BMCR 2021.11.13

Productive knowledge in ancient philosophy: the concept of technê

, Productive knowledge in ancient philosophy: the concept of technê. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 316. ISBN 9781108485845 $99.99.


This edited volume, largely based on a conference held in Oxford in 2015, studies the interaction between τέχνη (‘productive knowledge’) and Greek philosophy. Many furrows have been plowed in this field, but it is exceptionally rich soil that continues to bear fruit in response to scholarly labors. The present book, which gathers eleven contributions spanning an unusually wide chronological range—Protagoras to Proclus, not much shy of a millennium—makes a valuable contribution to ongoing conversations about the importance of τέχνη in ancient philosophy. I will briefly summarize the contributions and then offer some remarks on the volume as a whole. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

Thomas Kjeller Johansen’s Introduction emphasizes the difficulties of pinning down the meaning of τέχνη, briefly surveys the pre-philosophical background, and highlights three themes that anticipate the topics studied in the volume: ‘Technê as a Form of Knowledge;’ ‘Technê, Ethics and Politics;’ and ‘Technê and Cosmology.’

Edward Hussey, ‘Protagoras on Political Technê,’ reconstructs Protagoras’ political τέχνη from Plato’s writings. He argues that the Protagoras reveals a notion of τέχνη that is complex, but not (as is usually thought) necessarily incoherent. It is rather that the picture is ‘radically incomplete’ because Protagoras was reluctant to divulge his teachings for free (26; cf. 21). Using the Theaetetus along with Xenophanes and the Hippocratic De uetere medicina, Hussey paints Protagoras as both radical empiricist and pragmatist (cf. 31, 36). The challenge is to find a conception of (political) τέχνη that squares with these attitudes: Hussey believes this can be done via publicly verifiable ‘better opinion’ (cf. 32–4). The content of Protagoras’ dual-scope τέχνη includes ‘basic moral and civic education at the lower end, political theory and rhetoric at the higher end’ (37), though some details remain fuzzy (cf. 24, 38).

Tamer Nawar, ‘Dynamic Modalities and Teleological Agency: Plato and Aristotle on Skill and Ability,’ elucidates three characteristics of τέχνη, (1) ‘two-wayness,’ (2) ‘infallibility,’ and (3) ‘good-directedness,’ examining them first in Plato, chiefly Rep. I, and next in Aristotle. Despite many puzzles, some conclusions emerge. (1) For both Plato and Aristotle, ‘two-wayness’ has to do with the ability to produce polar contraries (e.g. health and illness); for Aristotle, ‘two-wayness’ seems to depend on a λόγος about the relevant universals (cf. 53–5). (2) A plausible notion of ‘infallibility’ can be rescued from Thrasymachus’ (usually depreciated) claims in Rep. I; a corresponding idea may be found in Aristotle, though much complicated by a finer-grained approach to capacities (δυνάμεις). (3) Evidence for ‘good-directedness’ is inconclusive in Plato, and Aristotle seems even more ambivalent.

Rachel Barney, ‘Technê as a Model for Virtue in Plato,’ reassesses the significance of the τέχνη-model for virtue (ἀρετή) in Plato, arguing that it is chiefly deontological. This stands in contrast to the communis opinio, an ‘intellectualist story’ (63), which explains Plato’s attraction to τέχνη on principally epistemic grounds. Barney argues that in the earlier dialogues (pre-Republic), the τέχνη-model represents less a Socratic commitment to rationalist ethics than a ‘thought-experiment’ (70) in response to Sophistic claims. By the Republic, however, Plato had found in τέχνη a model for disinterested ‘functional normativity’ (cf. 74–5). On this view, virtue is like a τέχνη insofar as it entails a commitment to a ‘deliberative viewpoint’ (77) insulated from personal interests and in which its demands are authoritative. (Barney nods here to Korsgaard’s notion of ‘practical identities,’ 78.) But virtue is different from other crafts because, as architectonic craft of human flourishing, it has unique motivational force.

Johansen, ‘Crafting the Cosmos: Plato on the Limitations of Divine Craftsmanship,’ applies Platonic views on τέχνη to a puzzle in the Timaeus: why did the Demiurge leave the creation of mortals to the ‘lesser’ gods? Formulating the problem as a ‘technodicy,’ Johansen explores a few possible answers. The Demiurge’s role as father, as well as the goodness which allows him only to produce the best things, is relevant. But the most direct response comes from the scope of the Demiurge’s expertise: it is limited to producing immortal beings. Importantly, this does not impugn the superiority of his craft, because his τέχνη is architectonic and need not encompass all the ends of subordinate τέχναι. Johansen shows how the lesser gods ‘extrapolate’ (104) their own craft from the Demiurge’s and how a second ‘technodicy’ related to animals (ζῷα) is resolved.

Ursula Coope, ‘Aristotle on Productive Understanding and Completeness,’ compares ‘theoretical understanding’ (ἐπιστήμη) with the ‘productive understanding’ of τέχνη. These kinds of understanding share certain things: they both have an explanatory structure; they are of general truths, never of accidents; and their explanatory chains are finite. But they also differ significantly. Theoretical understanding proceeds by syllogistic demonstration from given principles (ἀρχαί); because ἀρχαί are finitely many in each field, it is in principle possible to explain everything within the scope of theoretical understanding—in Coope’s language, theoretical understanding is potentially ‘complete’ (110). Productive understanding is not like this. Its principles are productive goals (not primitive observations et sim.); it proceeds ‘comparatively,’ not demonstratively (cf. 111–12); it needs practiced perceptual ability that falls outside of explanation; and it must cope in practice with ‘exceptional’ cases (124), i.e. accidentals, which are unlimited. Hence, τέχνη is ‘incomplete’ because there is a potentially infinite number of explanations to innovate.

Robert Bolton, ‘Technê and Empeiria: Aristotle on Practical Knowledge,’ surveys τέχνη and ἐμπειρία in Aristotle’s writings to argue that Aristotle recognized multiple genuine kinds of τέχνη. Scholars typically start from Aristotle’s account in Metaphysics A1, where τέχνη is sharply distinguished from ἐμπειρία by explanatory λόγος, and then try to reconcile remarks on τέχνη elsewhere in his corpus. Bolton however maintains that it is an error to overemphasize the Metaphysics for Aristotle’s notion of τέχνη in general (160). Through several close readings, Bolton distinguishes between a (demonstrative) ‘scientific τέχνη’ of Metaph. A1 and a ‘non-scientific’ conception of τέχνη developed in other writings by Aristotle which is in most respects like what Aristotle calls ἐμπειρία in the Metaphysics. Evidence for genuine ‘non-scientific τέχνη’ is offered inter alia by Rhet. 1354a1–11 and SE 172a11–20. One striking consequence of Bolton’s account is that the explanatory demonstrations of ‘scientific τέχνη’ have no practical value.

In complementary chapters, ‘The Stoics’ and ‘The Epicureans on Technê and the Technai,’ Voula Tsouna surveys the ramifications of τέχνη in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Throughout, Tsouna sees the reception of Aristotle as less significant for these transformations than Plato. On Stoic τέχνη, she brings into focus several important themes, among them: the varied definitions of τέχνη attributed to Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus; the epistemic distinction between τέχνη and ἐπιστήμη; the elaboration of an ‘art of living’ (τέχνη βίου) in relation to φρόνησις and dialectic; and the use of the craft analogy in Stoic cosmology. On Epicurean τέχνη, some of the same ground is covered but, as is to be expected, other important themes emerge. After surveying Epicurean definitions of τέχνη, Tsouna examines Lucretius’ history of human civilization (DRNV.925 ff.) to identify the anthropological significance of τέχνη. A discussion of the Epicureans’ own take on the τέχνη βίου introduces Epicurean attitudes towards the tripod of physics, epistemology, and ethics. Tsouna then tackles the challenging evidence of Philodemus (Rhet., Oec.) to consider Epicurean evaluations of the proper scope and purpose of particular τέχναι (namely, utilitarian and minimally theoretical). This latter chapter’s conclusion also covers the previous chapter.

Stefan Sienkewicz, ‘The Sceptic’s Art: Varieties of Expertise in Sextus Empiricus,’ asks whether skepticism is an art for Sextus. Sienkiewicz extracts from Sextus’ definition of τέχνη two conditions, ‘Systematicity’ (τέχνη must be organized) and ‘Utility’ (it must be useful). Skepticism satisfies ‘Utility’ in the same way as other low-grade kinds of expertise like agriculture and navigation. It fails to satisfy ‘Systematicity,’ however, because it lacks a specific subject matter and the techniques constitutive of expertise in skeptical argument are ‘non-technical’ (235). In particular, the skeptic’s method of equipollence (adducing an equally plausible argument to an opposite conclusion) is a practiced δύναμις (capacity), not a τέχνη. Sienkewicz further argues, against the orthodoxy, that the apparently more systematic ‘Agrippan method’ can be reduced to the equipollence method via the first of its modes (τρόποι), that of ‘disagreement’ (διαφωνία). Skepticism is therefore no τέχνη, or if τέχνη, then only in an epistemically undemanding sense of practiced ability.

Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, ‘Plotinus on the Arts,’ investigates two ways in which τέχνη features in Plotinus’ thought. First, Emilsson considers the status of τέχνη in the Plotinian hierarchy of knowledge and action. Τέχναι that are mathematical or employ proportion and ‘intellectual thoughts’ are among the Forms in the intelligible realm (249); the imitative arts are trickier, but are also connected with the intelligible realm insofar as the artist grasps the ‘intelligible content’ underlying sensibles (cf. 253–4). Next, Emilsson investigates the role of τέχνη in divine world-making, not entirely a straightforward matter given that Plotinus ‘demythologizes’ Plato’s δημιουργός (cf. 246–7, 256). But it turns out that τέχνη still has something in common with divine world-making insofar as deliberation or reasoning has no part in either process (at least not in τέχνη that is successful). The ‘cosmological art’ is thus like dance (260).

Jan Opsomer, ‘Productive Knowledge in Proclus,’ uses τέχνη to reflect on productive knowledge at three levels in Proclus’ thought: divine, demiurgic, and human. At the divine level, production is ‘ontological causation’ (267). Higher and lower forms of demiurgic production effect a transition between the timeless realm of divine production and production within the realm of sensible change. After they are created, human beings set about the production of other things with the help of λόγοι, formulae for creation (cf. 273). Opsomer shows that these λόγοι are not transcendent, but rather composed or invented by humans in reasoning about the desired function (χρεία) of an artefact. Proclus denies that in Republic X Plato suggests that there are transcendent Forms of artefacts and holds that τέχναι among the Forms are only τέχναι homonymously, by analogy with human production.

As should be clear, the contributions in this multi-faceted volume are likely to attract different readerships in parts. Barney’s and Bolton’s papers, for example, are avowedly iconoclastic, each in its own crowded field, and should provoke scholarly debate. Emilson’s and Opsomer’s writings are rather attempts to foreground τέχνη in thinkers for whom the theme is usually regarded as of secondary importance. Tsouna’s paired entries may be consulted as useful introductions to τέχνη in its diffuse Hellenistic developments.

But the volume can be read profitably from cover to cover. Few other collections consider τέχνη in such a broad chronological sweep; so while this is not an ‘introduction’ to τέχνη in philosophy, its wide coverage allows the reader to trace the gradual accumulation of significance around τέχνη in the Greek traditions. There was palpable excitement at the ‘discovery’ of τέχνη among Sophists and philosophers in classical Greece (Hussey, cf. Barney), a discovery which precipitated intensive ethical and epistemological researches (Nawar, Barney, Coope, Bolton). Τέχνη was stretched by the Hellenistic schools to fit the peculiar architectonic interests of philosophy (Tsouna, especially on the Stoics), which is not to say that all accorded it so significant a role as had Plato and Aristotle (Tsouna on the Epicureans, Sienkewicz). When Platonists later engaged with τέχνη (Emilsson, Opsomer), they revived especially the cosmological and theological strands of the Timaeus (Johansen), though they handled them in the light of Plato’s larger oeuvre and subsequent Aristotelian and Stoic influence. This is an important story whose many interesting details I have only hinted at here.

The book is well produced, with abbreviations at the front and indices rerum et nominum and locorum (the latter especially welcome in an edited volume) at the back.[1] Johansen has skillfully assembled a rich collection of papers that can be read with benefit not only in its parts but also as a whole.

Authors and Titles

Thomas Kjeller Johansen, Introduction,
1. Edward Hussey, ‘Protagoras on Political Technê
2. Tamer Nawar, ‘Dynamic Modalities and Teleological Agency: Plato and Aristotle on Skill and Ability’
3. Rachel Barney, ‘Technê as a Model for Virtue in Plato’
4. Thomas Kjeller Johansen, ‘Crafting the Cosmos: Plato on the Limitations of Divine Craftsmanship’
5. Ursula Coope, ‘Aristotle on Productive Understanding and Completeness’
6. Robert Bolton, ‘Technê and Empeiria: Aristotle on Practical Knowledge’
7. Voula Tsouna, ‘The Stoics on Technê and the Technai
8. Voula Tsouna, ‘The Epicureans on Technê and the Technai
9. Stefan Sienkiewicz, ‘The Sceptic’s Art: Varieties of Expertise in Sextus Empiricus’
10. Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, ‘Plotinus on the Arts’
11. Jan Opsomer, ‘Productive Knowledge in Proclus’


[1] Slips are few and not especially significant: e.g. typographic errors (e.g. ‘Quintillian’ passim, ‘because’ for ‘become’ 106, ‘leave’ for ‘live’ 196, ‘which’ for ‘by which’ 235), some punctuation problems (e.g. 8, 20, 195, 232), missing bibliographic entries for 169 n. 11.