Emily Hulme

Lecturer in Greek Philosophy
The University of Sydney


Philosophy Among Professionals: Techne in Plato

“Good God! You never shut up about cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors!” So Callicles charges Plato’s Socrates with an excessive fascination with the technai in the Gorgias (491a). Callicles certainly has a point: Plato makes arguments from or about techne hundreds of times in the dialogues, while also portraying Socrates as a former demiourgos himself (Alc. 1.121a) who passes his time in the Agora–near important administrative buildings, to be sure, but also among bronze-workers and masons. 

Pinax from Penteskouphia (Corinth) depicting a potter at the kiln. Louvre Museum, MN 2858. Image from Jastrow at Wikimedia Commons.

In my book project, I examine the philosophical importance of techne in Plato. In the first chapter, I develop a fresh interpretation of the concept of techne in the classical period, drawing not just on literary evidence but art historical evidence and studies of ancient economics as well. Four aspects stand out: first, it generally is associated with low-class, full-time occupations; second, it is closely related to teaching; third, practitioners of a given techne are specialized; and last, it is associated with rationality, which is exemplified by its association with step-wise protocols, writing, and mathematics. 

In the second chapter, I carefully analyze Plato’s vocabulary of expertise. The general idea is to look at his vocabulary as a structured whole and to see what techne is regularly correlated with (e.g., episteme) and contrasted with (e.g. parerga) in order to get at the meaning of these terms. My analysis of the terminology shows that a techne is a lifelong vocation which involves a good deal of knowledge and requires both committed practice and the right nature. Episteme, in contrast, can indicate the knowledge component of techne or can be assimilated to a more general kind of wisdom, which is associated with virtue.

In the third chapter, I analyze how this rich concept is deployed by Plato as a way to differentiate himself from his intellectual rivals. By developing philosophy and “true” politics on the model of techne, Plato can differentiate himself from the sophists, who promise quick fix intellectualism and are plausibly associated with irrational magic. 

 The fourth chapter, in turn, demonstrates how philosophy itself is portrayed as a techne in the Republic. It’s no surprise, then, that like weaving or housebuilding, horsetraining or medicine, it is the province of the few. Moreover, the lengthy training regimen of the philosopher-rulers mirrors the years of training required in antiquity for craftsmen. Specialization in politics–that is, the anti-democratic regime of the Kallipolis–then comes surprisingly out of the observation that forms of expertise associated with the lower classes are, in fact, the proper model for philosophical knowledge.

The “Temple of Hephaistos,” Agrigento, Sicily. Photo: Emily Hulme, 2016.