Techne – introduction

Recent research supports emergent and interactionist models of the mind-brain-body, pointing to humans as embodied ecological organisms in a constant dynamic relationship with the environment. Nature, mind-body, culture, tools and techne (embodied skill) are intertwined, processural and emergent. Given this fact, creative projects and practices are vital to help us realise an ecologically sustainable future.

Plato never treated poetry as art and denied poets any standing, or worse, considered them dangerous, because he claimed they had no techne. Do philosophers?

The poet David Antin talks about anything, but his truth claims would not satisfy Plato, however his approach would be of interest in its Socratic questioning.

And this taste for precision, not of surface, but of underlying procedure, is what brings me closer to the philosophical tradition – from Wittgenstein to Socrates. And in some way to Emerson, who belongs in that tradition as well . . . But the philosophical tradition I most admire, the one that runs from Socrates through Kierkegaard and Dewey and Wittgenstein, was conducted in the vernacular. [i]

Richard Rorty’s revitalisation of North American philosophy is anti-foundationslist, preferring the ironist to metaphysician, whose method is ‘redescription rather than inference.’[ii] Richard Rorty believed philosophers need phronesis, ‘the practical wisdom necessary to participate in conversation.’ [iii] He attacks ‘Socratism’ and its descendents ‘as expressions of the need to be overwhelmed by something, to have beliefs forced upon you (by conclusive evidence, rational conviction, … or by Omnipotence re-creating you . . .).’[iv] I’d characterise Antin’s Socratism to be of the conservational style Rorty favours as the methodology of philosophy. [v]

The beginning of philosophy, science, and all other disciplines began in Miletus, a commercial city in Ionia (now Western Turkey). Thales asked, ‘What is the world made of?’ The three oldest surviving books are expositions on the origins and structure of the world.
(Pherecydes, Anaximines and Anaximander. Pherecydes of Syros wrote first ever book in Greek prose in 6thCBC (in one account he taught Pythagoras – this book is a Pythagorean quest).

What is philosophy? In The Nature of Rationality, Robert Nozick points out that, ‘The word philosophy means the love of wisdom, but what philosophers really love is reasoning.’[ii] I’d argue that philosophers’ primary pleasure is actually argument. This book is more a glue connecting various ideas, disciplines, experiences and empirical findings. We know a lot about how the world behaves, but judging by the daily news, we are still a mystery to ourselves.

Jacob Needleman, for instance, in The Heart of Philosophy roundly condemns academic philosophy as mere ‘conceptual analysis’, and insists that for a discipline to deserve the name of ‘philosophy’ it should be true to its Socratic roots; it should be the art of living.

Alexander Nehamas distinguishes philosophy as a theoretical discipline from philosophy as a way of life, hence the title of his best known work, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (1998). He explains, ‘What has happened in modern times, especially in the universities, is that the scientific, the systematic way of doing philosophy is the only approach to philosophy allowed, as if the other tradition never existed. In the book, I am trying to reclaim the defining tradition of Greek philosophy, philosophy as techne tou biou – the art of living.”[vi]

For Epicurus focused on eudaimonia (a primary human concern, translated as happiness, well-being or flourishing – not pleasure), ‘every branch of philosophy must be assessed for its contribution to practice. If it makes none, it is empty and useless,’ Martha Nussbaum writes.[vii] We have so many discourses and disciplines and histories and alternative histories and ideologies that it can become a wood vs tree phenomenon.

[i] David Antin, An Interview with David Antin, Charles Bernstein, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXI, no. 1,

[ii] Richard Rorty, ‘The metaphysician thinks that there is an overriding intellectual duty to present arguments for one’s controversial views — arguments which will start from relatively uncontroversial premises. The ironist thinks that such arguments — logical arguments — are all very well in their way, and useful as expository devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices without admitting they have done so. The ironist’s preferred form of argument is dialectical in the sense that she takes the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. Her method is redescription rather than inference. … So the ironist thinks of logic as ancillary to dialectic, whereas the metaphysician thinks of dialectic as a species of rhetoric, which in turn is a shoddy substitute for logic.’ Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

[iii] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1979, p372

[iv] Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others, Philosophical Papers Volume 2, Cambridge UP, 1991, p31.

[v] Rorty argued that philosophy should be a matter of practising ‘conversation’ not argument, being not about objective truth, but the continuation of conversation, p373, 377. He does not, however, say what the conversation should actually be about, and what kind of exchange is still possible there..

[vi] Alexander Nehamas interviewed by David Carrier, Bomb Magazine, 65, Fall, 1998, p36-41

[vii] Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire. Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Martin Classical Lectures, New Series, Vol 2, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994, p121.


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