For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and thinking about definitions of techne. The term is used in various ways in discourse about rhetoric, and each writer’s definition of course centers on their particular needs. Most writers don’t go into any depth about their peculiar usages, and as a whole I’ve been pretty puzzled by it. Like logos, it’s a term whose luster has definitely worn off as it has become currency.

George Kennedy, in Classical Rhetoric &#038 its Christian and Secular Tradition and A New History of Classical Rhetoric, consistently uses techne to refer to the “handbook” tradition in rhetoric. Kennedy suggests that there were three strands of rhetorical inquiry—that of the techne logon, or handbook, sophistic rhetoric which was taught largely by example, and philosophical inquiry into rhetoric which stressed its relationship to dialectic.

However, nowhere does Kennedy even attempt to define the term beyond its ordinary relations with art, knack, or skill. The subtle point that seems to exist between the lines is that techne is implicated in “rules,” which follows from the Lain ratio, which in turn is built from the Greek logos. In the later New History, Kennedy seems to collapse the tripartite “inquiry” into two distinct strands of pedagogical practice—that of the techne of handbook writers compared to the techne of practitioners, the sophists, who taught by example alone. He claims that these two strands begin to weave together by the fourth century in the school of Isocrates.

Reading this, it seemed to me that if one considered photography as a techne (as opposed to a technology), then similar distinctions could be made. Inquiry into photography has largely centered on study of outstanding examples (the art-historical method) of objects created by “masters” — as the 20th century closed, more emphasis has been placed on vernacular photographies, but these inquiries have centered on social practices along a relatively parallel trajectory. The “handbooks” of photography have only served as pointers to illuminate practices and attitudes (as well as deviations from them) rather than as any coherent tradition which might be fruitful to study.

This seems to be an asymptote of the trajectory followed by rhetorical studies; techne has been equated with practices among photographers, while in rhetoric the emphasis has been on the influence of rules. In both cases, however, the underlying philosophy has been a determiner of how these inquiries are pursued—sophists were persecuted because of the perceived weakness of their philosophy, while photographers are constantly revaluated based on their perceived relationship to dominant philosophies of their time.

The distinction between techne and technology deserves much more discussion. I’ve been reading Carl Micham’s excellent chapter in Thinking through Technology, and Art Walzer has recommended Back to the Rough Ground : ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy and in Aristotle by Joseph Dunne as a significant book on the topic of techne. I haven’t tracked it down yet, but I would really like to write more about the implications of the shifting definitions of techne from both a rhetorical and photographic perspective. As a commonplace, the assertion that “writing is a technology” doesn’t really offer much, other than the implied collision of two slippery terms—techne and logos. The classification of rhetoric as a techne by Aristotle says much more—particularly when it is considered in relationship to other forms of techne.

It seems that a clearer definition of the term techne is imperative to getting very far with this mode of inquiry.

1 thought on “Techne”

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I am no specialist but, as I was reading your post, an interesting interview of Bernard Stiegler came to mind. If you’re not in the mood for difficult reading but feel like investigating this concept, this could be an option since the interview is part of a film called The Ister. ( I don’t know how easy it is to find, but the website says it is available in DVD in North America.
    The film has flows but some parts were worth the 2+ hours. And Stiegler had definitely a strong view about what techne is and means.

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