"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.
In my dissertation, I examine the philosophical importance of techne in Plato. I introduce the theme in the first chapter by considering the figure of Hephaistos: he's physically deformed, but has a special kind of practical wisdom that makes him remarkable. Plato even suggests he's notably philosophical(!) and describes him as Socrates' ancestor (Criti. 109c; Alc. 1.121a). I interpret the connections between Hephaistos and Socrates in light of the philotechnia that characterized 5th and 4th century Athens, and show how Plato's obsession with the technai is an outgrowth of this broader trend.
In my second 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 third 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 fourth 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.
Episteme and Techne in the Platonic Dialogues:
I have been working on Plato's knowledge vocabulary, and especially the terms episteme and techne, in the course of my dissertation research. I am currently working on a paper revisiting John Lyons's work. I have also presented on the use of these terms in the Republic and Statesman. I have posted summaries of this work below.
Methodology in Ancient Philosophy: Approaching Non-Technical Terms
In the course of my studies on Plato's terminology and the work of John Lyons, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the considerations that go into determining the meaning of certain important, but non-technical, terms in the Platonic dialogues, the Aristotelian corpus, and elsewhere. At the Princeton Classical Philosophy Works in Progress colloquium, I presented what I take to be two of the upshots for the study of ancient philosophy that come from attending to the history of lexical semantics: 1) we can construe certain terms as folk concepts (and expect them to exhibit family resemblance structures); 2) we can adopt a structuralist approach to word meaning, which identifies the meaning of words in relation to one another (rather than treating individual words as atomistic entities). I've posted below the handout from the presentation.
Techne in the Oracular Lamellae from Dodona
Thousands of tablets have been recovered from Dodona which report the questions asked of the oracle (see below for one example). Many of the questions are about the author's techne, and whether he will be (financially) successful by pursuing it. Often, the question is about a patroia techne (i.e., an ancestral trade). I analyze these tablets to show that they bring out different aspects of techne than the literary sources do. In particular, they emphasize the financial component of these trades, as well as the connections these trades have with one's kin and social identity. My article on this subject will be published in Greece & Rome in fall 2018 or spring 2019.
(Above) An Oracular Lamella (DVC 2421): This one asks if the author, struggling with his debts, should give up his techne and become a butcher!