Episteme and Techne

Epistêmê is the Greek word most often translated as Knowledge, while Technê is translated as either craft or art.

These translations, however, may inappropriately harbour some of our contemporary assumptions about the relation between theory (the domain of ‘knowledge’) and practice (the concern of ‘craft’ or ‘art’) - plato.stanford.edu

Outside of modern science, there is sometimes skepticism about the relevance of theory to practice because it is thought that theory is conducted at so great a remove from the facts, the province of practice, that it can lose touch with them. Indeed, at the level of practice, concrete experience might be all we need.

And within science, theory strives for a value-free view of reality. As a consequence, scientific theory cannot tell us how things should be — the realm of ‘art’ or ‘craft’ .

So we must turn elsewhere for answers to the profound, but still practical, questions about how we should live our lives.

However, some of the features of this contemporary distinction between theory and practice are not found in the relation between epistêmê and technê. As we move chronologically from Xenophon to Plotinus, we go from an author who does not distinguish between the two terms, to an author who has little use for technê because it is so far from reality.

It is in Aristotle that we find the basis for something like the modern opposition between epistêmê as pure theory and technê as practice. Yet even Aristotle refers to technê or craft as itself also epistêmê or knowledge because it is a practice grounded in an ‘account’ — something involving theoretical understanding. Plato — whose theory of forms seems an arch example of pure theoretical knowledge — nevertheless is fascinated by the idea of a kind of technê that is informed by knowledge of forms.

In the Republic this knowledge is the indispensable basis for the philosophers' craft of ruling in the city. Picking up another theme in Plato's dialogues, the Stoics develop the idea that virtue is a kind of technê or craft of life, one that is based on an understanding of the universe.

The relation, then, between epistêmê and technê in ancient philosophy offers an interesting contrast with our own notions about theory (pure knowledge) and (experience-based) practice. There is an intimate positive relationship between epistêmê and technê, as well as a fundamental contrast.