• NOTOMI Noburu (Philosophy)
    Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, The University of Tokyo

About 2400 years ago in ancient Greece, a lively discussion was taking place about a philosophical question regarding the concept of technē (Greek word meaning "true art, craft, discipline, technique, skill"). A particularly well-known argument is the one made by Socrates in the dialogues written by Plato (427 - 347 BC), in which he draws an analogy between technē and arete (Greek word for "virtue"). The debate is applicable to this day, informing how we think about issues related to science and technology in our modern society.

technē seeks to bring some form of goodness. Using the example of the skill of raising sheep, a shepherd would be entrusted with a herd of sheep and would graze them for a certain period of time, after which the fattened sheep would be returned to the owner. So, what is the goodness, or benefit, that comes from this skill of raising sheep? We might think that the reason that the shepherd uses his skill might be to earn money. However, Socrates argues that what the shepherd's skill is actually used for is to watch over and care for the sheep to make sure that they graze well, are kept healthy, and grow as they should-in other words, the benefits are for the sheep. Even though the shepherd may gain money by putting his skill into practice, that is only an extrinsic circumstance of the sheep-raising skill; as for earning money, that should come from some other technique for that specific purpose (a compensation acquisition technique, so to speak, which Socrates named "wage-earning skill").

This argument claims that technical knowledge seeks to bring benefit to who or what the skill is being used for, and that there is an intrinsic and fundamental relationship between the provider and the receiver of the skill. Meanwhile, as shown in the above example, technical knowledge is not intended to bring benefit to the person who wields the skill. A person uses their skill primarily to bring benefit to who or what the skill is being used for. This does not mean that the person who possesses the skill will receive any benefit from it.

As for the thinking that technē itself is neutral and can be used for both good or evil, Socrates brings up the example of medical skills. Medical skills target health and illness, but it is the doctor that uses the skills to treat an illness and make a person healthy. We do not accept a view that a doctor can use his or her medical skills to make someone ill or to kill a person, just because he or she has free use of the medical skills. If this is true, then it follows that medical skills are not neutral in regard to health and illness; rather, they are something good that are used to treat an illness and make a patient healthy. Conversely, skills that are used to make a person purposely ill or to kill a person are not technē. In other words, medical skills are technē that serves a good purpose for the patient.

The consequence of this logic is that, similar to the example with the shepherd, the doctor will not receive any personal benefit by putting his or her medical skills into practice. If the doctor should receive compensation, it would be from a separate principle (compensation acquisition technique) that is independent of the medical skills. Provision of treatment is how the medical skill exists, even if there is no compensation involved.

Then, what is the "goodness" brought about by technē? It is something that can be brought about only insofar as technē is applicable and hence, it comes with limitations, so to speak. The sheep will grow healthy and fat from being cared for by the shepherd, but will eventually be eaten. The benefit of growing in a healthy way may ultimately produce unhappiness. Likewise, a doctor may save life without discrimination, but there could be villains among those saved, who may, upon becoming healthy, return to society and commit a crime. The shepherd does not consider the final good for the sheep, and the doctor does not involve him or herself beyond the scope of his or her medical conduct. In other words, the benefits brought about by technē are limited to the technical/technological scope, and are not directly connected to what's good or bad outside of that area. If this is the case, a meta-level thinking is required to overview the benefit created by individual technē to generate goodness for the society as a whole. However, could this still be technē? If we call this meta-level thinking "political art" then how would such art becomes possible, and would it have the same structure as technē in general?

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) positioned technē as one of the virtues of the intellect, which are equally important as the virtues of the character. Virtue is an outstanding quality that humans inherently possess, and technē is the skills as well as a show of excellence humans exhibit in producing artefacts. If this is so, technē is not something that is wielded like a tool that can be used for both good and evil, but a way of living well for people who possess the virtues of the intellect in the form of technē—in other words, technē is part of something that creates their happiness. A person who possesses and is able to use technē as knowledge can enjoy happiness. This thinking of Aristotle is a response to Socrates' argument. A person with technē is demonstrating his or her own goodness by creating benefits for those for whom technē is deployed. Again, we should be aware that the skill does not bring profit in the shape of compensation.

How do such philosophical discussions from ancient Greece relate to us in the modern world? The discussion may sound naïve, but it is never stale. I believe that the questions raised then are still being asked of us today, with a definitive answer yet to be found.

[Plato's views have been described mainly based on Republic (Book 1) and Gorgias. Aristotle's views have been described using the Nicomachean Ethics (Book 6, Chapter 4) for reference.]

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