could help to explain that. The lingering question, overall, is whether Angier has made too much of Aristotle’s virtue-craft analogies or if the mistake has been ours in not having made enough of them. Certainly, we need to be cautious about not reading Aristotle’s comments about technē anachronistically. When we think of human productivity, we tend to think of all the things that humans can make by their actions—bridges and pottery and friends and social justice—and in so doing we lump together what Aristotle would not: “making is different from doing…Nor is either of them contained in the other, … craft must belong to making but not to doing" (EN VI. 1140a2-17). Therefore, the strictness of the virtue-craft analogy in Aristotle is constrained by the degree to which his conceptions of ‘action’ (praxis) and production (poiēsis) are importantly distinct.

While the strength of Aristotle’s metaphorical virtue-craft language remains to be determined, one of the great virtues of Angier’s book is its implicit call to commentators to embrace a more courageous methodology in reading Aristotle’s ethical texts in relation to other parts of the corpus. My suspicion is that a resistance to focus on craft in the ethics is at least partly the result of a tendency to adhere strictly, and perhaps too strictly, to Aristotle’s prohibition against metabasis (Posterior Analytics. I.7, I.9, I.33). Angier’s powerful argument for the role of craft-models in Aristotle’s ethics pushes us to reevaluate the idea that Aristotle’s rejection of a technical virtue-technē entails that craft is methodologically, or even philosophically, irrelevant to the study of virtue.

To date, there has been no book-length analysis of Aristotle’s concept of technē, let alone an analysis of its specific role in Aristotle’s ethics. The closest are Terence Irwin’s Plato’s Moral Theory (1977), but its focus is the force of the ‘craft analogy’ in Plato’s early dialogues, and Joseph Dunne’s Back to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy and in Aristotle (1993), which ultimately denies that Aristotle’s ethics is shaped in any significant way by craft-models. Angier’s rigorous defense of the centrality of craft models and metaphors in Aristotle’s ethics is a significant contribution to Aristotelian scholarship with which we would do well to engage. Aristotle’s own view on the topic is that a good metaphor 'puts the matter before the eyes’ (Rhet., 3. 2). Even if the craft metaphors in Aristotle’s ethics are not as strict as Angier suggests, he has certainly, as Aristotle invited, put the matter before us.


1.   James G. Lennox, Robert Bolton, eds., Being, Nature, and Life in Aristotle: Essays in Honor of Allan Gotthelf. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 11.
2.   See especially Thomas Nagel, “Aristotle on ‘Eudaimonia,’” Phronesis 17 (1972): 272-59.

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